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This past weekend director Renny Harlin saw his latest thriller, Devil’s Pass, arrive in limited theaters and on VOD platforms everywhere, and we have some insight from the man himself regarding the project.
Previously known as The Dyatlov Pass Incident (and still called by that title in the UK), Devil’s Pass is a found footage thriller that explores the desolate and deadly area of Russia now known as “Dyatlov Pass,” where in the 1950’s a group of travelers went missing, becoming ultimately one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the last 60 years.
Dread Central recently had the opportunity to chat exclusively with Harlin about his latest directorial effort, how he convinced his Devil’s Pass cast and crew to head into the middle of nowhere (literally), the tricks behind how he pulled off a devastating and impressive avalanche sequence in the indie thriller, and much more.
Dread Central: Did this film require a lot of research, and also, why did you opt to update the time frame to today versus the 1950’s?
Renny Harlin: I’ve been fascinated by what happened there for years now; it’s remained one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time so I knew that in doing this movie, I was going to really have to do my research. My approach in researching what happened at Dyatlov in some ways informed how I told the story. I really didn’t think this was a story to tell in the 1950’s, which is when the incident occurred, as I thought that setting would alienate audiences a bit. I wanted them to be hooked into the story, not distracted by the setting, and because I used a lot of modern devices and tools when doing my research, I thought keeping the story modern would be a little more interesting.
I also went through the archives in Moscow, and after everything I read, I still couldn’t believe that there isn’t one logical explanation for what happened to those people. Even after all this time and all the progress we’ve made in research, scientists still cannot explain what happened to these skiers; there have only been guesses, but there’s really no theory that exists that makes any kind of sense. It’s incredible.
Dread Central: Because this is based on a real story without an ‘ending,’ did that allow you a little more freedom creatively for the third act in Devil’s Pass then?
Renny Harlin: It did in some ways, but I also wanted to keep things realistic too just because that’s how we approached this story. I did feel like I was allowed some liberties though so I just made sure they kept in line with everything we were doing; it is sort of my own theory that you see in this but maybe a little bit ‘bigger’ of an explanation at the same time. If I had to guess what really happened, I would say that there was a military experiment that went wrong and the government there has spent years doing what they can to keep it from being discovered. It’s really the only logical explanation I’ve got.
Dread Central: Gemma Atkinson is an actress I really enjoy seeing in films and thought this was a wholly new role for her; can you discuss working with her and what made her the perfect fit for Devil’s Pass?
Renny Harlin: She’s just wonderful, isn’t she? The funny thing is that when we started casting, we really wanted to keep the cast as ‘unknown’ as possible, but because we had such talented people involved, that became really hard because a few of these actors have begun to come into their own as performers so people are noticing them now. Gemma included.
And when you’re making a movie like Devil’s Pass, you have to know that your actors and your crew are going to be willing to be put through hell during the shoot. And these conditions were extreme; we were in a northern part of Russia where they spend about nine months of the year buried under feet of snow and about 11 months mostly in the dark. We battled everything you could think of to make this movie – 20 feet of snow even – and while it was really difficult, I think it was really fitting considering the kind of movie we were making. I love that kind of challenge personally, and I think Gemma did too. I miss her; I would love to work with her again.
Dread Central: I’m not sure if this is going to make much sense or not, but I wanted to ask because Cliffhanger is another great movie that you made that was filmed in less than ideal conditions for some of the shoot- as a filmmaker, do you have to change up your approach between a movie like that and Devil’s Pass, or is it all intrinsically the same?
Renny Harlin: Oh, they were both made so differently; with Cliffhanger I could rely on my own bag of tricks where you get a small time to rehearse and then you go shoot for five hours. In the case of Devil’s Pass, the opposite was true; we’d spend hours and hours rehearsing just to do a 15-minute take. I really wanted to eliminate as much editing as possible so that the way we made this film also felt organic to the way were telling this story.
It’s interesting though; the way we approached Devil’s Pass definitely changed the dynamic on set too, and I think it almost gave the actors more freedom too. I didn’t want them to feel confined to what was on the page; I wanted them to use the experience of making the movie as part of their performance because they were struggling just as much as the rest of us, and when you’re that cold and need to focus on doing fifteen minutes straight of dialogue, interesting things tend to happen. I wanted to make sure we captured all of it.
Dread Central: I know you guys didn’t have a huge budget for Devil’s Pass so I wanted to ask how in the hell you pulled off that avalanche scene? That was pretty incredible and really terrifying too.
Renny Harlin: That was so, so hard; we had to shoot it in the middle of the night towards the start of the day, and we really only had about 15 minutes where we could shoot to get the light right because the rest of the time was darkness. When you’re making a movie like this, you can’t really rely on things like lighting and that kind of stuff so you’re at the mercy of nature.
That scene was probably the one we spent the most time designing, and I think it took us like five days to shoot it out completely. It really was like getting the scene piece by piece because of the timing. But we really made a small avalanche through the use of snow machines and only a little bit of VFX work. The irony to that scene was that while were shooting, there were avalanches all the time; we just never were able to shoot any of those. I would say that sequence was the most ambitious thing I’ve done- until Hercules, that is. Hercules is something else completely (laughs).
Devil’s Pass follows a group of students on a trek to investigate the true life mystery of nine Russian skiers who befell an unexplained death while skiing in the Russian mountains in 1959. To this day, their deaths have been one of the most bizarre unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.
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