"Making 5 DAYS OF WAR is a turning point for me", Renny Harlin


5 Days of War is inspired by the real events of the swift-but-devastating, five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. An American journalist (Rupert Friend) and his cameraman (Richard Coyle), have been caught in the combat zone during the first Russian airstrikes against Georgia. Rescuing Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a young Georgian schoolteacher from the attack, the two reporters agree to help reunite her with her family in exchange for her services as their interpreter. As the three attempt to escape to safety, they witness—and document—the devastation from the full-scale crossfire to the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians.

They desperately attempt to broadcast the footage they’ve captured while under attack from the Russian soldiers and local mercenaries, but are met with resistance from American and international networks either shorthanded from covering the Beijing Olympics or simply fatigued by war news. The trio realizes their survival is paramount, so they can live to broadcast the truth.

Renny Harlin, director of 5 Days of War, has established himself in Hollywood as a filmmaker with the ability to identify and develop a wide range of material. His credits span multiple genres and include both action-oriented blockbusters and critically acclaimed dramas. From Die Hard 2, to Deep Blue Sea and recent successes like 12 Rounds, Harlin has directed, produced and worked on countless films in his action packed career. Harlin is known for bursting on the scene in 1988 with A Nightmare on Elm Street IV (Director), as well as creating memorable films like Cliffhanger (Director) and Blast from the Past (Producer). Harlin’s production company, Midnight Sun Pictures, is based in Los Angeles, where Harlin resides. His latest effort, 5 Days of War captures the true nature of a conflict which is a microcosm for the brutal realities of war, both physical and political.

Bijan Tehrani:   5 Days of War makes the audience feel like they are part of the war itself, how did you manage to bring that experience to life?
C:   It all started with my research in Georgia, when I went to the country less than a year after the war and I met with refugees and journalists who had been there during the war, and spoke to politicians, soldiers and other military people; that’s when I realized that I wanted to tell this story form the journalist’s point of view. After all of the stories that I had heard, I felt that it would be the best way of getting into the story on a very grassroots level and also be able to bring the point of view of the civilians into it. I was very moved by the stories that I had heard and the pictures that I had seen on what happened to the civilians, and I wanted to exhibit that element of the war. That is how we molded the script and that is how I wanted to shoot the whole movie; I wanted to feel like you were there, caught in the crossfire like an everyday person who can relate to this, and its not seen from a soldiers point of view. My cinematographer was a war correspondent for fiteen years in his past, so I think that he also gave me some valuable advice on how journalists behave in this situation and how it feels to be in the crossfire. To me, it is very interesting to see things unfolding currently in places like Syria and so on—now, people fight for their rights and their freedom. It’s a great compliment for me if you felt that the film evoked that feeling of really being there and having that sense of distraction and confusion that takes place in these conflicts.  

BT:  How did you go about writing 5Days of war’s screenplay?
RH:  When I got involved there was only a blueprint of a screenplay, it dealt with the conflict but I did not like the story that much, so I brought Mikko Alanne on board. He is a friend of mine and he has written some great scripts. He wrote a script called Pinkville for Oliver Stone that was about the Mai Lai massacre, and he has just wrote a movie for Angelina Jolie and he has written serious political movies, so I wanted to bring somebody on who would get it and take it very seriously. So we went to Georgia together and we dove into research and based events on a lot of real people that we met in Georgia and a lot of combinations of characters and the facts in terms of how the war unfolded and who-did-what. Much of that was based on reports on the internet from the UN, the EU, and the human rights watch, which really had objective views of what happened, because when the war actually broke out, the world media reported in a very poor way about it. This was based on the fact that the Russian government and the Russian media were very prepared to feed the world their side of the story and, quite shockingly, (as they did with the Olympics) they just bought the story and put it out. All these sorts of comfortable stories of Russia coming to the rescue of ethnic minorities were appearing in the media, and the truth about what really went on wasn’t reported.

BT:  It was amazing to speak to people that haven’t even heard of this event. I think that one aspect of your film is that it gives knowledge to the audience and also encourages us to look for things that we are not always told. 
RH:  Yes, two things that I realized in making this movie. One shocking revelation was that war correspondents who risk their lives trying to get these stories still have hurdles in terms of getting those stories heard. The media outlets, to a large extent, are owned by huge multinational corporations which have political interest and economical interests on different levels, so they manipulate the stories and they want to tell the stories in certain ways. The news is produced so fast that, once they put the news out about some conflict, they have already moved into something else and if the conflict does not make good drama or entertainment for the evening, it is really forgotten very fast and we can see this now with Iraq and Afghanistan and all of these uprisings. Libya is a hot story now, Syria is generating heat, Egypt we don’t talk about anymore, Iraq we don’t talk about anymore, and the same goes for Afghanistan. Then there are events like this war, where it is really just a blip on the radar, and it is very common—especially in America—that people have not heard about it, and if they did it was very brief. Me second realization was shocking because even I, as a normal citizen, thought that if I follow the news, then I would know everything that is going on in the world, and it is shocking to realize that it is not like that.  

BT:  One thing that impressed me about 5 Days of War, and even your past works, is that you manage to portray characters living on the edge, but you still provide character development and growth in your films. We forget that they are actors, and it helps to entrench the audience in the war scene.
RH:  Thank you very much. I definitely attempt to do that and sometimes it is very demoralizing where I am making one of those action movies and critics just gloss over the details and don’t care that I have actually paid a lot of attention to these things; I have worked hard with the screenwriters and hard with the actors to bring depth to the characters and the character arches. This can be overlooked very easily. In this one, I took everything that I have learned from my movies before on many levels, storytelling, visuals, action, suspense, and most importantly character development and I really tried to create truthful characters, whether it is the journalist, Georgian soldiers or officials, or Georgian civilians. In terms of the character Tatia, I wanted to show what I had seen and how all Georgian women are very strong and very honorable, like most human beings. The same thing with the Russian commander as well; I did not want to paint a typical bloodthirsty bad guy, but I wanted to give him a back-story, tell about his war experience in Afghanistan and tell about the government who makes decisions based on power and oil. I wanted to pay attention and strike the chord with characters, action, drama, and the facts of war.  

BT:  I think that something that may come from your Finnish background is the dark humor that is evident in some of the situations and characters in the film. There seems to be a lot of dark humor that helps in creating the reality of the situation. How did you go about incorporating humor into the film?
RH:  I think that humor is extremely important. Sometimes people are surprised, screenwriters or producers, when I say that, “We need humor here.” Their first reaction is, “Well, this is a very dramatic and serious story.” I argue that it gives the events and the characters depth, because that’s how humans are, in my view. It’s interesting that you think that it comes from my Finnish roots because I can see dark humor in life, even in grim and sad situations. That is what I try to bring in through the cameraman character and Val Kilmer’s character. It makes the tragedy so much deeper when you can find the mirror of comedy in it.

BT:  I’ve seen a number of war newsreels myself, as I was also a documentary filmmaker and I had made films about war. When you make war movies, you compare them to what you have seen in newsreels and you always trust the newsreels more. 5 Days of War is an exception and your experience in action shows war the way that it really happened—more than what news cameramen can register, and that is a very interesting aspect of this film.
RH:  Thank you, that’s great to hear. I have gotten this reaction from the most unexpected sources. I have shown this movie to people at CNN and their reaction was the same and they said that they had never seen war situations shown in such a realistic way. I guess it was just based on what I had seen there and what I had seen, with the photographs and videos, and taking all of that and trying to make it into a really visceral experience and that is the best compliment that I can get, is that we managed to make it look like that. We got a lot of help from the government and we were able to get helicopters, tanks and troops and use them in the war scenes and shoot these scenes probably more realistically than has been done in recent years or decades. Now, everything is done digitally and that gives things a fairy-tale like quality. In our film, there are very few distortions or digital additions on the screen— it is 95% shot in camera. 

BT:  How did you go about casting 5 Days of War?
RH:  First of all, I wanted to get a lead actor who was a known actor but not a big star, because I felt that if I had face that had a lot of recognition from a lot of different roles, that I give the audience the safety-net of saying, “Oh that is so-and-so and no matter what, nothing bad can happen to him!” That’s when I casted Rupert Friend. It was a coincidence that he is actually British. I would have been happy with an American actor but I couldn’t find the right type. For me, Rupert has that tortured and vulnerable side that I wanted for that character. In terms of some of the other actors, to me, Val Kilmer was a great fit for the veteran cameraman. For me it is a plus that Val Kilmer is so well known and he has been seen in so many different kinds of roles and it was that sort of experience and life that he has brought into the role. Having worked with Val before, I knew that he is not just somebody who is going to show up and say the lines, but he has come up with a lot of ideas and creativity and he always brings so much into the process. It was his idea, for example, in the first scene when we see him—the script says that he is at his desk in his hotel room, writing on a laptop. It was his idea, on the morning of the shoot, he came to me and said, “Hey, what if I was in a bubble bath for this scene?” With Val you have to weigh in and decide where some ideas might be genius and others might not, but I thought about it for a moment and said was a great idea and you instantly fall in love with the  character and you find him interesting, funny, strange, and compelling;  that is what you get with somebody like Val Kilmer. Then when it comes to Andy Garcia, when we decided to have the president in the story, I asked the real president of Georgia, “Who is your favorite actor?”, and he said Andy Garcia. I said, “Fantastic, because Andy Garcia actually looks like you! So, let’s try to get him!” Andy was the first and only actor I went to for the role, and maybe his Cuban American roots also had an effect on whether or not he wanted to be in the movie so, that’s how it worked out. Then in the opening of the movie we have Heather Graham, which was again one of those things where I love to cast a movie so that I can keep the audience off-balance and I surprise them. I wanted to put Miss Apple Pie right in the opening scene and give the audience the feeling of, “Oh, Heather Graham is in the movie!” and surprise them. Then in terms of Emmanuelle Chiriquí, I wanted to find somebody who would represent the Georgian women in the best possible way. What I discovered in Georgia was that Georgian woman are extremely attractive, very beautiful and dark haired and also very strong. So I met a lot of actresses and when I met Emmanuelle, I thought that she really came with that strength and vulnerability at the same time, and that is why I cast her.  

BT:  The wedding scene in the film is like a visual ballet. There is an amazing effect of how a peaceful life can become a disaster through war and provides this film with one of best depictions of war audiences can see.
RH:  Thank you that was the scene that we wanted to have. Obviously this is not a documentary, but many scenes are based on reality and we add drama for the screen. We heard that there was a wedding in process once the bombing started. A lot of atrocities happened and hundreds of civilians were killed in different bombings and atrocities, but the wedding was fictionalized. We knew there was a wedding in the area where the bombing began, but we added the drama of the bombs actually hitting the wedding directly. I really fell in love with the Georgian culture when I was there and I really wanted to show the beauty of the country and the culture, and then show what kind of destruction war brings into this kind of peaceful and beautiful life, and show the destruction in powerful way.

BT:  How did growing up in Finland affected you in terms of being a filmmaker?
RH:  I think it has affected me. I grew up in Finland and I was in my mid twenties when I moved to the States, so I’ve pretty much spent half of my life in Finland and half in the States. I think it has impacted me in many ways being European and being Finnish with certain sensibilities, a certain sense of characters and relationships, maybe visual thinking, maybe musical thinking, the rhythm of scenes, and maybe more than ever it has helped me in this instance. I grew up in small country with only 5 million people, next to Russia, and my parents and grandparents went through the Second World War and lost family members and friends. So I think that the sense of being a small nation fighting for its independence and freedom certainly echoed my sentiments about what the Georgians went through.  

BT:  With 5 Days of War, it seems like a different movie experience for you and your audiences. It shows you your experience and film can be used for sending a message. What effect do you think this film with have on your future movies? 
RH:  For me this came at a crucial point in my life. I was really looking for a new meaning for my career and my art form, and really I attacked this movie with incredible passion. During the making of the film I really felt this fantastic feeling of waking up in the morning to not only do what I love, which is filmmaking, but doing something that actually matters, that is close to my heart, that is going to have an impact on the people whose story I am telling, and hopefully have an impact on the audience as well. So this movie was really kind of a turning point for me and made me feel that this was what I wanted to do in the future. I want do movies that have some type of a message, and I don’t mean that movies have to lecture people or try to change the world, but it could be anything—it could be a love story or it could be a comedy—but something that touches me, touches the human condition, and touches the audience, and that is my goal. I hope that my future films can be somewhat reality based, based on real stories, real characters, or otherwise touch life in a different way than before. So for me, this was a turning point and really gave me a whole new perspective and new inspiration for what I am doing.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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