Filmmaker Renny Harlin aims to entertain. Throughout his career, he’s made his name on action-packed crowd-pleasers, including The Deep Blue Sea, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Cliffhanger, and a few horror fan favorites, Prison and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. He’s back to horror and sticking around for a while with The Strangers trilogy, which he shot in 50 days.

With The Strangers – Chapter 1, Harlin strived for more old-school suspense than a series of jump scares, although he acknowledges there’s plenty of the latter.

The director is still in post-production on the sequels due out within the next year. Harlin, a man who’s plain giddy talking about movies, recently spoke with Immersive about his experience making the trilogy, his lifelong nightmares, and the power of wide shots in post.

Your first American movie was the cult horror movie, Prison. Even at this point in your career when you make a horror movie, what were some lessons that you learned on that film that you keep in mind? 

Wow. Where do I even start? I came from Finland and I had been a huge American film buff, and I thought I knew something, but I realized I knew nothing because my first film that I made in Finland, our crew was maybe 15, 20 people, and all of a sudden I have at least 100 people and I don’t even know what all their jobs are. I’m just trying to pretend I know what I’m doing, but I have no idea. So, it was a super scary experience, but I was passionate, I was determined, I storyboarded everything.

Prison was a great experience, but super scary. I literally couldn’t even eat lunch during the shooting days. I felt like I was going to throw up. I think that in order to hide my lack of knowledge and my insecurity, I was quiet and not communicative enough with people. It also had to do with being Finnish. People are just kind of quiet and shy. So, I think the most important thing was just as a human being, it was to learn the value of communication, which now I think is probably one of my biggest strengths. I explain everything to everybody, the crew members and the actors, and I include them in the process. 

I learned that rather than just being a leader and just telling everybody this is how it is, it is to inspire people and include them in the process. It motivates them to give their best. So, Prison was definitely a huge filmmaking lesson, no question about it, and learning how certain angles work and what kind of coverage you need for editing the scenes in the best possible way. But I think that it’s been the journey from there to here.

The most important part was just to grow as a human being, and I think that applies to anybody in any job. You learn to treat people well and work well with them, and then you can get anything done.

Even with all the experience you’ve had, all the lessons you’ve learned as a filmmaker, when you’re shooting three movies at once with The Strangers trilogy, what scares you?

Yes, yes. We literally had 52 days to do a four and a half hour movie, which is now in three chapters. I guess the word scared applies, also worried, concerned, and stressed. Most of the shooting was done at night, so I was trying to get my sleep during the day, and be ready every night to give my best to be able to motivate the actors and the crew to give their best in pretty harsh conditions. 

With any movie, especially with a horror film, it’s so important to have the right angles, to have the ability in the editing room to create suspense and tension in a certain way. If you don’t have the closeup of her eye looking through the peephole and you don’t have the wide shot of the room from behind her, you just can’t then create certain moments. I knew that I needed to have those, and I had it all in my plans. 

Then if somebody’s rushing you and saying, “Okay, well you have already heard walking there, so can’t we just move on?” I think if I was less experienced and younger, I would easily bend under that pressure and say, “Okay, okay, you’re right, let’s go.” You know what you need. We either have the scene or we don’t have the scene, and so I don’t know what it’s going to take, but we have to have those shots. 

You grew up watching Hitchock movies with your mom. There’s a very clear nod to Psycho in the movie. 

Are you talking about the shower scene? 

Yes. Is that a strange nod to your mom?

Yes, yes, absolutely. It was one of my favorites, and I actually put a lot of time and thinking into, how do I position it? There are a couple of things that were important to me, first of all, when she goes into the shower, the audience has to get a feeling that she really is naked without us being explicit and showing anything, but they have to get a feeling she’s naked.

I have to shoot it in a way that tells that story and then I have to lead the audience, because once you see a vulnerable woman in a shower, something bad is up, but you have to lead the audience to that moment and still be able to surprise them so that it doesn’t happen in a way that they expect. Then that was the whole idea of, how do I hide the scarecrow behind her so that when she moves, we reveal him and then he hides again without him really doing anything?

So yeah,  definitely as weird as it sounds, I was thinking about my mom when I was deciding that scene. 

Froy Gutierrez and Madelaine Petsch as Maya in The Strangers – Chapter 1. Photo Credit: John Armour/Lionsgate

In addition to the right angles, how about the right sound for scares in a Strangers movie? How do you want to create an audible sense of isolation with your sound team?

I’m glad you bring that up because we put so much work into that. Of course, we had a good score as well. I didn’t want it to be a traditional melodic, bombastic, big score, but more like atmosphere, more like the music is also a sound effect. Obviously, it’s supposed to feel like a normal house, not some kind of a haunted mansion, but at the same time, I wanted it to feel like it’s breathing.

The floorboards and the walls are alive, and the trees outside the windows and the wind and the atmosphere are always there. And then, of course, out in the forest it’s the same thing. It makes such a huge difference what kind of birds you have there, and how I wanted these tall trees bending a little in the wind and their trunks kind of brushing against each other and causing this hollow sound.

I had a great team of sound designers, but you don’t always hear the same things, and I’ve learned that you have to be able to use your mouth and your voice to describe how you want this door to creak, how you want this lock to sound, and how you want the footstep to feel and all that. I ended up actually dropping the music in few scenes, because I realized the tension building was stronger when there was no music that kind of takes you into a movie world, but when you take the music away, it forces the audience member to be in the room with the character. Of course, there are some jump scares and big music hits, but I try to stay away from those and not go “boo!” at the audience.

Madelaine Petsch as Maya in The Strangers – Chapter 1. Photo Credit: John Armour/Lionsgate

As someone who’s crafted a lot of set-pieces for action and horror movies, broadly speaking, what ingredients are you looking for? What do you, as a filmmaker, need to create suspense?

Number one thing for me is always, whether it’s horror or action, is that I want the audience to feel in a way they are in the place of the character. They are in the character’s pants. So whether you are on a mountain about to fall, or you are in a room where somebody could be behind you, I want the audience to feel like, oh my God, I can feel that scene. I can relate to that moment of hanging from somebody’s hand. How do I put the audience into that scene so that they’re not just observers? That’s the thing. 

I love using tight closeups, whether it’s the character’s eyes or hands or some other detail. I think that the really, really tight closeups in the right place put you as an audience into that experience. And then I always, maybe I don’t always use it in the editing in the end, but I always use wide shots. It’s a constant struggle because every time you start a new scene, okay, you have a room, you have a bunch of people there doing something, or it could be a car chase with an explosion, so you know you want a wide shot, but do you start the wide shot? If you do, the good news is that you guarantee you get the wide shot. 

The bad news is that there are so many intricate details that make it all work perfectly in the wide. So, you might take three hours getting everybody to be in the right place and everything, and you might really endanger the rest of the day that way. So, the other option is that you start with the tighter shots and you do the coverage of the actors talking, and then you do the closeups of them picking up the cigarettes, and then you do the car arriving and then you do the explosion. 

But then you realize that you have only 20 minutes of the day left, and now you might not get the wide shot anymore. You have all the details, but you don’t have that big epic wide shot. So, I’m always debating what to do first, and there’s always a lot of reasons why to go this way or that way.

In general, editors are very thankful to me. They always say that it’s very rare to always have a chance to go to that big wide shot. It might be a great way to open the scene. It might be a great way to finish the scene or it might be a great way to just go in the middle of the scene, go wide, but it’s a challenging and risky proposition to make the decision that you’re going to do it.

Let’s talk about real nightmares to wrap things up, because you’ve said before you’ve experienced intense nightmares throughout your life. Whether in your horror movies or action movies, how’ve those nightmares inspired your work?

Oh, so many. And yes, I’ve had them since I was a little kid, and I don’t look at them as a negative thing. I look at them as a release for me, because I’m a very calm person in life normally. I am a happy person and I’m a calm person. I have two little kids. I’m super calm with them. On the set, I never yell. I never go crazy. I attribute that to the fact that I work through my stress and fears and negativity through these nightmares. 

When I was designing Nightmare Elm Street four, and we didn’t really have a script during the writer’s strike, I came up with these things based on some crazy nightmares that I had. One of them was that the kids are trapped in the pizza and their faces are the meatballs. I remember how I came up with it and I was like, “This is such a crazy idea, but it could work.” I storyboarded it, then I took it to the producers, and put it on their table. They were like, “What the hell are you even talking about?” But it worked. 

Another one in that movie was when Alice flies from the movie theater balcony into the screen of the movie and becomes part of the movie that she’s watching. Almost all the nightmares came from just from my head. But another one definitely was the one where they are on this loop. They keep living the same situation again and again and again, and they realize that actually they got stuck in a time loop and they can’t get out of it. Those are just the easiest examples, but I remember it so vividly putting that movie together. I also did that in Die Hard two. The icicle into the guy’s eye? That was a nightmare of mine. 

Just literally last night I had this super scary nightmare, and obviously right now it’s coming from my own movie, but I woke up in the middle of the night and my wife was like, “What’s wrong?” And I was like, “I’m having this incredibly scary nightmare that there are people all around our house outside, all the windows, and they have cameras and they’re looking at us and taking our pictures. I didn’t understand what’s going on and why this is going on.” So, it never ends.

The Strangers – Chapter 1 is now playing in theaters.

Jack Giroux

In high school, Jack would skip classes to interview filmmakers. With 15 years in film journalism, he's contributed to outlets such as Thrillist, Music Connection Magazine, and High Times Magazine. He's witnessed explosions, attended satanic rituals, and scaled volcanoes in his career, but Jack's true passion is interviewing artists.