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Director Renny Harlin Tries His Hand At A Heist Movie With The Misfits - Exclusive Interview

If you miss the action movies of the mid-'90s, when every stunt was real and the characters didn't take themselves too seriously, then Renny Harlin made "The Misfits" just for you. The latest film from the director of "Die Hard 2," "Cliffhanger," and "Deep Blue Sea" teams Harlin with another '90s icon, Pierce Brosnan, for an adventure that intentionally evokes a different time.

In "The Misfits," Brosnan appears as Richard Pace, a master thief who's recruited by a group of criminals to steal gold from Schultz, a villainous prison magnate played by Tim Roth. With a cast that includes the likes of Nick Cannon, "Lovecraft Country" star Jamie Chung, Thai pop sensation Mike D. Angelo, and more, as well as plenty of action and wisecracks, "The Misfits" is a Harlin picture through and through.

In our exclusive interview, Harlin tells Looper about how he finds his unconventional casts, reveals the big action movie franchise he missed out on, shares a great story about "Cliffhanger" star Sylvester Stallone, and discusses why they don't make 'em like they used to — and why that might be a problem. If "The Misfits" and its retro appeal have caught your interest, it's more than worth a look.

Renny Harlin still thinks there's room for old-school action films

In a lot of ways, "The Misfits" feels like a throwback to the action movies of the '90s. There's no obvious CGI. There's a lot of humor. It's very character-based. Was that intentional?

Yes, and thank you for saying that. That's really interesting. I'm not sure how it comes across, but somehow it does. And that was exactly what I intended when I started planning the movie, and what I discussed with my DP. Like you said, there's barely any CG in the movie. It's all done real, in the good old-fashioned way. I personally miss those movies; the movies of the '90s, when things were done for real with actors and stuntmen, instead of digital doubles. Now, in every action movie, there are just digital doubles who are flying all over the place, and anything can happen. And, to me, I'm not involved in the same way that I used to be. So that was intentional too. And I really think that there is room for those kinds of action movies, that are a little more reality based.

It blends genres well, too. Obviously, it's a heist film, but it touches on gross-out comedy. It opens like a black and white gangster movie. Did you look at any particular movies for inspiration?

I always try to get into the mood. An obvious comparison is something like "Ocean's 11" — this kind of a group of people doing something together, with a tone that has some humor thrown in, for sure. I always go back to my favorite action movies, favorite heist movies, favorite comedies, and just get into the mood. It's like listening to a certain kind of music when I'm planning my shots. It's just being in the mood of the movie. So I definitely did that, and it's nice to hear that there is that vibe in the film.

What's your favorite action movie?

Oh, that's a big question. How do you define an action movie? I would say one of my favorite movies is "Apocalypse Now." Is it an action movie? It's a war movie. It's an action movie, in a certain way. Then all Sam Peckinpah movies are my favorites. Maybe "The Wild Bunch" is an action movie. Or is it a Western? Or "The Getaway." When I think of action movies, I tend to go back a few decades. If somebody said, "What's your favorite action movie from the last five years?" I would have a hard time thinking of one.

Along those lines, you've been making action and thriller movies for 30 years now. How have you seen the genre change? Have those changes affected your style and your process?

Yeah, I think I talked about this years ago. I made "Cliffhanger" in 1993, and that was right at the cusp of the whole digital revolution. Digital didn't really exist. It pretty much jumped onto the screen the year after "Cliffhanger," so "Cliffhanger" is one of the last movies where things were really done for real. If somebody made a mountain climbing movie like that today, the actors would probably never see a mountain. They would be in a studio with green screen and so on.

I remember Sly, when he got to Cortina, Italy, where we shot the movie, he looked at the giant mountains around us, and he asked me, "Who's going to go up to those mountains, to actually shoot there?" And I said, "You are." And he said, "I thought that you were going to somehow use some kind of technology. Don't you know that I have a fear of heights? The highest I will ever go is the heels of my cowboy boots." And I said, "Sly, you're going to go up there, and you're going to do those scenes all by yourself."

So I miss those times where men were men, and women were women, and they did the things for real, and stuntmen helped, and all that stuff. And I've seen a big change in action movies. The digital revolution where, basically, you can do anything. Whatever the writer can think of, it can be done. And to me, there's a certain loss in creating things digitally, using digital doubles for actors that can fly anywhere, do anything. To a certain extent, I think the audience feels that when they're watching the movies. They sense it, that they're watching an animated movie.

I think there's a certain loss there, of being realistically involved. And at the same time, you realize technology has to go forward, and things develop. And you look at the movies from the 1940s compared to the movies in the '60s, or '70s, or '90s, or now. There's always advancement, but sometimes, it's also a certain kind of a loss. I think there is room for movies that are a little bit, you could say, "old school" in a way, where you really smell the danger.

When casting The Misfits, Renny Harlin thought outside the box

When you're casting a movie like "The Misfits," what do you look for? Because not every actor can pull off this sort of performance.

Yeah. In this case, it's an ensemble movie. It's a team of people who pull off this heist. I just wanted to make it as versatile as possible. For example, Mike D. Angelo is from Thailand. He's a big star in Thailand and China. And I knew him from China, having lived there. And I thought that it would be interesting to have this Asian character in this movie. Nick Cannon, maybe he's known originally from the music industry, and so on. I've used a lot of musicians before in my movies. I think there's a nice cross-pollination there. And Jamie Chung, I've always liked her. I think she's dynamite. I always like strong female characters, who can be physical and very strong. So it was just kind of mixing it up.

I always want to cast an interesting bad guy, who doesn't have to be physically imposing, but intellectually imposing. So that's why I thought of Tim Roth for that role. It's creating a chemistry. Obviously, movies need an engine, which in this case is Pierce Brosnan, to get a movie financed. You need somebody famous. It's physics. But I like to find fresh faces, and to surprise the audience with some of the choices instead of doing what is always expected.

Is there an actor out there, who you've worked with or otherwise, who you think is either particularly underrated as an action star, or who you think has the potential to become a big action star?

I've never thought of it, really, but now that you asked, maybe somebody like Scott Adkins. He was in my movie "Hercules," and he's just amazing, and so physical. Such a fantastic fighter, and he's also a really good actor. So, I know he makes movies, but they're not very big-budget movies. I'm surprised that he hasn't been discovered, and he's not in "F9" or a Jason Bourne movie, or something like that. Because he has the physicality, and he has the talent.

It has always been a challenge to find action stars. Obviously, there's been Schwarzenegger, and there's been Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme — people that the audience actually believes can do this action stuff themselves — but there's a real shortage. And I don't know, right now, I can't even think of who will be the next action star. Who is the guy who's going to have what it takes for the audience to believe that they can do it?

Back in the day, Renny Harlin almost directed a different big-budget Pierce Brosnan film

For people of my generation, it's almost impossible to see Pierce Brosnan onscreen, especially playing a character like this — this charming, sophisticated rogue — without thinking about James Bond. For you as a director, does that preconceived notion help or hurt when you're trying to tell the story?

I think in this case, it helps, because everybody knows Pierce as James Bond, so he slips into this character very easily, and his history with the audience makes the audience believe that he can be this guy. So, obviously, we are not copying James Bond by any means, but the baggage that he comes with, to me, is a positive thing.

When this movie was announced, you said that you've wanted to work with Brosnan for a while. Were there any projects between the two of you in the works before that, for some reason didn't happen?

I hope nobody sues me, or I don't get into trouble for saying this, because I don't know if I've ever said this publicly, but I was once offered one of the James Bond movies. I forget now which one it was. But at that point, Timothy Dalton was James Bond. I was offered the next one, and to me, being a big James Bond fan, he was not the right guy. And I said it to the producers. I said, "I'd love to do a James Bond movie with you, but I don't believe, in my heart, with all the respect and appreciation for his acting talent and everything else, to me, Timothy Dalton was not the James Bond that I wanted to see."

So I turned down the movie, and I said to them, "I think you should recast James Bond. And it should be Pierce Brosnan." And they said, "No, we're not going to do it." Then maybe six months later, they made the movie, and I was, at that point, making some other movie, and they had chosen Pierce Brosnan to be James Bond. So the irony is that I almost made a James Bond movie, and almost made it with Pierce Brosnan. They said they didn't want to make it with Pierce Brosnan, at that point, but then they did it anyhow. So, that's my story.

Is there anything that you haven't gotten to say about "The Misfits" yet that you would like to?

Well, with "The Misfits," I wanted to create a fantasy world. We chose to shoot in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which are pretty extreme places to begin with, but I wanted to make them even more extreme. I wanted to create a world that doesn't really exist. Make it so glossy, and dripping with luxury and money, that it would just seem like the ultimate fantasy. Where you'd go if all you were interested in is fancy sports cars, and people having cheetahs as pets, and so on. That, to me, was the fun of it, and a fun challenge, and a fun opportunity to create our own world, which unfortunately doesn't really exist in the real world.