EXCERPT: How a Down-and-Out Renny Harlin Taught the Chinese to Make Movies
After "Cutthroat Island" bombed, the director headed overseas to help the Middle Kingdom master Hollywood moviemaking
In his new book Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel looks at the complex rivalry between the United States and China through the lens of the film industry. He charts Hollywood’s eagerness to enter a country with such a potentially big market, and how China skillfully exploited that to help build its own film industry — a dynamic that happened similarly in other industries, and has resulted in tensions, many argue, that have left Hollywood in an awkward cycle of obeisance.
In this exclusive excerpt, using the director Renny Harlin as a case study, Schwartzel examines how Hollywood filmmakers were recruited to come to China to make movies — and to teach the Chinese the nuances of American storytelling, and how those stories were subtly tweaked to present messages acceptable to Chinese authorities. To understand how Harlin ended up in China, the story begins with one of the biggest bombs in recent Hollywood history — Cutthroat Island.
The 1995 movie Cutthroat Island was a pirate movie so bad, it should cut its own throat, suggested one representative headline. A $10 million gross on a $100 million budget earned the movie an unwelcome distinction: a Guinness World Record for the biggest flop of all time. Renny Harlin, the director of Cutthroat Island, found it hard to recover. The biggest movie of his career became industry shorthand for “colossal bomb,” an unmitigated mistake of the 1990s alongside Beanie Babies and Y2K anxiety. The life Harlin had constructed up until that point — the car (Ferrari), the house ($9 million), the movie-star wife (Geena Davis) — disintegrated.
Cutthroat Island had been Harlin’s seventh movie after a decade-long career specializing in proudly mainstream entertainment: Die Hard 2, starring a bloodied Bruce Willis saving the day; Cliffhanger, with a brawny Sylvester Stallone doing the same. The chances of getting work like that again evaporated, but jobs still came in sporadically. In 1999, a B movie about hyper-intelligent sharks chasing LL Cool J called Deep Blue Sea. Seven years after that, The Covenant, about four male witches with flip phones. A remake of The Exorcist that no one wanted. A 2014 Hercules movie that opened the same year as another Hercules movie, that one starring Dwayne Johnson. Harlin’s starred Kellan Lutz, the sixth-billed star of Twilight, and the box-office tallies correlated accordingly. It was a few months after The Legend of Hercules bombed that Chinese producers halfway around the world started hunting for a Hollywood director who could come to their country and make a movie. Someone who could lend the production some Hollywood flair, maybe teach them a thing or two along the way about moviemaking. Harlin was just the guy for the job.