Cliffhanger Director: Stallone Had Fear of Heights
By David Weiner
Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin's first-ever U.S. film, the supernaturally charged Prison, is out this week for the first time on a special-edition Blu-ray, and while talking about the project and his career he revealed to ETonline that before he shot a frame of film on Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone told him, "I have a fear of heights."
"When he first arrived in the Italian Alps and came to look at the location for the first time, he looked up at this 11,000-foot peak that was in front of us," recalls Harlin. "I said, 'That's where our set is.' And he's like, 'So who's going to go up there?' I said, 'You are.' He looks at me and he says, 'You gotta be kidding. I have a fear of heights. The highest I will ever go is the heels of my cowboy boots.' And it became my task to trick him into wanting to be higher in the mountains, because he thought he would be done with trickery and stunt people."
The 53-year-old Finnish filmmaker continues, "I knew his psychology and I put him in a situation where it would have been embarrassing for him to, in front of the crew, refuse to get there. Obviously, I was able to get him there, and then once I got him to relax he was more than willing to do everything, and even more that I wanted him to do. The highest peak that we worked was 13,000 feet high, and there he was right on the edge, basically doing whatever it took."
So, how did Harlin coax Stallone into a helicopter in the first place to get airlifted to such lofty locations? "He was okay with a helicopter as long as the door was closed," quips Harlin.
The director of such late '80s and early '90s action staples as The Long Kiss Goodnight, Deep Blue Sea, Cutthroat Island and Driven got his first big break directing 1988's Prison, the story of an inmate population tormented by a mysterious and deadly supernatural force. He says of the shoestring-budget shoot at Wyoming State Penitentiary, "It was very crucial for me, because I had made one film in Finland before that, and this was now, finally after couple of years of really serious struggling in Hollywood, my chance to prove that I could actually make an American film."
Harlin candidly adds, "It was a very scary experience, but I learned every day and I just tried to keep the ship on course and do my best every day. But I was petrified every morning I went to work. I was absolutely petrified. In the end, for the little money we had and the big things we wanted to do, we accomplished quite a bit and I was proud of the film. Did I ever imagine in my wildest dreams that it would have some kind of an impact, now that people claim that it has a little bit of a cult following and now that it's coming out as a special edition? I would have never imagined it."
Prison never saw a proper theatrical release due to the production company's bankruptcy issues, which Harlin considered "a huge blow to me," but he says "it taught me a hell of a lot about filmmaking in America" and it gave him a chance "to create another calling card … and ultimately was the reason that I was hired to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 4."
After Harlin hit Nightmare out of the park and landed Die Hard 2: Die Harder, he quickly vaulted to A-list director status. But in Hollywood you're only as good as your last picture, and when the big-budget pirate epic Cutthroat Island (starring Harlin's former wife, Geena Davis) bombed at the box office in 1995, Harlin was knocked off his pedestal.
"Of course, that was a huge disappointment," he admits. "But I still had a chance to make some interesting movies after that, and visually they just give you another chance to prove yourself. … In Hollywood, you sort of have to be able to bend and reinvent yourself and seek different paths sometimes to kind of rebound and get back to the top of your game, and I went through such hard times and challenges originally when I broke into the business that anything after that is kind of easy to deal with."
The busy director explains that perseverance has allowed him to stay in the game: "You have to find and develop your process and find ways to get back in movies, and I’ve been lucky in that sense that I have had a chance to keep making movies, and I've done some interesting TV, and I'm developing my own series -- and now I have my brand-new deal to do Hercules."