Three Great Things: Renny Harlin

The veteran action director, whose new film The Bricklayer is out now, on a trio of life's greatest essentials.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current release in theaters of The Bricklayer, the new high-octane thriller starring Aaron Eckhart, Nina Dobrev, Clifton Collins Jr. and Tim Blake Nelson, the film’s veteran director (best known for movies like Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight) shared some of the things that mean the most to him in life. — N.D.

Ulko-Tammio is an island in the Gulf of Finland, very close to the Russian border, about 20 miles from the shore. The island is only about two miles long and one mile wide. There’s been a small fishing village there since the 16th century and my family has had a place there for more than 100 years. My mom grew up spending her summers there, and I did too. I learned to fish and sail there when I was five years old. There’s no electricity. There’s no running water. It’s isolated from the rest of the world. It’s where I go to recharge, where I go to rest, where I go to rediscover my inspiration. It gets me emotional when I think about it. It’s such a beautiful place.

I got married two years ago and I have a 17-month-old daughter, and I’m currently rebuilding an old fisherman’s house there that is from the 18th century. It’s going to be our home away from home. We live in Miami, but this distant offshore island in the middle of nowhere is where we feel the greatest happiness, not having any of the modern conveniences. We live off the land and the sea, growing our own vegetables and fishing, enjoying the summer days on the beautiful archipelago and sitting inside when it’s a storm outside. That’s the place I love and where my heart belongs.

Life on Ulko-Tammio is very down to earth – it’s the opposite of our life in Miami or L.A. – and the moment we get there, we turn off our cell phones. We don’t read the news, check messages or anything like that. We are completely cut off from the rest of the world, and that’s the beauty of it. Some people who live there have solar panels, but we don’t. We have a fireplace, and we have an old-fashioned wood-burning stove and cook everything with that. We use storm lanterns and candles for lighting. We have a well where we draw water with a bucket, and that’s what we drink and what we use to wash. We have a sauna, which we heat up with a wood fire. Our entertainment is telling stories and reading books, drawing and writing. When the weather permits, we hang out in nature as much as possible, going sailing, going fishing, visiting various nearby islands. The whole area is a national park and Ulko-Tammio is the only island with human beings living on it; on all the other thousands of islands in the archipelago, you can camp, but you can’t live there. And then at night, we watch a lighthouse that blinks on the Russian side of the border, only about seven miles away, and imagine the life of the people living there.

The village has maybe 40 rustic old buildings, beautifully renovated, and of all the families that stay there, only maybe one or two live there year-round. The others are there only for the summertime, because it’s so hard to get there during winter, when the sea is frozen. I’d love to make a film set on Ulko-Tammio – it’s something I’ve thought about many times. It would be a challenge for a film crew to operate there; it would have to be a really small crew telling a simple, beautiful story. I would love that.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is my hero and an author I’ve been reading since I was 12 years old. I always go back to his stories, and his writing style is just so clean and simple, yet very descriptive. For me, reading any of his novels was like watching a movie. I also was drawn to him as a character, somebody who loved the ocean, who was always out on his boat, fishing and living between Cuba and Key West. He was just as at home traveling in Africa as he was in Spain or in Paris. He was a man’s man, an adventurer, a Nobel Prize-winning writer, a tortured soul. He’s always been fascinating to me, and I frequently make a pilgrimage to Key West, where he lived. I’ve spent a lot of time at his house, just getting the feeling of where he lived and worked.

When I was a teenager, I idolized him and kind of wanted to be him. I wanted to be a man who can do anything, someone who is a great artist, but can also do any manly feats he wants to. But I always also tried to be objective, acknowledging his shortcomings and his troubles. I didn’t think he was a perfect person, but I greatly admire his toughness. I’ve always been drawn to that idea of not complaining, but accepting any situation in life and just going through it, whether it’s a storm at sea, a financial challenge or a difficult relationship. Of being physically and mentally strong in the face of adversity, which we all face in this life all the time.

Fine Food
I really enjoy a great meal, and my fondness of the finer things in life started when I was very small. My father, who was a doctor and traveled a lot, would often bring delicacies home when he returned and so sometimes we would get to eat things like oysters or caviar.

When I was about eight years old, the teacher told my class, “OK, today you’re going to write a story called, A Day When I Got to Devour Something Truly Delicious.” So I wrote a story about a Saturday night at home when my dad had returned from a trip and we were all eating caviar, and my parents were drinking shots of ice cold vodka with the caviar. My sister and I asked them, “Why do you have to drink vodka with the caviar?” My dad said, “Well, Renee, caviar eggs can sometimes have worms in them, so we have to drink the vodka to make sure that we kill the worms.” As he was a doctor, I accepted this answer, and neither my sister nor I asked, “How come we can’t get the worms?” Because we were also eating caviar, but we were just drinking Coca Cola with it. So I wrote this story about how we ate caviar, my parents drank vodka, and we drank Coke, and how it’s important for adults to drink vodka because it kills the worms. All the teachers and the parens knew each other, so it wasn’t long before everybody knew the story about how the Harlin family eats caviar and drinks vodka on Saturday nights!

That’s how it all started, and I’ve had a fascination with fine food ever since. Whenever I can, I will indulge in things like oysters, crab, lobster, mussels or caviar. I can also eat hot dogs and burgers when necessary, but when the time and place is right, and I have the money, I’m very particular about very carefully picking a restaurant, based on who the chef is and what’s on the menu. Enjoying the fine things in life is not economically always the best thing to do, but I really enjoy it. That also reminds me of Hemingway, who talks in his book A Moveable Feast about eating oysters in Paris. He writes, “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” So it’s that same feeling. I’m always after that feeling where perfect food is paired with the perfect drink, whether it be a white wine, a red wine or an ice cold vodka.

Featured image: (left) photo of Renny Harlin by Don Bigileone via Flickr; (right) a shot of Ulko-Tammio via Wikimedia Commons.

Renny Harlin is a veteran Hollywood director whose new movie, The Bricklayer starring Aaron Eckhart, Nina Dobrev, Clifton Collins Jr. and Tim Blake Nelson, is out now in theaters. His next project is a reboot trilogy of The Strangers franchise. He made his mark as a director in the 1990s with the action blockbuster hits Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea. His more recent films include The Cleaner, 12 Rounds, 5 Days of War, Skiptrace and The Misfits. (Photo by Don Bigileone via Flickr.)