Interview: Renny Harlin uncovers the mysteries of 'Devil’s Pass'
The harrowing found-footage thriller attempts to offer insights related to the real-life Dyatlov Pass Incident
In February 1959, nine Russian hikers ventured into a remote area of the Ural Mountains in Russia. Two weeks later, all nine were found dead. What happened to them is a mystery that has baffled investigators and researchers for more than half a century. It has become known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Rumors have attributed their deaths to everything from alien encounters and government conspiracies to supernatural causes. To date, no one has been able to adequately explain what drove nine experienced hikers from their tents so frantically that they ripped through the material from the inside; or how their bodies came to be exposed to such dangerous amounts of radiation that it was still detected weeks later. And no one knows why they were discovered hundreds of yards from their camp, half dressed and with internal injuries including broken ribs and fractured skulls, but with no external wounds at all. The body of one young woman was even missing her tongue.
Jump forward to the present day: In Renny Harlin’s exciting “Devil’s Pass,” we meet five American college students who receive a grant than enables them to return to the site of the original events. These students believe they will be able to discover the truth of what happened at Dyatlov’s Pass. But what they find is more shocking than anything they could have imagined. Their trek through the Ural Mountains, retracing the steps of that ill-fated journey, is plagued by strange and increasingly terrifying phenomena, all of which suggest that in spite of their desolate surroundings, they are not alone. The forces behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident have been waiting for them. The students’ recovered footage—the only clue to what happened to them—was deemed too disturbing for public eyes. But, like everything else connected to Dyatlov’s Pass, the truth has found its way out.
Finnish director Renny Harlin has been making films in the U.S. for over 25 years. His films, which have earned over half a billion dollars in this country, include “Die Hard 2,” “Cliffhanger,” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” starring Harlin’s former wife, Oscar winner Geena Davis. His latest film, “Devil’s Pass,” is a departure for the director but he will soon be returning to big-budget spectacles as the director and co-writer of “Hercules 3D,” an action-adventure epic starring Kellan Lutz (“The Twilight Saga”). I spoke to Renny Harlin about his current small-scale thriller.
MSN Movies: Were you specifically looking to do a “found footage” film? Did that format provide any special challenges?
Renny Harlin: I was intrigued by the real-life events of the Dyatlov Pass and felt that the found-footage subgenre would give me the best opportunity to address the events of 1959 and still tell the story in today’s world. This was an opportunity to explore how different filmmaking is when you only have one point of view from which to tell a story. I found it both liberating and challenging. While normally you might rehearse a scene for 15 minutes and shoot for five hours, we would rehearse for five hours and shoot for 15 minutes! One shot had to be able to tell the story of an entire scene.
I have to admit I wasn’t very familiar with the fascinating Dyatlov Pass Incident. Were you already interested in this case? Is it something kids growing up in Finland tend to be more aware of?
I think it’s one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time. All of the evidence is there yet no one has been able to solve the puzzle. I think Europeans might be more aware of the incident but hopefully people in the United States will find it intriguing and want to explore the various websites that give the details about what happened in 1959.
What kind of challenges did you face shooting in such a harsh environment?
We were at one of the northernmost areas of Russia. There was more than 20 feet of snow and the temperatures made your lips freeze! Many of our locations were accessible only by snowmobiles. But I thrive in this type of environment! The challenge of dealing with nature’s force became part of the film.
I thought your actors were just great. Is it very different directing people for a found-footage film?
It was hard to find actors who could throw all of their training in the trash and become completely real people again. One of the hardest things is to act like you are not acting!
Do you have any thoughts on what might have really happened in the 1959 incident?
There are many theories regarding how the nine hikers were killed but I think the most logical explanation is that it was some kind of military experiment gone wrong.
What are the main differences between making smaller films like this and the big studio productions you’ve done?
With a small film like “Devil’s Pass,” the pressure of hitting a home run at the box office is much lower. This gives you a lot more freedom in telling the story. The downside is that you don’t have the time and the toys that you would have on a bigger production. Still, I love being able to jump from one genre to another!
Why was the title changed fro “The Dyatlov Incident” to “Devil’s Pass?” Was that your idea?
That was a result of typical distributor logic. They were worried that people would have a hard time with a foreign name. To be honest, I’m worried that it won’t be as easy for people to find the film if they Google it now that the word “Dyatlov” has been cut from the title.
I recently interviewed Andrew Dice Clay and he was talking about his experience in “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” which you directed 23 years ago. He didn’t receive a lot of good press at the time but has been getting rave reviews for his role in Woody Allen’s latest film “Blue Jasmine.” Any thoughts about that?
I couldn’t be happier for Dice. He’s an awesome talent and a great person. I think he’s been treated very harshly over the years but has always remained resilient. I love seeing him receive the acclaim that he deserves!
Speaking of “big” movies, how is “Hercules” going, your upcoming film starring Kellan Lutz as the Greek god? Are you worried that there’s another version of the story being made simultaneously with Dwayne Johnson as Hercules?
“Hercules” is my dream project come true! It’s an origin story and shows how a young man learns to take responsibility in life and accept his destiny. This is very different from the Hercules stories that people are used to. The two Hercules films are very different from each other. We are dealing with a young Hercules prior to his twelve labors and my understanding is that the other Hercules film deals with an older Hercules at a much later point—the two films couldn’t be more different. Our film, at its heart, is also a love story which also features a lot of great action and adventure. Audiences have never seen Kellan Lutz like this. He’s obviously an amazing physical specimen, but here he’s also quite vulnerable and he has created an arc that conveys the growth of a young man into a hero and savior. This movie is not dark—it’s an adventure filled with hope and love.