Renny Harlin, director of such action classics as DIE HARD 2 and DEEP BLUE SEA, tackles real life modern warfare in 5 DAYS OF WAR – opening August 19 at the Angelika. Check this exclusive letter to Angelika Blog readers, detailing the his interest in the story of 4 civilians trapped in the middle of the Georgian struggle for indepence in 1991, and the incredible process of shooting on location in Tsalka, Georgia:
After a teeth-rattling and bottom-numbing ride of four hours we’d finally arrived. The narrow dirt road that serpentined us to our distant destination had been freshly soaked by torrential rain, an especially nice additional touch considering the 1,000-foot drop that lay only a muddy tire widthâ??s away for most of the journey. In my infinite wisdom I had requested to see this location because of its unique features. First, it was nestled in a breathtakingly beautiful valley. Second, and most importantly, it was home to the ghost town of Tsalka. I had given my producers an unusual yet gratifying task of finding me a town that I could blow up. And so here we were, in August of 2009, in Tsalka, Georgia, as the few inhabitants of the picturesque village were eyeing us with great curiosity and deep suspicion. When I say few, I include the twelve humans, a handful of cows, goats and chickens, and an entire pack of wild dogs that circled our overloaded vehicles.
Now, you might ask how far from Atlanta said mountain village might be located. To clarify, Iâ??m talking about the Republic of Georgiaâ??as in the former Soviet country that won its independence in 1991 when the rusty Iron Curtain finally collapsed, creating dozens of new countries free to find their own way in the rapidly changing world.
Georgia is located south of Russia and north of Turkey, between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. It is considered a Mediterranean country, and home to some of the oldest Christian Churches in the world. Christianity started to spread throughout Georgia in the 1st Century, and is thought to be one of the first areas that Christianity was practiced. Because of its very strategic location, Georgia has also experienced more savage wars in the last few thousand years than anyplace else.
The reason Tsalka is so abandoned lies in the history of the country. The town was originally populated by Greek immigrants who traveled freely between their home country and Georgia. However, under Soviet rule, the Greeks one day found themselves unable to leaveâ??the borders had been closed. Entire generations grew up in Georgia without ever seeing their original homeland. Not until Georgian independence in 1991. At that point, just about every able-bodied Greek descendant packed up their belongings and traveled back to their country of ancient Gods and temples. Tsalka almost ceased to exist.
Enter Hollywood. We’d arrived to recreate a Russian assault on one of the dozens of similar towns, which were erased from the face of the earth during a brutal war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. It was actually on the opening day of the Beijing Summer Olympicsâ??August 8, 2008â??when Russian troops crossed the border into independent Georgia, sparking a war that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless. The conflict lasted only five days, and the world barely blinked. But what happened in those five days was devastating and the results will reverberate for years to come in European, Russian and US politics.
But to find out what really happened you will have to see my new movie 5 Days of War.
When a group of Georgian producers left Georgia in the fall of 2008 to come to America in search of film financing and filmmakers, it was almost like a scene from Billy Wilderâ??s Ninotchka. They were foreigners far away from home, and lacked all the connections and experience usually required to make the Pearly Gates of Hollywood open. But their mission was simple, and determination solid; they wanted to tell the world what the mass media had failed to convey. They wanted to put Georgia and its story on the map.
Due to their tenacity, they managed to find Hollywood producer George Lascu for the project, and through a series of coincidences, a blueprint for a film about the war ended on my desk. It was now summer of 2009, and I had been begging my agent to find something interesting for me to do for a while. I had grown tired of the typical Hollywood fare and wanted to mount a project that would involve my heart and soul. After the first meeting with the producers I was hooked. I saw photos from the war and read the stories of survivors. I knew that my twenty-five years of making action films and thrillers had only been a training phase on my road to this story.
I asked my friend, screenwriter Mikko Alanne (Oliver Stoneâ??s Pinkville, Angelina Jolieâ??s West with the Night and The Dictatorâ??s Shadow), to come on board, and together we dove into research, interviewing war journalists, refugees, politicians, soldiers, and everyday people who had all been there as the tanks rolled down their streets and fighter jets dropped bombs in their neighborhoods. We sifted through reportage from all sides and read various independent reports of the war by the United Nations, the European Union, and Human Rights Watch. And we decided to look at the events from the point of view of war correspondents. After all, five of them died in this strikingly brief conflict, and over fifty die every year at different hotspots around the world. This focus also gave us an opportunity to connect to the everyday people in the story and show the horrors of war from a civilianâ??s point of view.
We wanted to shoot in Georgia, mostly in the actual locations of the war, only one year after the end of hostilities. You can imagine that setting off loud pyrotechnics and hours-long volleys of gunfire just 20 miles from an actual, patrolled conflict zone border comes with its own list of apprehensions and considerations.
Our crew was put together from 17 different countries. The actors came from all ends of the world. The financing was a patchwork of independent financiers, bank loans, and pre-sales of distribution rights. The project fell apart a half dozen times, but by October of 2009 we were all on location, in Tsalka, ready to shoot.
Facing us now on the mountaintop, as the sun was rising, were eighty T-72 tanks and other military vehicles, eight MI-24 and Huey helicopters, and 2,500 troops in full battle gear. Overhead, three SU-25 fighter jets were screaming through the terrain with their afterburners glowing. I was speechless, and so was everyone else. I lifted my megaphone to my mouth with emotions dwelling in my heart. This is what I had dreamed of doing when I was a kid, watching classic war movies, and here I was standing in front of thousands of people with only one request on their minds: â??Tell our story to the world.â? I took a deep breath, prayed for confidence in my voice, and said: â??Cue the jets.â?
Hollywood agents spend weeks negotiating the size of their starsâ?? motor homes, and hotel accommodations in five star hotels. Tsalka was four hours away from any hotel or restaurant. The crew lived on an old Russian train, parked next to the village. The train had no showers, and a nightâ??s sleep was frequently interrupted by the noise of workers shoveling coal into glowing furnaces in order to keep the temperature from dropping below 20 Fahrenheit. The cast, Mikkoâ??the writer, and I shared an old farmhouse. We each had a bedroom, and shared a tiny kitchen and one bathroom and shower. Some of the cockroaches were big enough to be put on a leash. It rained often, and all roads turned into impenetrable mush. But never did I hear a word of complaint from the cast or crew. The Georgians welcomed us with open arms. Their homemade meals, wine and chacha (a local firewater), kept our spirits high. The days flew by, and our relationships grew into camaraderie that nothing could break.
We blew up houses, staged firefights, shot car chases… well, tank chases actually…
5 Days Of War is a movie I wanted to make for that segment of the movie-going public (especially Americans) who are not exactly drawn to subtitled art house films set in foreign countries at war. The story of what happened in Georgia in August 2008 is too important for that. So while the film has a serious heart and deeply emotional moments, itâ??s still a Renny Harlin film, with all the action, thrills, and exciting visuals people like to see in my movies. And while several of the war correspondent characters and their storylines are admittedly dramatic creations, all the major events of the war that you will seeâ??as well as the film’s glimpses behind the scenes of war politicsâ??are all very real, recreated as faithfully as we could make them.
As for the distant mountain village of Tsalka, itâ??s still standing, and a new highway is in the works.