Renny Harlin returns to his horror roots with Devil’s Pass (formerly The Dyatlov Pass Incident) after having given us genre offerings like Prison, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Deep Blue Sea and Exorcist: The Beginning and, well, I guess we should include The Covenant, too. Harlin has always had one foot in the realm of action and the other planted firmly in horror and, this time, he’s tackling the found footage sub-genre.
Devil’s Pass follows a group of American students on a trek to investigate the true life mystery of nine Russian skiers who befell unexplained deaths while skiing in the Russian mountains in 1959. To this day, their deaths have been one of the most bizarre unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.
After the jump, Harlin explains why he decided to do a found footage film, the challenges that came with its creation and how he pulled off the film’s intense avalanche sequence.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: You’ve dabbled quite a bit in the horror genre, so what was the impetus behind diving into the found footage sub-genre?
Renny Harlin: I’ve always been intrigued about the Dyatlov Pass incident and I was trying to figure out in my mind how to find an angle to tell that story. Then, with the screenwriter, we came up with the idea of doing it found footage. At the time, it felt like an interesting exercise in filmmaking. I had been watching some of the good found footage movies with great interest like REC and Cloverfield. I just thought it would be an interesting challenge to make a film that way.
Shock: Were you suprised Dyatlov had not been explored earlier on film?
Harlin: Yeah, I was. I had seen some documentaries about it, but not a feature and that was a big surprise. I really dug into the research and explored various websites on the incident. You can find autopsy reports from those involved, to photos and diaries. Very detailed descriptions of what they found and where they found the bodies and what they looked like. And there are many theories out there about what happened.
Shock: You mentioned REC and Cloverfield earlier, what were some of the tropes you wanted to avoid within this sub-genre and what did you want to embrace?
Harlin: First thing I would say is you have to cast the movie right. It’s a challenge because you can’t have anybody well know because that would break the plausibility of the situation. You have to find actors who are hopefully really good yet no one has heard of. And then, in the shooting, you have to figure out how to make it visually interesting but keep it realistic. You have to believe this is the point of view of a camera. I concentrated a lot on rehearsing with the actors so it would feel real and organic. But at the same time I wanted to move the camera around and get what we needed in order to move the story along and keep the tension. I wanted to avoid editing as much as possible and avoid making the scenes feel staged.
Shock: And how did it feel slipping back into the horror genre for you creatively?
Harlin: It was definitely a trip back down memory lane but using the things I’ve been doing since Prison, but at the same time reinventing things and trying to keep it fresh. It was a combination of things and every day was an adventure of discovery, especially in this genre in terms of trying to keep the suspense and the tension alive without being able to do what you normally do, like create certain angles or spooky angles to keep the audience on the edge of their seat.
Shock: Can you talk a bit about the complexity of creating the avalanche sequence in the film?
Harlin: Everything in that sequence was shot on location [in Russia]. The tricky thing was it was supposed to take place at night or very, very early in the morning when it was still a little dark. With a huge location like that and a small budget movie like this, it’s impossible to light in the middle of nowhere. So, what we had to do what shoot at twilight – which we had for about 15 minutes at 4:30 or 5:30 in the afternoon at that time of year where we were. Fifteen minutes and then it was going to be pitch black. The schedule of shooting for that scene we had for over five days. During the day, in the location, we’d shoot other scenes and then leave an hour, if not more, before twilight to rehearse and rehearse. And then we would shoot for seven or eight minutes and then it would be too dark to continue. That’s how we shot over five days. Everybody had to be ready and know what to do. We had to keep the snow virginal so there were no foot tracks. There were a lot of complicated things to think about. We did some of the snow with wind machines and blowers. There were also major CG elements to be added as well.
Devil’s Pass arrives on VOD and in theaters this Friday from IFC.