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Interview: Renny Harlin Talks Reviving THE STRANGERS for Epic Trilogy

A masked person stands on the porch of someone's house
The Strangers from THE STRANGERS - CHAPTER 1, a Lionsgate Release | Photo Courtesy of John Armour for Lionsgate

By Shannon McGrew

In THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1, the first entry in a new trilogy series, a young couple (Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez) is forced to spend the night in a remote cabin after their car breaks down in an eerie small town. Panic ensues as they are terrorized by three masked strangers who strike with no mercy and seemingly no motive.

For the release of THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1, Creepy Kingdom's Shannon McGrew spoke with director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea). During the interview, they discussed everything from Harlin's fascination with the original film to the challenges of filming all three movies back-to-back.

Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Renny. To start things off, what about this project interested you?

Renny Harlin: The original film is one of my favorites because of its unusual structure and unusual treatment of the traditional Hollywood plot. The producers wanted this four-and-a-half-hour epic based on The Strangers's premise. I was like, well, I don't know if this has ever happened, and I don't think it's ever going to happen again, so how could I say no and let somebody else do this deep dive exploration into a mind of a serial killer and the psyche of the victim. I thought it was such an unusual experience. I wouldn't have jumped in to do a remake or a sequel, but this was so epic that I couldn't pass on the opportunity.

I recently chatted with a friend who mentioned that all three films were filmed back to back. What was that experience like?

Renny Harlin: Not only was it back to back to back, but also on top of each other and mixed in. Let's say we have a location with a bigger role in the first movie, a smaller role in the second, and a little bit of a role in the third. We would have to shoot those sequences together so it literally went from in the morning we are doing Chapter 3, in the afternoon Chapter 1, and the next day Chapter 2. For the actors, props, costumes, makeup - it was a real rollercoaster because we had to emotionally remember where we are in the film and then literally go from she's covered in blood in one scene to she's completely pristine in another.

A man leans on a table while talking to two actors
Renny Harlin Behind the Scenes of THE STRANGERS - CHAPTER 1, a Lionsgate release | Photo Courtesy of John Armour for Lionsgate

How did you approach the film to preserve the essence of the original while also separating yourself from what's been done?

Renny Harlin: Rule number one for me was keeping it real. So easily, as a filmmaker, especially as an action filmmaker, you think that bigger is better. But this one was the opposite, keeping it small, contained, and realistic. I really applied that to everything from how it was shot to how I used sound, music, and the progression of the events in all three movies.

In differentiating it, I wanted the character set up to be different. We had to use the original film to set up the premise so that's why it has a big role in the first movie. The big difference is that we go on this epic journey of what would happen to this young woman the next day after she's been attacked and her fiance has been murdered. What is she going to go through emotionally, psychologically, and physically trying to survive and trying to make sense of it all and try to get away, and what makes these killers tick? It's not about tying a neat bow on it and giving all the answers. We will give some answers because nothing was explained in the original, which was part of its charm. But I think our responsibility now that we go deeper is to give some answers.

Do you have a favorite moment from the film or a challenging scene that you look back on and are happy with the outcome?

Renny Harlin: There are so many [Laughs]. I like the sequence under the house because it was one of those things that might not look so complicated to do. It's always when you're trying to make a space look very tight, and the actors have to get through it, and it's dirty and a kind of terrifying place; it's hard to make it look like that without it actually being like that. It is uncomfortable for the actors and the camera and lighting; every detail is really hard. Emotion is so important in any movie, particularly horror movies; you must get the audience emotionally invested. With the characters, I felt we could do that in that sequence.

Lastly, I know you may not be able to say much, but as a fan of Richard Brake, I was thrilled to see him appear in the film, even if it was for the briefest of moments. Will we be seeing more of him in Chapters 2 and 3?

Renny Harlin: Yes, absolutely! You don't have a quality actor like that and [do nothing with him]. I can tell you he's not only a great actor but also the greatest guy. We have an interesting cast that you will see in the different chapters in different places.

THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1 is now in theaters.


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