30 Things We Learned from Renny Harlin’s ‘Cutthroat Island’ Commentary

"It is not something I recommend for people who like a comfortable life."
Cutthroat Island

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits via the commentary one of the most legendary box-office bombs of all time, Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island.

Renny Harlin kicked off his directorial career in the 1980s, but it was the 90s that made him something of a big deal. He delivered a blockbuster sequel with Die Hard 2 (1990) and chased it with more hits including Cliffhanger (1993), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) which, yes, technically made a profit, and Deep Blue Sea (1999). He kept making films after the decade ended, but he’s yet to recapture those box-office hits (outside of 2016’s pretty terrible Skip Trace which earned oodles overseas thanks to Jackie Chan).

While two of his hits mentioned above arrived after it, 1995’s Cutthroat Island marks the point where Harlin stopped attracting large budgets to play around with. A big pirate adventure, the film endured numerous troubles during production, a studio in turmoil, and a theatrical release that was, at best, a cluster fuck. It has its defenders, but you’d be hard-pressed to find them using their real names. I kid, but yeah. Harlin recorded a commentary track for the film’s 2002 release to DVD which then moved to Blu-ray and ultimately to the newly released 4K UHD.

Now keep reading to see what we heard on Renny Harlin’s commentary track for…

Cutthroat Island (1995)

Commentator: Renny Harlin (director)

1. “At the time that this came out, it was not a very successful film in America,” says Harlin, in something of an understatement. The film was a massive bomb with its hundred million dollar budget (before marketing) only earning ten million at the box-office. It was such a bust that the distributor, MGM, pulled it from theaters after only two weeks. It never even opened outside of the U.S. aside from very brief runs in France, Netherlands, and Portugal, and it’s the film that essentially tipped the production studio Carolco Pictures into bankruptcy. So yes, not very successful.

2. The film was a passion project for the filmmaker after growing up with a love for ocean adventures and stories about pirates. “I wanted to tell a story that would entertain and move every twelve-year-old in us.”

3. “The film production started in very unfortunate conditions,” he says. The script wasn’t finished before filming began, and they lost their male lead. Harlin doesn’t mention him by name, but that lead was Michael Douglas, who reportedly skipped out after script revisions were made — reportedly at co-lead Geena Davis‘ request — to expand Davis’ role. The film’s original cinematographer broke his ankle one week in and also had to be replaced. Weather, local crew challenges, and more also added to the mix.

4. They filmed on location in both Malta and Thailand. The former was known as the leading locale for big water tanks at the time, although it has since been surpassed by Mexico.

5. He finds it unfortunate that the production mishaps led to press reports that gave it a bad reputation before it even reached theaters. For all the effort that went into it, he adds, they could have just filmed a backyard barbecue and gotten the same response from moviegoers.

6. They wanted to walk a fine line between action/adventure and “a little bit of comedy,” and never intended to make a serious film.

7. “Our intention was not to throw money away,” but that didn’t stop them from making all of the costumes and wigs for the film instead of resourcing what was already available. It was due mostly to the need for duplicates seeing as this is an action film and often left outfits ruined.

8. “Getting this monkey for the movie was quite a challenge,” he says, adding that he felt that a pirate should have either a parrot or a monkey, and they obviously went with the latter. They brought the trained monkey all the way from Los Angeles.

9. He found the prison location in Malta while scouting and felt like he had seen it somewhere before. “It was also used as the prison in one of my favorite movies, which is Midnight Express (1978).”

10. He’s incredibly happy with the film’s sound design/effects, and he hopes we’re watching on a surround sound television setup. This being the first pirate movie in “the age of digital sound,” he felt a responsibility to make sure ever swish and clank of a sword came through as perfect as possible.

11. There’s a Finnish flag seen hanging off a building at 25:34, and while he acknowledges it doesn’t belong here at all he adds that it’s a nod to his homeland.

12. Morgan Adams (Davis) jumps through a window at 27:18 and lands in a moving horse-drawn carriage beneath her. It’s show in a single take and clearly Davis in the carriage as it rides towards camera, so Harlin adds “I defy you to figure out how that was done.” He says there’s “a little magic” there, and it’s clear that something digital is afoot as the stunt person hits the carriage seat and then flips the hair back to reveal Davis. It was 1995, though, so color me impressed.

13. Something he’s kept in mind starting with his time on Die Hard 2 (1992) and Cliffhanger (1993) is a desire to thrill audiences by giving them “an experience where they feel like the actors are involved and in jeopardy.” This comment is immediately followed by a scene featuring Davis and Matthew Modine riding in a carriage that isn’t actually moving and is instead sitting in front of a blue screen.

14. Oliver Reed was originally cast to play Mordachai Fingers which is exactly the sort of character name you’d expect from Reed, but he was ultimately unable to take the gig.

15. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop supplied the film with animatronic animals including some vicious-looking eel puppets.

16. Harlin says nothing about the clearly accidental beat at 42:45 when a prop barrel flies through the air and hits Modine in the head. It’s a wide shot, and there’s no follow-up meaning it obviously wasn’t intentional.

17. Several members of the cast and crew fainted at various times while filming in the humidity and heat of Thailand. It was a safety concern, but the heat and sun also had a more practical concern in that there was an issue of tanning. The crew got great tans, but the cast couldn’t as there would be continuity issues from one scene to the next.

18. They only built a single ship in Jakarta (as opposed to the two they had in Malta), but they made it with interchangeable parts so they could use it as two different ships. They simply swapped out elements at the front and rear, and then used editing and digital composition to complete the illusion. They also built fifty-foot replicas for the storm scene and filmed them in a large tank in the UK.

19. The post-shipwreck scene with everyone floating in the water was filmed in Thailand in the open water. It was unfortunately jellyfish season which led to a handful of stings, but while some of the cast were extremely worried about sharks, “there aren’t really that type of sharks in these waters.” The island they wash up on was later used in Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2000). “There’s the beach that became so familiar in the movie The Beach.”

20. The exterior nighttime jungle scenes were filmed day for night “which means that you actually shoot the scene during the day in sunlight, and you use filtration and film exposures where the sunlight becomes moonlight.” It would be next to impossible, he says, to light the jungle well enough and convincingly enough to film there at night. “I don’t even dare to think what would happen to the crew if you put three hundred people in the middle of the night in the middle of the rain forest, probably half of them would be eaten by snakes.”

21. It was during this film’s production that Harlin learned the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. One comes down from the ceiling and the other builds up from the floor, and the way to remember which is which “is to always remember stalactites come from the ceiling because they are holding Tight to stay there and not fall down.” I was always taught the the T means top, so, same difference.

22. “It’s interesting how in today’s cinema, a female is embraced and accepted quite a bit more than it was in the past.” He adds that it was difficult to market the film in 1995 and to convince young action lovers that a female lead is a good thing.

23. That’s really Modine and Davis hanging over that cliff. The only vfx alterations were to digitally erase safety wires and to add crashing waves as the actual spot below him was just rocks and fairly calm water.

24. The sequence at 1:29:22 where the traitors are made to jump overboard almost turned to disaster. They were all stunt men who jumped from the moving ship, but some of them immediately began calling for help after hitting the water. At first, everyone else thought they were simply in character, but it quickly became evident that there was a real problem. It turned out that the boots crafted by costume designer Enrico Sabbatini — hip high leather boots that were laced for tightness — quickly filled with water and began weighing the men down. “It just teaches you, that you can never be careful enough, you always have to be prepared for the worst, and even with skillful stuntmen, there will always be something that you are not prepared for.”

25. One of his favorite shots starts at 1:36:51 as he rigged a cable, from one ship to the other, and the camera glides across the water between them.

26. The Ainslee (Patrick Malahide) character originally dies from a sword fight later in the film, but Harlin decided in editing that the scene felt like a pacing drag in the third act — so he blew him up instead by adding a digital explosion and fire to an earlier shot at 1:37:46. “We unexpectedly, to our actor, ended up blowing him away a little earlier.” Harlin actually acknowledges the problem here that would become a much-talked about sticking point in today’s filmmaking world. “The more digital filmmaking gets, there is that danger that actors might not always know exactly what their destiny is. Obviously this opens a whole area of questions of what the actors’ rights are, and how we can ensure that we are respectful of their performance and their rights.”

27. “Hmm, who is that pirate, I wonder, who gets killed by that woman? Seems like a familiar face,” he says, referring to his own cameo at 1:41:03 as a villainous pirate killed by Davis’ character. It was the final shot in Thailand, and he’s comfortable saying that his acting talents limit him to death scenes.

28. Regarding the film’s much-criticized cost, Harlin says “I’m unfortunately not in a position to discuss the budget.” He adds that, compared to other action films of the time and blockbusters of today, it was actually fairly inexpensive thanks to cheaper filming locales and his desire to put every dollar on the screen. he also reminds us that while it bombed in the U.S., the film played well elsewhere and did very well on home video.

29. The big ship explosion at the end could have been done with miniatures, but that’s not Harlin’s style. “It was built to last, like a real ship, to go through the movie and all the things involved in the film. It was made out of real wood, and nails, and materials, and we blew it up with tons of dynamite, and as you can see, there is nothing left of it. It’s just, basically, toothpicks after the explosion.” No matter what else you might think about Cutthroat Island, there’s no denying that this is one of the big screen’s most epic and satisfying explosions.

30. Harlin ends the commentary with a tech-savvy and future-proof plug, saying “If you are interested in learning more about the films I have made in the past or the films I am making currently or planning to make in the future, please log on on www.rennyharlin.com. See you in the movie theater. Bye.” The earliest DVD release featuring this commentary appears to come from 2002 — I could be wrong here, but this is the earliest one I can find to list the commentary as an extra. Either way, Harlin’s website hasn’t been updated since Deep Blue Sea.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Congratulations, you have chosen to watch the DVD of Cutthroat Island.”

“It was an exciting dream to be shooting a pirate film.”

“You probably learn more from your mistakes than you do from your victories.”

“DVDs have excellent sound quality.”

“What is a pirate film without swinging on a chandelier?”

“My motto for many years has been ‘if you build it, you shall blow it up.'”

“The film was intended to be an adventure, and shooting it certainly was just as big of an adventure.”

“This is the very beach where they shot The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio.”

“The stronger the villain, the stronger the hero.”

“It is not something I recommend for people who like a comfortable life.”

Final Thoughts

Harlin always gives good commentaries, and it’s not just because his deep, unwavering voice is a calming sound throughout. He shares anecdotes, talks about the ups and downs of production, gets into the details of filmmaking, and shows a real love for the artform. The film’s controversies in cost and casting are skirted around a bit, but you really can’t blame the guy. A recommended listen for fans of the film and filmmaker.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.