Sprung from Finland's Frozen Wastes, Renny Harlin Is the Hot Young Director Behind the Sizzling Action in Die Hard 2

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Renny Harlin, the 31-year-old Finnish-born director, should be sleeping like a blissful baby. His last movie, Die Hard 2, is a big summer smash; his girlfriend, Laura Dern, 23, is the summer's biggest splash (in Wild at Heart); and his next film, Gale Force, an erotic thriller to be set in the Florida Keys, will earn him one of the greatest hunks of cash—$3 million—ever paid a director. So why does Renny Harlin have nightmares? Recently he dreamed he dived into his swimming pool and couldn't come up. "I tried to put my arms through the surface, but I couldn't," says the 6'4" director, who has an intense gaze hardly softened by a dangling mane of blond hair. "I knew that I was drowning. I started inhaling water. I said to myself, 'Now it ends.' "

Don't be surprised if that scene turns up at your local sixplex: The workaholic Finn puts even his private terrors to use. To spice up 1988' A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Harlin lifted directly from his nocturnal fevers. Nightmare 4 earned almost $50 million, and Hollywood learned of the newcomer's Nordic cool. He could get a picture done fast, within budget and without hysterics. That led to The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, with Andrew Dice Clay, where he so impressed producer Joel Silver that Silver had Harlin shooting Die Hard 2 before finishing Fairlane. To date, the sequel has earned $100 million-plus, more than the original.

All of which is awesomely unprecedented for an émigré who just four years ago was living on Campbell's soup—"the 48-cent can, not the 53-cent can," he says, "half of it for lunch and half for dinner"—and riding the bus to producers' offices in L.A., hoping they'd overlook his sweat-soaked, threadbare clothes and give him a shot in the movies. Today Harlin lives in sun-drenched, Deco-furnished digs above L.A.'s Benedict Canyon. On top of the Frank Lloyd Wright table in front of him sits an antique Japanese birdcage shaped like a villa, a present from Dern. Attended by three handsome dogs, he reflects on the fruits of the American dream. "I'm sort of like the most famous person, ever, from Finland," he says. "But I think I always knew I was going to live here. I was projecting my life in that direction."

Renny Lauri Mauritz Harjola was born in Riihimäki, outside of Helsinki, son of a nurse and a hard-driving physician. The boy spent a lot of time alone, walking in the woods, watching birds, imagining and writing stories. When he was 9, he published his own magazine. "I could type eight copies on carbon sheets and had about 80 subscribers, so I had to type the magazine 10 times." He drew all 80 covers by hand.

Renny feasted on movies by Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks. Film school in Finland he found "laid-back and slow," so at 20 he started his own production company. By 23, he had completed more than 100 commercials, 10 TV documentaries and many short films. But when his screenplays were spurned by the Finnish film industry—he was judged too "commercial"—Harlin knew he had to leave.

Scuffling in L.A., Renny and a compatriot managed in 1986 to bring out a feature called Born American, a poor man's Rambo about three Yanks in action on the Soviet-Finnish border. It went nowhere. But a year later he got to direct a B-horror flick, Prison, which took him to Elm Street and then to the fast track. Actress Diane Ladd, Dern's mother, sees Harlin as a surefire mogul, in the Redford mold, and says she's thrilled that Laura is dating "somebody with great integrity, great taste and talent."

Now Harlin hopes his clout in thrills and chills will allow him to do more ambitious projects. He resents that some are calling him the Sequelizer. "It was fun making these movies, but you're working, working, working and not doing anything that is going to change the world."

Among the responsibilities Harlin feels is concern for the environment—an interest he shares with Dern. He just returned from the Finnish premiere of Die Hard 2, which funded an island preserve for a rare freshwater seal. Soon he would like to make a film about the founding of the activist group Greenpeace—in part to make environmental thinking accessible to teenagers.

Though he says he wants to slow down, Renny keeps running, just ahead of his demons. "It's almost like I'm afraid I'm going to die soon. I've always felt I have to do everything today. It would be horrible to look back and think, 'I didn't do anything.' "

—Tim Allis, Nancy Matsumoto in Los Angeles

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