Hardcore Henry is the world's first fully first-person action movie, in which the audience sees from the point of view of the main character. That's a simple idea, but making it happen was insanely complicated — and dangerous. People were, at times, flirting with death. But for director Ilya Naishuller and star Sharlto Copley, the long, hard road to the film's April 8 release was worth it.
A scene from Hardcore Henry. All images: 2015 STX Productions, LLC.
"The important aspect was to make this an event," Naishuller told io9. "To make it something like a theme park ride and a movie and a video game."
Fortuitously, the long road to Hardcore Henry started online. Naishuller directed a music video for his band Biting Elbows called "Bad Motherfucker." The clip went viral and got the attention of people all across the world. But the Russian director Naishuller prioritised one meeting: Timur Bekmambetov. The director of Wanted and Night Watch wanted him to make a full movie, using that aesthetic.
"[Bekmambetov] said, 'I have no idea how to make this film. Hopefully you do, let's see you try it,'" said Naishuller. "That was April 1st, and we had to shoot in the middle of July. We had no script, no camera, no star — so let's go figure it out. We were doing everything at the same time."
Naishuller knew he needed a face for the movie and went to Sharlto Copley for the role of Jimmy, a guide for the main character of the audience/Henry. But, in order to entice the actor to do it, Naishuller completely rewrote the role into a character who changes his persona in almost every scene.
Sharlto Copley in Hardcore Henry "That, in turn, really influenced the tone of the film," Naishuller said. "It was pretty obvious my original intent to go a little dark and more serious was a bullet dodged." Instead, he ended up with "a fun film that doesn't take itself too seriously."
OK, one problem solved. Hardcore Henry would be an off the wall action movie about a solider turned cyborg, who has to fight through hundreds of bad guys to find his wife. But the bigger problem still loomed: How to make a movie unlike anything that anyone has ever made in film history. It was a daunting task, because Naishuller had to start with a completely blank slate.
"There's hardly any points of reference," he said. "If you want to do one long take, you look at things like Goodfellas. But here, there's pretty much nothing. There's a POV intro in Strange Days and my favourite POV scene of all time was Lady in the Lake, which didn't really work. And so, on set we'd start writing it and it was just non-stop surprise."
Those surprises started with the camera rig. Naishuller and his team shot the whole movie on GoPros and worked with the company for tech support. But that doesn't change that they needed something a person could wear with a GoPro on it to actually shoot the movie. Naishuller estimates about 20% of their budget went to research and development.
"Pretty much day one of shooting we had our second prototype," he said. "It was huge and metallic and unwieldy, but it did the job. So we shot for a couple days and a week later, we got a new one. By week three, we had the best system we had for the rest of the shoot."
Sergey Valyaev and Seva Kaptur on the set of Hardcore Henry. That system was a helmet with two GoPros mounted around the mouth and monitors right above them so the actor could look down at what was being filmed. As you can imagine, this poses innumerable problems. First, it's not comfortable or light. Second, who is controlling the camera?
On Hardcore Henry, that varied. Sometimes it was the cinematographer, sometimes an actor, sometimes even the director. But most of the time, it was a member of the stunt team, and that in itself raises some massive issues about preparation and safety.
"A stunt coordinator, half of their expertise is knowing how to design a sequence in relation to where the cameras are going to be and how you're going to cut it to make the cool action sequences," said Copley, "And in this case you say it's a one-camera ordeal. You can only do it from where the guy's standing. And he happens to be standing here right now, because of where he was two seconds ago. And so it's totally different for the stunt coordinator to get their head around."
But Naishuller says that the crew was more than up to the task.
"There's so many cool, great action beats that were like, 'You know what? We're supposed to do this, I think this might be better. What do you guys think?' and then five minutes later, the stunt crew was like, 'We're ready. Let's try this out.'"
Copley expanded a bit about how insane things get. "It's like 'Listen: we have this thing that's crushing your head. And while we set you on fire, remember to look up over there at those guys who are on fire, then jump through the bus window but don't break the camera.' You're pushing these guys, you're pushing everybody, to totally different heights. Which is why it took us so long to make the film, there was so much learning."
One of the biggest pieces of learning, according to Copley, was how to act opposite someone who looks like a hybrid of a human and Johnny 5 from Short Circuit.
"As an actor you're used to [acting against] nothing or a person, but this is some sort of hybrid," he said. "It's a dude with a camera who's sometimes the director of photography, sometimes the director or sometimes the stunt specialist. They're watching you as they frame you, so sometimes they're filming you. Then they shake your hand and they're kind of acting with you and giving you something, and their eyes keep moving between the monitor and you and the room that they're walking in. So just little, basic things like not being drawn to his human eye. We had to put sunglasses on them because it's a biological response. You see an eye moving, just above where you're supposed to be looking, you just go to the other eye. Strange little things like that took some getting used to."
Another thing that "took some getting used to" was that the film was largely improvised. Not script-wise — Naishuller worked out the main story before filming began — but action wise. Naishuller tried to do storyboards but found it was easier just to come up with a sequence, shoot it, and basically edit in camera or on set. That was the best, fastest way to make sure every dollar was spent and everything flowed and made sense.
"Traditionally a sequence would have been planned months in advance. It would have been rehearsed and some of that stuff obviously was," Naishuller said. "But so much of it, they were just adding something, quickly, on the fly. And some of that is that the regulations aren't as strict in Russia, but what that meant was nobody's babying you to keep you alive. Frankly, everybody has to be awake or someone could die. And that sort of presence, I think, made everybody really focus."
Um, you think? And the potential for death is even more prominent when you realise every stunt in Hardcore Henry was done practically, without any computer effects.
"Everything that you see Henry do, he did," Naishuller said. "Sure he had a safety wire to make sure he didn't fall to his death, but he's jumping that, he's climbing that, he's falling out the helicopter." And yet, with everything attempted, the set remained relatively safe. In fact, the only injuries were five stitches and a chipped tooth.
By this point you're probably thinking, "This sounds like a first person shooter video game." Games like Call of Duty, Half Life or Halo. Well, yes. Naishuller admits the film has some nods to those games but he swears that wasn't his intent in making it.
"Well, it's always a movie first," he said. "It was never intentioned to make a film of video games. My whole goal was to make film for people who love movies. And if they happen to love video games? They will enjoy this film a little bit more because there's always like small nudges and references, but I tried to mostly steer clear from trying to make it too video gamey, because what's the point?"
The point may be that the video game aesthetic gives the film a very interesting and specific cultural place.
"There's a big generational factor to this film," Copley said. "And I felt that from the moment I saw the music video. One of the reasons I wanted to make this was I like franchise movies as much as the next guy. But, for young people today, most of these franchise things were created before you were born. A generational system doesn't know how to handle this movie. Even traditional media outlets. This is something that is born of that internet generation. It really is."
Now being a pioneer of this medium does have its drawbacks. Naishuller and Copely both admit some of the "subtleties" of traditional filmmaking got lost because they were so focused on the technical stuff and action. Each believes, if given another shot, there is so much more that could happen in the medium. More dialogue, character building — all the things that took a bit of a back seat to make Hardcore Henry exist at all. But either way, Hollywood is taking notice.
"There has been interest," said Naishuller, who said he was asked to shoot the POV intro of The Brothers Grimsby. "If this makes money, some of them are going to try to do it and some of them might do a great job. I wish them all the best. I'm curious to see people handle problems that we had to handle."
And the director seems deeply unconcerned about people cashing in on his idea. He's way more interested in something bigger. Changing the way people watch movies.
"With Hardcore Henry, you're sort of adjusting to a whole different way of watching a whole fucking movie," Copley says. "I'd be interested to see people looking back on this thing in five years' time. Getting to the end is kind of like getting to the end of a roller coaster ride, where there's like a 'Whoof!' In a good way. Maybe in five years time, it's like, 'Yeah, that's kinda normal. That's how we watch movies now.'"