‘Hardcore Henry’ Director Ilya Naishuller on How Making a First-Person Action Movie Is a Pain the Butt [SXSW Interview]
Posted on Wednesday, March 16th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
I had many conflicting thoughts about Hardcore Henry, one of the most impressively made movies to ever leave me unsure of what I just watched. But there is one thing I can say for sure: director Ilya Naishuller is a guy we should be keeping an eye on. No matter what you think of his ultra-violent, incredibly silly action film, there is no doubt that it is an impressive technical achievement. I can safely say that Naishuller, his crew, and his death-defying stuntmen have created a movie that is unlike anything I have seen before.
And it turns out that making a bombastic shoot-’em-up that utilizes video game language to tell the story entirely from the first person point-of-view of the lead character is a huge pain in the ass. I sat down with Naishuller the day after Hardcore Henry’s SXSW screening to talk about the difficulties in making a movie like this, his influences, and how video games are changing cinema.
Our interview was held outside, across the street from a noisy venue with a live band. It was uncomfortably loud and painfully hot. We sat in a shaded area, huddled together with my recorder shoved in his face.
I apologize for jamming my recorder in your face.
We can do this first-person style.
I apologize for just eating something with onions and garlic in it.
After watching the movie, what struck me as the most video game-y thing about Hardcore Henry is that the main bad guy has psychic powers and no one ever seems particularly surprised by this. It’s just a thing and everyone rolls with it. That felt more like a video game to me than it being shot entirely in first-person.
The first thing I want to mention is that this was always, first and foremost, a film. I love video games. We weren’t making a video game. This is a film that was directed with the intent that people who love movies and go to the movies will go see it and be blown away. If they happen to be gamers, that’s an extra click for them.
[As for the villain,] I’m just tired of the over-exposition we always get and I actually cut out the explanation for Akan’s powers. In one version, there was actually a joke about hime being bitten by a radioactive spider. And I was like, eh, it’s okay, but it’s just going to call attention the fact that we’re not going to explain the actual reason. I just didn’t want to bog you down with unnecessary detail. What’s his powers? I’ll keep you guessing. Just as we don’t need to know exactly what Henry was…we can guess he was some kind of military guy. He wasn’t just some ping-pong player! Maybe he was. Probably not. Not his main line of work anyway. It was creative freedom. There were no studio notes to tell what to cover. We weren’t going after the four quadrants and this and that. I was making a film that I wanted to see and hopefully people would enjoy. I’m very happy with the outcome.
The lack of exposition is interesting. The movie literally tosses you into action in the first few minutes and rarely pauses. How difficult was that to write? Did you have to show everyone your first-person music video along with the script to sell what this movie was really going to be?
I had the music video first and Timur Bekmambetov the producer wrote to me the next day after it came online. he Facebooked me and said let’s get on Skype. We Skyped. He said let’s do a feature. I said that’s a terrible idea, I don’t think it works at 90 minutes. I was just as hesitant then as people who hear about it for the first time are now. He probably asked me the most important question I’ve ever been asked in my life. Wouldn’t you want to go see a great action POV film in the cinema. And I said, I actually would. And he said, then you should go make it. And I was like ah, a once in a lifetime opportunity! I better grab it and run. I went off on a tangent, didn’t I? What was the question?
I was wondering about how you convinced anyone this could work.
Timur actually pitched me my own film. It was his idea to expand the music video. I said if you give me final cut, I’ll do it. He said furthermore, “I’ll let you do the film anyway. Just do what you think is right. I know there’s a film in there somewhere. Go figure it out.” He was helpful. I could have called him at any time. He never visited the set. People actually asked me if Timur was really working on the film. And I was like, yeah. I talk with him, I send him stuff, we go back and forth and have great discussions. He gave me fantastic advice, but he never once said “You have to do this.” I don’t think this film could have been made if I didn’t have complete freedom. I had the budget and I knew what I could and couldn’t do. There were discussions. I had help. But there were never any strict rules, which is a punk rock way to make a movie. I don’t think I’ll ever have the luxury again, but in this particular scenario, I don’t think it could have happened any other way.