'Hardcore Henry' Director Ilya Naishuller On How Making A First-Person Action Movie Is A Pain The Butt [SXSW Interview]

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.

Jam it!

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.

hardcore henry directorYou can tell there was no studio holding the reins. It's mean and nasty in ways that many American action films can't be.

I was raised by Hollywood films. And British movies and worldwide cinema, but mostly American movies. From a young age, my parents never censored me. They said just don't watch porn and don't watch movies that are too scary for you. And I kinda listened to them. I remember watching The Thing when I was nine and my dad was [sitting nearby] and said "Are you sure this is good for you? Sounds kind of rough." I said "It's The Thing." He said "How old are you now?" Nine. "Well, up to you." Fantastic upbringing. Censorship is sometimes good for some kids, but I felt I could monitor my own thing. I'm not scarred for life and I didn't want to kill anyone from watching all these violent films as a kid. It worked out well!

In terms of influences, it was never "I like that. I should put that in there." But afterwards, when the film was done, I [realized] there was definitely RoboCop and definitely Paul Verhoeven [in there]. He sees the funny things with violence. I don't think the film is mean in the slightest way. It's not hateful. There's a ton of violence, a lot of people get killed, but we never take pleasure from torture and Henry protects himself. Only at the very end does he go on the offensive. Otherwise, he's on the run. If they didn't storm that lab in the beginning, he'd be peacefully chilling there and playing ping-pong. I don't know! But he definitely would not be doing what he does. It's a classical story of man pushed to kill. It's like Rambo one. Do you know how many people Rambo kills in the first Rambo?

Not many.

None. He hits the helicopter and the guy falls out, but that's an indirect kind of situation. I also love [Quentin] Tarantino and I'm sure there are elements of him in there. When Akan enters the lab... When we were shooting, I thought "This sounds kind of familiar" and I realized later it was a variation on Vincent and Jules going into the guy's apartment at the beginning of Pulp Fiction. I'm not claiming to write dialogue as great as Quentin Tarantino. I realize where I stand compared to that great man. Scenes like that pop up subconsciously. The same with video games. It's like Assassin's Creed when he falls into the dumpster. I haven't played Assassin's Creed, but I've seen those shots because they're everywhere. I was just thinking it was a practical thing he could fall into and survive. That was my logic.

When I started the movie, I was 27. The movie is 27 years worth of things I've seen, both great and bad, video games, books...it's all somehow slightly in there. It's possible to find a source for each moment, but my conscious is clear. I went into it to make the film I wanted to make.

I know you didn't set out to make a video game movie, but the elements are there. As someone who watches movies and plays video games, I'm very interested in how younger filmmakers who grew up with games can speak that language in ways that directors from a previous generation cannot. What can video games do that films can't? What specific lessons did you take from them to implant in your movie?

Video games can do a lot that films can't, the same way that films can do a lot of things that video games can't. But they're going to get closer and closer and integrate. I don't know the timeline, but there are going to be film-games that are going to be absolutely amazing. They're going to be quite something.

You don't have to answer it!

This...this is hard question. God damn it. I hate to leave a question unanswered! I think there are certain elements, like when Henry fixes his injured arm [early in the film]. I can't remember which game, but the character was fixing himself and being brutal with his fingers. There are bits and pieces like that. In the beginning, people were asking if we here going to do a heads up display. No! Why would I do that? It's a movie. Why do I need to see a health bar? It's already a gimmick that we have to transcend, so why should we sink ourselves lower into a video game-y feel than we need to? It's clearly video game-inspired. If there weren't first person shooters, I don't know if this be happening. I just gave such a crappy answer. I'm so sorry.

I know what you're saying. But let's talk about the actual production. It's one thing to say "Let's strap cameras to actors and have them run through action scenes," but it looks really fucking hard. It looks like it was a complete pain in the ass to make.

It was a complete pain in the ass! There are no simple films. You could have two guys talking in a room and that's a very complicated film to make. Just because films are complicated. But with this, everyone had to re-learn their craft a little bit. The stunt guys can't put the camera where they want to hide the punch. You have to work around that issue! Every film is a bunch of problem-solving, non-stop. But with this, we just didn't have as many tools as usual to solve them. Which was great. It's a creative cage that makes you think. Once you're thinking outside the box inside that creative cage, beautiful things happen. But it was a complete pain in the ass! But you get a shot that's good and you know that no one has ever done that shot before...the feeling of happiness that fills you up inside at the end of each day.

We gathered the crew at the end of the day and we'd sit down for five minutes and just watch. People got excited. I'd bring guys from craft services up and we'd just watch. I'd see their reactions and know that we were getting something very special. Usually, the people on film sets want the movie to be good and they're working hard, but there was this electricity in the air. People were like "This is special." For three years, it hasn't been an option to not make a great movie. It's my first one. I want to make a lot more. Come hell or high water, this was going to be a great movie. That's why it took so long. It had to take that long. The R&D process...you take the most technically savvy filmmaker on the planet and give them that script, give them the budget, and they cannot do it in the thirty, forty, fifty days you're [usually] allocated. It was quite a process.

hardcore henry directorWhat's the balance of practical and visual effects in the film? There are obviously a lot of real stunt men and real cars and real explosions, but there's got to be a great deal of visual trickery.

The balance is that you do everything you can practically and then you help it with CG. You don't do everything with CG and help it practically. I love practical stuff and I love all the prosthetics and things with real, physical weight. I love designing that stuff. Actually, I don't design it. I talk about it with my designer and he does his concepts. There are about 1,800 CG shots in the movie, which is a huge number. But it's all augmentations. There's practical blood, but we added a little more so it's more visible. There is wirework, so we had to hide all the wires. But the stunt man really is jumping from that bicycle at fucking high speeds and [landing] on the top of a van and he needs the wires and there's the shadow of the wires that we have to take out. There were 70 shots where you see [a lighting rig] and that had to be taken out. That was time consuming and obviously not too cheap.

First and foremost, when I was pitching the crew on what we were going to be doing, I said we're going to be Henry and the only way to be Henry is for every single shot in the movie, bar none, to be done by a stunt man. Even if we don't see his hands in that particular spot, it's got to feel like the guy. Otherwise, there's no immersion and if there's no immersion, we might as well go home and call it a day. Everybody rose to the occasion and the stunt guys...it took a little while to click. It took a lot of rehearsal and a lot of tests, but once we started getting the hang of it, it was a complicated blast. It was fun, but it wasn't easy fun.

I was told there were fourteen guys who played Henry overall. 

It was about a dozen or thirteen. The guy who plays Slick Dimitri in the movie, Andrei Dementiev, he shot a little more than half of it. Another guy, Sergey Nosulenko, who I shot the "Bad Motherf***ers" video with, shot about a third. I'm not sure if that works. I'm not good with fractions. I did some of the talking scenes with Sharlto [Copley] and some of the little basic shooting sequences. We had specialized stunt men. The guy who has to get on a horse? That's a horse wrangler. The guy who fells out of the helicopter? That's a base jumper. The guy who gets set on fire is the guy who usually gets set on fire. Four different guys drove. I got the the chance to drive at high speeds with Sharlto in the car and that was quite entertaining. 

What was the most difficult scene or stunt to shoot in the entire movie? Which one gave you the most nightmares and headaches?

It was the finale. The one versus one hundred fight. I think nightmare is a good word because we were shooting in a new sound stage, which was exactly what we needed in terms of space and they were very supportive, but it was November and it was snowing and it was really cold outside. We had fires and we started the day with seven liters of blood that we had blown all over the stage. Psychologically, with the fires, it was this hellish kind of place. And you can't air it out because it gets really cold when you open [the doors]. There are fifty extras on the floor and fifty stunt guys rigging everything. We shot that for two and a half weeks. That was the most complicated scene. Usually, the amount of takes is very little for each sequence as there aren't many cuts, but that was about 150 separate shots, which, judging by the rest of the film which was about 500 cuts...I know it was bad because when we were shooting we would fall asleep every lunchtime. I have a photo the whole crew, just knocked out. They eat and then forty minutes of sleep. I was sleeping four hours a night. It was just hectic. When we came back to get the shot when he's running on the helipad and jumps on the helicopter and we have the flashing lights and the fires and there's all this blood...

I have a flashback to those two weeks and my God, I'm so happy that thing is done. We never have to come back to that again. Psychologically, for a lot of people it was a dark environment for awhile. Apart from that, everything was difficult. But I had a very good team. Everyone always says that, but they were my family. They were with me for a year and a half of production and I love each and every one of them. They gave me their all. That's why the film works as well as it does.


Hardcore Henry arrives April 8.