'Nobody' Director Ilya Naishuller On Shooting Clean Action And Avoiding Shaky Cam [Interview]

Ilya Naishuller doesn't let a second go to waste in Nobody. It's a lean and mean R-rated action-comedy that begins and ends with a relentless pace while never forsaking character. Still, compared to Naishuller's directorial debut, Hardcore Henry, his second feature is patient. The musician-filmmaker threw everything he had into the kitchen sink with his first (love-it-or-hate-it) action movie.

Naishuller first directing credit, however, was a music video for his Russian indie rock band, called Biting Elbows. He remains in the band, which released the album, "Shorten the Longing," last June. The filmmaker has helmed several music videos for his band, as well as for the band Leningrad. In Nobody, in particular, you can sense Naishuller's career in music, especially when it comes to the steady flow and rhythm of the action.

Recently, we sat down with the filmmaker over Zoom as he told us about crafting his newest film's set pieces, his aversion to shaky cam, and more. Nobody is in theaters today.

This movie is very lean. You waste no time, especially with exposition. 

We tried. Look, I'm a big believer of leave people wanting more. As much as I enjoy a three-hour movie occasionally, I enjoy a film that gets in, gets the job done, lets people get on with their thing, and have the memory while it's still fresh. It's also great that less is more. And when it comes to dishing out, driving down Exposition Boulevard, we've got to respect the audience, at least a little bit, right? People deserve it.

Where did your work start with 87Eleven North [the stunt and stunt training facility]?

Bob started training in 2018, a couple of months before I joined the picture. I love saying the word "picture," it makes it seem so important. Picture. I joined the picture. I think when we started working the script with Bob and Derek [Kolstad], Derek does this wonderful thing with his writing where he's detailed when he needs to be, and then he's very open, leaves it to the imagination. Like, for example, the bus fight. He's very rusty at first and then becomes oiled up like a machine, and he goes at it. And that's all you need to know.

And then you start talking to the stunt coordinator, in this case, it was Greg Rementer, and we just went through previz, and discussed what Bob's character should be. I think if you talk about the character, and everybody's on the same page about the goal, the tone, of the character and the film, then it becomes a creative sandbox. So you start coming up with ideas, and some will be too far out, and some will be too comical, and some are going to be right in the spot. It's a lot of talking. Movies are made by a lot of people just talking a lot.

What the ideas that were too comical or too much?

There were a couple of ideas we threw around for the home invasion fight where it felt a little bit too Mr. & Mrs. Smith. He was using a lot of household objects. Putting a kettle on someone's head doesn't seem comedic, right? But you do it with the right angle, with the right sort of punch, it's okay. It works, and it's crunchy, and it's brutal enough without going into the disgusting lands. I think there was a TV, which I remember thinking that I saw in Grosse Pointe Blank a long time ago. Just things that you knew you've seen before, that are too obvious. One of the things we kept discussing, and I remember thinking, "Let's shoot it and see what happens," was when he's pulling the rope on the bus fight around, let's call it the stop rope.

When you watch, you're kind of thinking, "That might be a little bit too much." But then, the wonderful thing I learned with Hardcore Henry is that, when you add a little bit of comedy to brutality, by contrast, they both become much funnier and much more violent, and they complement each other very well. There are several movies that I really like that just go for the all-out darkness, just brutal, brutal, brutal, brutal, but I love giving the audience a chance to breathe and chuckle a little bit before the next knife in the thigh shot. The stop rope, I think, was an example of that. We thought, "Let's shoot it and see what happens to this stop rope quest that starts popping up." It's silly, but it works, because the character's being anything but silly at that moment.

The fight on the bus is relentless, but he feels more human than the average action hero there. You see how winded like almost everybody actually gets from fighting.

You're a human being. You're not superhuman. Yeah, it was very important. We talked about with Bob, in the very beginning, that he is going to get hurt. He is going to be hobbling. He is not going to be running through walls without any repercussions. I think we had a conversation after watching the very final cut of the film and Bob said, "I think we kind of overdid it. When I climb out of the car, I think I'm a little bit too wounded." I'm like, "Bob, I've had car accidents, and none of these cars flipped over, and I wasn't in the trunk, and I was wearing a seatbelt and I came up much more dazed than you did there. So, I think we're good."

Also, it's that balance of making sure that the guy is a hero, so he can take it more than you and I would take. But at the same time, I love seeing tough guys who are also human tough guys. So, I'm glad you picked up on it. I wish Bob was here. Bob would be like, "Yeah." So yeah, that was our intention.

nobody trailerDo you mind walking me through more of that bus fight? What were the logistics of actually shooting it?

We bought the real bus, they bring it out to our little production house in Winnipeg, and we all get on the bus with Greg and Bob. I think [producer] David Leitch was there for that one. We just talked through it, and it's slightly vague in the beginning. We just pointed out all the little angles that we want to try. We just kept going through it, again, a lot of talking, and we plan out where we want to put the soft pads. The answer is always, "Everywhere you can," because of the potential for injury.

It's a lot of fun work. I was about to say, it's very technical in terms of your approach, you got to be very careful, you got to think about it, you got to make notes, but at the end of the day, it's just a lot of fun to do an action scene. I mean, moviemaking, as difficult as it occasionally is, we're not working in the mines, we're not doctors, we're not risking anybody's lives. So, it is a ton of fun. If you just kind of forget about the pressure of making sure it's perfect, you can't be late, you've got to do this, it's just fucking great to be able to do this with all these fantastic people who all want to do it the best they can.

How about once you're editing the action? Was it smooth sailing?

If you're talking about the action scenes, there was not a single moment in the edit where we're like, "Oh, we missed it." "Oh, it's not going to work." Because we planned it out really well. The approach to this whole film was that, before I flew out to Canada to shoot, before pre-production, I did the storyboards back home, and I flew out with 2,000 shots and I put them on the office. The producers would fly in, Bob would fly in, and I'd be like, "All right, this is the film." And we'd go talk through it... Sorry, my cat is bothering me.

[Laughs] That's OK.

Because it was all so well planned out, there was not a moment in the editing where we were thinking, "Oh, God, we're screwed." There were tough choices to be made, as always, but I want to give the team credit that we just over-prepped. And then, when you over-prep, you just slim down your chances of being surprised in a negative way. Lots of positive surprises.

What were some of your other lessons from Hardcore Henry that you kept in mind on this?

There were so many, but I think the most important ones that first come to mind are that less is more. That was because Hardcore was a huge shoot that lasted a year and a half, on and off. It was 123 days, which is ridiculous. Marvel movies don't spend 123 days unless you're Endgame. But yeah, that whole film was trial and error. There were no storyboards, there was no previz. We went out with a small team and kept shooting until we got something that worked. With this, there's no messing about. You have a certain number of days, that's the budget, that's the plan. It's a realistic budget. It's not severely limited or ballooning.

Before Hardcore, I used to write scripts that were much more serious, and they weren't gratuitous, gimmicky, and aggressive things. I got that out of my system fully. And with this one, I wanted to make it very traditional in the best sense of the word. I wanted it to be all planned out, no shaky cam, make sure all the edits are going to work before we even get to the set. I just think it's that, overall, you just grow as a director with each movie, and I hope I continue to do so, and the next one is going to be different with all the lessons learned in this one.

You're in a rock band, so I was wondering, any key similarities and differences between making an album and a movie?

We still play and record. Unlike film, you get feedback much faster. You can write a song today and have feedback on it tomorrow morning. With films, it takes a little bit longer. Say, a year and a half at the very least. I think that's the biggest thing. I can't say there's a similarity between an action film and a rock song, although you look at it in terms of this three-act structure, and there's also the intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, double outro, you have double chorus, you're out. But the wonderful thing about this, as everybody says, everybody knows, if you know the rules, you can break them. And I think that's the similarities between writing a song and writing a movie and directing movies, that you should know what you're breaking before you do so.

How was shooting that final warehouse sequence? What were the logistical and story challenges there? 

It was very tight. It was definitely no more than five days. I think it might've been four. So it was a day for the Bob kitchen scene, three-quarters of a day for RZA in the corridor. It was just great planning. Thematically, the key to the final shootout is, Christopher Lloyd says, "Excessive, but glorious." That's the description of the whole entire shootout.

Now, the movie started off as a more artsy, more dramatic, and more character study-ish. Color-wise, it does the same thing. It becomes much more colorful as Hutch has more fun and his life gets back on his more addictive, violent track. Then the blues come out as blue, the yellows are yellow, and that's why the finale is ridiculous. It really is. If you look at it, if you look at the first scene of the film and the last, it shouldn't really work together, but because you have that launchpad of the entire runtime to get to it, I think we get to that deserved dessert. We had the meat and the potatoes and it's hard, and the guy's in a lot of pain, and serious, and then we get to the ice cream, and the whole finale is ice cream.