Before Ilya Naishuller started writing “Hardcore Henry,” he put together a list of 10 rules that would dictate how he would go about making his feature debut. Unlike the film’s producer Timur Bekmambetov, he wasn’t so sure if the first-person style that he had perfected on the crazy, electric music videos he made for his band Biting Elbows could be stretched out to a 90-minute feature, but he’s not exactly timid — after all, he’s the guy with the gun at the beginning of “Bad Motherfucker,” the viral sensation that collected over 40 million hits online — so he began figuring out the logistics like how his hero – a cyborg with human DNA who slowly comes to understand what he is while facing off with a series of baddies in the wild, wild east of Russia – wouldn’t be able to talk and how he wouldn’t be an alien as originally planned, so audiences could fit more snugly in his shoes.
As one watches Henry plow through a speeding van on a motorcycle or leaping off the sides of buildings while killing a bevy of henchmen below, you would never imagine the term “rules” was even in Naishuller’s lexicon – and in fact, he threw out several of the ones he came up with before shooting. Yet one couldn’t make an action film as exciting as “Hardcore Henry” without such discipline, at least behind the camera where Naishuller was regularly corralling a seemingly endless supply of stuntmen to do battle with Henry or putting on the camera rig his team had built, with magnetic stabilizers to smoothly capture the kinetic action that he helped choreograph, to play Henry himself. (He was one of 12 to don the camera-laden helmet the crew called an “adventure mask.”)
Despite the fact that you never see Henry’s face, the character and the film itself have more personality than any other action film in some time, full of swagger in staging fights Naishuller knows you have never seen before from this perspective and a wicked sense of humor, largely personified by “District 9” star Sharlto Copley who plays a mysterious field operative whose collection of disguises is the only thing outpacing his wide assortment of weapons and has an incredible knack for rising from the dead.
However, it’s hardly just the central conceit that makes you feel like you’re thrust into the middle of the action, with Naishuller’s vivid, energetic directing style grabbing you as intensely as one of the bad guys in the film might, and as the ridiculously fun movie hits theaters after triumphant premieres at Toronto and SXSW, the director spoke about making the transition from musician to filmmaker, how important it was to be unpredictable and discovering that in spite of all the incredible stunts he could stage, humor would be the film’s most magic ingredient.
We’re you actually thinking of making features before “Bad Motherfucker” took off or were you content being a musician?
In my mind, I’ve been a director since I was about seven. It just took 20 years to get to the point of making a feature. Music was a hobby that started eating up a lot of my time, but it was wonderful how making music allowed me to actually enter the film world, which is quite unexpected, but nice.
Since the needle drops in the film are so effective, did you actually know what kind of music you’d have in it before shooting?
I had some ideas, but what I tend to do when I’m on set is when there’s a pause, and I’m walking around the stage thinking about what we’re going to be shooting now, getting mentally prepped for whatever we’re doing, I usually listen to music, and sometimes that informs me of the direction that the scene is going to take because the song feels like what I want the scene to feel like. Also, after we got about two-thirds of the film shot, we had to wait for six months for the summer to come back to Russia, so I ended up going to India with my editor and I had about 20 albums in my iPod and I just thought, “Well, this will be temp [music].” Ultimately, I was very lucky because I got to use every song that I wanted in the film, which I did not expect for a second.
What may have impressed me most was how the action was never repetitive, either in the movement of the character or in the set pieces. How conscious of that were you?
Of course [I was]. There’s a couple things that sometimes action directors get wrong. One of them is they forget about geography and having a set-up for the scene, and for the audience to feel immersed [so that it seems like they’re right] with the hero, trying to figure out what would they do in that particular scenario. If you do an action film, you also have to make sure things escalate, otherwise it just becomes rather stupid. I had a road map for the action sequences before I wrote the script, and every time I knew “This is going to be an action beat in this particular environment,” I would think about it for a little bit and keep going. I like to be a little bit more creative and more spontaneous [on the set], but you don’t start the film with a tank sequence. You want the tank somewhere in the last third — you want the exclamation point at the end — so the idea of making it more complicated for the hero to break through the enemy lines pretty obvious. In a way, it’s very video game-y of how you progress through levels, [which] was another point of inspiration for me, but I was very much thinking a lot about the escalation, to keep things moving at a brisk pace, and have the energy become more and more intense.
You mention spontaneity and in order to achieve a film like this, there has to be an incredible amount of detailed choreography. At the same time, I’ve heard that Sharlto was able to come up with stuff on the fly, so how much freedom did you want to give yourself?
As much as possible, and I had a very good team of people that were quick to work on the fly and work with my changes. Every stunt in the film that was big and expensive was obviously thought out before because you only get one take to blow up a van. You mess it up, you’re fucked, so those things were set in stone, but there are small things here and there. A great example is doing the bike chase, because when [Henry’s on a motorcycle that] passes through the van, and the guy’s holding on to the gatling gun and we’re dragging him, and then [Henry] grabs the gun and we shoot, and he spins out – that wasn’t in the script.
On the day, we were passing through the van I went up to this film crew and say, “What do you think about this – can we have the guy hold the gatling gun and then spin out of control as we fire into it?” A lot of film coordinators would be like, “No, it’s not in the script. It’s not in the budget. We’re not doing this.” But my guy was like, “Well, give me 10 minutes. Let’s see if we can make it work with what we have.” I like to improvise, and as long as you have the basics of what you need for the scene to work, I think it’s very important to be able to try and figure out new things if you can make the film better. Most of the time you do.
I’d always hear out ideas [from the crew] and Sharlto would add his things — sometimes they’re phenomenal, and they’re in the film, and sometimes they weren’t and they’re not. You get the best of everybody. That’s the trait of a good producer and a good director. You hire people and then you make sure that you actually get everything they can offer you.
You’ve got a number of great locations in this and a number of scenes look like they were done in public. Did you actually build scenes around places you had in mind, or did you actually write the script and then find these places later?
It was a mixture of both. The problem was that I was writing the script as we were in pre-production, so I only had two-and-a-half months to get the film ready for production, which is ridiculously complicated and unnecessarily so, but winter was coming, so we dealt with it the best that we could. What I did was… Jimmy’s lab, for example, I knew would be located in an abandoned building, so I sent an e-mail to our location scout, saying, “Look, get me a list of all the abandoned buildings that you can.” He sent me a bunch of photographs, then I went online – and there’s a lot of communities everywhere in the world of people just looking at abandoned stuff – so I started looking for things on those forums, and I found that abandoned hotel 20 kilometers north of Moscow. After I went there, I wrote the script going off what I remembered about that location, so “the action’s going to start over here, he’s going to kick the guy over here, he’s going to get to the elevator here” — it’s an interesting dynamic of how you shape the locations on the film, and then the locations that you pick shape you and how you work, so it’s not a one-way street.
Was there a moment on set when you knew that this crazy movie of yours might actually work?
It happened about a week into the shoot. The first week, we did four days of a scene that we couldn’t nail, and everybody thought we were fucked. I thought we were fucked. I had to rewrite a big sequence, which, frankly, worked better at the end.
After that week, [we had] Sharlto’s first shooting day at [the aforementioned] abandoned hotel 20 kilometers north of Moscow. It’s a town of about 4,000 people. We’re shooting there, and I’m shooting as Henry, and Sharlto is dressed as sniper Jimmy and he had all these fruits, leaves and berries [as camoflauge] all over his suit, and we start with the shot when we enter the lab. As we’re going towards set with him, he’s staying is in character, and I’m seeing all the berries and all the leaves flying off his suit and leaving a trail. All the costume guys and girls are running behind him picking them up and putting them back on the suit as we’re walking to set – I think it was seven flights of stairs you had to go up and no elevator, obviously. I think [to myself], “You know what? We need a doormat. We’re going to have a scene where we walk in and he’s going to get pissed at us because we’re not wiping his feet, even though everything is falling off all over the place with his costume.”
The prop guy finds me that doormat, and we shoot that scene, and I’m [behind the camera, playing] Henry and I’m wiping my feet on that doormat. Sharlto’s looking very sternly at me and I’m thinking, “Ilya, you’re making a movie with your friends, with a budget and Sharlto Fucking Copley is in character. He’s kicking ass. You’re going to do your first film, and it’s going to be amazing. Don’t fuck it up.” That’s probably my biggest, most vivid moment when I realized, this is going to be something special [because I knew] this is going to be funny, and if it’s going to be funny, then it’s going to be great.”
There are two moments at the very beginning, if not more, where an audience realizes this is going to be far different from whatever expectations they had – one I don’t want to spoil, but the other is having Tim Roth show up in a cameo a few seconds into the film. How did he get involved?
I talked to Tim Roth before this film because I wanted to do something else with him, I wanted to do a slow burn spy movie before “Hardcore” came about, and I remember him saying, “Well, if you just want me to show up in this movie, just let me know. We’ll talk about it.” I did, and that’s where we got Tim Roth in that scene. I don’t think that scene was in the [same] spot in the film as it was in the script, but I wanted to start the film with Tim Roth saying, “You little pussy,” and then have the reveal later that he’s not being mean to us, but rather he’s giving us a little piece of advice.
What’s it been like seeing the film with audiences? I’ve heard you didn’t have test screenings.
It’s like a rock concert. That’s the closest comparison I can make because I was in a vacuum for three years making this movie. I showed it to friends and we had little screenings with no sound, no color, no CG, no music, and people would be very supportive of me, but you never know because these are your friends. Then we [finished] the film, and we get the DCP and I fly with it in my suitcase to Toronto and I’m shaking, because at that point what you understand is, as a first-time filmmaker, you think you have good taste, good intuition and wrote a pretty cool script. You think you have some fantastic action and great performances, but you really don’t know until you see it with an audience, and if you have no prior experience with a feature, having people see it and comment on my work is terrifying. Then the film starts, and Tim Roth says his line, and the main title sequence comes up and people are cheering.
That’s the same feeling I got was when I played a concert with my band — when you start and you’re terrified and you’re always terrified the first moment you go on. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 people or 20,000. It’s absolutely horrifying. Then you get into it and you realize it’s great. People were reacting very loudly to the movie, and I was thinking, “If this is how the film will work, then I think we have a very enjoyable film,” and my whole point with “Hardcore” was to create a fun time at the movies and a unique motion picture experience in a style that’s never been seen in the cinema. When I saw people reacting to the beats that I wanted them to react to, laughing with the film and not at the film as sometimes happens, it was just an absolutely amazing feeling. I watched the film with a crowd about 15 or 16 times now. I’m still not tired of it.