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Hardcore Henry director talks first-person action film

Full immersion filmmaking

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The new film Hardcore Henry puts you inside the head of an action hero — literally. Shot with an elaborate GoPro rigged to a performer, the film plays out entirely from the perspective of the titular Henry, an amnesiac fighting his way through Moscow. It’s an expansion of a style that director Ilya Naishuller developed in music videos. We spoke to the director about the tricky art of first-person action filmmaking.

Before Hardcore Henry

“I bought a GoPro for snowboarding. With ‘The Stampede,” instead of putting the camera on the helmet, we got a bondage mask from a sex shop, and we put the camera on the mouth. As soon as you put the camera on the mouth, it feels like POV. Once we did that, the aesthetic made a lot of sense. Then we did ‘Bad Motherf—r,’ with a bunch of the same team, except I got some actual stunt people involved.

“Then Timur Bekmambetov Facebooked me. He suggested that I produce a feature [in the same style]. I was aiming for a very different kind of movie, a Cold War-set, slow-burn psychological thriller. I didn’t think it could work in a long format. I had the same hesitancy as some people now: ‘That’s not gonna work for 90 minutes!’ It’s been tried before. There was a POV film in 1947 called Lady in the Lake. It did not work.”

How Henry worked

“It took coming up with a bunch of rules that I then had to follow and then break at some point. Having the character not speak, I was pretty adamant about that early on. The key to making the film, and making sure the story works, is that there is full immersion. You want the audience to be Henry. There’s no cutaways. You can’t go to another location, no switching from characters. You don’t want to go crazy in terms of story. There’s a girl, you’re a guy, you gotta save the girl.

“There was 30 hours’ worth of tests, that we printed and put on the biggest screen in Moscow. The whole thing was trial and error. I get motion sickness very easily, and I wanted to make sure that at least I could watch my own film.”

Shooting Henry

“It took 120 shooting days, split into three shooting blocks, which was ridiculous. I’ll never do it again — the most stressful thing ever. Each day we’d show up on the set, and without any wardrobe or makeup, we’d all go and shoot it as it is. The first week of shooting, about 25 percent of that went straight to the bin. It didn’t look anything like we needed it no. The more we shot, the better we got at utilizing our time.

“In terms of action: Sometimes we cut every time Henry turns his head. Most of the action stuff was shot in a minute-long take. The finale, the 1 vs. 100 fight, that took two and a half weeks to shoot. It was the most psychologically difficult. A lot of fire, a lot of blood, a lot of darkness that surrounds you. Every time Henry turns his head in the final cut, that’s a cut. We cut the whole thing as we went. I would not say the shot is complete until it matched to the previous shot.”

More Hardcore?

“It was never written with a sequel in mind. The third or the fourth cut we got to, I’m like, ‘You know what, if this comes out and people enjoy it…this could work as an introduction to the Henry character. It can still be part of a duology or a trilogy.’ There’s a lot more stuff that we could do better.”