Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How Extraction gave Chris Hemsworth one shot
Released in April, Sam Hargrave's directorial debut, Extraction, has already become Netflix's most-viewed original film of all-time, with writer-producer Joe Russo (Avengers: Endgame) currently penning a sequel. The budding action extravaganza franchise stars Chris Hemsworth as Tyler Rake, a mercenary with emotional and physical scars who is sent to India to rescue the kidnapped son of an imprisoned crime lord. Here, Hargrave, Chris Evans' former Captain America stunt double and the second unit director on Endgame, breaks down how he gave his fellow Avenger one shot.
"What the heck were you thinking, you crazy son of a gun?!"
As a stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second unit director, Sam Hargrave has been a part of some of the biggest action films of the last decade, from Atomic Blonde to Avengers: Endgame. But he saved his best and, according to him, "most intense physical sequence," for his directorial debut, Extraction.
Shot over the course of 10 days in India, the 12-minute scene is presented as one shot, tracking mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) as he takes on a city full of bad guys determined to not let him escape alive, all while attempting to save young Ovi (Rudraksh Jaiswal). Previously talking to EW, Hemsworth said he's "never experienced this amount of action before," and, after watching him in a high-speed chase, jump buildings, and engage in nonstop hand-to-hand combat, we're right there with him.
"Originally, it was not a oner as we call it, it was just a big action sequence that was fun and fast-paced and hard-hitting," Hargrave says of the script from Joe Russo, his Endgame director and Extraction producer. "Joe knows action and big action, so when he wrote it it was huge. But when I read it my first instinct was, 'Wow, this is as big and as crazy as any James Bond or Jason Bourne sequence, and we don't have the time or money to give this the attention it deserves.' On the page it read like three or four weeks of second unit and a week or two with the actors, and so I said, 'How can we pull off something that is true to the spirit of the sequence and running in the vein of those great action movies that have come before, but is also achievable as well as unique to our film and my style?' And the one shot sequence seemed to fit all of those parameters, and so once I made that decision and it worked creatively, we dove into making it possible pragmatically."
"For me, it always starts with the character and their journey through the action sequence," he continues. "So once I mapped out where Rake and Ovi needed to start and finish, emotionally, then we were able to start and build around that and say, 'Okay, what's a great way to challenge them, to put obstacles in their way, and then make this fun and exciting as an action set piece?' So then once we've got the character arc, it's about finding in the great sequence that Joe wrote how we blend what he has with knowing we're not going to be cutting the camera, and how do we put all of these elements together and tell the different stories that need to be told? Because there were three perspectives that we felt it was important to tell the story from: Rake and Ovi's point of view, Saju's [Randeep Hooda] point of view, and the 'bad guys' who are chasing them, that para-military presence. How do you do that without intercutting to those different characters? You're creating a timeline where we've been this long with this character, how do we introduce this other character and see his point of view and what he's dealing with, and then how do we leave him or her in a seamless way to then get to the next perspective, and then back to the first one? It became a challenge of weaving story lines together so that the intention of the scene and the character's journey was never lost."
"One of the things that stuck out the most was the collaboration of every single department in making this sequence possible," says Hargrave. "Because it was the first 10 days of shooting and you had to have every department, from the actors to the stunt performers, the special effects people, hair, makeup, wardrobe, location, DP, sound, everyone had to be on the same page so that we could coordinate this huge sequence and pull it off without a hitch. We had seven tech scout days, which is crazy, usually you get one tech scout, maybe two. But we took every department out to walk through all the locations, talked about all of the action, seven different times, so that everybody was very aware and knew exactly where they had to be when in order for it to run smoothly. We shot the whole thing in Ahmedabad, India, but there were a number of different locations. Some were a couple miles away from each other, so even moving the crew from one location to the next had to be planned out. And we tried to set our schedule around locations. We tried to get in three to six of those stitches or setups in a day, and so we would try to have those built around the location and the needs of that location, or the necessity of moving to another location. So obviously we got to build in an edit point when we had to leave one location and pick it up at the next, so a lot of our technical breakdowns were based on location."
"We shot over the course of 10 days, but, from the conception of the oner, we rehearsed probably four months before that. So, for four months it was mapping out, first on paper, and then kind of writing script pages that I would do to run those by Joe to make sure they all matched up, and then some storyboards that we would do and then we did previews, doing the sequence before the sequence with the stunt people on a video camera as much as we can, and then it was scouting locations, and building special cars. Like Rake's car, for example, there were five different cars. One that had a stunt driver hidden in the backseat, he was driving from the rear of the car; one where he was mounted on top of the car; we had a crash car; we had the hero vehicle; and then like an extra just in case for parts. So all of those technical aspects were very important to be lined up, because our schedule was so tight and because we were shooting in sequence, everything had to be very clear and concise. That is why we had so many tech scouts with the crew to make sure everyone knew where they needed to be when. I was operating camera, so I was right there with Chris for every frame, but the camera and lighting and sound department, where is a safe place when your camera is looking 360 degrees to have the boom operator and you have the focus puller and the grips who are holding the perspective boards? So all those details had to be worked out ahead of time. So, technically, it was one of the most intense physical sequences I've ever done."
"Truthfully, probably my own sense of perfection was a challenge," admits Hargrave. "Because there's a balance between doing something as many times as it takes to get it right and then overdoing it and now you're wasting the energy of the performers and the time you have to shoot something else. With these long takes, some elements being as long as a minute and a half to two, three minutes, it's never going to be 'perfect,' but if you can embrace the imperfections that is what, for me, part of the experience was about; the beauty of the oner, the extended take is you see things develop in front of the camera that maybe weren't planned, or maybe not exactly how you saw it, but you're embracing the moment and living in that now, right there in front of the camera it's developing and you're getting to see a new way of moving, or the actors maybe ad-libbed a line here that maybe you haven't thought of. So that was a really fun, challenging process, because you had to adjust your idea of success or perfection as you went and let the characters and actors kind of find those moments. And as a director like be okay with something evolving from maybe what you originally thought it was and going, 'You know what, this is actually better,' and then saying, 'We've got it, let's move onto the next one.'"
"Chris made our job a lot easier because he was already very physically fit and also had a great sense of choreography and martial arts and timing," Hargrove says of Hemsworth, with whom he worked closely with on the Avengers films. "And because we started the film with this sequence as soon as he landed in India he was training with the stunt team an hour a day, even when we started shooting, because the first couple days of the sequence were more driving, so he didn't have a lot of physical fight stuff going on. Even though he was in the car, he wasn't as physically-taxed, so at the end of the 10-to-12-hour shoot day he would request the stunt team put in a couple more hours with him afterwards, just to really nail down the choreography. So it was a really fun system to watch; you'd see some of the stunt team working with the actors, while the other portion of the stunt team was rehearsing the car stunts and wire-rigging and all the necessary technical and mechanical elements on set. It was just this inner-working machine that was constantly moving, and it got to the point where Chris and the stunt men had like a shorthand with each other, so that if something were to change during the course of the fight, meaning someone stumbled...because a lot of times those are the beautiful parts of an action sequence, where it's so well-rehearsed and the stunt team and actors are so in sync that you have happy accidents, where Chris might stumble but the stunt guy reaches out and grabs him and pulls him back into the choreography, and now that moment that wasn't necessarily choreographed becomes kind of a really poignant in the fight. So we had a lot of those wonderfully happy accidents because of the preparation and time that Chris put in with the stunt team."
The one cut
"What you saw there was basically what we wanted you to see," shares Hagrave. "Now, a lot of times with an action sequence in post things will get removed, but with a oner it's kind of designed where if you take a big chunk out it doesn't work. But, in the process of shooting, we did have a moment of discovery where there was another 30 seconds to a minute of action up as they leave the apartment complex and run up onto the rooftop where they pause for a minute and Rake's like, 'Do you trust me kid,' and Ovi says, 'Nope,' and [Rake] throws him across the roof. We built a character moment there, when, on the page, what we had designed was just more action and more guys coming up, more gun fight, more fist fights. But as we were going through we looked at a lot of the footage and were like, 'Man, there's been a lot of action to this point, maybe we need a break. Let's take a pause here for a character moment and to sit with our two leads and bring them closer together.' And so we let it rest for a moment, and that was a decision that was made there on set on the spot."
"I just want to make sure that the credit goes where the credit is due, and that's to the cast and crew," conveys Hargrave. "It's about as an amazing a display of teamwork and collaboration as you'll ever see in the filmmaking process. Film is a very collaborative art form anyway, but a sequence like this where everyone has to be so in sync and if not it doesn't come off as good as this one did. I just want to make sure that everyone who worked on the movie knows how proud I am of the accomplishment and of their work and that without them it wouldn't be possible. There's no one person that stands above the rest, and it was a team effort in every sense of the word."
The smash hit result
"It's been a surreal process, truthfully," says Hargrave of the overwhelming to reaction to Extraction, Netflix's No. 1 original film of all-time. "To have this be my first directing job and to have audiences receive it so positively and have the feedback be so seemingly heartfelt and overwhelmingly positive is a dream come true. You imagine, hopefully, when you make a movie people don't hate it, but for it to be viewed as often and by as many people as this one has is kind of hard to believe. I still pinch myself. Looking back, it's like, 'Wow, we made a movie that we set out to make and that people really enjoyed it and it does feel good.' That's why I'm in the business. I think the biggest compliment is passing someone on the street and if they know you made the movie they're like, 'Oh, I watched that five times.' As a film director, you can't ask for much more than that."