Kick-ass storytellers: How stuntmen are now revolutionizing action movies as directors
Sam Hargrave is used to being in the thick of a war zone. In fact, he tends to orchestrate them. The stunt coordinator and performer has been involved with some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters over the past 15 years, most recently sharing in Marvel's Screen Actors Guild Award for his work on Avengers: Endgame. When it came time to direct his first feature film, Netflix's Extraction, he wasn't content to just sit in the filmmaker's chair. He was active. The kind of active that saw him running after Chris Hemsworth on location in India with a camera strapped to his shoulder and a stunt wire harnessed to his torso.
"I was running backwards down stairs, I was leaping across buildings, I was strapped to the hood of a moving car, skidding around corners," he recalls. "Then I had a stunt rigger who, when the time was right, hit a quick release so I could jump off the car and dive through a window of a moving car to get the camera inside." Hargrave didn't do all this just for the spectacle of it all. He wanted to serve the story.
Extraction follows Hemsworth's Tyler Rake, a mercenary hired to extract the kidnapped son of a crime lord in Dhaka. Hargrave wanted that documentarian hand-held camera feel for a more immersive experience, particularly for what he called "The Oner," a nearly 12-minute action sequence stitched together to look like one unbroken shot. Hemsworth begins in close-corner combat as he fights through an apartment complex before spilling out onto the street into a car chase — followed close behind by Hargrave and his camera. "I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to grab the audience member by the throat, throw them down some stairs, and say, 'Welcome to Dhaka,'" he says. "You're right there [in the scene]. You're part of it."
It's a sensibility, of storytelling through stunts, that has come to define not just Hargrave's approach to directing, but others' too, including David Leitch (The Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) and Chad Stahelski (John Wick 3 — Parabellum): two of the most in-demand action filmmakers right now. Perhaps uncoincidentally, they also got their start in stunts. They are the godfathers of this modern movement, years after Ric Roman Waugh of The Crow fame became a director with 2001's In the Shadows. They also helped impart their stunt philosophy onto Hargrave.
"Action scenes that I remember are all rooted in character," Leitch says. Having performed stunts for the Matrix movies with Stahelski, he sees those fight scenes as "rooted in Neo's transformation from vulnerable hacker to superhero." In 300, another title from his stuntman past, the action "feels like it's stylized but there are moments where you're exploring the violence and the heroic nature of [Gerard Butler's Leonidas] in a really compelling way." In Parabellum, directed solo by Stahelski, the filmmaker wanted the action to reflect a phrase he used to define the struggles of the Baba Yaga assassin, played by Keanu Reeves: "Take away everything." John Wick 3 sees the world of assassins turn on Wick ("take away his home"), forcing the dog-loving antihero to escape a rain-drenched city during rush hour ("take away his mobility"). "It's no longer about the physical, it's about the storytelling," Stahelski emphasizes.
Even as Hollywood halted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, studios are after this kind of approach. After Wick exploded on the scene in 2014, Leitch went on to direct Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 (both featuring Hargrave on stunt coordination), and Stahelski will helm the future Highlander reboot and Gangsters of Shanghai TV series. Now, Hargrave gets his chance to make a mark on the action genre.
Like his colleagues, the North Carolina native always wanted to direct, but followed the path of stunt performing in light of his athletic background. "I loved Jackie Chan movies and martial arts," Hargrave says. "I directed these short films with my brother and sister when we were 10 years old, Westerns that we would put together and shoot on our VHS cameras." It was Thayr Harris, Hargrave's future second-unit director on Extraction, who offered an odd compliment one day: "You're really good at falling on your head!" By 2005, Hargrave had his first union gig doubling Jensen Ackles on the pilot for Supernatural, and a spot in the same circles as Leitch and Stahelski. "They were always inspirational in the approach to action and to movies. I gravitated towards that," Hargrave says. "We shared a lot of similarities in martial arts, in movies. They have been instrumental in my success and as mentors."
Leitch and Stahelski, also with backgrounds in martial arts, saw Hargrave as a natural filmmaker and extended an invite to join their company 87Eleven, a training ground studio of sorts erected in the '90s to help execute stunts for movies, from providing equipment and training to choreographing sequences. It feels like its own movie-making academy. "The stuntmen that we brought up at our company all learned how to choreograph, shoot, and edit," Leitch says. It's what he and Stahelski learned from working with Yuen Woo-Ping, the kung fu choreographer on The Matrix. Yuen's team would film "stunt viz," videos that were choreographed, shot, edited, and presented to the director by the stunt department to show exactly how a stunt sequence would play out. Leitch believes he and Stahelski pioneered this in Western cinema: "With any fight scene in a movie in the last 15 years, there's probably someone who has gone through the doors of 87Eleven."
"Rather just be the best stuntmen they could be, they were building an empire of filmmakers," Hargrave says. But, at the time, he declined their offer. "I was very young and brash back then," he adds through a chuckle. "I said, 'I appreciate it and I love you guys, but I wanna do what you do. If I get that opportunity, I'll wave as I go past, but I'm on the same path you guys are on." Hargrave became more involved in the filmmaking process through stunt coordinating. It was during his work on Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame that Marvel directors Joe and Anthony Russo showed him a script for a movie, Extraction.
To his surprise, Hargrave recognized the script. He read it years earlier under a different name, Ciudad. Stahelksi was once attached to direct it and Hargrave was going to help him shoot in South America, but those plans never got off the ground. Re-reading it on the set of Infinity War with its revamped India setting, Hargrave found it to be "a very visceral, raw story that I wanted people to feel through the action. In my mind, it wasn't wide, sweeping, smooth crane moves. I wanted to get in there, put the camera on my shoulder, and get gritty. Engross the viewer in this world. Really smell it, taste it, feel the world."
He did it with a slight nod to Atomic Blonde. Viewers may clock the echoes in the fight choreography between Tyler's battle through stairwells and Charlize Theron's hand-to-hand combat as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton. "[Leitch] gave me the reins on that long take in the stairwell," Hargrave says of Atomic Blonde. "Your ego wants to do one continuous 12-minute take, but sometimes with logic and time and location, you can't. So, you have to break it up."
Directing afforded Hargrave an opportunity he didn't always get as a stunt coordinator or performer: the leeway to truly execute his vision for the stunts. It's probably why he was so hands on for his first time heading an entire production. "You can do whatever you want as a stunt coordinator, but it's up to the director to shoot and work with the editor in the final product to tell the story," he explains. Many times he would choreograph action sequences for past movies only to see them "marred and dragged through the mud" in the editing phase. "It drives you to say, 'I want to be in charge of these stories.'"
For better or worse, Stahelski thinks people might assume stuntmen are able to execute action better than most. "I don't necessarily agree with that. That's a case-by-case basis," he says. "In the case of Sam or Dave, absolutely." But, being that the majority of film scripts that come their way happen to be action-oriented, they have an opportunity to expand how the industry perceives stunts. "I'm not some frustrated dramatic thriller guy who can only blow s--- up. My need to be dramatic or comedic or serious, I try to do that within my action."
"Action is such a part of who I am," Leitch says. "Even if you gave me the smallest dramatic noir, I'd still find somehow to put a piece of action in it." He references a scene from the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men, where Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh strangles one of his victims. This, he says, is a stunt done in a different way. "It's a simple, graphic, static shot. They didn't need a fight scene. There's just boots on the ground, scuffing the floor, leaving all these marks. It's this graphic top shot of this guy struggling and then his boots stop. That's great, compelling action." It's also something the industry could use more of.