First-Person Mayhem

Insane POV film Hardcore Henry unleashes the ultraviolence

"Reinventing the wheel? I gladly accept the term," says a deservedly proud Ilya Naishuller, a Russian musician and upstart director of the highly innovative and much anticipated Hardcore Henry, getting its U.S. premiere at SXSW. He speaks with well-earned confidence.

"There's been a lot of trial and error. The biggest issue with POV action is that there's no point of reference – there's a hundred years of cinema to draw upon for regular action movies. You basically have to translate everything over into some new film language."

Here, perhaps, is where a brief, incredibly selective history of POV (point of view) film is required. The one notable feature-length, first-person film was a 1947 Robert Mont­gomery vehicle for MGM, called Lady in the Lake. While initially interesting, the act wears thin, running the film downhill with maximum velocity.

Montgomery's misguided crack at POV, at least for an authentic adaptation of Ray­mond Chandler's detective novel, deterred future attempts. Save for a relative handful of scenes throughout wide-release projects and experimental shorts, first-person was widely dismissed as a hokey gimmick.

With the advent of first-person video games, including Doom and the more current Call of Duty series, POV has long thrived underneath the guise of carnage and wanton violence. Taking obvious cues from these games, Hardcore Henry, or something similar, was imminent.

However, how is it that an emerging production company, STX Entertainment, and a first-time director, were able to pull this off before one of the behemoths? It wasn't only a matter of time, but the critical matter of timing.

Enter Naishuller, a film school dropout who worked on numerous movie sets in Russia. His biggest success has come as lead for indie-rock outfit Biting Elbows. Then he began making videos for the band.

The first video – for "The Stampede" – was shot first-person, a notably rough effort with tremendous promise. With a likely larger budget for pre- and postproduction and improved equipment, Naishuller made "Bad Motherfucker," a viral sensation with over 31 million views on YouTube. Unbeknownst to Naishuller, it became the pretext for something much larger.

"After the 'Bad Motherfucker' video came out, I got a Facebook message from Timur Bekmambetov, our producer." Long a film hero in Russia, Bekmambetov's recent work includes directing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and helming the remake of epic Ben-Hur. "Bekmambetov's a huge deal for us in Russia. I'd never met him before, and never worked with anybody at his company before."

They would eventually talk on Skype, with Bekmambetov – to his surprise – asking if the anxious young director would be interested in continuing the ride, to even greater heights.

"At that time, I was prepping a very different movie – a small spy film, a slow-burner set in Eighties Russia, with a foreign cast. Then, this comes through. I remember calling the producer [Ekaterina Kononenko], and said, 'What do you think about doing this first? It shouldn't take too long. I kind of know what it will look like. If we get this right, it would be fantastic.'"

Incredulously – given the requirements – he said, "I was never worried about the action. Action is the easy part." He went to L.A. and met Bekmambetov, who assured Naishuller that Hardcore would be his film and he would not get in the way. Surprisingly, he asked for and received final cut, a rarity for a first-time director.

In the course of writing the script, borrowing from "Bad Motherfucker," Naishuller skillfully rediscovers intense physicality and comedy in how Henry – played by numerous stunt men of differing skill sets – interacts with his own body, and in relation to others. The one hard rule, maintained throughout the film, was that Henry could never utter a word.

"I wanted the audience to be immersed, and as soon as he'd say something the audience would want him to say, it wouldn't necessarily fit his situation. It would break the immersion. It was a dance where you want to be as exciting and surprising as possible, while keeping the audience as Henry for the entire time."

He also realized he would need a linchpin, an all-purpose talent capable of pushing the action alongside the titular character. "I had a week to come up with a character that Sharlto Copley [District 9, Elysium] could not say no to. It was my decision to really give him the ability to spread his wings."

Copley, who took a considerable risk in taking the role, plays 11 (!) characters in what will likely be one of the strongest performances shown at SXSW, and of his career.

"Every morning, before any wardrobe or makeup, we would put the camera rig on and shoot the sequence, incredibly raw – to see how terrible it was. Then, while everybody was in costume and makeup, I would be frantically pacing around the set, trying to figure out how we were actually going to make it work. By the time everyone came in, I knew what was going to work, and what was not."

"We'd edit on the spot – cut it, more or less to the previous shot, and we'd go on. It was always a lot of fun, and very morale-boosting to see the rough dailies. I was very lucky – I had a crew with a lot of people that had never worked on film before. But every day, we'd see that this was actually working, and might be something great."

The lean and muscular Hardcore Henry is a visceral, 360-degree experience, firmly of its time, and no other. It could not have been successfully accomplished even one generation prior – and perhaps an even shorter time ago – without heavy green-screening and near-prohibitive costs in postproduction. Without advancements in affordable, "prosumer" tech, specifically usage of GoPro cameras, even "Bad Motherfucker" would've been locked out, via barrier to entry.

To think, without a message and a Skype call, the possibly game-changing film would have been a figment floating the ether, and Naishuller's impending emergence might have been delayed.

"Bekmambetov sensed my hesitation, and asked, 'Would you not want to see a great POV action film in cinemas?' And I said, 'Well, yeah I would.' He said, 'You should make it, because nobody will make it better than you right now.'"

Headliners, U.S. Premiere

Hardcore Henry
Sunday, March 13, 9:30pm, Paramount

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Hardcore Henry, SXSW 2016, SXSW Film 2016, Ilya Naishuller, Timur Bekmambetov

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