Rapid Round: 'Hardcore Henry' Director Ilya Naishuller on First-Person Filmmaking, His Favorite Video Game

Hardcore Henry split - H 2016
Mike Windle/Getty Images for SXSW; Courtesy of IMP
Naishuller talks about the pulpy festival breakout that draws its visual storytelling from video games and is responsinble for the death of roughly 20 GoPros.

Hardcore Henry bills itself as the first POV action film. Actually, there have been a few other movies in the past that have experimented with using the camera's eye to stand in for the main character's point-of-view — way back in 1947, Robert Montgomery directed Lady in the Lake, a murder mystery in which the camera captures what private detective Phillip Marlowe sees.

But Henry takes its cues from first-person shooter video games. The movie is shot entirely from the perspective of its protagonist, Henry, a half-man, half-robot with no recollection of his past after he wakes up in a lab next to a woman who says she is his wife, but who is then taken away by a gang of bad guys before she can tell Henry anything else. Henry then embarks on a bloody, cross-city search for his supposed lady love.

The movie, appealing mostly to gamers, opened to $5.1 million when it was released this weekend by STX Entertainment.

The first feature from director Ilya Naishuller — who was born in Moscow and spent some of his school years in London — the movie was shot with a series of GoPro cameras that were attached to the heads of various stuntmen, or sometimes Naishuller himself. (Roughly 20 GoPros were causalities of the production). The director was backed by longtime producer Timur Bekmambetov, who just directed the upcoming Ben-Hur remake and supported the project from its inception.

Says Naishuller of the movie that debuted at last year's Toronto Film Festival and then went on to play SXSW, "I told everyone that if done correctly [the movie] will be unlike anything else. If done incorrectly I said we will know within a week and we will shut down production and we will cut our losses."

How did you go about securing financing for such an unusual project?

I initially thought, "I don't know if [a POV movie] could work for 90 minutes." I had all the same questions that anyone would have when making a movie like this. But Timur asked me the question: "Don't you want to see a great POV action movie in the cinema?" And I said I would and he goes, "Well why don't you go make it?" I got the chance to make a brand-new motion picture experience and that opportunity comes once in a lifetime, or maybe a couple of times if you are James Cameron. But I am not there yet. Once Timur was on board he said he would go meet with some other Russian investors. 

With an action-heavy film it can be hard to maintain pacing, and on top of that you shot with the first-person POV, so how did you manage the pace of the story?

I had three things that I had to work with: what I like to think is pretty good personal taste, very good personal intuition and a very good editor. As I was writing the script and shooting the movie I was always thinking about finding the balance between violence versus humor and action versus slower moments.

Was a lot of that discovered in the editing? 

The original assembly was two and a half hours long. I had a scene of [Henry] walking through the park, and it was kind of a Terrence Malick-y moment, where I thought maybe the audience would need a breather. In the end we only lost a scene and a half in the final cut and the rest was just adding jump cuts and getting rid of unnecessary action.

There isn't a lot of exposition in this movie. You just throw your audience into the middle of every scene.   

I wanted the audience to be completely immersed in the film, to feel like Henry from start to finish. In terms of unnecessary exposition, it is unnecessary for a reason. I didn't want to explain where Akan [the film's antagonist] got his powers because I am tired of Hollywood telling me the same origin story. It was a careful balance of keeping the people interested but not overexplaining it. This is not a film about the story, but how it goes about telling that story.

Do you think blockbuster Hollywood movies offer too much exposition?

I think it is a negative but it is a necessary evil. When you are dealing with movies made in the studio system where the stakes are high, like $150 million or whatever the budgets are, they need some form of committee. It has to happen. Sometimes we get beautiful films made that way — not often, but it does happen. 

What was the best moment that you had on Hardcore Henry?

Uh, hold on. My wife is right here. She will remember. … Her answer is, and I agree with it, was when Sharlto [Copley] said yes to being in the film. And then the very first shot we did with him was when we entered the lab, and Henry wipes his feet on the doormat. I was shooting that as Henry and I remember thinking "Ilya this is amazing. You have a bunch of your friends and a bunch of money and Sharlto f—ing Copley in character so let's not f— it up."

What was the toughest moment?

When we had a cut that was one hour and 56 minutes long and it worked but wasn't what it was supposed to be. I had to go to producers and say, "Guys we need more time because there is a better film in there." It was nice that they couldn't make me submit to a film festival if I said it wasn't ready.

During the festival circuit who was the person you were most excited to meet?

It was great to meet Robert Rodriguez in Austin. Oh! I also had breakfast with Jake Gyllenhaal. That was pretty cool.

Is there anyone you would most like to meet?

I would love to show the film to Quentin Tarantino.

Favorite movie?

Oh. Oh, no. Can I name three?


Okay. Pulp FictionUsual Suspects, and then it is a tie between Old Boy and Royal Tenenbaums.

Favorite video game?

That is even tougher. I think the one that made the biggest impression in the last couple of year was The Last of Us.