Q&A: Director Ilya Naishuller on the Making of ‘Hardcore,’ His All-First-Person POV Action Movie
The odds aren’t bad that you are (or soon will be) one of the more than 40 million people who’ve viewed the 2013 music video for “Bad Motherfucker,” a song by Russian band Biting Elbows. If so, you were probably too transfixed by the film’s first-person footage and convincing violence to pay attention to the music. Maybe you even thought, I would watch more of this. That’s exactly what Ilya Naishuller would want to hear.
Naishuller, the 30-year-old Biting Elbows front man who directed Bad Motherfucker and its precursor, “The Stampede,” conceived of those videos to promote his band, but film was an earlier interest, and he hasn’t touched a guitar since shortly after “Bad Motherfucker” blew up. Now he’s banking on there being an audience for first-person action films that last longer than five minutes. Naishuller recently wrapped production on Hardcore, a feature-length action film produced by fellow Russian director Timur Bekmambetov and shot from the same perspective as “Bad Motherfucker” using custom-designed, head-mounted GoPro rigs.
Hardcore stars Sharlto Copley, the South African actor who played brutal, badass killer Kruger, the only good thing best thing about Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 sci-fi film Elysium. Perhaps more importantly, it stars the stuntmen who played Hardcore’s protagonist, Henry, a resurrected cyborg who has to save his wife from a telekinetic tyrant and his henchmen and, OK, you don’t care, you just want to see some fake bullets and blood. Here’s a taste:
Hardcore is edited and slated for release in 2015, but Naishuller is currently crowd-funding the post-production process, which you can learn more about by visiting the film’s safer-for-work-than-it-sounds website, IWantHardcore.com (consider clearing your browser history after clicking if you’re using a shared computer). I spoke with him this week about Hardcore’s video-game roots, the challenge of making the movie more than a gimmick, and the past and future of POV films.
You went to film school for a while, and in an interview last year, you described it as “pretty useless.” Is that in part because the bar for entry as a filmmaker is lower now because of the relatively inexpensive cameras and software that you’ve used to create your videos?
I think that’s part of it. I don’t know who said this, but someone said that filmmaking can’t be taught, but it can be learned, and I seem to sort of agree with that. I think you can get important things out of film school, but if I had spent the same time working on sets and just reading books about it, and trying to write scripts, that would’ve been no less productive, to be honest. And probably cheaper.
In the preview video, you’ve got the Wilhelm scream, the pulpy poster, and maybe some kind of self-consciously campy elements, almost like an ’80s action movie. But then you’ve also got the unavoidable comparisons to Mirror’s Edge and first-person shooters, which your teaser video almost could have come from. What do you consider to be the primary influences for Hardcore?
OK, so it’s obviously first-person shooters. I wouldn’t say ’80s movies — we never set out to make it feel like an ’80s movie. I’m not a particular fan. Sure, I watch them, I enjoy some of them, but it’s not a nod to them, in particular. It’s definitely got some campy elements in the film, and that’s got to do with the fact that I think it’s probably impossible to make a good, serious first-person movie that is just very dark and gritty. I tried — the first draft I had was more in that direction — but I was lucky and wise enough to figure out that no, that’s not the way to go. And we sort of lightened it up, and the screenings that we did, the amount of laughter we get is exactly proportionate to the amount of jokes that we put in, and the funny bits that were there intentionally. So even though we started off as a more serious film, I let the funny stuff take over during shooting, and I’m glad that I did.
It’s a love letter to music, film, and video games. I can list off the games that I’ve always loved and that had influences on it, but it was never a direct — like, I love Half-Life, but there’s not a nod to Half-Life, apart from the fact that it is a first-person movie, which to me is a nod enough. You don’t need to have the guy have a crowbar in the film. These kind of things we avoided on purpose. I remember I had a script, and one of our guys was like, ‘Why don’t you kill the first guy with a crowbar, it’ll be funny because everyone will realize that it’s a Half-Life reference.” And I’m like, ‘The whole film is a Half-Life reference.” Instead, we kill him with a windshield wiper, which I thought would be much cooler.
Understandably, you seem concerned about making sure that this project is more than a gimmick — 30 seconds into your promotional video, you say that the concept for Hardcore “works well beyond its rather gimmicky roots” as a point-of-view film. How did you try to ensure that it would rise above those roots?
That’s a big thing, yes. I just looked at all the stuff that makes it gimmicky. Just the fact that it’s POV, so it’s a gimmick in and of itself, and that was a huge concern for me. And for about a third of the shoot, I was still thinking that this is a big gimmick and this isn’t good. And then the more we shot, the better I got at what I was doing. And the better the crew got, we kind of transcended those boundaries. I looked at all the POV stuff that was ever done before. I looked at stuff that I liked and stuff that didn’t work. And while we were writing and testing out the tech and all the camera rigs and testing out driving the cars with it and riding in the passenger seat, fighting, whatever, I wrote about 10 rules that I thought would be key to making this a film, not just “Oh, look, we put a camera on the guy’s head, let’s go.” And I think in the final film, five of those rules stayed set in stone. Two of them I had to ditch during the screenwriting stage, and three during the shooting. But it was a bunch of rules that sort of dictated what we’ve got to stick to, and it was a very important element for the writing and filming process.
Do you remember what some of those rules were?
The basic one that we stayed with was, the hero should not talk. And that’s why the first synopsis was, the hero was an alien who crash lands on Earth and is looking for his mother, who crash landed in a different escape pod. But then I realized that I didn’t want to do it with an alien, because you’re not going to feel as compassionate about an alien. If you’re Spielberg, you can make anything happen. But I was thinking, this is the first time, let’s make it simpler. Let’s keep it a guy. And if he doesn’t have a voice, we either have a first scene of somebody ripping out his tongue, which is just too much for the beginning, or we have him as a cyborg, which gives us a science-fiction theme. I love science fiction, and I thought [that] even though it’s a small budget, we can make this work, because there’s a lot of concept stuff that went around that. And I’m glad that we did have him as a cyborg.
So that was one of the rules, is not to have him speak. Because as soon as you speak, you break immersion for the audience, because they’re feeling like the character and then all of a sudden the character says something they wouldn’t necessarily say. The whole thing goes up in flames. Or the other thing is, he’s saying something that they really like, and he’s acting it out perfectly with his voice, except you’re not seeing a face. You’re still missing out on the fantastic drama and the emotion that an actor would give you. This is what Lady in the Lake does for me, the old 1947 POV film. It doesn’t work because it’s drama where you don’t see the guy’s face. That was the lesson I got from that film. I enjoyed it, but that felt more like a gimmick, and that’s the kind of stuff we wanted to avoid.
The point-of-view shot has a long history in film, in a more limited form than you’ve used. You mentioned Lady in the Lake not working so well. Are there any examples of its use that you admire, or purposes for which you think it works particularly well?
I think Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the intro scene to that, is probably my favorite POV usage in film ever. And they did that with 35mm cameras, I think, so they didn’t have the luxury that we had in the year 2013, with tiny, 200-gram GoPros. Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” music video obviously influenced the “Bad Motherfucker” and the other ones heavily. I’m hoping to get a bit of Prodigy in the film. I think it would be a full circle for us if we get them. I don’t know if we will, but it would be super cool.
So, roughly how long is Hardcore, and how much of a challenge is it to sustain the audience’s interest in a film shot from a single perspective? Is there a fatigue factor that sets in at a certain point, and if so, how do you try to combat that?
The film is 105 minutes, this cut that we just finalized about a week ago. It’s not that difficult to have a person enjoy 105 minutes. It’s a lot less difficult than I imagined it to be, to be honest. I get motion sickness really easy, and that was always a huge concern for me, because I’d hate to make a film that’s great, except a lot of people can’t watch it. So what we did was, we started doing tests, we shot hours and hours of tests, and then we printed it to DCP, and we went to the theater and we watched those hours. And what I found, which a smart person would probably have known right off the bat, you start watching a two-hour roll of action and fighting and jumping and driving, and at first, I was like, this is uncomfortable, I don’t like it. But then two hours pass, or an hour and a half passes, and the projector resets and goes again. … So I turn around, I’m watching the same thing that made me queasy the first time around, and I’m feeling fine. And this big alarm bell went off in my head, and I realized, you just don’t start it rough. Which isn’t the eureka moment that you’d expect, but for me it was. I sat down and rewrote the beginning of the film, and we really eased the audience into it. And once you do that, once your mind gets accustomed to ‘Oh, you’re POV, you’re no longer watching through the cameraman’s camera, this is what you’re seeing,’ it becomes hypnotizing and mesmerizing like nothing else.
You’re using professional stuntmen, but I’d imagine that this film confronted them with some challenges that even they had never faced. How hard is it to do stunts with a GoPro rig on your head, and is it easier or harder to deceive the audience when the camera is always capturing something pretty close to what the stuntman is seeing?
It’s harder to deceive the audience. Pretty much everybody in this film had to relearn their trade. You know what you’re doing, and you’ve kicked people before, you’ve punched, you’ve thrown them out of windows. There’s nothing that complicated, it would seem. Except now that you don’t have the ability to place the camera exactly where you want it to hide the contact of the punch, you are severely limited. And what you have to do is, you have to go and you practice. And there was a long time where the guys would just sit in the gym with the camera on, and they would send me dailies of what they were testing out and stuff that they were planning. And it took a long time, a lot of direction to get it to where it was by the end.
I couldn’t watch a proper film while making this film, it just felt so easy compared to what we were doing. It’d be like, “Yeah, sure, you put a camera there, you can do whatever.” It was a huge technical challenge, but it was fun, because it’s a great creative cage. You’re sitting in it, and you know exactly what your abilities are, and you start figuring it out … It’s like a multiplayer puzzle.
You’ve recruited some recognizable actors, known actors, for this project. Was that a tough sell, since they knew that they’d be interacting with a mute protagonist, that the star, in some sense, would be the first-person perspective, and that you’d be having to do things from a production standpoint that have never been done before?
Actually, I expected it to be a much tougher sell. But when I called Sharlto … I just had this feeling. I told him what we were doing — I said it’s a POV film like “Bad Motherfucker,” but for 80, 90, 100 minutes. The script is very raw, I’m not going to send you the script. I just have the general story. If you’re interested, I’ll write a part in just for you, and then we’ll discuss. And he said yeah, let’s do that. So that was the script, and after that, he was onboard and he worked his ass off, I have to say. In hindsight, I can’t think of another actor that I’d want to have. He was my first choice, which is super lucky: first film, made in Russia, independent, unknown director, strange situation with a POV film, which isn’t supposed to work, and to get Sharlto.
I’ve seen interviews with him before, and also with Neill Blomkamp of District 9, and you get the feeling that they’re adventurer guys, the kind of people who are up for weird things. District 9 was a strange thing. It was quite a risk on everybody’s part, and it was made in South Africa, which isn’t Hollywood in the sense of how comfortable everything is. This is a Russian thing, and we don’t have many American stars coming over here. I knew it was going to be a little bit rough around the edges, at least at first, but he showed up and he worked his ass off. He was a true collaborator. And what I loved was, he stayed in character for the shooting days. He’d come out of the trailer, he’d be hilarious. You always hear about the serious actors doing the serious things, and it’s kind of moody and broody and the crew is like, “Oh, don’t look at him, it’s going to be bad.” Here it was like that, but it was fun.
District 9 and Elysium contained some elements that seemed recognizably video-game-inspired. Have you noticed some of the visual language of video games seeping into other Hollywood films?
Sure, we get the mechanics sometimes. I’m not going to come up with a great example now, but I think the good word was “seeping in.” It’s there. It’s there because pretty much everybody plays games. In the ’90s, it would be difficult for directors who loved video games, just because video games were still kind of new and they weren’t the entertainment behemoth that they are now. Now everybody knows games, everybody’s a gamer.
What do you think the future of POV films is? Maybe there’ll be an appetite for more of the same, but is there a way that it can be expanded, that it can be applied in other genres?
The amount of stories you can tell, I think they’re limited, but I’d like to think that someone’s going to watch Hardcore and be inspired to do something better, with a different genre, and I’d love to see it. I don’t know if that will happen. Time will tell — that’s my favorite phrase of the last year and a half. Everyone’s like, “It’s going to be great!,” and I’m like, “Time will tell, time will tell.” We have a lot of hype around us back in Russia, because we’re kind of a big deal over there.
I know I’ve had offers to come in and do POV shootings for a few big films here in America … next year we’re going to see some stuff with POV in big films, and whether we’ll get another whole film is not up to me, so we’ll see how that goes. I don’t know if it’ll start a trend. I don’t think it should, because I don’t think it should be a separate genre of POV movies, but if someone sees this and comes up with a better way of doing it, I would gladly go see it.
I don’t think you disclosed the budget for “Bad Motherfucker,” because the costs were covered by a sponsor. Since you’re crowd-funding the post-production process for this film, can you reveal anything about the cost of Hardcore?
I think what we’ll do is, once we’re finished with it, we’ll make it public. At this point I think it’s wrong, just because we are not sure what we’re going to end up with on the post. And then when that’s done, it’ll be an open figure, for sure. But I’ll say it’s an independent film, shot in Russia. Had we shot it anywhere else, it would’ve been quite a lot more expensive. It looks like a lot more than it really was.
If the crowd-funding for Hardcore comes through —
It’s when, Ben, it’s when. Not if. [Laughs.]
Right! When it comes through, when and how do you envision the film being released?
My only desire for the release date is 2015. I know there are people whose job it is to find the perfect dates, and sometimes those people get it right, sometimes they don’t. But it will not be up to me, nor would I want it to be up to me. My job is to get it done as well as I can, to build the boat, and someone else put it onto the water and let it sail.
And I’d imagine that you want this to be on as many big screens as possible — is it a different experience seeing it on a big screen as opposed to a computer screen?
Absolutely. It was shot for everything. I hope people don’t watch it on an iPhone — if it’s a choice of watching it on a phone and not watching it, sure, watch it on an iPhone. I don’t know how many theaters it will hit, whether we’ll have release worldwide or not — I can only guesstimate these things. So far there’s no reason why we couldn’t, because people we’ve shown it to who understand how this stuff works, they’ve been sitting there with their jaws on the floor.
I know that when we hit home media, and someone’s going to upload it to Pirate Bay, I know people are going to watch the crap out of it all over the world, and I’m glad. I just want people to see it. Every film is a ton of work. This was no different. My dream would be to sit in a huge theater in America, knowing there are a few thousand other theaters out there playing the same thing. Whether that will happen? Time will tell.
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]