You're dangling off a van driving at an ungodly speed down a three-lane Moscow highway; suddenly, you hear a raucous, jarring thump. With all the violent jostling, it’s impossible to tell if it was a bump in the road or a tire crushing a stuntman's head. You look everywhere for clues; it's only once the Russian daredevil, previously lying prostrate in the middle of hectic traffic, flashes the thumbs up and yells, "Did you get?! Did you get?!" that you realize no one has died. Not yet, at least. Congratulations: You get to shoot your first-person-P.O.V. cyborg movie another day.
According to Sharlto Copley, the star, executive producer and aforementioned van-dangler of the new cyber-action film Hardcore Henry, he can laugh at the death-defying stunt now. "I thought I drove over him and killed him," Copley says. "It was my worst three minutes in film. But he later showed me this crazy, weird bump that just happened to be there at the exact moment I knocked him down."
It turned out that the only film-related fatalities are the hundreds committed by the titular hero. The Henry of Hardcore Henry is a freshly "woken" half-man, half-robot fusion who must figure out why a telekinetic psycho and his army of violence-prone cyber-minions are trying to kill him. Also, the entire film is shot from the perspective of our on-the-run hero. You see only what he sees. You slay who he slays.
The audacious, frenetic film, directed by 32-year-old Ilya Naishuller, utilizes countless GoPros and absurd levels of violence to blur the line between film and first-person shooter — think Doom meets Ichi the Killer meets Kingda Ka. "I've got to play these characters like we're in a video game," Copley, who plays 11 half-cyborg versions of his character Jimmy, says. "It's not like we're trying to make an Oscar-winning movie here."
There were minor issues to discuss, though, before any talk of midnight-movie glory — like making sure the audience doesn't puke during the film. "I'm the guy who gets motion sickness very easy," Naishuller tells Rolling Stone from his Moscow home. "I can't even text in the passenger side of a car."
The director did more than 40 hours of "stabilization tests" to find the balance between the unrelenting (some takes last more than seven minutes) and the merely nausea-inducing. Naishuller attached a custom-built lightweight camera rig and miniature stabilization system to "Henry's" head, alternately played by nearly a dozen stuntmen or, occasionally, Naishuller himself. This allows viewers to fully immerse themselves in the film and virtually partake in every throat-slicing, disemboweling, dismemberment and defenestration.
"This was like, 'Dude, while you're on fire, remember to turn up and frame the other guy on fire and then jump out of the window and don’t break the GoPro!'"-Sharlto Copley
Unsurprisingly, having a man who's thrown through windows, blown up or bashed in the skull as the acting fulcrum presented its own unique challenges. "The stunt guys get into a Zen-like space before they do something," Copley says. "This was like, 'Dude, while you're on fire, remember to turn up and frame the other guy on fire and then jump out of the window and don’t break the GoPro!'"
Despite Naishuller and Copley's mantra that "nobody must die on the film," Russia's less-stringent safety laws allowed for some of the movie's most riveting scenes. A wire-less, CGI-free chase on top of a bridge, for example, was inspired by a real-life chat between two stuntmen reminiscing about dangerous childhood bridge climbs. "The country is pretty lax with safety measures on set," says Naishuller. "We're not as obsessed with safety as you are on American sets. I told my stunt coordinators in the beginning, 'Look, film will live forever and pain is temporary.' It's dangerous, but it's all calculated and well-thought-out." Both Naishuller and Copley proudly bring up the film's minimal total damage in interviews: only five stitches and a chipped tooth.
Naishuller's fascination with first-person shooting began five years ago after buying a GoPro and filming a disastrous snowboarding run. "I'm a terrible snowboarder, so I came home and looked at the material and thought, 'I'll never let this see the light of day,'" he says. He had more success with everyday interactions, noticing that when he filmed "what humans really do, it becomes very exciting and interesting."
As a member of Russian indie-rock group Biting Elbows, Naishuller used the GoPro to film two of the band's videos that would become Hardcore harbingers: "The Stampede," about an office drone chased by a phalanx of violent suits, and "Bad Motherfucker," the ultraviolent stylistic sequel that has amassed more than 100 million views. ("I watched the thing, like, 20 times, man, on repeat," says Copley.)
One of those views was Timur Bekmambetov, director of Wanted and the popular Russian supernatural action-film Night Watch, who pushed Naishuller to turn his short films into his first feature; he eventually signed on as a producer.
"'Bad Motherfucker' was like nothing I had ever seen before – it was intense, riveting, thrilling, dangerous and defiant," Bekmambetov says. "I wanted to see more and I admired Ilya’s audacious, creative spirit."
"I told him I thought it was a terrible idea [to do a POV feature]," Naishuller admits, fearing it would be too "gimmicky." "But he asked me if I wanted to see a great POV action movie at the cinema and the answer was yes. So he told me I should just go make one. It just clicked right away after that." The director had been writing a multi-layered, slow-burning spy thriller at the time, but abandoned it to begin pre-production on Hardcore.
Shot over the past three years, Naishuller immersed himself in POV filmmaking, showing the cast and crew scenes from Kathryn Bigelow's noir dystopia Strange Days and Gareth Evans' martial arts flick The Raid: Redemption. But it was Lady in the Lake, Robert Montgomery's 1947 noir shot almost entirely in first-person, that was the most instructive movie for him — a primer in what not to do with the niche technique.
"It's a failed experiment of a film, but was very helpful for me," Naishuller says, noting that he made Henry mute after seeing the protagonist talk throughout the movie. "The immersion ends as soon as the character who we're supposed to be starts talking and he says stuff that we have no idea what he's talking about. There's distance from the character. If we didn't have the immersion, then we might as well have not wasted any energy on the movie."
While Naishuller says his goal is to "make more great movies," first-person or otherwise, a successful box office run for the film may portend a new glut of similar movies, for better or worse. Copley imagines the technology extending past action and fundamentally changing the way a filmgoer experiences movies.
"If you were Leo or Kate at the end of Titanic and your partner's slipping away to death, would that be even more engaging if the actor was looking you in the eye?" he asks. "I don’t know the answer, but I think it's a fascinating question."