SXSW Interview: Ilya Naishuller & Sharlto Copley Talk HARDCORE HENRY

The Russian director and South African actor discuss combining old school ultraviolence and new school POV filmmaking.

Over 40 million people viewed the 2013 music video for “Bad Motherfucker,” a driving track by Russian rock band Biting Elbows. Stuffed to the gills with in your face sex and violence, the clip became a calling card for Ilya Naishuller, who played dual roles as the video’s director and the band’s 30-year-old front man. It wasn’t long before Naishuller decided he wanted to make the jump to narrative films, the response to his output so overwhelming that it seemed like the only logical career move.

Naishuller hasn’t picked up his axe since “Bad Motherfucker” blew up, and worked tirelessly to get funding for his first feature, Hardcore Henry (formerly known as Hardcore). Backed by fellow extreme Russian auteur Timur Bekmambetov and shot using custom-designed GoPro rigs, Hardcore Henry is an abrasive exercise in visceral action filmmaking, told entirely from the first person POV of a Verhoeven-esque cyborg who is on the run from some serious psychic shitheads. It’s as nutty as it sounds - 100 minutes of splatter and destruction that doesn’t give a shit if you love it or hate it (though Naishuller certainly hopes for the former).

Perhaps the most intriguing element of Hardcore Henry is the casting of Sharlto Copley, who became Neill Blomkamp’s go-to after his breakout District 9, and who completely killed it in Joe Carnahan’s big screen adaptation of The A-Team as Madman Murdock. In what may be the ultimate Copley role, the South African actor gets to play several iterations of the same character, Jimmy, going utterly bugnuts and hamming it up with reckless abandon. It’s hard to say too much without giving anything away, but one minute Copley’s a WWII General, and the next he’s a smoked out Rastafarian, sneering and rasping and just having an absolute ball.

I was lucky enough to sit down with both the actor and director to talk about Hardcore Henry, and what followed was a rather lively chat regarding the the film’s unique cinematic existence…

BMD: You shot two music videos before Hardcore Henry, so it’s clear you always had the visual concept for the picture down. Did you always have the story to go along with it?

Ilya: No – it was a lot of trial and error. In the original pitch that I sent to Timur [Bekmambetov], the main guy was an alien. For a lot of reasons, I realized we were going to have a hard time doing that; makeup and scales on the hands and all that. So we went with something else that would allow us to constantly have arms in the frame. In the end, we went with a very simple story – because when you’re approaching everything fresh visually, you should keep everything else simple. Because it could’ve been much more complicated; much deeper. But at the end of the day the key to this movie was to have fun and I went with the most classical thing I could think of.

BMD: Did you ever worry that this would simply be seen as a “gimmick” movie? And, if so, what did you do to try and transcend that perception?

Sharlto [laughs]: He did it really well!

Ilya: I was actually hesitant about the POV idea to begin with.

Sharlto [to Ilya]: You actually said “no” to it.

Ilya: Yeah – I told Timur that I didn’t want to do that. It’s a great five minute video. Ninety minutes? I don’t know about that. But then he asked me a great question: “don’t you wanna see a great POV action movie?” And of course I did. So he followed with: “well…then make it.”

It’s all about opportunity. You get one chance in a lifetime to do something that no one else has ever done before. Because at this point, I had been writing scripts for very proper movies and was prepping to do a slow burn spy film. Then this popped up and I was still like, “no, I’m going to make a serious film.” But then I started seeing the potential. I could blow minds if I did this correctly. But to your point: how do you transcend the gimmick? The answer is: you get a great actor to give a performance that is just as much fun as the action. So the second Sharlto came on board and became a believer, all the sudden things began to really take shape.

BMD: And that’s actually one of the most exciting parts of the movie: Sharlto goes through – without spoiling anything – quite a few versions of the same character. You’re re-spawned, let’s say, several times over.

Sharlto: Yeah…

BMD: How much of that was collaborative and how much of that was Ilya’s writing in the script?

Sharlto: Ilya came up with the idea of allowing me to play a whole bunch of different characters. So I played around a whole lot before even getting on camera; I did some tests, invented some guys and we spoke about them…

Ilya: If you’re asking which one of the “JImmys” was born completely from Sharlto’s mind: the hippie didn’t exist until the day we were shooting. That Jimmy was originally supposed to be a biker. But the tattoo sleeves kinda looked like shit. So then it was kind of a scramble. You wanna play a wrestler? Nah. OK -- what about a hippie? And it was so hard not to laugh because I was playing the guy he’s torturing and Sharlto’s just so into it.

Sharlto: I remember sending you the Colonel….

Ilya: Yeah – Sharlto went and did his research and came back with a whole folder of World War II military slang, and we went through it and started cherry picking phrases we wanted to use.

Sharlto: It was a lot of collaboration. Great creative collaboration. The odds were stacked against us, so we had to come up with all of this great material.

Ilya: It was complicated but it was a lot of fun.

BMD [to Sharlto]: It reminded me a lot of the work that you did on The A-Team with Murdock playing characters.

Sharlto: It’s the same kind of energy, which was a critical part of making this movie. I saw Ilya’s genius and was prepared to take the leap of faith. But in the beginning he was trying to make this very serious film and be a very serious filmmaker, and the tone of my characters had to be very playful. Because this type of film had to be more fun. You get too pretentious and you take it too seriously and then…

Ilya: It could’ve worked as a darker film, I think.

Sharlto: Oh totally. I wouldn’t have bet against you…

Ilya: But then I started to understand what we were going to do with the pop music in the movie…

Sharlto: And you embraced it…the playfulness of it all.

Ilya: In the end, the idea was to go make a movie where people would go and just have a really, really good time.

Sharlto: Or feel assaulted and run away. But they won’t be coming out and shrugging, saying ”it’s alright, I guess.”

BMD: There’s definitely no middle ground with this one, for sure.

Sharlto: Either run away with your tail between your legs or soak it in.

BMD [to Sharlto]: Was it hard as an actor to play completely to the camera. Most times you’re playing to eyelines or another performer. Here it’s almost always to a camera…or, at least, a camera strapped to a stuntman. Did that take some adjustment?

Sharlto: Oh yeah. This was a hybrid of all those forms, as sometimes Ilya was manning the camera; sometimes it would be someone else, who is sort of acting but also doing a stunt. So the whole energy revolving around that type of performance was different and difficult to get used to.

BMD: And how difficult – as you even mention – were the stunts in this? How many set ups would you even go through during a typical day?

Ilya: It was very difficult. Sometimes we’d keep very little. Sometimes we’d get a whole sequence done. Other times, everything would go right in the trash bin. A lot of people had to relearn their craft – especially the stuntmen. It was a really steep learning curve.

Sharlto: And I was just thinking about that. For stunt guys, Ilya was literally reinventing how they work, because a lot of the time they get to hide in the wider shots. One of the key parts of shooting an action sequence is where you put the camera, and we can only put the camera in your face. So please…make it look good.

Ilya: It was a big complicated machine, but thankfully it looks really damn good.