Hardcore Henry: how the first ever first-person action movie was made

Hardcore Henry
Hardcore Henry

Whatever you take away from Hardcore Henry, it's one of the most action-packed cinema experiences you are going to get in 2016.

Hardcore Henry is manic. There are huge set pieces, stunts, psychotic super villain boss battles, characters that essentially respawn, and one of the best car chases you'll see this year – but the real highlight is it's all filmed in first person.

Originally known as Hardcore, it's the first action movie to be told entirely from the first-person perspective.

Hardcore Henry

Using a first-person perspective is nothing new for cinema, though. Enter The Void, Cloverfield, Maniac, Strange Days, The Blair Witch Project have all played with the camera technique. Even 2005's Doom starring The Rock featured a first-person action scene. But no mainstream film has ever embraced the idea like Henry.

"The whole crew had to relearn their craft," said director Ilya Naishuller. "The main challenge was, there is no point of reference."

Initially Naishuller didn't want to direct the project. He filmed a viral music video entitled Bad Motherfucker in first person and soon received a number of phone calls asking him to put the concept on the big screen.

After some persuasion, Naishuller took on the project as he figured he could make something "groundbreaking and pioneering" with the style.

"In the beginning, I said 'we need to make sure every shot in the film will be a guy playing Henry'. We're never going to throw the camera and just add CG hands," said Naishuller.

Hardcore Henry

"We're going to do everything physically."

Henry, the film's title character, and the perspective throughout the film, is not credited as a single actor. In fact, he was regularly played by up to 12 people ranging from specialist stunt men to camera men and all the way up to the film's director.

Sharlto Copley, famous for his roles in District 9 and Elysium, is the film's main character playing Jimmy who helps Henry along his deranged journey.

"You're acting against a sort of hybrid camera, that's sometimes a performer and sometimes a stunt person. It could be very distracting. It was a unique challenge from an acting point-of-view," explained Copley.

Copley regularly had to interact with Henry, but it wasn't as simple as working off another actor's reactions.

Hardcore Henry

"The challenge from an acting point of view was getting used to acting against the camera or finding an eye line on the wall behind.

"Often they're wearing the camera below my own eyes, so that's where you have to look.

"I did enjoy it – it was one of the reasons I wanted to do the film. I realised it would be enormously challenging. When we started it didn't even have a script so I knew it was going to have a lot of experimentation involved."

Every stunt in the film is done for real. CGI was used for 1,800 frames, but just to touch up elements and add in parts to make it look like reality.

"The chase sequence was the hardest to shoot. The timing in that was hard, we had very few days. We could only do one explosion," Naishuller said. "It had to be incredibly timed out to make it all work."

Hardcore Henry

Copley sounded in awe of the stunt work within the car chase where Henry mounts a motorcycle to keep up with his enemies.

"If you watch in the trailer, you see the van blow up after throwing a grenade into it and landing on the motorbike – we actually did that for real," said Copley.

"They had a van with a cable on the stuntman. It was absolutely unbelievable. All the CGI is enhancement. The actual stunts you see are real."

Keeping it real

Hardcore Henry was shot and produced in Russia with film company Bazelevs Productions heading up the process.

"Every death defying sequence in the film is complicated because there's a lot of risk," said Naishuller. "In Russia the rules on safety are much more lax than they are anywhere else. Even more so than they are in South Africa.

"We did 50 days' worth of stunts and we got away with five stitches and one chipped tooth."

Hardcore Henry

Copley believes the open approach to stunt work actually had its benefits. "It forced the crew and the team to be awake, have each others backs and really concentrate and focus."

Some have reported that the first-person format and fast-paced action has made them a little ill during screenings – but it was something the production team had to work hard at to ensure it wasn't a big issue for most people.

"There was a mount that allowed for running and make it stabilized," explained Naishuller.

Hardcore Henry was almost entirely filmed on a GoPro Hero 3 camera with five different head mounts or rigs, depending on what scene was taking place.

"There were several scenes in the water and in the lab, those are with a big helmet on so we made a mouth guard that had the camera implanted into it so we shot using our teeth.

Grip your teeth

Hardcore Henry is influenced by video games, it's clear as soon as you sit down to watch it. The director is open about his experience with the medium and how it has influenced the production.

There's a section in the film which instantly looks like the All Ghillied Up mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare where you crawl through the outskirts of Chernobyl covered in camouflage.

"We knew people would pick that up. It's one of the best levels of all time, so that's not a problem."

The finale of Hardcore Henry even culminates in what feels like a video game boss battle.

Hardcore Henry

"The finale is kind of copied from the finale for Left for Dead. That's one of my favourite games of all time.

"I've been reading books, playing games and watching movies my entire life. I think this film has way more references than I can even acknowledge at this time as it's subconscious."

But even though he has included those references, he never aimed to make the film purely for a video game loving audience.

"That was an easy way to do it but in my mind I wanted to make a film."

"It looks like a first-person shooter, but that's because for now it's associated with video games. There was never a question of making a heads-up display with a health bar, why would you want that in a movie?"

Hardcore Henry

One member of the production team even suggested bringing in a crowbar sequence to make it feel like Half-Life. Naishuller respectfully declined.

"People know the filmmaker will have played a couple of first-person shooters – you don't need to hammer that home.

"The audience know the whole film is a wink."

Hardcore Henry is in cinemas April 8

James Peckham

James is the Editor-in-Chief at Android Police. Previously, he was Senior Phones Editor for TechRadar, and he has covered smartphones and the mobile space for the best part of a decade bringing you news on all the big announcements from top manufacturers making mobile phones and other portable gadgets. James is often testing out and reviewing the latest and greatest mobile phones, smartwatches, tablets, virtual reality headsets, fitness trackers and more. He once fell over.