Extraction writer Joe Russo and director Sam Hargrave have made enough action movies to know that there are only so many possible permutations of car chases, hand-to-hand combat, and gun fights. Action movie staples are staples for a reason: done right, they’re sure things. Which is why, within the genre, innovation tends to happen at the margins. “It becomes, how do you photograph it? And what perspective are you seeing it through?” says Hargrave, a longtime stunt double and fight coordinator.
That, at least, was the mindset Hargrave brought to Extraction, his feature-length directorial debut. The hit Netflix movie, shot on location in Dhaka, India, follows mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) on a mission to rescue the kidnapped child of a crime lord by escorting him out of the country. There are themes bubbling about fathers and sons, loss and grief, the way connections are formed and cultures collide. But the movie’s real mission is simple: to pack as much battle, sweat, and frenzied movement into 110 minutes as cinematically possible.
At that, Extraction delivers. It’s, in a word, nonstop. Hargrave, a veteran of the Marvel Cinematic Universe stunts department (he’s doubled for Captain America and coordinated Avengers scrums), has a unique superpower as a director: the ability to strap a camera to his chest and follow right behind his actors (or their stunt doubles) as they launch themselves off buildings or swerve their cars into impossibly tight alleyways.
And Hargrave puts his unique skillset on display, in particular, while capturing a 12-minute-long single take chase sequence that comes a third of the way through the film. There’s so much going on in the scene—cars! guns! punches! a foot chase!—that if there was any more (and there almost was), it would verge on comical. Instead, captured by Hargrave’s hand, it’s highly adrenalized, totally immersive. “I don't know if anything we did was necessarily revolutionary,” Hargrave says. “But it was captured in a way where you go, ‘Oh, wow, I haven't seen that before. Not in that context, in that setting, in the way it's shot.’”
Here, Hargrave and Russo (another MCU veteran), break down how they conceived of and executed Extraction’s relentless action.
GQ: Joe, how do you approach writing long action sequences? Do you get specific down to the punch and the kick?
Joe Russo: A lot of writing is a mental exercise and an imagination exercise. You're really just sitting down and forcing yourself to go into your own head. To create the space, create the characters, imagine what it all looks like and feels like, what the characters want. That's how you generate a story. There's a discipline and a focus that's required—and writing action requires even more discipline and focus.
I try to be very descriptive because it's what I love about that process. I love protracted action sequences that have real tension and move the character forward. When you write action, it's painstaking because you have to do the research to have the geography in your head, so that a sequence is built around something tactile and real. The most important part is: you have to advance the story and the characters. Your brain can only handle so much action without story advancement.
Sam Hargrave: Joe’s action description is exciting. It keeps you moving from one page to the next. And he had all the story beats in there that he wanted. For me, it was taking what was there and expounding upon it, making it my own.
Do you approach writing action sequences knowing where things need to end up?
Russo: You do. But sometimes it's a discovery. When you become an experienced writer you begin to read the tea leaves and when you feel moments of predictability coming, you go, "Okay, how do I make this unpredictable? How do I make a choice that puts me in a corner as a writer because it's unexpected and I have to figure out how to get out of it?" For instance, the David Harbour character. If I present Harbour, who's an incredibly charming actor, as The Charming David Harbour, can I misdirect the audience so they think there's a moment where he's going to help them but it turns out this is their worst nightmare?
Sam, what specific ideas did you have in how you’d adapt the script?
Hargrave: I wanted the action to feel very visceral, and almost like you're in the action with Tyler. Which was what we really went for in the oner—making the audience a part of that sequence. So you're not just sitting back and observing, but you're in the driver's seat with Tyler and Ovi dealing with each obstacle as it comes. You see what Tyler sees when he sees it.
I wanted the audience to feel the development of the relationships in real time. A lot of times when experiences are heightened, you can get close to someone really quickly, because you have this shared experience. In this case, they're both cheating death together.
There’s a ton going on in that big, single-take shot you guys did—a car chase, foot chase, combat. How did you rehearse it?
Hargrave: There were so many different departments that had to be in-sync to pull this off in the time frame we had. And with the many dangerous stunts we were trying to pull off, we had to make sure everyone was on the same page. We started designing the oner three or four months ahead of time [while]the stunt team was working on different choreography.
A lot of cars had to be specially customized and retrofitted. We had four different Rake vehicles. For the different shots we wanted to get, we had to design the cars differently and test them. And we put it all together out on location, because I wanted to shoot the sequence before we shot it for real. So we had rehearsal cars to do the car bits, even down to the crashes, because we had to know how they'd land and roll.
And then the fight choreography that the team came up with in the rehearsal space is very different than on location. You've condensed your space to a meter-wide hallway. So we went through with a video camera and a stunt team and shot and edited the whole sequence, and studied it for what we could do better.
Given that you had everything planned very precisely, was there anything that happened on the day that forced you to improvise?
Hargrave: We tried to be as prepared as possible so that we can come up with something better on the day. For example, that moment when they get to the top of the roof and Chris grabs the kid and says "Hey, do you trust me?" and the kid says "No" and Chris says "Good" and throws him across the roof. That wasn't in our original version of the oner. Originally, they got to the top of the roof and fought more bad guys and then he threw him across the roof. But when we got there we realized that we had done a whole lot of action up to that point, and it felt like we might be pushing too hard. We needed to pull in and have a character moment.
At what point did you shoot the big single-take shot?
That must've been tough for the actors.
Hargrave: Generally, yes. But most of what Chris was doing was being present in the situation. And when he was tired, he was actually tired. His lines, though, were usually fairly straightforward and simple, so he was able to focus on the physical training side. And he said he actually preferred that. If you start with that kind of sequence, there's no looking back.
How much of what we're seeing is the actors and how much is the stuntmen?
Hargrave: I'd say 95 percent is the actors. All of the fight action was Chris Hemsworth and Randeep [Hooda, who plays Saju]. The bigger stunts, like getting hit by a car or falling off a balcony, Chris could do, but the risk factor was too high.
Given your experience working in the Marvel world, did you think of Chris Rake as a superhero?
Hargrave: We tried to ground him—in a Hollywood way—with the skill set and mindset of a special forces operative. He would be very aggressive and forward-moving. He wants to deal with the threat in front of him as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Australian special forces go through a lot of physical and mental training so they're able to push through the physical punishment they know they're going to endure in these missions.
What Chris [Hemsworth] and I spoke about with this character was making him human as much as we could. The character is an ordinary human who does some pretty extraordinary things. But we wanted to make him at least somewhat vulnerable and relatable. Which is why throughout the film we tried to track the progression of injuries. By the end, he's not operating at 100 percent. But the more difficult the struggle, the more glorious the triumph. So to make him fight through all of these obstacles and injuries makes his success more fulfilling.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.