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Sam Hargrave on the Making of Extracton 2, That 21-Minute Oner, Advice from the Russo Brothers, and More

Within a single 21-minute sequence in “Extraction 2,” Chris Hemsworth’s hero character Tyler Rake takes Netflix viewers from the bottom of an erupting and overflowing prison, through a riot packed with fire, explosions, and dozens of ferocious stunt performers, into a breakneck car-chase in the woods, and onto the top of a speeding train, where he is soon greeted by more bad guys, and a helicopter. The scene unfolds in one shot (also known as a oner), and is held together by sneaky cuts to create a “you-are-there” rush that hops points of view but doesn’t let go. Hemsworth and his co-stars—including a bad-ass Golshifteh Farahani, who deserves to be a new action hero—help keep us emotionally invested, but so too does the jaw-dropping audacity of the cinematic feat unfolding in front of us. 

This scene is a piece de resistance of in-camera coordination and directorial ambition, and it could only be realized by someone like director Sam Hargrave, who knows the importance of safety, the pay-off of practical effects, and the reward from such hard work. Before he made his feature directorial debut with 2020's "Extraction," he rose through hands-on action: he was Chris Evans’ stunt double in Marvel films like “The Avengers” and “Captain America: Civil War,” and did second unit work (which often means the stunt stuff) on “Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2,” “Avengers: Endgame,” and more. (You can watch his stunt reel from 2012, still on YouTube.) 

Hargrave spoke to RogerEbert.com about the making of “Extraction 2,” how they pulled off its 21-minute one-shot action sequence, the Captain America stunts that helped raise his profile as a filmmaker, and more. 

Whenever I watch a movie like “Extraction 2” or Chad Stahelski's "John Wick: Chapter 4”—films clearly made by a former stunt person, action designer, and/or coordinator—I can’t help but think you and your peers all gathered many years ago in some bar out of "Hooper" and decided to one day start an action revolution. 

I don’t know if it’s an intentional revolution, but that’s an amazing visual, the stuntmen revolution of Hollywood. But I think a lot of it comes from our unique positioning in the cinema universe to provide a specific point-of-view on action that maybe hasn’t been seen before. I think because we’ve spent so many years in that space, and spent so many films servicing other people’s visions, we have a very strong sense of what we’d want to see and how we’d like to see it, photographed and edited. 

It’s not just that we were stunt performers, I can speak for myself here—it’s not just that I was a stunt performer, I was also a filmmaker and it was something I alway wanted to do was tell stories. Action was a way in for me, and a way for me to hone that craft of storytelling through action. I think action is a universal language, right? I think one of the reasons these movies do so well internationally is the spectacle transcends languages. When you have a specific point of view that I think a lot of these people who come from action do have, it’s a new thing for audiences to go, “Oh, wow, this is a beautiful way to see these fight scenes and car chases,” and it’s through a specific lens of the person who has been expert in that for so long. It’s cyclical, right now the way we’re riding the wave with a lot of stunt performers being very successful in that, but I don’t think it’s because we’re stunt performers. 

We’re filmmakers and have been for many years, it just so happens that we have a very unique point of view on action. 

Yes, or how your work as a stunt performer or coordinator in pre-production has to be so clean. I love watching pre-vis ideas by stunt people; they’re so clean and easy to follow. It’s more of a question if the work makes it into the final film. 

Right. So a lot of it became, “Let’s just take out the middle man.” When it comes to these action stories, driven by physical performance, who better than us to tell that story and put that onto the screen how we see it, and how we believe audiences will appreciate it? 

What’s the hit or stunt from your career you think about the most when directing? 

I think probably as a physical stunt, there are two that kind of similar, interestingly. But in the Marvel universe, I did a lot of stunts for Chris Evans as Captain America. There was one in “The Avengers” where there was this explosion that sends Captain America out of a second-story window and onto a car in the street. That helped me a lot as a stunt performer, because I won a couple Taurus awards for that, and World Stunt Awards. But it was also one of those where it was also a growth moment for me as a performer, because you survive something like that and also thrive in that situation, where you go, “Oh, I can perform at this next level.” When someone gives you an opportunity to be in the game, there are stakes because it’s big money big movie, and you perform well, people appreciate that. I think it gives you confidence to do other things.

And then in “Captain America: Civil War,” another explosion. But I shared the stunt with Jackson Spidell, another amazing performer, where Cap hits the balcony, goes over backwards, and hits an awning and then the roof of the truck and then the ground. And then I did the gravity portion of that; Jackson did the skill part with the wires, and I did the second half. But I received a lot of recognition for that, and it was another one where, as an action designer, making that stunt from the boardroom where we sat with the Russo brothers coming up with ideas of what could happen, all the way to the preparation and execution of that stunt.

One of the biggest elements to my career that was helpful in my arrival as a director was what you referred to earlier, those stunt and fight pre-vis. Malcolm Gladwell talks about it as you have 10,000 hours you have to perform to be an expert at anything, and so I probably have logged at least 10,000 hours of shooting and cutting action sequences, for some of the best directors to make movies: the Francis Lawrences, the Gavin O’Connors, the Russo brothers, Chad [Stahelski], David [Leitch], all of of those great directors. I was privileged enough to be able to shoot and cut action sequences for them and that was where I got on-set film experience. Because I went to film school, and I studied that stuff, but to actually get to make that many short action sequences, I think you only get better at something by doing it. And so because I did so much, and had so much great feedback from great minds, that was a huge factor in elevating my game as an action director. 

I’d love to talk a good deal about your oner in this movie, your piece de resistance. One thing that I love about it is that it’s not precious about the idea that everything has to be in-camera and one take; you’re bringing us into this new thinking that you can have the oner and the length and the rush of the shot but it wouldn’t be possible without cuts. What are your values going into a sequence like that, about what you wanted to achieve and where you wanted to draw the line with green screen? 

For me, it’s all about the experience and the feeling that I want the audience to walk away with. And so, with these films, following the first one now with the second one which is 21 minutes long, I want to make sure it was an immersive experience for the audience. I want to pull you in and say, “Hey, come along on this journey with us, don’t just sit back there and watch and eat your popcorn. Come on out into the blood, sweat, and tears.” And so, it feels like one of the most exciting ways to do that is to do it in what seems like one shot. And it isn’t truly one shot, for many reasons we have to cut it up into different pieces, mostly logistically. That’s kind of a thing that I do stick to, is, trying not to mix a really big stunt with a bit of dialogue, because you might do a crazy action sequence and everything goes perfectly, and then you look over at the actor and he’s like, “Uh, line?” And you’re like, “No! We have to do it all over again!” Not putting the onus on the actor, but just trying to have everyone focused on the most important part of that sequence. And if it’s a big action stunt, I want everyone focused on that, not looking too far ahead or thinking too far into what came before. 

And with technology nowadays, it’s so advanced, you can stitch these things together fairly seamlessly if you approach it correctly. Again, it’s all about the experience—it doesn’t have to be achieved in one cut, you don’t have to say, “Oh, I have to do it in one cut in 21 minutes, all in one for 21 minutes.” But that’s not necessarily the most logical way to do it, to achieve your goal of getting a feeling for the audience. It might be too prohibitive or too dangerous to do it that way. I’m all about safety and all about what’s the most effective way to get the point across. And so for us it was about breaking it up into manageable pieces, but by doing that and setting the bar so high with the stunts, you are setting yourself up for a lot of difficult technical challenges. 

We did 11 minutes 40 seconds on the first one, so it was like, “How do you push that further?” There were martial arts fight scenes and car chases in the first one, so it was like, how do you elevate that? Well, let’s introduce a train and some helicopters. But then, how do you approach that in a way that’s safe, having Chris Hemsworth on top of a moving train at 40 miles per hour? Yes, you’re tempted to say, “Why don’t we put a blue screen in the front and then a chopper in later?” But, that just doesn’t agree with the DNA of what this franchise is about, which is about doing as much in-camera as possible. 

Having that conversation with Chris, and with Netflix, saying, “Hey, I want you to be on top of the train, and Fred North flying a helicopter 20 feet right there in front of you, it’s gonna be close enough because I’ll have a wide lens, and I’ll be right behind you with the camera.” But that’s the feeling I want to get, and fortunately with great filmmaking partners and collaborators, Netflix was on board, I guess also because of the safety history we’ve had of doing things safely and not having a bunch of things go wrong. They trust us and our team to do these things and pull them off without anyone getting injured, and fortunately, knock on wood, we did with both of these movies. I think that had a lot to do with it, and the trust that the producers had in us as a filmmaking team, to pull these things off in-camera was huge, because they could have definitely mandated it and said, “No, you’re not putting Chris Hemsworth on a speeding train with a helicopter in front of him,” or, “No, you’re not lighting him on fire for real.” BUT, they trusted us. We did both of those things for real. 

The fire in the prison fight, right? 

Yeah, we lit Chris Hemsworth on fire. His arm, that was real fire. 

What did Chris Hemsworth say about the train? Was he excited, scared? 

No, gosh, he is the most amazing collaborative filmmaking partner you could ever hope for. I would work with him every day of the week and twice on Sundays for the rest of my career, if I could. He’s 100% committed to he process, if that’s what it takes to get the shot that we want for that character, he’s onboard. Now he’s not an egomaniac, he’s not going to say, “I have to do everything, and you’re not doubling me.” He’s very professional in that he’ll talk about it, and we’ll look at a frame, and he’ll say, “I think the stunt double can do that better than me or more safely, as long as people aren’t seeing his face and wondering if that’s me, great, use the double.” He’s very smart about the placement—even Jackie Chan was. He would do the big stuff, the stuff where you see his face and you see his face and it’s dangerous and it sells the movie and its posters. To work with him on any of these sequences, there’s no pushback from a safety standpoint, because he understands that’s where my background is, in stunts, and keeping people safe. So he believes in me, and in our team, that we have done all of our due diligence and would not put him in a situation he was not prepared to handle. But I was never big enough or tall enough to double him. There are so many Chrises in the Marvel Universe! 

Sam Hargrave on the set of "Extraction 2"

I saw how you did camera operating for the last movie’s oner, and it was nuts. Did Netflix tell you not to do that again, or did you do more for this film? 

The first one, I did pretty much all of it—I think there was one shot where I handed it off to someone else. But this one, it was probably 60-40. I did a lot of it, but some of the things we wanted to do required other people, like on the train. And there were many operators that would stand in. Our A Camera operator would do great stuff, and I did a majority of it, but Nathaniel Perry would step in. For example, when the chopper lands and it flies off, I run over, and I drop the camera down. I couldn’t climb down the train fast enough, as fast as the stunt guy could, so I had to hand it off to an operator, and then Nate grabbed it and ran with them along the front of the train to capture the rest of that shot. There was a lot more teamwork involved in this one because we had longer segments that covered more ground and were more technically challenging. So, we tried to push the envelope and raise the bar technically.

I pushed our DP Greg Baldi to design something, because we had seen something similar … a camera on a stabilized head at the end of a stick, basically. And we designed our own version of that and called it “The Magic Scepter.” We had our Red Komodo with a stabilized gimbal head on the end of a carbon-fiber pole, we had different lengths: five, seven, and nine-foot pole that we could move around and get close. We became like an arm car, but it had a lot more precise movement. I would strap myself to the front of a vehicle, and we’d go alongside it. But I could get inside the window, get close-up on the actor, get back outside, and get in places where you couldn’t get an arm vehicle. That was all part of the goal, of “How do we get the camera in place from a perspective where you don’t usually see it?” Because we’re not gonna do better car chases than “Fast & Furious,” those guys are the best. So how do you bring a unique point of view to your version of a car chase?

The way that the camera flies between different cars, it reminded me of the car chase in “The Raid 2.” 

I think the biggest inspiration, stylistically, was “Children of Men.” It was more the ethos of what that was, which was immersive and you’re involved in the sequence, you’re not watching from afar, you’re going through this with Clive Owen, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I feel in danger.” That sensibility was what we wanted to transfer into our movie, and hopefully it worked. 

Was there any blue screen or green screen used for the car chase portion in the oner? 

There’s only one piece that we did with blue screen that came out really great. Digital Domain did an amazing job with the visual effects. But I challenge people to find which part it was. We did use blue screen for one section where it was just an impossible, not impossible but, this was the most promising and quick way to achieve the goal safely. We figured that the rest of it was all practical, so we figured we’d be surrounded by the practical effects and practical stunts, and you put in one visual effects shot, it hides it much better and doesn’t pull you out of the experience. We did use one green screen shot in the car chase, yup. 

Did your screenwriter Joe Russo write this scene as a challenge for you? How did it come to be? 

The first I heard of the second movie was Joe Russo pitching a prison extraction as a oner. He was like, “You know, I think it’d be super great if we did this crazy prison and Tyler extracting somebody from it in a one-shot.” And I was like, “I love it. Let’s take that and run with it.” So it did come out in the script as a oner, which is different from the first movie. The first one was just a crazy action sequence, and it was my idea to bring the one-shot into that. But this one, since everybody responded very positively to that, I think it just became a calling card. It was in the script described as, “The greatest oner in cinema history, with fights to rival ‘Oldboy.” Gauntlet laid down! All the details, we made sure we adhered to the story points that were on the page, but how we got there in terms of the action, Joe left to me and the stunt team. 

Did Joe or Anthony Russo have any advice on how to film it?

They’re full of great advice. One of the most important things I’ve learned from those brothers back in the day was, “The best idea wins.” No matter where it comes from. And what’s great is that they adhere to that, and I try to adhere to that, so any advice that comes from them or different departments. My job on these sequences is to be the curator of those ideas.

Extraction 2 is now streaming on Netflix.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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