Director's Chair: Sam Hargrave — <I>Extraction 2</I>
Issue: July/August 2023

Director's Chair: Sam Hargrave — Extraction 2

Director Sam Hargrave knows how to make an action film. His first one, Netflix's 2020 action thriller Extraction, was a global blockbuster that introduced star Chris Hemsworth as Tyler Rake, a fearless black-market mercenary with nothing left to lose when he’s hired to rescue the kidnapped son of an imprisoned international crime lord, only to find his compassion for the son get in the way of the mission.

How he’s back as director and producer of the franchise sequel, Extraction 2, reuniting with Hemsworth, who returns as Rake, this time on a deadly mission to rescue the battered family of a ruthless Georgian gangster from the prison where they are being held. The film is stuffed full of spectacular stunts, exotic locations, kinetic action scenes and awesome fight sequences, all expertly choreographed and staged. 

Director Sam Hargrave - credit Katie Graves

It’s no wonder, as Hargrave cut his teeth as an award-winning stuntman, stunt coordinator and second unit director on such record-breaking box office hits as Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Wolf Warrior 2, Suicide Squad, Captain America: Civil War, Atomic Blonde and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 & 2.

To pull the sequel together, Hargrave also reunited with the Russo Brothers writing and producing team, and enlisted director of photography Greg Baldi, editors Alex Rodriguez and William Hoy, ACE, and visual effects supervisor Bjorn Mayer.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Hargrave about making the film, working on the VFX, and his love of post, editing and the DI.

As an ex-stuntman and second unit director on some huge films, this franchise seems like a perfect fit for you? 

“It is, and my background gives me a great perspective on action that’s pretty unique, as I’ve been there, done it and choreographed fights and worked with actors. So a movie like this, which I feel is a throwback to some of the ‘80s action films I grew up watching and loving, like Rambo, Die Hard and Speed, also has a strong hero at the core, with lots of action and a simple but really emotional arc, and it’s right up my alley.”

How closely did you work with the Russos?

“I worked very closely with Joe, who wrote it, as we did on the first one. We worked through the beats all the way from the outline stage to post where we were doing rewrites to fill in some gaps and make it all work. The process never stopped.”

What were the main challenges of pulling all this together?

“COVID was the first big one. We began prepping the film in Australia, but we had to leave because of all the COVID protocols, and then when we moved to Prague, we had a lot of cases that slowed us down, especially with larger sequences that had a lot of background and stunt performers – and we had a lot of stunt performers on this. So that was a big challenge in terms of schedule. The other big one was all the planning and coordination that went into the 21-minute-long ‘oner.’ That was monumental as it was such an ambitious sequence and takes up nearly 30 pages of the 125-page script. You’re shooting action sequences on real trains with our lead actor on top of the train and helicopters and stunt men fighting. And then there’s the whole other portion of it, the big car chase through the forest with a lot of vehicles and stunts involved, and that alone took two weeks to shoot. Then, on top of all that, there’s the massive prison escape sequence. So stitching all those elements together for each set piece was a huge challenge and took all the departments and their heads — cinematographer Greg Baldi, editors Alex Rodríguez and William Hoy, and VFX supervisor Bjorn Mayer — all working together to bring it all to life and make them seamless.”

Sam Hargrave and DP Greg Baldi

I assume you started integrating post and all the VFX on day one?

“We did, especially for the ‘oner’ sequence, where you have to consult with the VFX team in prep and you’re imagining how it’s all going to look and be stitched together, and you have to make sure that one stitch lines up perfectly with the start of the next one before you move on. So again, you have camera, editing and VFX all there, and you’re already prepping post in prep.”

Did you do a ton of previz for all the huge action sequences?

“Yes, for scenes like the one where a helicopter dives off the top of a building with a glass awning, but we did mostly postvis, especially for the glass-awning sequence, where Rake’s hanging from the edge of it. We were unable to shoot that practically due to the high winds at the rooftop of that building. It was just too dangerous for our cast and crew, even though we wanted to give Tom Cruise and company a run for their money! So we built that set, and in order to make it work and to be able to make it cut together we did a lot of previs and postvis. We also focused a lot on stunt-vis and storyboards, so our stunt team could act out sequences like the prison fight and the church fight. We did all that in the gym or on-location, and we were constantly updating all that, so it’s like a living, breathing blueprint for the crew so they could see exactly what we were trying to do.”

How tough was the shoot?

“We shot for 74 days in and around Prague in the Czech Republic, and that doubled for other locations in the film, including the Austrian mountains and the lake scene. We also did three weeks of prep and then shot for two weeks in Vienna, Austria, so it was pretty hectic. We also used some unused footage from the first film in the opening sequences to set up the mood and show where Rake comes from.”

Where was post?

“We did it all at Tribeca West, Santa Monica, and we had a great post team. We did the sound and mix at IMN, which is run by Mark Binder, our sound supervisor. The Russos use them a lot, and we did the first film there too. We did the DI at Company 3 with colorist Stephen Nakamura.”

Do you like the post process?

“I love post. It’s pretty much my favorite part of making a film, and it stems from the ability to change and mine out all of the gems you amass during the shoot. As they say, there’s three versions of a film; you write one, you shoot one, and then you edit and post one – and that’s the critical one, as you come face to face with the reality of what you shot during production. The beauty of post is that scenes will come to life and change and morph right before your eyes. As a director, you shoot a scene and have an idea of what you want it to be and feel like, but then in post, when you put it in the context of the whole film, it may not be right, and you have to be open to shifting and changing it. It’s very important that you stay open to that and not be locked into the way it has to be. It’s the same with sound and VFX, and when you hire the right people, they can add so much to the process. I love that collaborative process with creative people.”

Talk about editing with Alex Rodriguez and William Hoy, ACE. How did that work?

“Alex was our main editor and he was on-location with us for the whole shoot, along with his assistant Matt Carson. So they’d already done a rough assembly of the film before we flew back to the States to start on all the postvis and VFX and so on at Tribeca West. Then Bill Hoy joined the team in post, and we also had various other top editors the Russos and I had known for years, including Pietro Scalia, who came in and consulted and helped with ideas. It was so cool to have that whole network of creative minds, and they’d all come up with ways of structuring a scene that I’d never thought of. I’ll always remember Bill saying, ‘The thing we’re missing here is a distinct POV in this sequence.’ So after we’d put it all together, we went back to do two weeks of pick-up shots, and that advice really stayed with me as we shot.”

What were the main editing challenges?

“Pacing and structure, because the way the script was written wasn’t how it played out in the film. Joe’s structure reads great, and it starts in the present and then we flashback to how Rake is pulled out of the river and how he survives, so there’s some time-jumping. But we discovered in post it was more satisfying to play it linearly, so we had to restructure it to make it a smoother viewing experience. That’s the beauty of post. You discover how the film actually works best. And pacing is crucial when people stream a film. You have to be very aware that your audience can pause it or do something else if you lose their attention. We did take some risks early on, in terms of slowly building the suspense, knowing that once we hit Act 2, it’d be a non-stop ride.”

There’s obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. What was your approach to dealing with them?

“Because of my stunt background, I love doing practical effects, but because of safety issue and so on, you can only do some stuff with VFX. But it all has to feel real to me, so the trick is to blend and mix and match reality and VFX, so you can’t tell the difference. So things that you’d expect to be VFX, like a helicopter landing on top of the moving train, is real, while the entire background for the opening of that whole sequence is a matte painting, and we added snow, a building and other stuff, like all the smoke interaction with VFX. The train crash at the end was probably the hardest VFX sequence to do. We built a rotating gimbal and shot inside that so we could toss around the stunt guys. Then it was very challenging to get the bird’s-eye-view of the crash and deal with gravity and smoke realistically. We used Digital Domain for all that, and they did some incredible photoreal work, along with UPP in Prague, Fuse, Crafty Apes and others.”

Tell us about the DI at Company 3 with colorist Stephen Nakamura.

“I’m very involved. During the shoot, Baldi and I are in the DIT tent discussing the look, so we have a good idea of what we have before we get to the DI. Then he and Stephen do a pass, and I come in and give my notes. I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”