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Joe Russo on how Extraction reaches for the greatness of Heat

The Avengers: Endgame director says his Netflix movie reaches for the action-movie bar

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Rudhraksh Jaiswal and Chris Hemsworth in Extraction. Photo: Jasin Boland/Netflix
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

What do you after making the biggest blockbuster in movie history? For Avengers: Endgame director Joe Russo and his brother Anthony, it was a good excuse to bring all of their wildest dreams to life.

Shortly after the April 2019 release of Endgame, the duo signed on to make Cherry, a crime drama with Tom Holland; became producers of a Magic: The Gathering animated series; then took to the Comic-Con stage to announce plans for a live-action adaptation of Battle of the Planets. Somewhere in there, they found time to write and produce a movie for one of their most essential collaborators: Sam Hargrave, stunt coordinator and second-unit director on several of the Russos’ Marvel movies. With Extraction, the Russos funneled their love of down-and-dirty action movies, and Hargrave proved he has the chops to fly on his own. Chris Hemsworth stars as a mercenary drawn into conflict by his own emotional baggage, and the movie is relentless. After premiering last Friday, it’s now the number one movie on Netflix.

Russo says Extraction was the obvious choice to make after a movie like Endgame. After working with hundreds of people on a movie with the absolute widest scope imaginable, the brothers pivoted to the gory, man-on-a-mission genre to scratch a completely different itch from when they were kids. As the filmmaker told Polygon over the phone shortly before release, that itch has everything to do with the first time he saw Heat in theaters.

Here’s what Russo had to say about Extraction and breaking out of the mold set by Marvel.

You originally wrote Extraction as a comic book called Ciudad. Why did it need to be a movie? What could you do on screen that you couldn’t on the page?

Joe Russo: Films that my brother and I admire ... we love ticking clock movies, and we love films that have a compressed time frame. Action is really representative of the internal turmoil of your lead character, and it’s used to visually express that. Films like Extraction that are the sort of relentless, edge-of-your-seat ... I like when I go to a theater and I forget to eat my popcorn!

I talk a lot about how the bank heist in Heat was the most visceral experience I’ve ever had in the movie theater. We chase those experiences and try to create them as filmmakers, to pass them on to audiences in the way that we felt them. We’re chasing a feeling here, and we can only do that in a movie. You can’t get that same kind of compulsion on a comic book page. You can’t get that compulsive narrative that that viscera can’t get that but you can certainly tell a visual story, but you can’t convey that level of immediate intensity.

Why do you think that Heat, 25 years later, is still the touchstone for this type of action? It’s great, but apparently impossible to top.

It’s unique circumstances for a filmmaker to be in like Michael Mann was when he made Heat, where you can get that level of budget and that level of cast to commit to an action film with that depth of character. Traditionally, action films as mass entertainment are calibrated in such a way that there’s not a lot of room for character depth, right? Your character is put into a situation, they have to be like just likable enough, they have to have just enough conflict or just enough character flaws to advance the story.

But Heat was really a character study that that was blended with one of the more groundbreaking action films that have ever been made. And I think that’s why it’s very hard to beat. It’s true auteur, action filmmaking at a length and a pace that ... it’s hard to convince a studio to release the movie that way, and requires somebody in Michael Mann’s position to do that. So I think that’s why it’s still such a touchstone. It’s a different era of filmmaking.

Robert De Niro fires a rifle on the street in Heat Image: 20th Century Fox

I think one thing that is happening is as we progress through the years is that audiences are getting much savvier narrative consumption. They have a PhD in storytelling because they’ve watched so much stuff. So I find that material is getting denser and moving at a greater pace than it used to because audiences are ahead of you. They know what’s coming. We work in the same format over and over two hours, one hour, and they understand that format instinctually. And I think that you have to work a lot harder to surprise them.

So what compelled us about making Extraction was that we felt like we could create a visceral experience for the audience, but with a deeply flawed character. It’s rare that you see a character that has the sort of emotional trauma in an action film. He’s physically brave, but an emotional coward. And he made a choice of a true emotional cowardice. He made this path that affected who he is now, and he can’t get past it. And that was compelling for us to see, if we could put him in a situation that would bring that to the forefront and force him to confront it.

Extraction director Sam Hargrave was a stunt coordinator on several of your Marvel movies. Was there a specific sequence that made you think he could step up to direct this film?

Sam started with us on Winter Soldier as a stunt choreographer, then graduated to stunt coordinator on Civil War, and then a second unit director on Infinity War and Endgame. So we knew how talented Sam was. He was integral to the execution of the action in all of those films and a key collaborator of ours. He’s very focused and very disciplined. He’s a great communicator and great energy. He’s a great leader. Most importantly, he’s a storyteller. It’s very difficult to find directors who have a proclivity for action that are also storytellers and understand character in a sophisticated way, and he does. And so we knew that he could handle something like Extraction at the scale and also you would lose the characters or the emotion of the storytelling.

The process and the way that we work with him when he’s functioning like a stunt coordinator or a second unit director is: We will write a sequence with [Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely, execute on the page and action sequence that has the storytelling beats and the character beats that we want to see advance. Then we give that to Sam, who then works with his team to come up with what we call stunt-vis, which is stunt visualization, and they will video, in a in a gym, the sequence as it plays out on the page, acting out the moments and the action. Then they will edit that together and present it to us. We then respond to that, give notes on it, and Sam will go back and correct it. And then it’s an iterative process that you do until everyone’s happy.

So it’s true collaboration. He’s bringing a lot to the table when he interprets the action. He tracks character, and understands what each character wants out of a certain action sequence. So having done that process with him, it was a natural progression to work on something like Extraction together, where we’re just doing the same thing, but I was functioning as a writer-producer

Can you now go to any Avengers actor and pitch them on a movie? Do you prefer to work with that stable, and get a guy like Hemsworth you know better?

As much as my brother and I pride storytelling and our emotional connection to the stories that we want to tell we pride our relationship to who we’re going to work with on it. And we love Chris. We’ve had an amazing experience with him. It’s very rare as a director that you get to work with actors for years, like we did with all the Marvel actors. We were very close to a lot of them. We think Chris is an exceptional actor, and he embodies certain qualities that are very rare, which is why he’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and I think will continue to be as long as he wants to keep acting because he can convey vulnerability. For someone who’s handsome and physically gifted, he can convey vulnerability in a way that invites you in and makes you care about him in a way that we haven’t seen with a lot of actors “who can play tough guys or action characters.” He is exceedingly sensitive in this role, and we knew that the film wouldn’t work with with someone that wasn’t inviting you in, and wouldn’t offer as much if it didn’t examine the emotional trauma and the emotional history of this character.

I think he’s really exquisite in the scene where he talks about his boy. The movie just becomes an exercise in in acrobatics and gunplay if it doesn’t have moments where you’re on the verge of tears because the character is in so much pain. And so that’s why we knew Hemsworth could could pull this off. We’ve seen him do it with Thor. He really is like the emotional VIP of Infinity War and Endgame. He and Robert and Scarlett have very tragic arcs to play. Evans, too, but Hemsworth in particular did an amazing job of balancing humor with pathos in a way that we just hadn’t seen and other actors that we’ve worked with in the past. It just became something we talked about on set. I said, “I have this interesting thing, Sam’s interested.” And then everyone jumped on board and we did it.

Sam Hargrave, who has a giant beard, leans on a car to talk to his bud Chris Hemsworth, who has his hands on his hips
Director Sam Hargrave and Chris Hemsworth on the set of Extraction
Photo: Jasin Boland/Netflix

I know you have a well-documented history of loving movies, comics, and cartoons, but how much did video games influence you and Sam on Extraction? Do you see that medium informing more of what you do or the language of film in general?

We’re not prejudicial toward different forms of storytelling. We don’t prize one over the other. If we can have an emotional experience and an engaging experience watching a movie or playing a game, that has an equal level of merit to us as consumers and audience members. And we were pop culture junkies growing up. I watched an absurd amount of television you know, everything from like Dobie Gillis to The Flying Nun to Gilligan’s Island to Happy Days. Just go down the list of Nickelodeon late night shows, and we’ve seen them

And we were the kind of kids that you could drop off the arcade at 10 a.m. pick us up at 7 p.m.. Give us a roll of quarters and we walked around trying to figure out which game we’re gonna play all day. We loved Dungeons and Dragons, video games, everything. So all of that stuff has merit and is combined to make us who we are as storytellers. I have had great experiences playing games, I’ve had amazing VR experiences in the last two or three years. I’ve had emotional responses in VR that I that I’ve never had in the movie theater because I can’t escape it.

You’ll probably find moving forward that some of the more compelling storytellers in the next few decades are going to some of the more compelling stories are going to come from gaming companies because I think you’re gonna see more of an overlap between traditional media and gaming companies. They’ve got very deep pockets and they’re compelled to tell stories. They don’t have to do them all exclusively through games they can do them through movies, they can do them through TV shows. The Witcher was a successful and I loved it. I got through that show in like two days. This next generation isn’t as precious as we are about how stories get told. They’re much more versatile. And I think as they become the dominant consumers, you’re going to see a much more diverse range of narrative, which I think is a good thing for storytelling.

You’re working with the Obamas on a movie version of the novel Exit West. So ... what did Barack think of Endgame?

I haven’t asked him.

He might love it.

Wasn’t my first question. But we’re very excited about that project. It’s a beautiful book, a heart-wrenching book. A real examination of the refugee experience today in the world. And we’re partnering up with Netflix again on that one. I think there’s just a beautiful story to be told there. Making it with the Obamas is a pretty incredible experience.

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