How do you release an action movie during a pandemic? The makers of Netflix’s ‘Extraction’ find out
In an alternate universe, Chris Hemsworth would be in the middle of a far-flung publicity tour right now in support of the release of his new Netflix action film “Extraction,” which is available for streaming Friday. Instead, on a recent afternoon, he found himself doing an interview over Zoom from his home in Australia, where he is in lockdown with his wife and three children, trying to find the silver lining in the situation.
“A week before we were about to leave, it was like, ‘Maybe, maybe, maybe’ — then all of the sudden it was like, ‘No, we’re not going anywhere,’ ” said the 36-year-old Hemsworth, who is no stranger to globe-trotting PR tours, having starred as the hammer-wielding superhero Thor in a series of Marvel Studios blockbusters. “But I wonder if we’ll continue doing things this way in the future, because everyone gets to just do it from the comfort of their own home. You don’t have to deal with jet lag.”
With the coronavirus pandemic turning life around the globe upside down and causing no end of misery and fear, this is an undeniably strange time to to be promoting a big Hollywood action film. Movie theaters are closed. Studios have scrambled their release schedules. Film productions have been indefinitely paused, including Hemsworth’s own “Thor: Love and Thunder,” which was set to begin shooting this summer.
But for the team behind “Extraction,” as surreal as it may be to discuss a film that feels like it was made in another, less dystopian world, now is also a uniquely fortuitous moment to offer movie-starved audiences a temporary reprieve from their quarantine anxiety and boredom. “It’s nice to provide people with a bit of escapism and distraction from what’s going on,” Hemsworth said. “There’s a good opportunity there.”
Directed by Sam Hargrave, a stunt coordinator turned filmmaker who is making his feature debut, “Extraction” stars Hemsworth as a black market mercenary who, haunted by a tragic personal loss, is hired to rescue the kidnapped young son of an imprisoned international crime boss and transport him out of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Balancing raw, punishing violence and relentless chase sequences with an emotional story of redemption and sacrifice, the film is a throwback to the gritty, character-driven action movies of the 1970s, say producers Anthony and Joe Russo, who have directed a string of Marvel juggernauts including last year’s “Avengers: Endgame” and who adapted “Extraction” from a graphic novel they co-wrote about a decade ago with Andre Parks.
“The intent was always to apply psychological realism to the movie,” said Joe Russo. “Those were our favorite movies growing up, those ’70s action thrillers that were phenomenal character studies masquerading as action movies. It’s really a meditation on bravery. The thematics are more important than the action itself.”
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The Russos’ original graphic novel — which they wrote in their pre-Marvel days, while working on the NBC comedy “Community,” as a kind of proof of concept for an action film they hoped at the time to direct — was titled “Ciudad” and set in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. But as they developed the project, bringing in Hargrave — who worked on all of their Marvel films, graduating from stunt double to stunt coordinator to second unit director — they decided to shift the setting from Latin America to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and, with a population of nearly 20 million, one of the world’s densest cities.
“So many stories were taking place in that part of the world — ‘Sicario,’ ‘Narcos’ — that Joe thought, ‘What’s a place that hasn’t really gotten a lot of screen time for Western audiences?’ and he landed on Dhaka, Bangladesh,” said Hargrave. “In August of 2017 before we started on ‘Endgame,’ I went to Dhaka and all throughout India to see if that place felt right and had the potential to set the movie there. And I saw there was no direction you could look that wasn’t interesting and the camera didn’t absorb the energy. It was a very visceral place to shoot.”
With little in the way of film production infrastructure, Dhaka proved too logistically difficult a location to mount a film the size of “Extraction,” so in the end, while some scenes were shot there, the majority of the movie was shot in India and in Thailand.
The Indian city of Ahmedabad, which has a population comparable to that of New York, proved a suitable substitute for Dhaka, and Hargrave and his crew set to the daunting task of staging elaborate chases and action sequences amid its chaotic street life.
“We wanted the feeling of it being crowded and dense while we’re racing cars down the street or having people falling off of buildings and fighting,” said Hargrave. “It’s such a populated part of the world, there were days when we had between 200 and 300 security personnel on the set to lock up different streets and alleyways and doorways because we had to account for every man, woman, child, dog and cow to make sure everyone was safe.”
As challenging as it may have been to shoot in such locations, it proved invaluable for the cast, which included Hollywood actors such as Hemsworth and David Harbour, and international ones such as Bollywood star Randeep Hooda, Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani and newcomer Rudraksh Jaiswal, who plays the kidnapped teen, Ovi.
“Shooting right in the hustle and bustle of those places gave the film the frenetic sort of energy and a texture that we couldn’t have gotten anywhere else, nor could we have simulated that on a soundstage or something,” Hemsworth said. “You respond differently to different locations, and it being as hot and loud and busy as it was just gave it an intensity. There was little acting required most days.”
When the project was first pitched to Netflix, which has been ramping up its production of original films both large and small, the setting was also an undeniable attraction for the streaming giant as it strives to increase its penetration into the vast Indian market. “The fact that Netflix is trying to build a robust streaming platform there and you want to have a flagship movie that’s going to start that off with a bang — we discussed that stuff very much,” said Hargrave. “In the casting process, we did want to find people who were well known in India. But we also just wanted to be true and authentic to the story and respectful of the fans there.”
For the Russos, who are currently in post-production on the crime drama “Cherry,” “Extraction” provided not only a chance to reassemble some key members of the “Avengers” team but also to produce the kind of hybrid international-Hollywood production they have long wanted to make.
“Joe and I grew up loving international cinema, and our experience on the Marvel movies opened our eyes to a lot of possibilities, because there is such a global fandom to those films,” said Anthony Russo. “We really got to travel the world and get intimate with a lot of corners of the world, a lot of corners of film fandom and also a lot of the film communities in those places. I think that really inspired us to figure out how do we make creative connections with filmmakers and artists in those areas.”
Coming off of the success of last year’s “Avengers: Endgame,” which became the highest-grossing film of all time not adjusted for inflation, the film also allowed both the Russos and Hemsworth their first chance to work with Netflix. With the future of theatrical releases uncertain, at least in the near term, the Russo brothers — who, among others projects, are developing an animated series based on the trading card game “Magic: The Gathering” for Netflix — are eager to see how the film is embraced by audiences trapped at home and hungry for fresh content to break up the monotony of life in quarantine.
“What we love about Netflix is they have global reach, they were creatively one of the most satisfying studios we’ve ever worked with and now we’re going to have access to a few hundred million people the week the movie comes out,” said Joe Russo. “No one could predict this pandemic, but because they’re using technology they’ve certainly positioned themselves well for whatever the future holds.”
Of course, “Extraction” was made without any thought of viruses or lockdowns. On the most basic level, it’s just another piece of Hollywood entertainment packed with explosions, gunfire and flying fists along with what its makers hope is an emotional wallop. Still, while shooting on the film wrapped just about a year ago, to watch it now, Hemsworth says, is to get a window into what now feels like an entirely different life.
“It’s interesting I think looking at the movie now, with us being right in the thick of densely populated places and interacting like that,” said Hemsworth. “When we shot in India, you had thousands of fans and photos and selfies and handshakes and so on. You’re kind of like, ‘Wow, could we even shoot that movie now? Could we even go to places like that and pull it off?’”
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