Ilya Naishuller on His New Promo for The Weeknd

Oct 17 2016

Article published on shots.net on the 16th of October 2016

Great Guns director Ilya Naishuller talks us through his new promo for The Weeknd, False Alarm.

Last week saw the release of Great Guns' POV extraordinaire Ilya Naishuller’s latest adrenalin fuelled action-packed promo for The Weeknd, False Alarm. Following in the footsteps of the director’s promo for Biting Elbows (his band) and his feature debut Hardcore Henry, the promo follows a group of bank robbers on a high speed chase through LA.

To find out more about the promo, the challenges of shooting in POV and more about the video, shots caught up with the director.

Tell us about the video and the concept behind it.

With False Alarm, I understood the theme to be one of excited acceptance of being wrong about a girl’s intentions. I wanted the video to convey the same values where the viewers are led down one rocky romantic path, then have the rug pulled out from under them and yet, still feel that there is a bittersweet balance between the hero and the heroine. The constant tug of war between them is the visualization of the theme. Or, you know, it’s just an action POV video with a pretty girl and stuff blowing up in an exciting way. Take your pick.

Where did the initial idea come from?

After I thoroughly explored the song and understood the story I wanted to tell, it was time to pick a very typical action film scenario and then rework it in a fresh way. I decided early on that it was key to make the viewer fall in love with the lead girl and that the video had to feel like a one shot affair.

Did the Weekend immediately gravitate towards the idea and did they have any input of their own?

From our first conversation onwards, he and his creative director were incredibly trusting in my vision and supported me at every step of the way. Abel’s [Makkonen Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd] only wish was to add Christian imagery so that False Alarm would have interconnecting visual themes with the album. I revised the ending to feature his suicide as the final beat after he looks at his cross, with the obvious intention being to play off the bible’s ban on taking your own life.

With Bad Motherfucker and Hardcore Henry, you had to create new camera rigs, was there similar technical innovations required for this?

My DP, Starr Whitesides, had a previously built prototype rig for shooting POV with the Codex Action Cam. Once we tested the camera, it was a no brainer to go with his setup. Its only downsides were the weight, which got me worried about the strain on my neck, and the need to carry a backpack with the camera’s receiver/terradek. However, having a follow focus ability and a small $50,000 camera with good lenses was sure to be a step up from my previous experiences with POV.

You’ve mentioned that it was a very intense shoot; can you explain more about that?

Right from the start, everyone at Great Guns and I knew that there is no point shooting this video in POV unless it was a serious step up from Bad Motherfucker and Hardcore Henry [trailer, above]. This meant that I had to come up with and deliver on ideas and concepts that were relatively new to me on a very tight schedule, in a new shooting environment (LA) and with a crew that I’ve never worked with before.

My average output on Hardcore Henry was one good minute per shooting day and that was achieved with a very well versed crew who have been shooting POV with me for a long time. On False Alarm, I had to basically start from scratch. Even though the department heads were all very good at their jobs, they had to relearn their craft somewhat to fit the POV mould. For example, stuntmen couldn’t use their typical tricks of the trade, like easily hiding punches and shooting car crashes with three cameras that were safely tucked away. This meant that a lot of work had to be on a very trust-based approach.

Last but not least, I had to shoot the entire video myself, which meant leaving the comfort of my chair and ‘feeling’ the scene rather than watching it like the audience would.

You did some of the stunts in the video yourself; how and why did that come to be?

I refer to this as the Armageddon Question. Is it quicker and wiser to teach a stuntman to shoot POV or a cameraman how to pull off stunts? My regular POV camera guy was busy and I simply did not have the time to teach someone the basics of shooting POV and then spend an inordinate amount of time on set relaying very specific instructions. I shot about 20 per cent of Hardcore Henry but it was the calmest 20 per cent. Whereas in False Alarm, there was only about 10 seconds of tranquillity and the rest required very high precision camera work with a lot of moving pieces, at a very quick speed.

What was the rehearsal process like?

When I’m shooting POV, I must act selfishly and treat the rehearsal process as the final chance to transform the vision in my head into a manageable reality, and not spend too much time going into details with the actors.

With my POV method, I’d say that 70 per cent is rehearsed and the rest is improvised on the shoot. This keeps the process very much alive and yet allows me to stay within the given schedule and budget.

What was the hardest/most complex/scariest stunt you pulled off?

The most complex was the action scene for the second chorus. Nothing can explain the complexity of that shot better than a list of the moving pieces that had to fall perfectly into place: we needed the truck with the cast and I to hit 35 mph and have Tom, the stuntman, lined up behind us in the cop car. We open the sliding door. I place my loaded M-16 on Kristine’s (our lead actress, or Warrior Princess, as she deserves to be referred to) shoulder and all three robbers open live (blank) fire on the trailing cop car. The cop car then needs to swerve onto the pipe ramp and flip. All the while we have two guys on the roof of our truck shooting Zirconium spark balls at the cop car to simulate gunfire and the cherry on top is that we only have one take to get it right.

This shot lasts a measly eight and a half seconds but took three hours to set up, rehearse and shoot. However, the beauty of these kind of sequences is that once you have them in the can, everyone gets super excited with how awesome the video will be as they’re no longer imagining the script but seeing it truly come alive in its peak form. This is very important as I am adamant about keeping a very high morale on set.

The scariest for me personally was the shot with the truck that was pushing the cop car crashing through the fence, with me lying right in its way. The vehicles were moving at 25 mph and I had 3 seconds to look up, catch the action of the crash and then hop out of its deadly path. Of course, I had a wire on my back that the stunt team would have used to yank me to safety if something went wrong, but I very clearly remember how intensely focused I became. Time slowed down in the expected fashion. I find that level of concentration utterly fascinating.

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