Making a major motion picture has never been an easy process. You need to find the right story, assemble the right team both in front of and behind the camera, and manage a production consisting of dozens — if not hundreds — of people all while working under a tight deadline.
That said, it’s possible to argue that the process is even more difficult for filmmakers working today than it was for directors in the past. That’s because most major Hollywood movies still need to fit into certain genres. Established genres serve as a compass for viewers to help them decide whether they want to see a particular movie. They can also guide viewers in terms of what to expect. The fact of the matter is, there have been many movies released over the last century. Audiences have watched plenty of them. Thus, when working in an established genre, it can be challenging to find ways to surprise audiences who are already familiar with the common tropes and styles of these genres.
A Fresh Perspective
Luckily, creative directors are still finding ways to add a fresh perspective to established formulas. Steven Soderbergh’s work on Haywire is one example. On its surface, Haywire’s story makes it clear that viewers are going to watch an action film. The movie depicts an elite covert soldier enacting vengeance on those who betrayed her. While the script is strong, in the hands of the wrong director, the action on the screen could have been fairly predictable.
Soderbergh made it clear in interviews that he wanted to avoid that. Haywire was released in 2011, a time when many of the more recent popular action films depicted violence in a polished and stylized way. Fight scenes were often filmed with handheld cameras, and cuts were rapid-fire. Post-production effects were used to enhance the visuals. Loud music ratcheted up the intensity. While all of these stylistic choices certainly gave action scenes a frenetic pace in movies released before Haywire, they also distanced audiences from the reality of the violence. They turned what could have been brutal and effective action scenes into sanitized and artificial depictions.
Soderbergh specifically wanted to select a different style for the film. That meant explicitly avoiding many of the choices that were popular at the time. For example, while the film features many action sequences, only one of them was filmed with handheld cameras. Soderbergh also pointed out that the scene in question plays out in slow motion. Thus, the frantic effect that handheld cameras usually create was not on display.
He took the same approach to editing these sequences. Again, including many fast-paced cuts can certainly boost the intensity, but this is more of a filmmaking trick than a genuine display of action choreography. Fast cuts can create the illusion of intense action without actually allowing viewers to appreciate the work of the performers on-screen.
A Strong Action Film
Ensuring that the action was easy to follow and clearly depicted was important for several reasons. Yes, it ensured that Haywire stood out in its genre and provided viewers with a new experience. Yet, it also served to highlight the talents of the film’s main star.
Instead of casting an actor as the protagonist, Soderbergh chose to work with Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts fighter. This meant that Soderbergh was working with a star who could perform impressive fight sequences. Hiding this talent behind shaky camera movements and fast edits would have been a disservice to both Carano and the audience watching the film. Of course, because Carano did not need a stunt double for any of the choreography that the film demanded, it also made it easier for Soderbergh and his team to shoot the action sequences with an eye for clarity. They knew they wouldn’t have to conceal the fact that a stunt double was involved because that was simply not the case.
Soderbergh made other important choices, such as deciding not to include any music over the action scenes. This is an unconventional move that once again sets Haywire apart from other films in the genre. While music can suggest to an audience how they should feel about a scene, it can also serve as a distraction. By not relying on it, Soderbergh allowed viewers to focus on the actual sounds of the fights. This made it clear to audiences just how real and brutal the action was, as depicted on screen.
Those who chose to give Soderbergh the opportunity to make such an unconventional action film deserve credit. After all, he isn’t known for working in the genre. That may be why he made such a strong action film. As an outsider to action movies, he was able to envision unique ways to film key sequences. The result is one of the most thrilling movies in recent years, one that defies the audience’s expectations in the best possible way.