Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock.
Mild spoilers for Daredevil below.
At this year’s New York Comic Con, Daredevil’s new showrunner, Erik Oleson, made a daring boast. “Remember the hallway fight?” he told the huddled crowd at his show’s official panel. “Yeah, we top that.”
It was natural to doubt him. After all, the scene he’s referencing — a sequence from the first season in which the titular hero takes on a group of baddies in a corridor — is arguably what put the show on the map. It was immaculately choreographed, beautifully shot, and, perhaps most impressively, looked like a single, three-minute, uninterrupted take. To this day, it’s one of the most beloved building blocks of Marvel’s Netflix empire, racking up well over two and a half million views on YouTube alone.
And yet, Oleson just might be right.
In the newly released third season’s fourth episode, there’s a remarkable single-take scene that balloons out to a whopping 10 minutes and 43 seconds. Set during a prison riot, it somehow manages to not only be a massive, multiplayer fight sequence centered around hero Matt Murdock, but also a stretch of film featuring an extended period of emotional, plot-altering dialogue. What’s more, as impressive as the old hallway fight was, it all took place in a relatively confined space, whereas the jail scene runs throughout a labyrinth of hallways and rooms and ultimately leaves the building entirely, bringing Matt into a cab outside. It’s as exhilarating as it is seamless.
Before we go any further, Oleson wants to set one thing straight: It was, indeed, all shot in a single take — what people in the industry refer to as a “oner” (pronounced like “one” with an “-er” at the end). He says the season-one scene was actually completed with several takes woven together, but not so with his baby. There are no secret cuts or CGI stitches. “In fact, I had built in some places where we could’ve hidden cuts if it didn’t work, like the darkened hallway where he’s looking up and the red lights are flashing,” he tells Vulture. “But instead, in post-production, I insisted on using a true one-take and I lightened that hallway so that the audience can see that there are no hidden cuts.”
As proud of the sequence as Oleson is, he can’t claim credit for the idea. That honor goes to the episode’s director, Alex Garcia Lopez. “I got the script on the first day, and I came upon, like, page 11 or whatever it was, and it started to describe this amazing sequence,” he recalls. “I just kept reading it and it just kept yelling at me, This should be a oner. So I finished the script and I literally called Erik, the showrunner, and I was like, ‘Mate, I think we have an incredible chance here to do a fantastic oner.’”
Oleson’s interest was piqued, but he didn’t initially get the extent of what Lopez imagined. The script, after describing a bunch of tussling, called for a sequence where Matt has a conversation with a gangster. “Erik was like, ‘So wait, you’re gonna cut it there, right? Like, we get to that moment, you’re gonna cut?’” Lopez recalls. “And I was like, ‘No, I think we should keep going.’ Because I thought everyone in the audience is going to assume that, once you get into that room, that we then go into coverage, a single-scene kind of thing. But I thought we should just keep it going so it’ll feel urgent and very claustrophobic and horrible for Matt.” The showrunner was still skeptical, so Lopez shopped the idea around with the stunt team and came back to him. “Everybody came to me and said, ‘We think we can do this as a oner, and I said, ‘Okay!’” Oleson says with a big belly laugh.
But even a showrunner has bosses. One of the many difficulties with doing such an insanely long take was that it would require at least a full day of rehearsal, which means a full day without shooting anything. “I had to call all the financial people and say, ‘Guess what? We’re gonna stop filming for a day but have the entire crew there to rehearse,’” Oleson says. “From television production, that’s definitely caused some agita.”
The higher-ups in the bureaucracy were initially skittish. Marvel Television’s vice-president for original programming, Tom Lieber, remembers hearing about the plan from Lopez and being stopped in his tracks. “I was like, ‘This is 12 pages of script,’” Lieber says. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, I know! Isn’t that crazy?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is!’” Lieber and his peers discussed the idea with trepidation. However, in his recollection, they were won over by the on-the-ground team’s enthusiasm: “Charlie was really excited about it. Our camera [operator] was really excited about it. Alex was beaming about it. We were like, ‘We should just do it. We should just try it. We have to set them up for success with this.’” Lopez and Oleson got the go-ahead.
Of course, then everyone had to actually pull the thing off. The team converged at an abandoned prison in Staten Island and got to work. Lopez had directed fight scenes before, but nothing on this scale. So he turned to one of the all-time great single-take scenes for inspiration: the famous 247-second war-zone sequence in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian masterwork Children of Men. “What Alfonso Cuarón did in Children of Men was obviously a very big reference for this,” Lopez says. Specifically, he told cinematographer Chris LaVasseur to emulate the decision of Cuarón and that film’s cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, to keep the shot mid-range nearly all of the time “so there was no question that it wasn’t a oner.” In Lopez’s mind, this was no time for modesty — he wanted the viewer to know they were watching something spectacular.
But he didn’t want them to know when they were watching Cox’s stunt double, Chris Brewster. Lopez says Cox did about 80 percent of the sequence himself, but even he had his limitations, which meant they had to implement what are called “Texas switches” — moments when an actor leaves and a stunt double appears. That required some delicate and lightning-quick choreography, which the stunt team started practicing even before the main rehearsal.
“The stunt guys came up with some very clever ways of doing it,” Lopez recalls. “For example, when he’s in the hallway where the police guys come at him and start hitting him with the baton, one moment it’s Brewster, and then he gets hit with the baton a bunch of times. He falls down, he gives one kick, which is him, and then the second kick is given by Charlie, sort of laying next to him, and then Charlie gets up. So there’s these constant Texas switches happening throughout the oner.” Matt also has to take an absurd amount of punishment over the course of the scene, meaning he had to start emitting blood at various points. How to pull that off? “We put little glasses of blood in all these specific places,” Lopez says. “That way, Charlie could drink and then he’d get hit and then he’d throw up blood everywhere.”
Cox’s exertion was rivaled by that of the camera operator, Jeff Dutemple, who had to follow the actor around with a Steadicam all the while. “Those cameras are pretty bloody heavy,” Lopez says. And if all else failed, there was a backup plan — or a “Plan Z,” as Lopez derisively calls it. Later in the season, someone watches the fight through CCTV footage, so portions of it would be filmed again from those angles. “If it all went absolutely pear-shaped, you could cut to that CCTV footage,” he says before adding emphatically, “which obviously I would have fought to death against.” But there was a factor that played into his confidence: the insanity of a prison riot. “If it was chaotic in a way, then that’s okay, because that’s what would happen,” he says.
Rehearsal was completed and the big day arrived. “We had 12 hours to do it, but not really 12 hours to do it,” Lopez recalls. “We had less, because the stunt team were like, ‘Y’know, we can only really do this four or five times.’ It was a very physically demanding fight and you can’t really push your guys. After four or five times, things can start going wrong when fatigue starts to play. You could get injured. So we knew we only really had four or five times to really nail it.” Slight reassurance arrived early. “The first take we did, we completed it,” Lopez recalls with a laugh. “From beginning to end. And there were some little hiccups here and there, but it was very reassuring and very inspirational, because we’re like, Oh my God, we can do this.” Nevertheless, he didn’t want to tolerate those hiccups, and one can never be too careful, so they pressed on with more takes. “And then,” as he recalls, “it kinda went a little bit sour.”
They kept running into problems with the first fight portion, which takes place in the prison’s doctor’s office. “Take two, three, four, we just kept hitting this wall,” Lopez says. The stunts kept misfiring — something that wasn’t surprising, given the presence of three Texas switches in the sequence. “That’s when, suddenly, everyone started to go, Oh my God, oh shit a little bit.” They pressed on. “Take six” — which they completed — “was really good, but I wanted the performance, from an actor’s perspective, from the emotional beat, to be a little bit better in certain moments,” Lopez says. As daylight waned, everyone sweated bullets. “So we had one more go.”
And just like that, everything went off without a hitch. On the seventh take, which was the third uninterrupted take, everyone hit their marks, the camera was in the right places, and Cox got out to the car alive. “At the end of it, the crew was …” Oleson recalls, trailing off for a moment in his attempt to capture the moment. “It was this eruption of glee that they had pulled it off.”
Lieber and the other higher-ups had been “sitting at our desks, like, chewing our nails,” as Lieber puts it. “It was actually Charlie Cox who told me. I got a text from Charlie and all it said was, ‘Take three, 11 minutes and 25 seconds.’” (The take was eventually cut down a bit on the front end for the finished version.) “And I was like, Holy shit, they got it. So then I yelled, ‘They got it!’ I probably sounded like Janine from Ghostbusters, just yelling. Everyone was like, ‘Holy shit, they got it, they got it, they got it!’”
A victory lap was in order. “The next day at Marvel, nobody got any work done because they were just watching the dailies over and over and over again and high-fiving each other,” Oleson says. As Lieber recalls, “Because it takes a day to get the dailies, we actually couldn’t see it until the next day, but everybody was beaming. I watched it and my jaw was on the floor. Every single moment of it.” He was especially impressed with Cox. “Charlie was brilliant,” Lieber says. “And I think one of the reasons it was so effective is you can see how exhausted Charlie is at the end of that. When he gets in that cab, he is legitimately exhausted.”
Similarly, when I ask Lopez who the oner’s MVP was, he’s reluctant to pick, but concludes that it was Cox. “At take six or seven, Charlie was fucking exhausted, and understandably so,” he recalls. “And when he gets pushed against the wall and he collapses and spits blood, he told me that he could barely breathe at that point. I would say a lot of people did a lot of work, but yeah, Charlie was the MVP, without a doubt.”
Oleson is ecstatic and eager to tell anyone who will listen that he and his team did the seemingly impossible — and did it all in one day. As he puts it, “It required every member of the crew to hide at the right time, to pop out at the right time, to sync up the camera, sync up the microphone, sync up all the stunts, all the special effects of fire and smoke. All of the actors to remember their lines. Charlie to be able to stay in the moment and emote and be able to actually go through this action sequence with no breaks for 11 and a half, do the highly emotional scene in the middle of it, and then keep going into another action sequence.” Or, to put it another way: “It was fucking nuts.”