“I don’t know why I’m drawn to these intense stories and neither does my wife,” Ayer ponders. “The bigger the canvas I get as a director, the more I want. But I served in a submarine, so I’m very familiar with what it’s like to live inside of a weapon system and a steel world full of smelly men. So I was able to supply pressures and give the actors what they needed. Brad is the brains doing the thinking and the other guys are the arms and the legs.”
Ayer did his research, reading memoirs and war reports, talking to vets and studying the genre. What struck him was not only the preponderance of battles and hardware inaccuracies but also the lack of character depth in many American movies. But he was inspired by the edginess of immediate post-war German movies such as “The Bridge.”
Ayer was tough on his actors, too, creating a rough boot camp environment that had them growing closer yet fighting one another as well. “A character is an arrow that passes through the window,” according to the director.
After co-scripting the submarine thriller “U-571,” Ayer was ready to stage a movie inside a tank. The “rivet counters” will be pleased with the accuracy of the Sherman tank and the first time appearance of a Tiger 1. They built a tank set on gimbals. The cannon fired, the turret rotated. “But the actors had to learn to become a family that lives in this house,” he says. “It’s their home. They had to learn to operate their stations and how to look comfortable doing it. How to move with muscle memory in this complex machine. That’s what sells it, that’s what makes it real.”
Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“End of Watch”) convinced Ayer to shoot on film after testing both film and digital and getting better results on film. “My big concern was it was such an ambitious schedule,” says Ayer. “It was shot in 69 days, which is really nothing for a film of this scale, and I was looking for any advantage as far as production. This is my third show and after doing two digital shows, you forget the discipline of filmmaking with film. It’s paradoxical because in slowing down and thinking about what you’re doing, you’re forced to be more methodical as a crew.
“In a strange way, you actually find the movie faster and the shots faster because you’re not just swinging around a digital camera without turning it off. Film has more latitude. But you really have to think about when you push that on and off button. I can’t go back to digital now but I may be forced to.”
The most complex and satisfying scene takes place in an apartment as two German girls are sucked into a crazy psychodrama. It’s a chance to wind down before moving on to capture the next town, but the dinner becomes a crucible for the tank crew. Pitt’s father figure takes the time to bring newbie Lerman into the fold; the others are jealous. They don’t think he’s worthy, but at the same time they are trying to break him in themselves.
“Who gets to anoint him?” asks Ayer. “It’s pretty complex…It’s a family that happens to live in a tank and kill people. Nobody is more vicious than family; nobody knows your weaknesses better than family. And when family turns on family, it’s psychologically brutal, and that’s what that scene is. It’s Thanksgiving theater. A tank crew is a very intimate unit. There are no secrets; there’s no safety.”