Years after writing the screenplay for “Training Day,” a drama that won Denzel Washington an Oscar, David Ayer wrote and directed “End of Watch,” a low budget indie that followed two cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) and their experiences working in Los Angeles’ South Central neighborhood. His latest project, war film “Fury,” boasts Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman and Shia LaBeouf in leading roles and marks Ayer’s first stab at a big studio picture.
“Fury” follows the lives of five very different men who lead a tank through war-torn Germany at the close of World War II. In preparation for “Fury”‘s October 17 release, Indiewire sat down with Ayer and discussed his interest in the subject, the transition from indie to big budget filmmaking and what it’s like working with Brad Pitt.
Both my grandparents served in the war, as well as my uncle. No one ever talked about it and I was like “Ok, why not? What’s going on?” And I wanted to investigate it and understand. There are a lot of families who’ve experienced this—this generation that did not talk about it. So I wanted to understand a little bit what these guys went through. And it’s a slice of life. It’s like a day in the life. It’s a study of a family. It’s a portrait of a family in horrible conditions. This family just happens to drive a tank around and kill people.
Why World War II specifically?
Well exactly that. There’s that family history, and for me it’s the paradox of World War II. It was good v.s. evil. I mean it’s freaking freedom or slavery. It’s either we are in world where there’s no human rights or we are going to be in a world where there is human rights and democracy—and people meant something. But that outcome and that Manichean struggle gets reverse engineered into this idea that somehow the fighting itself was equally dualistic. And it wasn’t. It was just as morally murky as anything going on today in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nazis were sending kids into battle with rockets to go fight tanks. And there’s this evil regime ideology throughout the rulebook in any sense of human decency. And our guys are getting exposed to that? It leaves a mark on the person and that’s what I wanted to look at.
Is the family aspect why you wanted to focus on tank warfare?
No. One was a sub guy and one was a pilot. There’s something interesting about tanks. They are visual—these big machines, but it’s weird because you are both protected and exposed. Nothing draws fire on a battlefield like a tank. And you protect it from small arms fire, but everything else can be bad news. These are the guys that really won the war. There’s all these movies about the famous battles and the paratroopers and rangers—what have you—but it’s the armor that had the combat mass to much through the enemy. It’s the tank that liberated Europe. It’s the tank that enslaved Europe. No one has done a contemporary, classic tank. It’s a great place to stick five actors because they can’t get away from each other.
Can you tell me a bit about how Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman and all of them got onboard?
With Brad you would never say “Hey I’m going to ask Brad Pitt to do my movie” because he’s Brad Pitt and really hard to get. So someone at the agency, at his agency, slipped him the script. And I heard he was going to read it. He read it immediately and was in. He’s like “I want to do the movie.” And I met with him—it’s interesting because that first actor-director meeting is so interesting. In a way you are really dancing around each other and the central question is like “Can I work with this guy? Can I stand this guy?” Because it’s such a close-working relationship. “Can I trust this person” is the question you’re asking. It was interesting. And he’s such a normal dude. It’s kind of shocking. He’s like a family guy and he’s from midwest and harbors those values. The perfect guy for the role.
And did everyone else come after?
Yeah. I was into the casting process and I met with Logan and then he came in and read, and he crushed it. He had three scenes to read and he did the first one and I was like, “This kid is in the movie. This guy has got the fucking job.” He just killed it. And with Shia—Shia kind of came at it–he has this willingness to commit. He just wanted to commit to something. And it’s funny because all the crazy Shia stories, which are really cute and fun, but the truth of it—he went embedded with a national guard unit. I mean this guy shadowed a military Chaplin, the U.S. Army Chaplin. He got to understand and see first hand how to minister to soldiers and soldiers of faith. He really went to the map for the movie. Jon was a no brainer. He read and he’s playing this almost animalistic man who the war has brought out the worst in. And war can bring out the best in people and it can bring out the worst of people. And this is a character who it brought the worst out of. And he’s a good dude with a lot of love in heart and you need someone like that to play someone that far gone.
You have military experience yourself. How did that influence the way you went into this and they way you shot the film?
From being in the military, I know it’s about the people. It’s about the people you serve with and the strange cast of characters you meet who you wouldn’t expect to be in the military. Which is why I tried to get away from the cookie cutter World War II archetypes you’re supposed to show in this and just tried and create these characters and not try to explain their psychology and their history, but just let this family be. Let these guys be. So when I think of military service, I think of the people.
Was that anxiety you had while filming? Trying to avoid making this movie just another war movie.
I looked at thousands of freaking pictures of the war. Especially late in the war. No one has really done late war Germany. No one has done a month before the war ended. And that’s the tragedy of the movie. When you do a movie about D-Day it’s like, “Oh no are we going to succeed or fail? Are we going to fail and negotiate peace with Nazi Germany? Or are we going to succeed and liberate a continent?” All that stuff is still in play. In this, it’s different. The thing is over in four weeks. They are going down. Why are they still fighting? Because they’re assholes. And they’re going to kill a lot of people and that’s tragic. Being able to do your job, just do your job—show up everyday and work hard and know that you’re paying your personal price—there’s nobility in that. That’s what it’s about. It’s a little bit different from your average war movie.
Do you have any favorite war movies or anything that influenced this film in particular?
Yeah. There’s that Italian guy, Rossellini. The guy who did the Italian neorealism stuff like “Germany, Near Zero,” “Rome, Open City.” Also, “Apocalypse Now,” my favorite film. There’s a Russian movie called “Come and See,” which is insane. It’s insane, but it’s such a—as a piece of direction, as a piece of film—you really feel that director’s imprint on it.
How have you found the transition from smaller independent film to working on something big budget to be?
No matter how much money you have it’s not enough. No matter how much time they give you it’s not enough. You’re just driving in a bigger car. You still gotta stop at all the lights and put on your turn signal.
Was there anything you miss from the indie experience?
The only thing I missed technique-wise was being handheld. I like being handheld because you can run and just re-block a camera super fast. It takes seconds for the operator to walk over and get the camera in position. When you’re shooting as we did traditionally on this, to re-block a camera you’re moving equipment. Whether it’s a crane or it’s a dolly or a dolly track—it becomes more of an event. You can’t just run up and tag and insert or something like that. But that was the language this film needed to be shot in. It needed to be a more composed, meditative thing. That’s the thing. Go to a movie theater and watch this in a theater because it’s so visually dense. There’s so much richness and detail in these images. You need a big screen to see it.
Do you have any memorable or disastrous onset experiences?
Disastrous onset experience. Hmm. The dinner scene. We only had a few of those plates. And those plates had a pattern on them. And they kept breaking and we didn’t have any backup plates. I was losing my mind. We were gluing plates back together. And I was just freaking out over the plates, which is insane because it’s a war movie with tanks and stuff. Other than that it was just—we shot in December in the U.K. and there would be overcast and we’d only have 6 to 6 1/2 hours of outdoor shooting light. I’d have this big list of shots I need. And you get really smart and you have to figure out if you’re going to shoot the scene in six setups or if you can do it in three setups. And that’s what was scary. Wherever you show up and wherever you decide to place that first camera—you’re going to be feeling it in six hours whether that was a good call or not. That’s the toughest part. Really just tightrope without a safety net while they’re shooting at you. I love it though. I wouldn’t do anything else.