Nobody makes movies as unrepentantly manly as David Ayer. The director started his career writing “Training Day,” a script that would ultimately win Denzel Washington an Academy Award for Best Actor, and went on to write and direct similarly gritty crime movies “Harsh Times” and “End of Watch.” Earlier this year, he co-wrote and directed “Sabotage,” a modern day drug world variation on an Agatha Christie story that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. All of Ayers movies up until now have been about men —sweaty, foul-mouthed, violence-loving men, with female characters serving as another way in which those men communicate with one another. But his most macho movie yet is this week’s “Fury,” a mud-and-blood-covered World War II yarn about a squad of soldiers in a tank (commanded by Brad Pitt) during the waning days of the European theater (read our review). We sat down with Ayer earlier this week and talked about the on-set squabbling, the cool gunfire effects, what he learned from “Sabotage,” and if he’d ever make a movie about women (this interview took place before yesterdays’ announcement regarding the full slate of DC Cinematic Universe films to be released in the next several years; Ayer will direct 2016’s “Suicide Squad“).
Ayer, it should be noted, is just as gruff in real life (you could practically feel the testosterone wafting off of him). He also seems genuinely intelligent, interested in authenticity and realism, if uninterested in your own intellectualized reading of his work. The filmmaker’s confidence shines through in talking with about him about his latest film.
You put these guys through this crazy boot camp scenario. What was your end game?
History. Shared history. You experience something horrible, and it was horrible, and it bonds you. You have that common background. That shared experience. The movie’s a portrait, it’s a day in the life of a family, and it’s a slice of life. This family happens to drive a tank around and kill people. But it’s really just a study of thee characters and one really rough day. One of them has the worst first day at school ever, and that’s Logan [Lerman].
You also had the actors doing fight training.
Martial arts. Actors are like magicians. They’ll sit there and do all their tricks to each other. It’s very competitive and the goal is to get them bonding, to get them to know the real person as quickly as possible. So five minutes of fighting is going to teach you more about a person then five weeks of conversation.
Shia LaBeouf did all this crazy stuff, cut his face and took a tooth out. Did you ever feel that he went too far? What do you think of that now?
I thought flying a UFO to the set was way too far. He’d eat bald eagle for lunch every day —that wasn’t cool. I don’t know how I feel about that. What’s too far? He embedded himself in a National Guard unit in a field exercise and lived with those guys. He shadowed a US Army chaplain and really got deep into how to minister as a soldier of faith, how to preach the scripture and what it’s like to have a living faith. The crazy Shia stories are really fun, but at the end of the day, it’s just that hard prep work is what you see on the screen. The guy’s brilliant as an actor.
Were there altercations on the set? We heard the Scott Eastwood story, if you want to weigh in on that. Was it of a product of this super intensive environment?
Shoot, that’s like gold for me. I pray for stuff like that to happen. Scott spit on the back of the tank and Brad got pissed off: he’s like “clean it off.” Then Shia got into it, [saying] “clean it off,” because these guys had been trained that that tank is their home. It’s their home and they’re responsible for it. These guys did basic maintenance on it. So they were very proprietary about it and then later they realized it’s scripted that he’s chewing tobacco and spits.
There’s acting and reacting. The best acting is where they’re exercising their craft, but it’s also very live, you know? And my job is to keep them in the moment. The performances are fucking stunning, and it’s this snapshot of these brothers and and no one can hack you off at the knees like family. With these guys, you feel the relationship. You feel that history, you feel that love for each other on the screen and as a director, it ain’t easy to get them there. Everything’s on the table. Whatever it takes to get that performance is justified.
Did you feel like you pushed them too far ?
Maybe the dinner scene, where it was “okay, how bad can we hurt each others feelings tonight?” It turned out pretty bad. The next day it was “bloody hell man, are we still friends?” But at the same time, it’s riveting. It’s just all about the performance on that screen —this isn’t your typical World War II movie by a long shot. It’s intense, it’s experiential and it’s not some big world saving mission. It’s just these guys who are just trying not to die in the last few weeks of a war with an enemy that’s gone insane.
Did you look at anything specifically for inspiration? Did you just sort of generally feel inspired?
I was fascinated with stuff that was shot immediately after the war. I’m a big fan of Italian neo-realism and all of that stuff. “Come and See,” some other Soviet era films—they’re fucking amazing. I was really taken aback by the naturalism, and I looked at thousand of war time photographs and built the visuals of the movie based upon what I was seeing in these pictures, which is an exhausted army with every assortment of equipment —they look like “The Beverly Hillbillies.” All sorts of random crap tied to their tanks. They were beaten and exhausted. There was something I was chasing in all of these pictures, just trying to capture that world and that feeling of that time.
One of the things you’ve added to the look of these movies is an almost laser like tracer. Can you talk about where that came from? It’s a really interesting visual flourish.
As a kid, you’d see the combat footage from the aircraft in the Pacific Theater, like the dog fights and these mad tracers in Naval warfare. You’d look at World War II movies and no one’s really done it, even though they’re ubiquitous to the battlefield: the Germans used green, we used red. The tank rounds had tracer bases so they could correct fire, and we went whole hog on all of the science behind it, trying to calculate if it’s a machine gun firing 1200 rounds a minute over 800 yard range. It really enhances the film because you know you feel the physical danger from the rounds coming at you.
Do you feel like you kind of added to the genre in a way?
I hope so. There’s a lot of people that are like “haha Star Wars,” but then you show it to someone who’s actually served in the military and they’re like “yeah, that’s right.” We went to a military base and filmed tracer fire and used that as one of our references, so it’s pretty damn real. It’s just that it’s been an overwhelming part of reality for so long.
How did you shoot the interior tank scenes?
I think at one point there were ten tanks on set. Typically, we had five running Shermans —that was our main platoon. We got a real working Tiger. But for the interiors, we’re shooting on film, Panavision cameras, and big anamorphic lenses. Minimum focus of two and a half feet, so you need more room then you have in a tank. So we built the tank, steel frame, glass panels, built it on a Gimbal, and then added the turret. All the shell storage worked—you could grab shells from storage, load the cannon, it would eject shells, and there’d be smoke when the shell kicked out. It was just endless, all the things this tank model could do. We would just pull out little sections of the walls and stick cameras in and light the damn thing, which would take like two hours and I’d be dying inside, waiting: “are we ready yet? Are we shooting?” The results are spectacular. It’s seamless. It really feels like you’re in a tank and you really…I just wanted the action to feel experiential. I wanted people to get an inkling of what it must be like to be in a tank in World War II.
You grimaced at lighting something for two hours. What’s harder for you? Lighting something for two hours on stage or being in the cold and the muck?
I’ll take being outside any day. Don’t drop your pen because [it’ll sink in the mud], or your phone for that matter, but the hardship aspect I like. It’s weird how just being inside on a stage is death itself. It’s hell. When you go to hell, you’re on a stage, and the shots never are ready because they’re still lighting.
Do you have interest in doing a film that’s full of women?
What would the scenario be? Your movies are primarily male driven. What would a female led David Ayer movie sort of look like?
It would be vicious. I know how my wife and her sister’s talk. Holy cow, it’s psychological warfare.
Is that something that interests you?
People are interesting. I like taking the audience into worlds they haven’t been to before. Any good filmmaker I think can tackle any subject. It’s just finding the right story to take you into that world.
I wanted to ask you about “Sabotage” from earlier this year. What happened? What was that experience like looking back?
Oh gosh. I don’t’ know. I think it’s better to do my movies starting from scratch, with my own scripts. I learned a lot and everything Iearned there I brought to the table in theory. Had I not done “Sabotage,” there would be a lot about “Fury” that would be wrong.
“Fury” opens on October 17th.