“There’s no rank inside a tank.”
So goes the actual motto used by the real-life American heroes that inspired writer/director David Ayer’s latest, the World War II action-thriller Fury, starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal as the five-man crew of a Sherman tank that, in the course of a single day, moves across Germany at the tail-end of the war.
“Both of my grandparents were in World War II and retired as officers,” says Ayer, who himself served more recently in the US Navy. “One fought in the Pacific and one fought in Europe. The whole family was in the war. I grew up exposed to it and hearing the stories, but the stories I heard weren’t kind of the whole ‘Rah, rah, rah! We saved the world!’ They were about the personal price and the emotional price. The pain and the loss are the shadows that sort of stalk my family. That was something that I wanted to communicate with people. Even though it was literally a fight of good against evil and it had an incredibly positive outcome, the individual man fighting it was just as tired, scared and freaked out as a guy operating a base in Afghanistan or a guy in the jungle in Vietnam.”
ComingSoon.net had the chance to visit the production last year in England’s Oxfordshire countryside, where Ayer did everything in his power to make the world of the film as true to life as possible, down to the film’s title star. In the scene being filmed, “Fury,” (the name given to the tank itself) joined four other Sherman Tanks, all actual period vehicles on loan from both private collectors and the Bovington Tank Museum that feature names like “Lucy Sue,” “Sting,” “Old Phyllis” and “Murder, Inc.” They’re all rendezvousing with Jason Isaac’s Captain Wagner to receive new orders.
“It was great to be able to get the wartime tanks,” says Ayer. “Tanks from all over Europe. The owners were kind enough to let us weld them, paint them and get them into the exact configurations they were in during the end of the war. The Bovington Tank Museum, after extended negotiations, let us use a type of tank that has never been in a feature before. It’s the only running German Tiger tank in the world. To have a battle with a real Tiger and real Sherman tanks coming at each other with pyro blowing off and explosions and everything — It was a once in a lifetime experience.”
Behind Fury’s wheel is Trini “Gordo” Garcia, played by Pena, Ayer’s returning End of Watch star, who trained to drive the tank specifically for the film. The other tanks in the lineup are driven by former military men, who also make up a good portion of the film’s extras. The man behind the wheel of “Old Phyllis” was even a tank driver for the Royal Navy.
“YOU ARE NOW A SOLDIER,” reads a sign hanging outside wardrobe, “AND NO LONGER AN EXTRA.”
Within the massive tent (just one of several set up in the muddy countryside, forming a massive, barracks-like production base) are thousands of uniforms that aim to duplicate the period perfectly. Some of the German uniforms even feature a camouflage design (one of 40 different real-life patterns) that was only ever used during the very specific time that Fury is set, just four weeks before the end of World War II.
“It was a brutal slog,” Ayer says, “especially at the end of the war? You’re fighting a fanatical enemy. I drew a lot of parallels between the fanaticism of Nazi Germany and the fanaticism of Al-Queda or something like that. They’re just as committed and you had the equivalent of suicide bombers. They were hanging children. They were grabbing kids — 13-year-old kids — and putting uniforms on them. They were giving them weapons and sending them after tanks. If they didn’t do it, they’d hang them.”
Fury‘s storyline unfolds through the eyes of Lerman’s Norman Ellison, a young recruit who winds up seeing the horrors of war for the first time when he’s assigned to replace the former “Fury” gunner.
“There’s something about the fanaticism and the brutality of fighting an enemy like that,” Ayer continues. “For a lot of World War II veterans, it’s actually the most disturbing and difficult part of the war for them. Going into Germany and seeing these things happen. No one has really told that story.”
Setting the film when and where it does means that the soldiers already know that the war is more or less over, meaning that it’s even harder for them to deal with the fact that they could still easily be killed in the meantime. That’s why the bond between the five-man crew of Fury is at the center of the film and also why Ayer went to extreme lengths to recreate that kind of life-or-death camaraderie for his actors.
“It was fully immersive,” says Ayer of the week-long bootcamp that the five stars went through together. “Day one, everyone threw their cell phone in a helmet. Brad was first, to set the example. It was full on. It was 24 hours a day. There was no ‘Hey, let’s give the actors a break’ stuff. It was fully full-on. It was incredibly intense psychologically and, at the end of the day, it wasn’t about, ‘Let’s all learn to be soldiers.’ It was about making these guys bond as a family by putting them through one of the more intense experiences of their lives together. They will always share that. They will always have that in common.”
Pitt, whose character goes by the nickname “Wardaddy,” was the first to sign on after being moved by Ayer’s powerful screenplay.
“He read it and, I think, fell in love with the character,” Ayer explains. “He read it fast. It all unfolded very quickly. He was ready for total immersion and he was ready to play this troubled, complex guy who outwardly doesn’t seem like the best guy. But then you get to know him and you start to understand the true loneliness of having other peoples’ lives in your hands. You’re responsible for people and have to keep them alive. And sometimes you’ve got to send them to their deaths while others live. He captures that darkness.”
Shia LaBeouf fully immersed himself in the role of Boyd “Bible” Swan to the degree that Ayer was able to strengthen the overall of reality of Fury.
“He came at things from such an emotionally deep and honest place that he actually became a great barometer for digging in and finding out a little bit more truth about these characters,” says Ayer. “It’s that thing of him being a real, living, breathing person, who’s really cool. Then there’s this public perception of who he is. He’s a child actor trying to get out of that mold. He’s trying to basically destroy his own history so he can be rediscovered for who and what he is, which is a brilliant actor. I think people are going to be shocked by what he brings to the table.”
In addition to bonding, the boot camp trained all five actors for combat.
“If you want to know somebody, fight ‘em,” says Ayer. “Have a fistfight with them. We did a lot of sparring and combatives and martial arts. Then there’s also extensive training with the weapons and the vehicles. To operate the tank as a crew, it’s not about five individuals. It has to be one organism, composed of five people. Forcing them to learn how to operate a tank and having them work together? It’s full-contact rehearsal. It’s not just a bunch of guys sitting in chairs in a room reading scenes.”
Some of Fury‘s production did take place on a stage in a re-created version of the lead tank with removable sides to shoot interiors. Mounted on a gimbal, the massive set is actually cheated 10% larger than reality so that the cameras have a bit more room to get up close and personal with the characters. A look inside revealed a small cache of “trophies” taken by the crew of the “Fury,” including a number of German swastika emblems and watches.
“I went to great pains to take a look at the actual photographs of the time and not remake someone else’s movie and not base my look off someone else’s World War II movie look,” Ayer says of the project’s exacting detail. “Experientially, people didn’t live it in black and white. When we do look at color material from the war, it’s really emotional. It’s really impactful. The look I’m going for in the film isn’t that washed-out “look, it’s the past” look. When you talk to people who have been in combat, there’s a sensory overload that happens. The color becomes vivid. Sounds become more pronounced. People talk about how, for them, the war was technicolor and real life was black and white after the war.”
Nearly complete, Fury is such a hit with the studio to the extent that Ayer is actually heading back for some additional photography to amp up the film’s action level.
“Sony,” he says, “loved the movie and they’re like, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘More action!’ They were like, ‘Here you go!’ So I’m going to go blow some stuff up! ?As far as where we’re at right now? The beast’s back is broken. Now it’s just polish on the final touches. Work on the music. Work on the visual effects. Fine-tune scenes. Make it as good as it can be. My mantra is ‘Better is better.’ Just anything I can do to make it better until they drag me out of the editing room.”
Fury opens in theaters on November 14.