Interview: Filmmaker David Ayer Captures the Fury of WWII Tank Battles

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Having made the move from go-to Hollywood screenwriter to full-on director with 2005’s Harsh Times, starring a pre-Batman Begins Christian Bale no less, David Ayer has been fairly prolific in recent years with Street Kings, End of Watch and Sabotage, all dealing with some angle of law enforcement.

Ayer’s latest movie Fury could be seen as a departure, being an epic World War II movie starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal (from “The Walking Dead”) as the crew of the tank nicknamed “Fury” fighting off the remaining Nazi forces in the final days of the war.

While it has all the tank battles and firefights one might hope from a war movie–and they’re all quite spectacular–Fury is at its core, a character-driven film that shows what happens when Lerman’s Norman joins the others as the “new guy” trying to learn the intricacies of war with the horrifying realization that it’s literally “kill or be killed.” He also ends up with the crew of “Fury” when it breaks down leaving them in the path of an enormous SS battalion that’s closing in on them.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Ayer earlier this week for our third or fourth interview with the director. Since Ayer’s name had been attached to bringing DC Comics’ Suicide Squad to the big screen (which has now officially been announced for a summer 2015 release) we also tried to learn more about that and ended up quickly being shut down faster than a tank that runs out of gas.

ComingSoon.net: When we spoke last, you either had shot “Sabotage” or were getting ready to shoot it. It was about two years ago. Was this movie also something you had been working on or was it on the horizon?
David Ayer:
I wrote this script after I finished principal photography on “Sabotage.” I basically wrote this in two weeks. I’d been researching it for a long time though, had been a student of history, a student of the war. My grandparents are career military and served in the war and my uncle, so there’s a family legacy there. I just wanted to create something more experiential, just a slice of life, what an anonymous day in the life of this family towards the end of a brutal war. It’s a family that happens to live in a tank and kill people for a living.

CS: So did anyone in your family actually drive tanks?
Ayer:
No, none of them were tankers – a submariner and a pilot and the other one served on B-17s as a gunner. But when you look at the history of the war, it’s really the armored units that won that war. It’s the armored units that had the combat mass to punch across Europe and liberate it. No one’s really told their story, which is a little counterintuitive, because a World War II movie, there must be a tank movie in there somewhere. There’s not really any contemporary Hollywood tank movie.

CS: That’s true. The only movie I can think of was the Israeli movie “Lebanon” that was all inside a tank. It’s one of the issues when you set movies in a tank there’s only so much you can do, because you basically have four or five people in a tank.
Ayer:
Yeah, exactly, but we did our best to sort of capture the experience of the war fighting. Again, it’s a slice of life. These crews, they really become brothers. They really become closer than anyone. It’s that thing of the way like your relatives can just tear you down with that right sentence and cut you to the core. It’s the same thing with these guys, that closeness and intimacy and viciousness and love at the same time, so it’s really a study of that.

CS: Were there any particular battles or maneuvers that inspired the ones in the movie? Anything you read about that you said, “Oh, this would be good?”
Ayer:
Yeah, there’s this battle called? there was the Weser River and Second Armored crossed the Weser River and it was the last offensive of the German military. After that, they were 100 percent defensive. It was an interesting time because they lost a lot of tanks, a lot of guys got hurt. You know, there’s questions, did they overreach? Again, it’s such an interesting time, because everyone’s tired. The equipment’s tired. The military’s tired. They’ve fought all the way across Europe and the war’s going to be over in four weeks. It’s not the story of a great battle where everyone can slap high fives and celebrate. It’s just people trying to survive, people trying to just not die. It’s very simple. It’s a very simple movie in a lot of ways, very old school.

CS: I was surprised by the fact that the Nazis recruited anyone they could to fight, which is what they did in Russia. Basically “you either fight for your country or we’ll shoot you ourselves.”
Ayer:
If you could walk, you could shoot, but that’s all very true. That’s the thing, because it was such a black and white world and it was good versus evil and it really was, which is a story of good versus evil. We think the fighting was somehow clean, and it wasn’t, and by the end, the Nazis threw the rulebook out. They’re sending kids and women into combat much like the things that our soldiers face today, you know? There’s really nothing new under the sun.

CS: What made you want to go to Brad Pitt with this? He’d obviously played a World War II sergeant before in “Inglourious Basterds.” When you make a war movie there are going to be comparisons and while that’s very different, you do have Brad Pitt playing a similar role than he did years go.
Ayer:
Yeah, exactly. No, the comparisons are there.

CS: Was that a concern at all?
Ayer:
You know, this is such a different character and such a specific character and a tonally different film. It’s interesting because someone had slipped him the script and he read it right away and committed right away. It was kind of a whirlwind. I’d been wanting to work with him and vice versa, so it was just a great opportunity to kinda try something together. He was after truth. He wanted to do something honest. I did a lot of work to make that script as real as possible and the story of those guys as real as possible. He wanted an immersive experience. I mean, there is no movie star stuff. He was in the mud, in the cold and rain with everyone else. I mean, he’s a regular guy. That’s the great thing about him. He’s a superstar, but at the end of the day, he’s just a bro. He’s a dude.

CS: I’m so surprised you wrote this in two weeks, that’s amazing. It seems like the type of movie that you would spend years writing.
Ayer:
I mean, I had a false start. I had 45 pages at one point and I kind of threw it away because it just felt like every other Hollywood movie. I’d been researching it for a long time, so it’s two weeks plus two years, I guess would be more honest.

CS: I’m sure we’ve talked before about this, but many filmmakers who write their own material can’t do a movie every year (except maybe Woody Allen), because it takes longer to write something new after making a movie, so it’s impressive that you’re going on three movies in two years, all that you’ve written.
Ayer:
Yeah. Oh, boy. I could use a break, a good one.

CS: Sure, especially after those two movies. “End of Watch” is pretty intense, and then you come to this and it’s even bigger?
Ayer:
Bigger and “intenser-er.” No, this was a brutal film to make, because it was so personal and so much of my vision, it was really hard to pass the baton to anyone to kind of do it for me. I mean, I was cutting hair. I was painting the tanks. I was just involved as possible in all aspects. What you’re seeing on that screen is really a true representation of the war at that time. It’s so period specific and it’s a US Army we haven’t really seen before. At the end of the war, everyone’s just beat up and emotionally beat up, you know? These guys, this family, really feel their struggle and how much pain is in their hearts from what they’ve been doing. Again, it’s just this amazing slice of life, just this snapshot of brothers.

CS: The battle sequences are really very distinctive. We’ve seen firefights over Baghdad on television, but in this, you can almost feel the shells whizzing past you, between the sound FX and the visuals. Was that something you wanted to make sure was as accurate as possible?
Ayer:
Yeah, I mean, I wanted to make the film experiential. It’s just a movie, and unless you go to war, you’re not going to know what war is, but I can give an experience of it. So the battle and the action itself is very specific, very detailed, and very about the military tactics and tank tactics and processes and fighting and all that’s very defined in this. The tracers are very realistic, the weapons physics are very realistic. I just wanted to put the audience in that blender of danger.

CS: I imagine it’s hard to make a war movie these days, because there are people playing “Call of Duty.” They’re so used to thinking that you can fight a war while lounging on your couch safely at home. So it must be hard to compete with that and create something that feels real and visceral.
Ayer:
That’s the thing. You are competing with younger guys and older guys, the videogame world of it all, which can be very intense. The way I came with this is I didn’t want to make anyone else’s movie. I didn’t want to copy anything. The way “End of Watch” is just a slice of life of some cops in South Central, I wanted this to just be a slice of life of a tank crew in Germany.

CS: I think it’s important to point out that this is not a “videogame movie.” One of my favorite scenes is the scene with a few people just sitting around a dinner table. It’s a long scene and I think you’re kind of expecting the worst constantly. It creates so much tension.
Ayer:
That was the toughest scene to shoot, the dinner scene. It’s so emotionally intense and it is that energy of anything can happen, you know? There’s so much subtext. The performance is just unbelievable. I basically have this war movie, and then go and have dinner. If you have a family, it’s one of those tense Thanksgiving dinners. I think anyone can identify with that. It’s like just a really bad family dinner.

CS: I spent most of the movie thinking someone was going to get shot randomly, because so much of that happens.
Ayer:
Yeah, it’s random, and that’s the thing. Violence in war is random, and that’s what I tried to show. It’s exactly that. There is that tension. Anything can happen at any time and it does in this movie. That’s the environment these guys have to live in.

CS: You worked with Michael Pena before. Logan I remember seeing him in “3:10 to Yuma” and he was amazing. I know that he can handle anything thrown at him. As is Jon Bernthal and Shia obviously is a solid actor. How did you know they would work together as a unit?
Ayer:
I guess it’s instinct, because I had to take strangers and turn them into a family. For me, all these guys who were willing to do the prep work and were willing to take the time and do the rehearsals and do the fighting and sparring and everything that was asked of them. So, that was kind of how I knew. If somebody didn’t want to do those things, then I knew that they’d be a square peg and wouldn’t fit into this family I was trying to build.

CS: Did Arnold Schwarzenegger lend you his tank to train on?
Ayer:
He has a post-war tank?

CS: Wrong era? I guess there must have been some things similar as far as controls between the old tanks and the new ones.
Ayer:
At the end of the day, a tank’s a tank.

CS: This definitely seems like a step up from some of your earlier movies like “End of Watch” and even “Harsh Times” which were gritty, but they were shot in a way that felt very?
Ayer:
Contained.

CS: Yeah, contained, and you uses a lot of different types of cameras to shoot them. This one seems very cinematic.
Ayer:
Old school filmmaking. I mean, we shot it on film and anamorphic lenses. It’s such a dense movie visually, I hope that people get to see it in theaters, because these images are gorgeous. I mean, Roman (Vasyanov, cinematographer) just shot the heck out of it and it’s very, very cinematic. It’s not shaky camera or anything. It’s very composed. I really enjoyed that kind of filmmaking. It’s like the ’70s movies that inspired me so much. It’s an experience. It’s an experience.

CS: Did you spend a lot of time developing the tank battles in pre-vis and all that stuff, working that out?
Ayer:
Well, we had elaborate plans and storyboarded everything and really went in and created these shots. But, there was that sort of panicked realization of “We don’t have the time to shoot these boards.” I think we had a week to shoot the Tiger battle, for instance, so you get on set and you figure out real fast where to place the cameras so you can get the coverage you need. I mean, it was scary. We were really racing the clock. It was an ambitious movie. For a lot of the action, it was just shot on gut instinct, you know? I don’t know how smart that is, but it sure worked out.

CS: I’m assuming a lot of the tank interiors were actually built on a set?
Ayer:
Yeah, we built the Fury interior and people said it was the most complex set they’ve ever worked on, as a film crew. It moved, it was on a gimbal. The turret turned. You could load the cannon and it would eject the shell. The machine guns worked. All the switches and knobs did what they were supposed to. The radio even transmitted. I don’t know who we talked to.

CS: That has to involve more than the normal people who build sets, someone who technically could make that all those things work.
Ayer:
Yeah, there was so many departments that came in, the artists and everybody. That was the problem. It was such a cramped set, only one person could basically work on it at a time, so it would take like two hours just to set up one camera angle. It was painstaking. My soul would just die whenever we got there, because it took so long and it was so meticulous, but it’s beautiful and you can’t tell it’s anything but a tank.

CS: I hope there’s some behind-the-scenes stuff we’ll see down the road so we can actually see that.
Ayer:
Yeah, absolutely.

CS: It’s one of things about movie magic, where you don’t want to ruin it too much, but it will help answer some of the questions of “how did they do that?”
Ayer:
How do you do that? It’s funny, because when I watch the movie, I know all the magic tricks. It’s always tough. I know every frame of that film and I know how everything was done. Only now, I’m able to watch it and really enjoy it as a movie and not an accumulation of workdays. (chuckles)

CS: I don’t know when you actually finished making this?
Ayer:
That’s a good question. Mid-September, a month ago.

CS: So very recently. Since then, you’ve been attached to direct “Suicide Squad,” which is an interesting choice.
Ayer:
Those are rumors.

CS: You’re going to deny the rumors?
Ayer:
I’m going to deny the rumor. I’m denying the rumors.

CS: That’s too bad because first of all, I think it’s an interesting movie to make because I don’t know how they can release a movie called “Suicide Squad.” I can’t imagine the MPAA is going to say “Okay, that title’s fine.” But still?
Ayer:
(laughs) Well, if someone can do it, it would be me.

CS: But it’s not you.
Ayer:
No comment.

CS: Considering that you may or may not be doing “Suicide Squad,” do you have something else to do in case you don’t do that? Is there something else you’re writing?
Ayer:
No. (laughs)

CS: So you’re available to do “Suicide Squad” if they ask you, I guess?
Ayer:
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. If I end up doing a DC Comics-based project at Warner Brothers, I would be available to do that. (laughs)

CS: Well, they have a lot of them lined up. They have secured nine dates to release DC-related movies. There’s gotta be one in there that you can direct.
Ayer:
Yeah, exactly.

Fury opens for previews on Thursday night, October 16, and nationwide on Friday.