Jonathan Liebesman began his professional directing career with a number of studio horror movies that weren’t particularly well-received, but undaunted, he’s back, tackling his most ambitious film to date, Battle: Los Angeles, a uniquely high concept war movie featuring a group of Marines led by Aaron Eckhart facing an alien invasion and trying to save a number of survivors who have been caught in the crossfire.
It’s the first alien invasion movie in a year chock-full of them, and it certainly wears its references on its sleeve as it pays homage to everyone from Paul Greengrass and Ridley Scott to Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay, which should offer enough to satisfy both those looking for a cool alien invasion movie or those who just enjoy a gritty war movie.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Liebesman a few weeks back, just before he was off to England to start production on the sequel to Clash of the Titans.
ComingSoon.net: This is obviously the biggest movie you’ve done and that comes out after doing a movie that was at Sundance, so did [producer] Neal [Moritz] approach you or did you go after it?
Jonathan Liebesman: No, no, no, I went after this. I don’t think any producer in their right mind would chase the guy who did “The Killing Room” to do “Battle: Los Angeles.” Yeah, I fought really hard to get the job, and did some presentations, shot some footage in downtown, and learned how to use some software to integrate some FX into that. Had a guy in London called Paul Gerrard design aliens off some visual references I sent, some Chris Cunningham kind of stuff, and he went and did that, and we put those into these shots, and Neal Moritz was extremely supportive with the studio, and I got the job. It all worked out, Ed.
CS: I think this movie happened pretty fast, at least from our perspective. Did you have a lot of time for pre-production to figure how you were going to do some of the more ambitious scenes?
Liebesman: No, I was on the movie trying to get it greenlit with the producers for a while. I got on in ’08 and we finished in about September ’10, so for me it was a two-year process.
CS: Wow, you’ve been done with the entire movie and FX for that long?
Liebesman: Yes, I finished shooting in December of ’09.
CS: That’s a pretty fast turnaround. I would think you’d be working on this until the very last minute.
Liebesman: No, no, it’s decisiveness.
CS: What were some of the biggest challenges you had to figure out to make this work?
Liebesman: One of the biggest challenges I think was keeping it real to Marines and having our tech advisor with 14 principal actors in every scene telling me what they would all do, trying to integrate that and have that make dramatic sense, as well as accuracy to the Marines. I think that was probably the challenge I faced the most.
CS: Soldiers are trained to work as a unit and not have individual identities but in your movie, each of the Marines have a bit of their own screen time and back stories, so was it hard to balance all the different characters and make them all feel 3-dimensional?
Liebesman: That’s a tough balance. We have all these archetypes we’re used to in different movies, and you want to try and make them fresh and give them a moment to shine. It’s all those tough things as well as just following Aaron Eckhart’s journey and stick with that.
CS: Even without the archetypes from war movies, over the last six or seven years, we see real soldiers on the news and in documentaries, and more people are familiar with them even if they don’t watch war movies.
Liebesman: Yeah, absolutely. I think the archetype of someone who has to lay down their life in the line of duty and has to overcome their own fears is something that’s definitely more familiar, and so it’s a big challenge to keep it fresh.
CS: You have a lot more human emotions than you might normally see in a big alien invasion movie. When people think of this movie they’re probably just expecting Marines and aliens going at it, but you included a lot of humanity which is important to good storytelling, so how hard was it to keep things balance with that?
Liebesman: It was difficult but it was important. We strove really hard, and I think casting Aaron was helpful in adding humanity in it, because I think again the bar has been set high in this genre recently, and we’re trying to aspire to that, so it was very important to me.
CS: When I was on set, I didn’t see any big action scenes being shot, so how much of this was done on soundstages and on location? Did you have a big backlot somewhere that you could build a lot of this stuff?
Liebesman: We tried to shoot as much as possible for real. Actually, now that I think about it, not a lot was on a soundstage. It’s probably 70, 80% real.
CS: Some of the shots of the L.A. neighborhoods that were being destroyed, was that a matter of piecing together all sorts of shots with digital FX?
Liebesman: Well, like shooting in a street in Louisiana and coming in doors for a bit and cutting back out to a street, comping in palm trees, stealing some shots in actual Los Angeles. My assistant and I would run out with a video camera and I would steal some shots over his shoulder while he was dressed as a Marine in real streets, and then we’d put some FX in those.
CS: So it was a matter of finding the footage wherever you could?
Liebesman: Exactly, like trying to beg, borrow and steal to put some sort of character of Los Angeles into the movie, you know?
CS: Some of the scenes are really impressive. Obviously, this is a fairly big budget compared to your other movies but it’s not a $200 million movie, but you were able to get out of what you had to make it look like this.
Liebesman: Yeah, I know. Well, I think guys like Neill Blomkamp set the bar really high, so you want to try and keep that alive, so to speak.
CS: But he did his movie In South Africa and it was done almost independently compared to this one, which had Neal and the studio and a lot more people involved, so are you still able to keep what you want to do as you went along?
Liebesman: Listen, would it be great to do it independently? Of course, but I didn’t write this script so I didn’t have that luxury. People are definitely going to impose what they want onto the movie, but I felt very supported and honestly, so grateful to get the job, to be honest. So yeah, the grass is always greener on the other side, but at the same time, I developed some awesome relationships with Neal and with the guys at Sony, so it was cool, too.
CS: When I spoke with Seth Rogen a few weeks back, he was saying how Neal balanced out Michel Gondry’s more avant-garde sensibilities, so from a director’s standpoint, what does Neal bring to the mix compared to other producers you’ve worked with?
Liebesman: I think Neal is incredible at working with the studio, and I think that is so invaluable, because as a director, the studio is always kept abreast of the information. Neal also has a very good instinct of what an audience is going to like on a base level, but what impresses me the most about Neal is how he gets things done and he’s a machine. The guy can work on four $200 million movies at the same time, and not break a sweat. There’s something about his disposition that is made for being a machine to master films. So I actually enjoyed that, I liked watching how different people work and learning from them. I loved learning from Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes when I was there, learning different things from Neal and then learning different things on the current film I’m doing. There’s down sides to everything, but the fact is that these guys gave me the job, so there’s not much bad I could ever say.
CS: I remember when I spoke to you for “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which is many years ago now, and you had been doing a lot of horror at that point, but you said you didn’t really want to be thought of as a horror director but there are elements of horror in this, being about an alien invasion. Are you still wanting to continue exploring genre or elements of that?
Liebesman: I don’t know. I never see it as genre stuff. I see it more as something that I would go watch, like this is the type of movie that I would go see, and I think horror is an element of many, many different things, suspense and horror. Definitely it was nice to draw from whatever I learned on those things and use them on this. I think it’s all helpful, and I don’t think it’s a waste of time, I try and tell myself that. I don’t know if I believe it, Ed.
CS: You directed “Darkness Falls” when you were 26, which is about 8 years ago now. Do you feel that if you went back to make those movies now, you’d do things very differently?
Liebesman: I probably wouldn’t have done those movies if I could go back and erase things, because I’d probably would have gone and done some of the ideas I had for little independent movies in South Africa. I got a chance to do an American film, and so I took it. Maybe in a few years when those things are more distant memories, I’ll be okay with them, but at this point, I’m now doing things I want to do. I’m doing a war movie with aliens, which is coming out, and then I’m doing a big Greek epic, so I can’t really complain.
CS: The “Clash” sequel is going to keep you busy for a while…
Liebesman: Until the next year and then I don’t know. Hopefully, there’ll be someone who wants to employ me.
CS: Are there any of those small ideas set in South Africa that you might still want to do?
Liebesman: There are things that I would like to do, but they are so far away from being anything real to be honest.
CS: No old screenplays that you wrote?
Liebesman: Yes, there are, but they need to be improved so much, because I’m ten years older now.
Battle: Los Angeles opens nationwide on Friday, March 11.