On the Set of Battle: Los Angeles

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It’s always a great thrill visiting movie sets all around the world, and it often allows us to see a number of things few people ever have a chance to see. Even so, it’s still hard to believe that one of the most amazing sights we’ve seen in recent years would take place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, specifically at the local airport which is doubling for Santa Monica in the upcoming Sony action movie Battle: Los Angeles, produced by Neal Moritz (The Fast and the Furious), directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls) and starring Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan and Michael Peña.

Battle: Los Angeles continues the studio’s ongoing affection for alien invasion movies as seen by the “Men in Black” movies (returning next summer!) and continued in their 2009 smash hit, the South African alien emigration film District 9 by Neill Blomkamp, Liebesman’s South African countrymate. Battle: Los Angeles isn’t meant to be a typical alien invasion movie as much as it is a war movie, and it’s very much a love letter to the Marines who put their lives at risk as they clear out survivors as the alien-induced destruction escalates.

“I grew up on these types of movies,” Liebesman told us when we sat down with him and the other filmmakers later in the day. “War movies and science fiction films are my favorite, whether it’s ‘Braveheart,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ on the war side, or ‘Alien/Aliens’ or ‘Terminator’ on the science fiction side, and to really get to meld the two. When you look at a film like ‘Aliens’ which was a successful melding, here we get to do something that’s a hardcore war movie and put it together with popcorn science fiction and put them together. For any director, it’s just a dream thing. I remember seeing the title on the script, ‘Battle: Los Angeles,’ it’s so pulpy in such a cool way, it’s so ‘Forbidden Planet,’ ‘Escape from New York.’ It’s such a pulp title; I want to go watch that movie.”

Anyone who has seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has probably marveled at the scene of Marine helicopters flying through the air to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” When we showed up at the airport, we were immediately impressed by the striking image of nine helicopters on loan from the Marines that had been strategically placed on the airfield. We also saw a number of armed jeeps driving around and dozens of extras dressed as Marines running around the airfield, some of them being unloaded from the carrier helicopters.

Much of the focus of our visit was on this military hardware, and though we weren’t able to actually fly in any of the helicopters, we were escorted by Lt. Col. Chris Defries (codename “Fridge”) onto his CH-46 carrier helicopter, known affectionately as the “Imperial Battle Frog.” These are the most common military personnel carriers and have been for many years, being recognizable from the way that Marines march in and out through a ramp at the back of the aircraft. As we sat inside, we noticed how sparse and no-frills the interiors were–they don’t want to be carrying any extra weight beyond the Marines–and the deadly serious Defries went through some of the armaments on his CH-46, including special countermeasures to screw with heat-seeking missiles. Defries also mentioned that this particular CH-46 was 42 years old and it actually had been used during the Vietnam War, although they had replaced the engines since then.

Even though it was cool to view Defries’ helicopter, the real stars of the show were the two Boeing MV-22 Ospreys, which few have had a chance to see in movies let alone up close like we did. These large transport aircrafts were created to replace the CH-46s, which would often break down, and they benefited from having the same range, speed and size of a plane but able to land and take off in less space. This was accomplished via two large propellers that could be shifted from a horizontal to a vertical position in order for the aircraft to do vertical take off and landing rather than needing a runway like a normal personnel carrier plane.

The other helicopters used that day were the smaller Marine and Navy Hueys, which hold far fewer soldiers but were easier to maneuver in the air, which may be why they’re the helicopters most commonly seen in war films.

This would be the setting where a group of Marines led by Aaron Eckhart’s character Staff Sergeant Nantz would be debriefed before being sent into L.A. on a search and rescue mission for a small group of civilians, played by Bridget Moynahan and Michael Peña. They had turned one of the empty hangars at the airport into a reconnaissance area where a group of Marines were marched to be debriefed by a commanding officer, played by Rus Blackwell, who would give them the lowdown on their mission. These scenes were being shot mainly with handheld cameras to create a documentary feel, and oddly, the scene we watched being filmed would also make up a good portion of the footage shown at Comic-Con last year.

Before cameras started rolling on the scene they were filming, the pilots revved up the engines on their respective helicopters with the MV-22 taking the longest to get up to speed. It was literally one of the loudest things we have ever heard, to the point where we couldn’t even hear ourselves talk. When we put on the headphones, all we could hear was a white noise of the helicopters in the background. Who knows how the actors could actually hear each other over the noise since they were shooting in a hangar with an open door?

“The situation is as follows,” the lieutenant tells them, completely undaunted by the overwhelming noise. “We’ve got an infestation of God-knows-what, but they’re not of this earth. I want you to proceed to a police station. We got a distress call that there are civilians still there. We don’t know how many, just get the survivors and you radio in and we’ll have helicopters in the area to evacuate you out. Be advised that you have three hours before our bombs drop, and make no mistake, they will drop with or without you. This is not a drill. And you kill anything that’s not human.”

This speech perfectly encapsulated the plot of the film in a scene we watched them filming for most of the day with Eckhart walking around the airfield taking pictures between takes.

Once they wrapped filming, Liebesman showed the visiting journalists and a good portion of the cast and crew a special sizzle reel they had cut together using some of the footage they had already shot. We didn’t really get to see any of the aliens, but apparently, Liebesman got in touch with his friend, District 9‘s Neill Blomkamp, to find out what software he used to create the aliens and technology in his own film.

After watching the footage, we had a chance to sit down with the filmmakers and actors including two groups of five to six young actors playing Nantz’s Marines, a wild and wooly group who talked excitedly about their boot camp training and what they each brought to the mission.

Much of what makes the film so distinctive is its realism in trying to stay true to how real Marines behave. Most civilians probably know very little about what differentiates Marines from other branches of the military, particularly the army. The Marines are amphibious in that they’re brought in early in a military effort to reconnoiter and create a strategy rather than being involved in prolonged wars, which is really where the Army comes in. We learned things like that at lunch as we were joined by Lt. Col. Jason Johnson, the entertainment liaison for the Marines, who told us how he works with filmmakers to make sure that the Marines are portrayed correctly.

“Marines never quit, Marines find a way to get the job done, that they’re the toughest sons of bitches in the military,” Eckhart stated when asked what he learned about the role he was portraying. “They will take on and fight anybody, that they are the elite forces in American forces, and that’s basically how we’re trying to play them.”

A lot of that realism comes down to the film’s senior technical advisor James D. Dever, who worked closely with Liebesman to make sure everything remained true while still working for the story.

“What was so weird to me in a way was that Jim was like a director,” Liebesman confirmed during our interview. “I would go to him and be like, ‘Jim, what are people doing in this scene? They just walked into a room, this is the situation, what are they doing?’ and then I’d go and work out the shots and Jim has figured out what they’re doing and then I get to shoot it, but the truth is that Jim is telling me what Marines would do. They each have a job, Lance Corporal, Corporal, Staff Sergeant, what are they doing? Things as simple as ‘When we walk into this room, who goes first? What does the Staff Sergeant say? When we came off the GUILO over here, who is leading, where do we send them? Who goes into this briefing? Are your normal Marines allowed into the briefing or is it just the Lieutenant and the Staff Sergeant?’ There’s so many thing when you’re trying to have some sense of reality to a war movie that I don’t know.”

“Then we have to figure out how to support the script,” Dever continued. “We learned through our rehearsals and our boot camp, and sometimes guys wouldn’t be together that had lines together. Or how to reposition guys because Jonathan wanted certain people to be in a certain place.”

Liebesman talked about how he wanted to go about developing the characters from there. “When I’ve read interviews of (directors) who have made the most powerful performances or I’d speak to actors–let’s use Paul Greengrass as an example–they would say to me that the way he liked to work was he’d create a situation where he’d have people bring as much as possible to his characters. If you read a Paul Greengrass script, it’s often just a scriptment. He gives people the boundaries and gives them space, and with Chris (Bertolini’s) script, what we did was we said, ‘Okay, great, here’s the boundaries, here’s the space and then with Jim Dever, the Marines got the job they would do and they would do research on the job. We wrote for each character a two-page history bio for them. They would read it and we’d say, ‘Just invent.’ Then we’d go and improvise for three weeks in the boot camp and what that would do is they’d create relationships. I’d say to two actors, ‘Go take a walk for 15 minutes. This is your first meeting, you are now roommates. Go.’ What comes out of that is a lot of tiny little details and funny things that these guys bring out whether it’s Neo who plays Harris and Gino Pesi who plays Stavrou have a great relationship, a lot of which they made up behind the scenes. Like Guerrero (played by Neil Brown), he’s one of the guys way back there, but now he’s got a personality, stuff you don’t expect.”

The eleven or twelve young actors were pretty excited to be in that situation and they really made the most of it, coming up with nicknames for each other and everything.

“On set and off set they’re calling each other by their names in the film,” executive producer (and Neal Moritz’s right hand man) Ori Marmur told us. “You’ll hear them in the lobby of the hotel yelling out their screen names to each other, on-set same thing.”

“They go out in a pack, they protect each other in a pack,” his producing partner Jeffrey Chernov added.

“We shot this freeway sequence first and when we saw them run out of the bus and take cover and stuff, you take it for granted that they look like Marines, but that would not have happened without a bunch of stuff,” Liebesman said.

Surprisingly, Eckhart went through the exact same training as the rest of the cast. “It’s essential for our characters really,” he said. “We did it for three weeks. We lived together for a week. The guys got to know each other and we learned something about the Marines, and something about our parts and hopefully it makes the movie better. We could probably use another three weeks of it.”

Eckhart also mentioned that sending everyone to boot camp allowed them to learn about each other’s personalities and build relationships that allowed for some degree of humor in the film. “There are some people who are more prone to comedy and all that sort of stuff than others, so it should be in the film. It’s human behavior, that’s what it’s called. We’re all funny in our way, and I think it’s good in a movie when it shows up. I like to remember that it’s probably a movie for 13-year-olds in the end and gotta get them to go anyway, but hopefully they’ll have a kick-ass time.”

Michelle Rodriguez, a veteran of Neal Moritz productions, is the one woman soldier in the group, playing an Air Force Tech Sergeant, which she explained to us. “They basically have a global network system nowadays. It’s not just a NORAD base somewhere. Every Air Force base has a surveillance unit that basically is in charge of looking and informing NORCOM of any activity in the air and anything that’s captured by satellite. Basically, when our communications went down, I come out and I go mobile into Venice to try and figure out what the hell the last thing we tracked on satellite was and then I get attacked and then I meet with the boys. I’m a survivor, I’m the only one who survives out of the Humvee that was attacked.”

All of the cool gear and training isn’t meant to take anything away from the actors who play civilians and are just as important to the story. “We all have our moments for sure,” Michael Peña said. “It’s a good reason to do this kind of movie. My character has two or three moments that make it worthwhile. Besides that, I think it’s a group effort to get out of there alive.”

“It gets much more personal because from here it becomes such a small group that’s traveling together,” Bridget Moynahan agreed.

“I think they’re important to the story, because they bring the heart because they have the kids with them, so you get to see what the civilians might be experiencing,” added Ramon Rodriguez, who plays Nantz’s significantly younger and greener commanding officer 2nd Lieutenant Martinez. “Everybody has their moments and then there’s bigger stuff.”

Eckhart told us he took on the project because he wanted to work with Liebesman and he was excited about starring in a realistic war movie, but he especially admired the way the filmmaker allowed the actors to develop their characters in scenes. “He’s given us huge freedom, that’s why he’s so good, and he has a great radar for what works and what doesn’t work. He’s trying to find all those little nuggets over there, all those personalities and get them into the film, yet tell the story at the same time and satisfy the studio. They have to shoot a certain script, the studio, but I think Jonathan accounts for the studio and lets us play in the meantime.”

“He has a good understanding of how to draw borderlines on creativity,” Rodriguez agreed, “which I think is incredibly important when you do give actors freedom, because they’ll go crazy from my experience if you let a creative person go full throttle with no limitations, it can get wild.” She laughed at that thought and continued, “What’s great is he has a good judgment on where to draw the line with improv.”

Peña also felt Liebesman was incredibly collaborative on set. “He’s more prone to have a way of shooting which is only almost like he lets all the horses run free, but he can make sure to put the fence on it so it’s focused in a way. You don’t have to go up to him and say, ‘Hey, I want to try something,’ ’cause he’s like, ‘Go try it, go try it, if it doesn’t work I’ll tell you.'”

It was almost 5pm, the “magic hour” as they say in the movie business, and the sky over the Baton Rouge airport had transformed into one of those gorgeous sunsets that even the greatest painter or most brilliant CG animator might have trouble recreating. That meant it was time for the helicopters to take off for what would be the money shot of the day. With one take to get it right, all nine helicopters started to rise up in perfect formation and flew off; within a few minutes, they were all gone over the horizon. It was a shot that may not actually be in the film but it was just amazing to watch and something you don’t see every day. Apparently, a joke we made earlier about the Marines being tired of waiting around and taking their toys home proved to be somewhat true, as the four smaller Hueys didn’t return along with the others. Even so, it really was an amazing sight to behold, especially after spending hours listening to the deafening roar of their propellers.

After we finished up on set, we were invited to an amazing dinner at the ACME Oyster House, joined by most of the cast we had a chance to speak to earlier, a bunch of them even trying their very first oysters while in our presence. This also gave us an even better chance to learn about the personalities of each of the younger Marines in the movie and how all of them had bonded while making the movie.

While most people who see Battle: Los Angeles when it opens on March 11 will be focusing their attention on the aliens and their weapons, it was extremely cool to spend a day seeing how Jonathan Liebesman and his cast, along with the Marine consultants, were going to make sure that the human aspect of the movie was going to be just as interesting while keeping the film firmly grounded in reality.