Part 1 can be found here folks- enjoy part 2!
Despite meeting dozens of people and witnessing the combined efforts of an entire talented team of filmmaking crew, the energy of the set always seemed to emanate from two men: Jonathan Liebesman and Aaron Eckhart. Like two suns exerting their gravity and holding everything together, it seemed to be their passion that would ultimately translate into Battle: Los Angeles being something special, if that turns out to be the case. This was clear from the first moment we trudged out of our white van onto set, which was something like half a football field in size. Covered in utter destruction, piles of crumbled concrete, disintegrated asphalt and shorn metal poles were everywhere. The extremely convincing set was fenced in by the broken facade of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (if memory serves*) and a few other building-portions that were either semi-collapsed or had actually fallen over. One such building, which was mostly in-tact but leaning at an almost a 45º angle, was held up by metal sheeting and supports and held the video village beneath it- a clever utilitarian bit set construction.
Upon arriving to this set we were shuttled surprisingly close to the action and I realized we were watching Aaron Eckhart, in full marine gear, do battle with an unseen foe. This involved running up a crag of concrete that stabbed upward from the rubble, and leaping down something like six feet. Weapons were fired while small explosions burst from all over the set (the rubble of which was dust and painted cork- extremely convincing but harmless debris) and no less than three handheld cameras captured Aaron’s action.
And then motherfucker fell on his face right in the middle of it all.
Jonathan (who had been pointed out to us by then) was immediately concerned but even we dweeby movie nerds packed on the side could hear Eckhart’s cry to “keep shooting, keep going.” And they did. During our roundtable interview several hours later, Aaron and Jonathan (who interviewed as a pair, further enforcing that feeling of partnership between them) recounted-
Jonathan: We don’t even cut. On another film I swear you’d be cutting and stuff. We don’t.
Aaron: That was what you call a face planet.
Jonathan: I don’t even go up to Aaron anymore and go, are you OK? I saw that Jeff had come up to him, which means oh shit, he might have hurt himself. That’s the only way I knew that maybe it was bad. He doesn’t want a medic, and I go to him and I don’t even ask if he wants one. I say let’s go back to playback and see. But I love that. I’m going to miss this set, because it’s intense, but i just feel like everyone wants to make this so good. On some of the other films I’ve worked on it’s just a job. When you’re doing the seventh [Texas] Chainsaw- it doesn’t take anything away from anyone to say that it’s just a job for them. On this I just feel a genuine passion from everybody. How can we push it farther financially? How can the actors push it further?
Aaron: And that comes from Jonathan. It’s the producers, it’s Jim, it’s the camera crew. These camera operators, you saw today, they have been through hell and back. They’re as much in the war as anybody on this movie. It extends all through the crew. I think the results will speak for themselves. It comes from Jonathan and his passion for the movie.
This was backed up by producer Jeffrey Chernov.
Jeffrey: One of the things Jonathan and I talked about, and with Lucas his DP, to keep it real we want to shoot continuously and quickly and keep it in camera, and keep the whole energy moving forward. There’s been a bit of a sacrifice, but it’s not going to hurt the look of the movie or the feel of it. You saw today, we shoot. There’s no bounce boards or silks or anything. It’s going to feel very, very real. We shot a street called Spanish town, and we’re doing this sequence that’s going to get combined with our big set you saw with all the buildings. And we’re doing this thing down the street, and I said Jonathan, that alley, that’s the alley we’re going to be running down. Let’s keep going. And he said, you’re right, you’re right, make it bigger.
That energy will certainly be on screen. Later in the day we trekked back to that set once filming had resumed and spent some time under the aforementioned broken building and watched the monitor array while listening to a sum of all the audio (I believe there was something like 16 tracks being recorded at the time, including ambient mics and mics specifically meant to pick up the low frequencies of the explosions). All three cameras, which were staged at varying distances from the action, were capturing turbulent, aggressively handheld footage that nonetheless kept the action in the center. There’s a tendency on these kinds of films to go so shaky that the action becomes a smear and the intense energy is rendered useless. I profoundly hope Battle: Los Angeles is cut with a sure hand- editor Christian Wagner has worked with the most frenetic directors in the business like Michael Bay and John Woo, and produced some grounded-but-exciting picture edits. He’s also edited most of Tony Scott’s films in the last two decades… I hope Wagner goes for “exhilarating but followable” rather than “dynamic and seizure-inducing” for Battle.
A Director’s Post-Redemption Redemption
& An Actor’s Wet Dream
While he’s been shortlisted for half a dozen large scale action projects in the last year, things weren’t always so bright for director Jonathan Liebesman. A generally workman director for the first part of his Hollywood career, Liebesman debuted with Darkness Falls- the harmless and unremarkable horror thriller from 2003. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning came shortly after that. The director put together a smaller, more personal psychological thriller project starring Chloe Sevigny and Nick Cannon. That last film got some attention at Sundance, but before Battle: Los Angeles Liebesman was in an odd place. So how does he end up behind the wheel of an 80+ million dollar action blockbuster?
Jonathan: David Greenblatt, who’s there, represents Chris Bertoini, who wrote the script. To make a long story short there were a couple of scripts on my desk and one of them was called Battle: Los Angeles. It was, I thought, a great title. When I heard the concept was a war movie with aliens, I think that’s the type of film I would have wanted to direct at any age in my career. That’s the type of movie I would line up around the block for. Then I met Ori. I did a presentation where I showed them the visual style for the movie, and I made a big point that it should feel like a war movie with aliens, not an alien movie with Marines. I think now, one of the big steps was casting someone like Aaron, who in my opinion is a real actor, someone who can really elevate this to feel like a real story as opposed to a genre picture. That was number 1. Bringing in people like Jim Dever [senior military advisor] to keep it real. That was what I pitched Ori and the producers, that was my take. How can I make a war film that happens to have aliens as opposed to an alien films that happens to have Marines in it. That’s what got you excited, right Ori?
Ori: He’s selling himself a little short. What he showed us is he came into a room with 6 or 7 black bags, and in each bag he had visuals. He came in with alien design that he had gone out and hired a terrific artist to create that was really unique. He came in with charts detailing how he wanted to restructure certain beats to maximize tension, drama, scares. He came in with 12 minutes of pre-vis he had done on his own. He came in with shots from around Los Angeles he had take on his camera and gone home and used software that he had learned to use, where he could drop aliens in. He really came in with an amazing presentation that floored us. When we brought him to the studio he did it for Doug Belgrad and Sam Dickerman, the president of production and senior VP of production, and ultimately for the chairman. He really won the job with an amazing presentation.
Jonathan: I remember getting the job and the day after just thinking, it’s incredible. I just couldn’t believe I had the job. I met Aaron the day after, and Aaron has been on the movie as long as I’ve been on the movie.
Ori: But going back to what you were saying about the redemption thing, Jonathan had gone and put this entire presentation together and got us excited and the studio excited. I remember when we called him to thank him for putting in all that time and energy and financial resources not knowing if he was going to get the job or not, one of the things he said was, he was sick of being the guy that got all the way to the final meeting on things that he loved and was told, it just went to the other guy. So he poured everything into this thing, and whatever was in those six magic black bags. I think that’s kind of an answer to your question. He came across material that he loved, he locked into Aaron, which was a fantastic idea that we loved, and that’s why we’re here now.
Aaron: and not only that, but it’s exponentially better than any of us could imagine. I think I can say that safely. The movie the way that Jonathan’s making the movie and filming in this style, you saw today.
Jonathan: All of us push each other. We’re really creatively, every moment, it’s not an argument, we’re just constantly discussing what can we be doing that would make this even better. We have every day tons of discussions. Maximizing the dollar with Jeff and the producers, how we’re shooting, you say we’re getting tons of bang for our buck. We’re really pushing it, I feel like. We just push it, we really do. It’s such a big opportunity for me. I feel like every day we leave it on that fucking set. We push it. They have to pull us off the set.
But Jonathan makes sure to point out that “redemption” is not his primary goal.
I worked out of redemption on my last film and it went straight to video. So that didn’t work out. I think what I’m doing now, I’m just super passionate about the film. If you had a microphone with me and Aaron every day on set, all we talk about is how can we make this film as great as possible. And that’s really what I’ve focused on. If the redemption comes from that, that’s great. But it’s not as important to me as it was in my 20s, when it was so important to be like my idols. Now I realize, I think, you’re on your own path. So if it comes from a movie I’m passionate about, that’d be amazing. If it doesn’t, whatever. You know?
With all of the offers (he was on the list for Superman this fall, and has already been hired to direct Wrath of the Titans) it seems that passionate pitch has paid off already, without the movie even being released. If it comes out and rocks worlds, then he’ll likely be in an even stronger position.
Aaron Eckhart seems no less passionate about this role in the film, and how it’s given him an opportunity to play an action star in a character that suits him well.
Aaron: I have done all sorts of kinds of movies, but I have been praying to get a movie like this, goddamn praying for it. To get a director like Jonathan, I tell him, I just enjoy his passion and the lengths to which he’s going. When we first met a year ago and he showed me YouTube footage of Marines in Fallujah and said ‘This is what I want the movie to look like,’ I could have fell on to my knees and thanked God. Because that’s what I’ve been looking for, that physical, demanding, real war movie. Then to have Ori and all the producers and everybody’s on board. And to have Sony is treating us so well. I’ve been very blessed and very lucky, and that’s why as Jonathan’s saying, I’ve tried to do the best job I possibly can on this movie. To push my character beyond what we know of it and I’m very, very thankful for htat.
Jonathan’s detailed pitch wasn’t the only elaborate stunt pulled before the film even began- getting Eckhart involved was taken as a chance to do a test shoot to proof the approach to the film. Eckhart’s “screen test,” so to speak, was an intense affair.
Aaron: I was told to come on a Saturday to the Sony set. And I thought, well sure. I showed up and–
Chertov: The Sony set had blown up!
Jonathan: That was a great day.
Aaron: Helicopters had crashed and Humvees had crashed, and the thing was a shitstorm.
Jonathan: I think it cost 30 grand or something, and Jeff was able to get me a crashed helicopter, a green screen, about four camera. We were supposed to shoot six shots, that was the plan. We’re going to shoot six shots to show the studio something.
Aaron: It was insane.
Jonathan: And we ended up shooting I think 100 and something setups.
Ori: If you go on the Sony lot now, where that test was shot is rolling lawns and a brand-new commissary. We shot while they were still under construction, which really worked. We were able to make it look like places were destroyed. We didn’t really tell Aaron exactly what was going to happen that day, and we didn’t know how long we would have him. The movie wasn’t 100%. it was right there, it was close. He was there the whole day, it was amazing. In terms of Aaron’s dedication, when we were in Shreveport, he was the only guy in the entire cast who showed up ready to go. Haircut. He looked like–
Jonathan: When I saw Aaron after pre-produciton I was kind of scared.
Aaron: When I walked into your office and Jeffrey’s office, there were serious concerns about my health. I tell you, I have been dying to do this role. I have absolutely been dying to do it. I am so proud of this movie. I’ve done a few movies, I’ve worked with some good people, but nothing like this. I literally get in the car and go, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it through this day. And then I get back in the car at the end of the day and go, I can’t believe I made it through that day. And I’m going to say the same thing tomorrow. To have people around you that just care so much about it. This is an actor’s absolute wet dream.
The Grunts and Pukes
So who fills out this movie? I think the actor’s can say it best, so I’ve included most of the roundtable interviews with the actors below for you to enjoy. Before I wrap this up with them (they’re extensive), I’d like to say thanks to everyone at Sony and involved in the production of Battle: Los Angeles for being so welcoming, as well as fellow online film writers Katey Rich and Peter Sciretta for being generally great people. This glimpse into the production of Battle: Los Angeles definitely excited me, but it would have made the disappointment all the more bitter had the film started to look like a clunker. If the trailers are anything to go by (and admittedly, they often aren’t), we have a solid blockbuster coming to us, and one that might even be something more. The harsh disappointment of seeing other recent high-profile action films that I’ve followed from start to finish has definitely taught me to keep the optimism guarded, but a lot of people have rolled the dice on this film, and I think it will pay off. Fingers crossed.
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*A short week or two after the visit, some motherless fuck stole my Laptop bag (sans laptop) with my notebook full of observations. I was able to rewrite many from memory and still had all of my recordings, but it was definitely a blow.
I know these rainbow interviews are never ideal, but I hope the coding is better than a big block of white text with labels that blur together. There’s some good material in here, so well worth your time.
James Hiroyuki Liao
• Summing up the characters…
Will: My character, he’s a guy who was born in Buffalo NY. His parents died at a really young age so he got pawned off on his uncle, who was a photographer for National Geographic landscapes. So he spent his whole upbringing years traveling around the country, camping out, all that good stuff. He was a bit of a bully and became a guy who likes to be everybody’s friend. He talks a lot. But he’s funny. The character as fara s the squad goes, he’s the squad leader, which puts him right below Aaron Eckhart’s character, Staff Sgt. Nance. It’s a good, pivotal role. It’s fun.
Ne-Yo: Kevin Harris, he’s an ex-football player. He played football in college in scholarships. He had a pretty bright future ahead of him and ended up hurting himself. Not so much that he couldn’t join the Marine Corps, but so much that he couldn’t play football anymore. he was raised by all the women in his family, so he’s a very good listener so to speak. Basically the thing that he got from football, and that he was raised by a bunch of women, is the whole team thing. You know, he loved playing football for that whole essence of team. He lost that when he lost football, but he gained it again when he joined the Marine Corps. His nickname is Specs, because I’m the only character in the movie that wears the big thick glasses that the Marines call– what do they call them? BCGs, Birth Control Glasses? Basically no one wants to have sex with you when you wear these glasses. That’s Corporal Kevin Harris.
Taylor: Yeah, Lance Corporal Corey Simmons. Surfer enthusiast from Oceanside, Calfornia. Kind of a latchkey kid finding meaning in the Marines after having some bouts with different stuff that brought him down. Yeah, that’s it.
Noel: Lanahan is the newest member of the platoon, he’s a Private First Class. Is it rifle school? Got out of School of Infantry about how many months ago, this is the first platoon. He’s never seen active duty or anything. He’s kind of raised by his mom, didn’t have a dad, so he’s kind of found the platoon is his family. A makeshift family, even though they all give him nothing but shit the entire movie.
Ne-Yo: Affectionate shit.
James: I have to make a confession. My character name is Lance Corporal Mottola, but I get called by my nickname in the movie, Motorola, so much. That’s partly because my name is Mottola, but I’m also the radio guy of the platoon. I’m the communications guy in the platoon. His back story real quick, he’s adopted, he’s always been the odd man out, never fit anywhere. Had kind of an identity crisis for most of his life. I think he found his identity in the Marine Corps and he’s excelled for the first time in his life. He’s found a new family there, so that’s why he likes the Marines so much.
Corey: I play Corporal Lockett, my character comes from Chicago, Illinois. And that’s where I’m from really, Corey’s from there. It was cool, it was close to home. Lockett loses his father and his mother– and he actually lost his brother in the Marine Corps., under Staff Sergeant’s orders. I wanted to continue to on that legacy. My character is very passionate and intense, he has a lot of pain he’s dealing with. But toward the end of the film he comes around. He really wants to love people, be part of the team. That’s basically it.
Ramon: Lt. Martinez is a new lieutenant. He has a baby on the way, he’s married. Basically he’s in charge of his platoon, we’re all thrown into this crazy situation, and he’s trying to just handle it as best as possible.
Noel: Jonathan had us all write back stories.
• On how much we get to meet the characters…
Ne-Yo: You get a pretty good grasp of every character and who they are, kind of what they’re fighting for so to speak, from the start of the movie. That’s one of the cool things about this movie. In a lot of action movies you get action action action and explosions and shoot a gun and death and blood! But you don’t get to know the characters, so you’re just waiting on the next action sequence. The thing about this movie is you kind of get to know these guys, so when things happen, you give a shit, you know what i mean?
Corey: We’ve got a scene in the beginning when some of us are on the golf course, and you’ll see us bonding.
Noel: That actually was a really good thing about doing the boot camp, is that everybody gets along so well just within the cast. I think that really comes across on the screen and in the scenes. We’ve spent four months now together. We go out, we work out, we go for dinner. These are our boys now, which is what a Marine platoon would hopefully be.
James: We came up with nicknames for each other too, and half the time we do call each other by our nicknames. Like my real name is James, but I get called Motorola just as much as I do James.
• On Bootcamp…
Someone: It sucked.
Ramon: It was amazing, because we had three real Marines. Sgt Major, Master Sgt. Gunnery Sgt., who had each been in the Marines 20+ years. They basically showed us how to become Marines. Everything from the way we walked, talked, waking up at 5 in the morning every morning. We slept, all 13 of us under one tent–
Will: That we had to build ourselves.
Ramon: Everything was us working together, us working as a unit. That was the most priceless experience, because it immediately formed a bond, which is hopefully going to resonate in the film as well. By the time we started filming, we didn’t have to go through as much anymore.
•On watching marine movies to prepare…
Corey: Too many.
Someone: Black Hawk Down.
Someone: We all went to see The Hurt Locker together.
Corey: Full Metal Jacket, Platoon. I brought all those films.
Ne-Yo: I’ve got to commend the actual Marines that were helping us out. They whipped us into shape in three weeks. They took us to the status where we actually looked like real live Marines in 3 weeks, where the actual training is 6 months or something crazy like that.
Will: It was a crash course and we all had to get it together pretty quickly, and everyone did a really good job.
Taylor: Do you guys remember the first part of training, where we did the first two guys move, two guys move. The things we did, the first time we did it, we looked horrible, we looked so bad. By the end of it–
Corey: So many things you take for granted when you watch movies, and now we’re actually appreciating them.
WIll: Yeah it was tough to put it all together.
Ne-Yo: How long it takes to change a magazine in an M16. I remember the first time–30 seconds later– (mimes fumbling)
Did any of you ever see yourselves as the Marine type?
Group agreement: No.
(James nods his head)
You had a military background?
James: After high school I was in the Army, I was in the airborne infantry. I wanted to be a soldier when I was 17, 18 years old, as a career. Then I got medically discharged. The Marine Corps was my first choice, but my brother was in the Army and convinced me to join the Army instead, so that’s why I did that. For me it was really– I know I’m an actor, I’m in a movie, I’m not going to disrespect the Marine Corps by saying I know what it is to be a Marine. But it was really fun and gratifying for me to wear a Marine uniform.
Have any of you been in a large, effects-driven movie like this?
Ne-Yo: It’s the first one for me.
Will: First one for me as well.
Ramon: I’ve been in–(everyone interrupts to gesture at him, knowing he was in Transformers)
Can you compare the experience at all?
Ramon: When you get to a certain point, it’s big, it’s explosions, it’s a lot of action. This is more real. Even though our enemies, whatever it is, we’re not sure what it is. And me being on the military side, before I was a civilian– as the Marines say, civilian puke, I was just running around. And now I get to fight. This experience for me was really cool, because I get to actually fight back and be involved. And like I said, the camaraderie with the guys. But yeah, I didn’t need to see all the explosions on this. I was like, you know what, I don’t need to see that again. I’ve been through it. Once you’ve seen a big explosion you’ve seen a big explosion.
How is Jonathan’s direction different from Michael Bay’s?
Ramon: Huge difference. Jonathan is fast too, but Michael’s a lot more– I don’t know, he’s a lot more receptive to improvisation. Michael Bay is too, but on the moment, Jonathan has got a great eye. If something doesn’t work he’ll tell you immediately. He just has good instincts. Bay does as well, it’s just different. Bay is like Jonathan on crack times a lot of adrenaline. Just the way he watches playback, he’s so intense. Where Jonathan’s just chill. Jonathan comes around and makes jokes and laughs. You wouldn’t think he’s making a huge film. You would think he’s making a small film from how he handles it, he’s relaxed the whole time. Michael Bay you know you’re making a big movie.
The fact that you’re young and in charge of everyone, it seems like it would lead to conflict with Aaron’s character, who’s older than your character. Can you talk about that?
Ramon: Yeah. I found out that that’s real. That was one of the first questions I asked when I read the script. I asked my marine buddy, is this real, does this happen. He says, all the time. There will be a lieutenant who’s younger, and a staff sergeant who’s older and more experienced. I think adds a great conflict, I think that adds a great story and a great journey for Aaron’s and my character. You know, I’m the lieutenant and I feel like I have to be in charge of my platoon, however I do feel like I have to listen to him. And if he gives me direction or gives me advice I have to take that in because he’s had more experience. There’s a lot of conflict with that, where I have to make the call.
Will: A lot changes once you’re in the middle of the shit, in combat.
Ramon: Yeah. Being young you don’t want to be the one man. It’s nice to have someone else to lean on.
Corey: Especially somebody who’s been there.
And when you guys bonded in training, was Aaron’s role different?
Will: No, he was right there.
Ne-Yo: same tent.
Taylor: He was running around with his M-16 past when we were a lot of the time. Fully doing it.
Will: one of the producers was saying that he’s in the best shape of anybody, even though he’s older. We all thought about that.
Corey: Everybody at this table is in really great shape.
Will: That’s the best thing about doing a Marine movie. You asked earlier if you ever see yourself doing a Marine movie. I have, because it’s a great excuse to get in really good shape. And that’s exactly what this movie has done.
Ramon: You do appreciate it, the gear alone. How much that weighs.
Noel: When you get off work and take that off, it feels like you’re still in it.
Ne-Yo: I never saw myself being in the military at all before this movie. An dI would say, after this movie, I absolutely don’t see myself in it. Never ever never ever. No no no.
Were any of you in the scene out there today? It looks very Call of Duty.
Noel: Call of Duty is very real. Video games now aren’t video games like they were 10 years ago.
Will: Actually two of our sergeants worked on both Call of Duty and Modern Warfare 2.
Taylor: That’s one of the interesting things about this movie, they’re making sure that it’s really based in realism. Like more so than–
Ramon: I’m sure y’all know this now, but when I watch military movies now, I’m like hold on, that’s now how–
Will: TV shows are the worst.
Ne-Yo: Everything, form the way they hold the gun. We’re laughing at them now. Before this we didn’t know the difference.
Can you talk about working with aliens that are made out of foam or not really there?
Ne-Yo: Shooting at something that’s not there definitely shows your chops as an actor. When in a scene with somebody else you can kind of play off that person and improv if you need to, or whatever the case may be. If you’re supposed to be afraid in a scene and you’re supposed to be looking at this thing you’re afraid of but you know, and there’s a director over here yelling “You’re scared, you’re scared! If you can act, it really pull that out, and if you can’t, it shows, and you normally don’t get that part in the movie.
Ramon: There’s pluses and minuses to it. When you’re working with another person, as you said, it’s energy, it’s going back and forth. But when there’s nothing there, the other thing is that there’s freedom. You can do whatever you want. What happens, what I learned on Transformers 2, is you almost create the action. So any movement you make, all of a sudden in post-production, if you jump to a shot, he can make that bullet go off now. You create the aliens characters, you make them come to life more.
Will: The other cool thing I just want to say about the street level aspect of this movie is it’s not like every other alien movie. It’s a global crisis, it’s on a global scale, but you never once see the Oval Office, you never see the President, they never break anything like that down. Its’ in the thick of it. It’s in the shit. And that’s how it is.
James: It’s like a battle in Fallujah. This is our Fallujah.
Before you guys signed on, did you see the test footage that Aaron shot?
Group agreement: When we got here, in Shreveport.
Ramon: That’s what made me want to do the movie. That’s what put me over hte hump. When I saw that I was like, oh.
Corey: Then when we saw that presentation, we were like, oh my gosh, Jonathan did that with characters, but me as the real people. now. I can’t iamgine what he’s going to do when they’ve got a year to do this in post. IT’s going to be crazy. I believe it has to be.
Ne-Yo: Because I’m an 8-year-old in a 30-year-old body. They said it was an action movie and you get to run and jump and shoot guns and stuff blows up and aliens, and I was like, sign me up! When I got here I was like, did I make a mistake? Where’s my stylist at, damn? No, I’m having fun with it. It’s hard work but it’s worth it. It’s worth your feet hurting because you’ve got on heavy-ass boots all day.