This week in theaters director Jonathan Liebesman enters the marines vs. aliens war zone in his non-stop action, adventure, Battle: Los Angeles (read review). It may come as no big surprise to you that Neill Blomkamp the brains behind District 9 was a huge inspiration for Liebeman pushing this film forward. And I do mean pushing, forcing, doing anything to take to make this film happen. Unlike what people think about big budget films, this was not a film handed to him by the studios. Battle: Los Angeles was made by him and star Aaron Eckhart (read interview) convincing the studio why this film had to get made with a director that had never dealt with this kind of budget, and leading man who had yet to lead an action film. Find out how they made the dream a reality below…
You literally MADE this movie happen, you didn’t just make this movie, where did that kind of passion from from? What was your inspiration?
JL: It’s called desperation for a job. No, I’m kidding. I think when I saw a script that took a war movie and an alien film the way this one did, I knew — and honestly, this is what drove me — when I saw the trailer, I would have killed to direct that movie. That’s honestly what my thought process was. I remember seeing a trailer for ’28 Days Later’ and going, “Aw, fuck. That was such a good take on the zombie kind of movie.” In fact, this is pre-’District 9.’ I was like, “Oh my god, somebody’s going to make ’28 Days Later’ with aliens. I can see it now. Shit. I want to do it.” And then, as I researched different things, I came across Neill Blomkamp’s short films. I emailed him and asking him how to achieve those. He was very generous in his advice of what software he used and different things he did, and so I went downtown and started shooting some shots.
How did you actual make such an impressive spec piece with aliens?
JL: There was a guy in London called Paul Gerrard — I gave him different touchstones, like some Chris Cunningham stuff and some Salvador Dali stuff. He came up with these aliens and helped me build them in 3D. We put them into these environments I had shot. That was the pitch presentation, and as I got through meeting and meeting, it would keep growing. Someone would go, “What would this like in Santa Monica?” So I’d drive to Santa Monica, shoot it, come home, look on the Macintosh and do it. It’s so funny, because that process continued even as the movie went. Just before the movie was getting finished and I was in London on ‘Clash,’ I would be doing things on the Macintosh and sending it back to get into the movie last-minute.
Was a big part of the appeal of the script that these aliens don’t have vaporization rays or teleporters — they have bullets, they have planes, it’s a relatively level playing field, technologically?
JL: I think the take that we did on the aliens — and it was important to me — was even though they come from outer space, how can we ground this so they wouldn’t destroy us in 4 seconds? I think with the design, we tried to create something that you understand that even though they’re developed further than us in certain ways, they’re the same as us in other ways. That was a big deal to try to maintain the credibility of why we don’t just get whacked out in 4 seconds. Yeah, there are certain things that are very used-up army: they’ve probably fought a bunch of wars, they’re probably exhausted too, they get injured, they’re not invincible. That was a big aspect.
What was your final death toll for the people in this film? You never gave a number but it seemed high…
JL: You know how the Black Plague decimated, like, twenty percent of the population at the time? I pictured that over a week, imagine at least a 5th of the world gets wiped out in the first week of this invasion.
Taking the Big Step!
Many successful directors don’t get to do this scale of movies. What was your graduation from doing some smaller horror films and actually commanding a production like this?
JL: I think a lot of guys — and not to discredit, because they do such great work all the time — don’t do this, because oftentimes the scripts aren’t as good as they’d need to be for these guys to get involved. I think it’s always an opportunity for a newer or younger director to come in and take something and try to make it great, whereas as you get older, there’s less of a need to go off to stuff like that. Unless it’s there on the page, a lot of guys won’t get involved.
For you, what was it like going from horror films to managing a production like this?
JL: I don’t know. I think for a director it’s very easy. It’s what do you see in your head. I was doing a $3 million movie 3 years ago in my basement, and in 10 days time I’m about to shoot a $2 million movie. There’s the same thing in each one, which is, can you tell the guys working for you what you see in your head? You don’t have to know how to achieve it; you just have to know what it is. The experts around you will help you achieve it. Things as simple as, “I want this freeway sequence where there are a lot of cars, and it’s a simple rescue mission getting people off the ledge. Military advisor, how would I do that?” Then he starts doing it; then you see it in your head. It’s just can you see it? Can you see what you want? That’s all you need to know as a director, if it’s a $3 million movie or a big movie. Can you see what you want in your head?
Making it His Own:
How much does working on a scale like this lock you into certain shots/ideas?
JL: You’re definitely locked in but things can change. I learned a lot about special effects myself, and was able to parlay that knowledge to change things later on. I think when you get your raw footage, like if I’m saying to you, “look out the window” and there’s meteors, I’ll count to three and one explodes here. I think people do have to react to different things. And I think the experience in a strange way in horror movies and people reacting to sounds I would add later would help, this is more of a visual thing. Like,”they’re there, they’re possibly on the roof, now to the right, now they’re shooting something, fuck it now it’s there!” Having actors just go with it and cutting it up and adding shit.
What were some of things that just came up?
JL: Sometimes what we would do was have what were called alien reference performers – marines dressed in tracking suits and they’d do marine formations as aliens so the guys would have something to react to and the camera would have somewhere to pan. Often times what’s affective is if you have a piece of footage of a marine running and ahead of them an alien crosses their path – wasn’t meant to be what was kind of cool.
Does your style of shooting change from one type of film to another?
JL: It doesn’t change. Here’s the thing, I think that’s my style. The two other studio pictures I did, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Darkness Falls” it was so staged and weird and I felt so far away from my student roots, and it didn’t even end up in the film which felt more like “ahh this is more what I do” and Battle LA, the way we shot it, felt more like indie. Fuckin’ run and gun with it…the one I’m about to do will have a similar feel in a different way. I like this more, this figuring it out as I go. I mean, obviously lots of planning but I do enjoy leaving it open for later.
Being Cool and Hoping to Be Cool:
Was the story Ramon told us about you springing his BIG scene on him the morning of without notice true?
JL: I mean, I must’ve told him he was going to but I’m glad he remembers it like that because it makes me look fuckin’ cool. I didn’t tell him, that’s how I work. It was like the whole fuckin time he was like “Can I have a script?” I was like “..NO”. And then one day I give him a script his face falls and I go, “That’s why.” I don’t want to contradict his awesome story so I’ll pause on that… distant memory. I do shit like that all the time [laughs].
What is it that makes some Sci-Fi actions films good and others fall flat?
JL: It’s the idea. That’s it. It’s all about the idea. That’s why District 9 is such a great film, because of the idea. If you have a great idea the affect can be whatever, the promises can be whatever…the most important thing is the concept.
Have you spoken to Neill Blomkamp? Do you know what he might say about your film?
JL: I think he’s brilliant, I don’t know what he would say. We’re e-mail friends but I mean we’re both busy. I think he’s awesome.
What do you hope he’s say?
JL: If he liked it! Otherwise I’d be sad.
Working with Aaron Eckhart:
Talk about Aaron’s want to come onto this film? He wasn’t in it for the money, he was there from the start…
JL: Aaron is such a dedicated actor. In that boot camp, I’d arrive for rehearsals and he’d have the gun trained in my car and I’d be like, “what the fuck is he doing?” There’s a reason he has great performances in all his stuff.
Be honest, was his chin part of the reason you wanted him so much?
JL: I remember when they were talking about him a lot, maybe it was just on the internet for Captain America, and it made a lot of sense to me. I think it was a such a no brainer when they said he was interested. I said, “Uh, okay, can we close the deal?” I heard he kind of liked it and I seeked him with all of my seeking powers.
He was on from the very start right? How did he help get the ball rollings?
JL: Very, very start. He came and we did a presentation and he was a part of it. He hadn’t even signed a deal and he was like, “Fuck it, I’ll come.” And he came with, like, 5 marines and he dressed like a marine and did all of this crazy shit. And he did it. And one day we shot a whole sort of presentation, he was great.
It feels like you two were more of partners than director and actor?
JL: It was awesome. What I loved was that he was a true partner on it, he was like “let’s just fucking go.” And he was gun-hoe. I’ve obviously never worked with him on something else, but I think that’s what turns him on as an actor. When you’re gun-ho, he gets into it and we keep shooting and fuckin’ going crazy and trying to get all the shots. I loved working with him, embracing the gorilla style, which probably comes from the indie’s he’s done. I love that.
Keeping the Battle Going:
We learn very little about the aliens in this movie other than how to kill them and how to defeat them. How much thought was there in the larger back story? Do they have faster-than-light travel?
JL: There was a hell of a preparation done for the world. There was a guy called Ty Ellingson who helped us design. He’s one who works a lot with camera and all. He goes as far back as ‘AI’ when Kubrick was doing it. We formulated a whole story of where the aliens come from, what’s their planet like, why they’re coming here, why did they need specific resources. It’s stuff that was very interesting to me and less important and interesting to other people.
Will we ever get to see it?
JL: If there’s a sequel to the movie, if the movie made enough money and people wanted to see something, there’s a whole wealth of stuff I would want to bring. I think this was a movie that was just a simple search-and-rescue mission. I think there’s a whole lot more interesting stuff that was not done here that could be done.
It could be your own franchise that you spearheaded?
JL: That would be awesome. Every director wants that. It’d be nice. Employment for years.
Do you Have a Top for those out there who want to make films and aspire to do what you’ve done?
JL: I think Youtube is an amazing way to get your name out there. Filmmakers one week ago put a thing on Youtube in Paris from their apartment and the next week were meeting Steven Spielberg. Before you needed agents and stuff to get noticed, now you just need a camera and a very cool concept and two minutes of someone’s time. Two minutes can start a career. You need that, ambition, a nice idea, and the hoots-pah to just go do it and put it on Youtube.
Check out Battle: Los Angeles in theaters today, March 11th!