Though it didn't win any skirmishes with the critics when it first hit theaters, Battle: Los Angeles places the fight squarely where it belongs -- on our home turf.
Of course since the invaders are extraterrestrials, the battlefield scenarios here aren't just stretching across the Middle East, they're global. But since that worldwide invasion tale has been told enough times before, director Jonathan Liebesman decided to spotlight a simple tale of marines rescuing a family from behind the invaders' lines.
In this case, they are led by a Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (played by Aaron Eckhart) on the eve of his retirement after a disastrous tour of duty in Iraq.
Since alien invasions seem like the next likely thing (and not just on film) -- hell do you really believe we're alone in the universe -- this film uses the grime and grit of real combat to draw in both the audience and cast -- adding verve to the story.
Disregarding the tired plot or edgy camerawork, the film's effort at verisimilitude certainly stimulated the cast -- which also included Michelle Rodriguez, Nee-Yo and Bridget Moynahan -- and Eckhart in particular, making for the movie's most effective moments. Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, and Nee-Yo came to NYC to promote the theatrical release so the following Q & A was sourced from a roundtable discussion and an Apple Store Soho conversation.
AE: I was ambivalent about doing an alien movie because alien movies have a certain stigma -- the quality, or how real they are or whatever it is, right? But I talked to Jonathan [the director] about that and I said, "If we're going to do this movie, I'm going to be 100 percent USDA."
It's as if Denzel [Washington] were going to do a movie. He's really the guy that I look to in this sort of a movie because you never question whether or not he takes it seriously.
We were up against aliens, and that in itself is difficult. So I wanted it to be very real. And I felt like we did it. It felt like, from the second I put on that uniform, or started thinking about it, I was too into it.
Q: Even though there's green screen and aliens you don't really see -- except for a tennis ball or two -- it was more like a classic war movie.
AE: Absolutely. I didn't feel like we're fighting an alien force. I felt we could be fighting anybody that was coming into Los Angeles.
Everything was practical on the set. So it wasn't like that car wasn't there or that Helo wasn't crashed or that smoke wasn't there or these rounds didn't have any powder in them.
We were shooting 20 thousand rounds a day, sometimes. I was with a 50 [caliber] on a Humvee going through at 3 in the morning, blasting hundreds of rounds. So when you're doing that, you can't help but feel that you're in a war situation.
Obviously, we had to look up into the sky, and Jonathan coached us through that. But all you had to do is then look at the people around you, too -- look at the other Marines, how tired they were, how hot, how uncomfortable they were, how hurt they were.
That's another thing about green screen: when you're looking at an Osprey, it's an Osprey and it's four deep. When you're looking at two, three hundred Marines running, those are real Marines. [It] gives that feeling of depth for the film.
Q: In the making the movie, how much technology did play into your process? It feels real at times.
AE: Well, as I said, Jonathan and Sony tried to make it as real as possible. How do you do that? You make everything practical. In other words, if you're seeing smoke, it's actual smoke.
We filmed in Louisiana, in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, in the middle of the summer. It was so hot in Shreveport and Baton Rouge that between takes, even in takes, you'd see the rest of the crew, the guys, the Marines, the actors sitting there -- a thousand yard stare, sweat, blood, dirt everywhere -- and you would have sworn you were at war.
In the middle of Shreveport, we took three weeks and completely shut down entire freeways, overpasses that were working. They gave us free rein.
We had an overpass where every day the world was ending. If you were on the overpass and you were just seeing down, you couldn't see. You could only see the smoke. And we had helicopters going all over the place, and stuff like that.
For hundreds of yards we had overturned cars, helicopters buried in the freeway, we had smoke, we were shooting five, ten, twenty, a thousand, rounds a day. You didn't even have to close your eyes; if you just didn't look in the distance, you would think you were at war.
I said to the people around me, if anybody comes to Shreveport on a whim, and didn't know there was a movie here, they're probably under their cars right now or they're calling some people, because we[‛re] shooting the place up.
I go, "People must be..." And then to hear literally 12 Marines on automatic all day -- "Ch-ch-ch! [machine gun sound] Aaaaah! Chchch!" Like that.
We did it across from a school one day. I go, "Did somebody warn this school?" It must have been weird for them.
Q: So you hung out with a lot of Marines to get yourself in a mental state for the film?
AE: Jonathan and I talked about this movie almost a year, I guess, before we started. So I started right away training with Marines, going through the tactical strategies, psychology, shooting a lot.
Then we did a three-week boot camp. We had a sergeant major, a master sergeant and a gunny [gunnery sergeant] who took us through the three weeks. I was yelling at people, the Lieutenant was yelling at me. The PFC's, the Privates, they had to clean the latrines.
We put up the tent, every bunk had to be meticulous in the same order, and [we did] everything in rank. We ate together, slept together, showered together, trained together.
It was pretty intense. Not only did we learn how to think like a Marine, but we had to be in good shape. We really learned to love each other, I guess, during that time.
Q: What was the hardest part about it?
AE: Getting 12 actors to line up in a straight line on a daily basis. I almost killed myself. I'm like, "Sergeant Major, how do you get people to line up in a straight line?" I'm joking, obviously, but it's really getting people to do things on a timely basis in the right manner.
For example, Marines have to look a certain way, they have to wear the right equipment, they have to say the right words, they have to be ready and no back talk. [I] tried to get all the terminology right and that sort of stuff. We trained pretty hard for that.
To watch 12 actors then transform into Marines -- and who took it on wholeheartedly, and who resisted -- was an interesting exercise. It was tough.
Some guys were breaking down. Some guys were crying. Some guys couldn't handle this. Either it was the heat, or it was the exercise, or to clear a room, or it was just the pressure of trying to walk a straight line with the 12 Marines, or whatever it was.
It was very beautiful and interesting how everybody else came and rallied around that Marine and how they brought him back into the fold, how they took care of him. And that's what I will remember most about this film.
But I would say this in defense of actors being wussies: I remember on several occasions Marines coming up to me and going, "Damn, you guys work hard."
I was like [happy expression] because we're working 12 hours a day every day, and so that was a compliment.
Q: Did your perception of the military changed after filming this?
AE: It's only been augmented. I was always in their corner. I've [had] a total respect for those guys. I went on a USO tour and visited them in Afghanistan -- great guys.
What I did like hanging out with the Marines is, a.) hearing the stories, but b.) is learning how to take care of yourself, learning how to assess a situation, how to clear a room, which is interesting. It's all tactical, so we did a lot of that.
Q: Would you join if you had the chance?
AE: No, I have too much fun being [an actor]. That's the great thing about the movie business. And, I'm too old to be a Marine. They told me I can't join.
Q: Now that you've had some training, if something happened like [an alien invasion], would you volunteer because you have that training?
AE: What could I do? I could teach them how to act. I'd be like, "No, you have to believe it more!"
Um, no, I'm sure that I would be told to sit back and shut up. Obviously, it's fun to know how to break down your weapon and shoot your weapon, all that sort of stuff.
I know I sound way too into this movie, but I had a lot of fun making it.
Q: Didn't you break your arm while shooting and have it treated or bandaged just like that -- you kind of toughed it out?
AE: Yes sir. When the mother ship was rising I tried to get fancy. There was a beautiful orange-red fireball that I wanted to do an Air Jordan through. And so the cameraman was down here and the fireball was here and I thought I'd just run up this concrete slab that would fall, and then jump off.
Problem was, I landed on my head and I landed on my arm. And it was [snaps finger] -- I heard it snap, break here, and that was that.
And you know, you can't give the other guys an excuse to stop, so I didn't feel like I could do that.
Q: Did you get the shot?
AE: The shot's in the movie, I believe [laughs]... It's when... I don't know. I need to see the movie again. But I did show it to about 2,500 Marines when I went to Pendleton, Quantico, and they didn't laugh me off the base. I was quite worried about that, actually.
It's a loud movie, but they were whooping and hollering; they loved it. I just watched that; it's intense, man.
Q: What did the Marines say -- were they excited about in this film? It paints them, obviously, in a very heroic, honorable light.
AE: That's a good question. There's a lot of stuff in there. A lot of families came to see it -- a lot of dads, a lot of wives -- and they're obviously coming in with so much understanding and baggage.
I get stories of "my husband's in Iraq," "my wife's in Afghanistan." Kids come up with posters and say, "Will you make this one out for my dad? He's in Kandahar." My heart bleeds for them, these little kids.
But to [the Marines], it's about the camaraderie. When they're going up against IEDs, the politics, they don't concern themselves with [that sort of stuff]. It's all about this guy that's next to me, this girl that's next to me.
So I [thought that] when they came out of the film, they felt they were honored in that respect. And they weren't made fun of.
The Marines sanctioned the movie. They gave us all the Ospreys, all the Helos, they gave us the personnel.
We tried to be accurate as best we could. But I feel the film is based in reality. I don't [think] it's too rah-rah or too jingoistic. But I do feel it's about a group of guys trying to survive.
One thing I love about this movie is, it's a movie about heroism and leadership. It's a movie about doing what you have to do in extraordinary circumstances, which I think we can all understand, and also saving your men, saving your women, saving your family.
Q: There's a powerful, emotional scene you have with one of the men in your command. It shows a vulnerable side to your character. What was going through your mind as you were doing that?
AE: That was a big scene. Ever since we started boot camp, I was on these dudes. I was in character, so anything that they said about Staff Sergeant Nantz they were saying for real, and I geared it that way. I pushed them.
When we were doing that scene, the way Lockett was feeling about [Nantz], he was feeling about me. So that scene was charged.
I don't think [Cory Hardrict] was acting. I felt he had a lot of issues with me, and I feel like he's a good actor and he really took that seriously and he knew what I was doing.
[Hardrict] and I went through a lot together during the movie. A lot -- in terms of in boot camp, picking him up, a lot of heart-to-hearts, that kind of stuff.
So by the time we got to that scene, it was very loaded, very charged, and I thought a pretty good scene. But that was with all the men. I thought we had to go for realism in this movie.
I saw Lockett the other day, and all the other guys, and we're proud of this movie.
Q: Did your feelings about directing change as a result of your leadership role in this movie?
AE: I don't know if I could tell a story, but I know I can talk to actors. And I know I can influence actors. I feel I know what a good performance is. I feel actors are underused today.
I feel directors don't demand better performances because directors themselves don't know how to get better performances, and the actors aren't asked to give better performances. I feel [that] after you make a hard movie, actors usually feel better about themselves.
I've wished that a lot of my directors had asked more of me on a daily basis. Like, "That's not good enough," or "You can do better," or "How about this?" or "Prepare better tonight. I want this, I want to see that."
Q: A lot of blockbusters have things in place before the filming starts, so there's not a lot that changes. But this film has an improvisational feel. Did the story change in any way while you were working on it?
AE: The story itself, the bones of the story, did not. That's not to say that there weren't rewrites. In terms of an actor improvisational level, the script didn't change. But the little things changed.
For example, you know when Doc runs into the hall -- we're dragging the alien down, he runs in the hall -- he says something in Afrikaans or something, right? Well, originally he didn't say that in another language. It was "Holy shit!"
I went up to Jonathan and I said, "Have him say it in his native language." It gets a big laugh.
When we were in these scenes together, I was saying to people, "You're talking about a 20-yard radius, sometimes longer. Everything's working within that radius. So even though you're in a little scene here, you've got shit going on over here with three cameras roving, so everybody's on."
So I always [told] the other guys, "If you have to say something, give it to me, say something. Go ask the sergeant major for something to say. What would you say in this instance?" Or, "keep it real at all times," so that we could all feed off each other.
And when that happens, it was like, literally, Jonathan would say "Cut!" and everybody was like [in whispered, excited voice], "That was awesome! My God, you see what just -- did you hear that?" Every day for four months, it was like that.
Q: With that approach in a film like this, how was the wrap party, and the relationships that you guys have as actors when that's all done and now you're just actors together?
AE: I don't go to wrap parties, for that reason. For those guys, they were best friends. Those guys hung out. They knew each other intimately -- Michelle, Bridget, everybody.
I didn't. It's not my job. I was staff sergeant; I'm not their best friend. So I have my experiences with them. I had more fatherly experiences with them, heart-to-hearts, that kind of thing.
Q: Can you talk about the experience you had after coming out of doing this movie? You can still see the passion that you feel about this movie and how much it affected you.
AE: It took me a long time to get over the movie. I know it sounds weird, because it's too much. I took a long break after that. I'm ready for the sequel. I wear khakis, keep my hair short, and stay by the phone.
For more by Brad Balfour got to: filmfestivaltraveler.com
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