In October of 2009, I was invited to visit the set of director Jonathan Liebesman’s Battle: Los Angeles while the production was filming in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, I didn’t know much beyond the basics (aliens attack and the Marine’s have to kick ass), but with sci-fi being my favorite genre, I knew that I wanted to see the production up close. Thankfully, everything I saw on set made me think Battle: Los Angeles is going to be a really cool movie and I’m very excited to see the finished film.
Anyway, while on set I got to talk to Liebesman, producer’s Ori Marmur & Jeffrey Churnov, screenwriter Chris Bertolini, and senior military technical advisor James D. Dever. Here’s some of the highlights:
- Liebesman talked about balancing the action and seriousness with some humor. Says J.J. Abrams Star Trek was a great example of how to do both. I agree.
- Talked about trying to get all the Marines some time on screen while also being truthful to the story
- Liebesman talked about why he was cool with a PG-13 rating
- Why they chose to use film over digital
- Discussed shooting with 3 cameras at the same time and how each take was slightly different. Also, why they were going for handheld camera for the movie. Liebesman mentioned Neill Blomkamp and Paul Greengrass filmmakers he admires
- Producer Jeffrey Churnov says 90% of the aliens in the movie will be CG. 10% of it will be real.
For a lot more, hit the jump:
Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the awesome trailer for Battle: Los Angeles, I’d watch it first.
As you can hopefully see in the trailer, the movie is something that you should definitely be excited for. I know that being on set definitely raised my expectations, and I’ve been waiting over a year to see the movie. While some set visits aren’t everything you hope for, the one for Battle: Los Angeles was a lot more than I expected.
Anyhow, if you’d like to listen to the interview, click here for the audio. Otherwise, the complete transcript is below. Battle: Los Angeles gets released March 11, 2011. It should be a hell of a ride.
Jonathan Liebesman: Why’s he bringing that up? [Everyone laughs]
It’s a big action film. A lot of people really liked the action sequences in Terminator: Salvation, but what a lot of people didn’t like was the fact that it was so serious the entire time. It never took a breath, it never had any humor. How is your tone with your film, in, say, comparison to that?
Liebesman: I think when you’re doing a film… firstly, one of the big parts of Chris’ script is humor. And one of the things when you’re doing a film with Neal Moritz is going to be humor. I think… fuck, I don’t want to say shit about Terminator… What I’m saying is you stated a pretty obvious point. And the thing is, we want to make a movie that’s entertaining. That you want to go watch because it’s a popcorn film. But at the same time, you want to give it an extra level underneath that there is a believability and reality to it so that it’s not something disposable that you just go, “Oh, fuck…” You want some sense of reality and that’s what the Marine war tone brings, put the guys through boot camp and all that stuff and we’re bringing that to it. But of course you want to make it something… my favorite… our favorite films, because we, I guess, grew up at the same time, whether it’s James Cameron movies or the Spielberg films, there’s a real sense of humor and charm to them. That’s what makes it work. Now if the balance is out of whack, then it’s bad. The one director that I think gets it right for our generation is J.J. Abrams with, say, Star Trek. I think that’s an excellent balance of entertainment and seriousness to give you something that feels like a real, gripping story. So I think that’s what we’re going for.
Bertolini: I think in terms of popcorn movies too, we had a couple of things working for us. We had a group of Marines that were all supposed to be young guys, so they get scared and a lot of the humor is very sort of situational and human as opposed to ‘insert a joke line here’-king of thing. So you can, more or less, identify with them in their circumstances. Some of it is just kind of low-key and subtle, but it’s very human in terms of the interaction of these young guys being scared on the ground together. But I think the other thing to remember about popcorn movies, which is instructive for us is that it’s not always about just having humor. It’s about having really entertaining suspense. And I think one of the things that we tried to do is keep the suspense level interesting, as opposed to… sometimes if a movie is so big it can become dark or just filled with a lot of action because they have the money to just create a lot of action. And sometimes that, I think, becomes a train that just kind of runs off the tracks where it no longer is as suspenseful and interesting as it could be; it just becomes big. So I think part of what Jonathan has done, which is great… we always had these conversations with Neal and it was this notion of, what is the cool, suspenseful moment–the quiet moment–that draws you into the drama of the scene as opposed to… it’s just got to be big action all the time.
Seems like one of the big challenges is the coverage on all of them because they were saying there’s 17 total numbers of Marines that you have to cover and it’s just a balance between, obviously your more important leads and everyone else who’s in it. And yet, making it entertaining by giving them enough action. Can you talk further about finding that balance between so many different people?
Liebesman: Listen, it’s difficult. And the truth is… what’s been very helpful is the script. And the script, if Chris was going to write the arcs of every character you’d have a 400 page script. The thing is that’s being very helpful is… say Jim Dever, who… when we have a situation with all the Marines, is able to tell me from the Marines’ rank, what they would be doing in the scene. Which is extremely helpful and from that, you give the character the guides. Like we did three weeks of improv in their boot camp. And that was very helpful because they started developing arcs that we didn’t think of. And now these guys coming to a scene and know what they want to do, and then I am just a documentary filmmaker with three cameras hopefully catching most interesting stuff. Occasionally, probably missing some interesting stuff, but the thing is I think the technique that we have is hopefully more hit than miss. You can’t cover a scene with 17 guys. But what you can do is decide who the scene is most important for and make sure you get those moments, cover those moments and then move on. Each person or character relationship will have a moment in different scenes. But it’s challenging. I mean, a little scene we were just saying where guys walk across the street, which is one or two lines, becomes four hours. You have 17 guys and you want it to be interesting and you do, what’s that thing called? A box recon… where you just send two guys ahead, they check out everything, and then they bring… or you’re bound between cars. Just different stuff Marines would do that…
Jim Dever: We work in five-team squad formations and each individual in the Marine Corp has a job to do. So just like the characters, they all have a job they’re playing. The assault gunner has a SAW automatic weapon, he has a job to do. The team leader, he’s in charge of three men. The squad leader in charge of 12 men. So everybody has a unique job within that squad. In boot camp, we taught them all their jobs and the platoon sergeant, plays by Staff Sergeant, his job is… a platoon sergeant has 42 members of platoon commanders. So each one of these squads are a platoon, and they have to learn to work together. And that’s what Jonathan asked a question. I’ll go over the scenario with him and demonstrate how the Marines would work that out.
Liebesman: That’s always interesting. Like you have the radio guy, and you’re like, arrive there in a room and you say to Jim, “it’s not in the script, but what would he be doing here?” Inevitably, it’s something really interesting. And you build a scene around that guy and then you have the script to dialog around him and the scene becomes a little bit different and multi-layered. It’s a blessing and a curse to have a lot of guys.
Liebsman: It’s PG-13, and the reason I didn’t debate was because I feel like you can create so much fear and suspense in a PG-13 situation. I think occasionally gore and stuff like that is unnecessary. Sometimes its used well, but being PG-13 doesn’t mean you can’t have blood and stuff like that, you just can’t have blood spraying everywhere or dripping, you can have alien blood doing that you just can’t have human blood. Look at movies like The Dark Knight, there’s great suspense and psychological fear that comes out of PG-13 films these days, cause the ratings are pretty hard what you get away with—you just want something like “fuck” every second word. Which, marines say it a lot, I really feel we can live without it and when I see the scenes and the intensity we have, I don’t miss it.
You’re allowed to do two fucks I think.
Liebsman: One fuck
Liebsman: Absolutely (laughs). I thought a great use of “fuck” was in Star Trek. Remember that? Spock says “Get fucking on it” or something? I just thought it was so like, in a Star Trek movie was awesome.
Marmur: He doesn’t say “fuck” he says a word.
Liebsman: No I’m telling you he says “fuck”.
Marmur: He says a word that sounds like it but it’s not.
Liebsman: Guys, he fucking says fuck!
I’ve seen it a few times, I do not remember it.
Liebsman: Well maybe I’m wrong. I’m probably wrong.
You guys are filming with film. Was there any debate about going digital? And could you talk about the debate if there was one?
Liebsman: There was a debate. I don’t really care, to be honest. I think digital is an extremely viable format, when you look at movies like District 9 and stuff, they look great on digital. It’s not a debate for me. I think why I wanted to shoot on film was, well firstly the DP love film, and secondly I think it was a tethering question—
Churnov: Well there were two things that came up, we shot a test which was part of the presentation
Liebsman: We shot a test on the RED
Churnov: We shot a test on the RED. It wasn’t the genesis, but what we discovered was for a movie like this that had so much interactive smoke and explosions, we found that the HD cameras clipped the highlights. And because of that we elected to go with film, because there’s a lot more latitude with the film.
Liebsman: We’re actually shooting on an EX-3. There’s some stuff that I shoot on an EX-3 that goes to an uncompressed box that’s like an $8000 Sony cam, and that’s got some shots. And we did a test and blew it up to 35mm and you can see a difference, but you wouldn’t know unless it’s like “that’s the EX-3” you know?
Churnov: But then there were some tethering issues about being a handheld run-and-gun film, and you would have to take a slight leap of faith to un-tether because you’re not gonna be able to have the quality control.
Speaking of the handheld film, the footage that we saw and we observed today on set looked really cool the way you were shooting with the three cameras and the fact that each take was slightly different and you never knew exactly what you were gonna get. Could about how early on you knew you wanted to shoot it like that?
Liebsman: I think a lot of the guys who are my age who are directors, we grew up with home video cameras so when we were shooting our short films at home, it’s handheld. I think you get used to that.
Churnov: I was asked to come onboard by Original Pictures and I met Jonathan when he had put this presentation together and we sat and started talking, I thought it was gonna be a half hour meeting. It lasted two and a half hours. We just started talking about movies, we talked about this film and I said “Look, I can’t imagine doing this film any other way than handheld,” and he looked at me like “That’s what I wanna do.” I read it in the script, I saw it. I said this movie has to be done this way.
Liebsman: When I watched a guy like Spielberg, there’s such amazing choreography in his shots and stuff. And it’s just—I don’t know if it’s confidence or something but I feel very confident in the handheld world because you’re getting different stuff and the pressure isn’t so much when you’re shooting it. I like to just get a ton of shit and then you go edit it. That’s where you really are allowing yourself to create the story, because you’re getting a lot of stuff you didn’t expect, and I like more extra stuff. I think for me that’s what I love about handheld.
Marmur: One of the reasons why he won the job, aside from an amazing visual presentation, was he always attacked it as a war film with aliens. And part of making that war film was he wanted it to be a little rough around the edges and gritty and really make it feel like “boots on the ground” you know what I mean? Like you’re with them. The camera’s moving, you’re behind people, as an audience member that camera’s like your POV.
Liebsman: And I was even saying to Ori today it’s hard, like you have to have so much restraint as a director when you have all this cool hardware, to resist putting it on a 14mm lens and putting the tracks and doing a Michael Bay under a pull—‘cause that shows the money, and it’s hard. It’s hard as a director to go “Shit don’t do that, just be handheld.” That’s what you’re doing.
Marmur: We think it’s one of the film’s greatest strengths, is that you have a very visceral reaction to the sort of—it’s not slick, do you know what I mean?
Liebsmans: It’s like found footage. I think that’s what one of Blomkamp’s strengths are, when you look at his stuff it’s like cobbled-together found footage. And there’s something really cool about that, it’s unexpected. I don’t know, I like it, I respond to that. Paul Greengrass, I love that kind of filmmaking.
I know you’re not supposed to talk a lot about this with the aliens since we haven’t seen them.
Liebsman: No, no. Ask anything.
Was there a consideration to do a man-in-suit kind of style alien? Or is there a man-in-suit alien being shot?
Marmur: Puppet doesn’t do it justice.
Liebsman: Here’s the thing—It’s important that the actors know the size of what they’re reacting to. Because inevitable that’s gonna be great. What we’ve done is, when they interact with an alien we have performers like in an alien suit but on stilts—motion capture guys, they’re actually motion reference guys—like on the freeway we had guys running around with springs and guns doing army tactics because the aliens are an army, you know have medics, lieutenants all that stuff. And so the actors are actually reacting to people, which is important because also then the cameras pan to something which maybe they wouldn’t have if nothing was there.
Churnov: 90% of the movie will be CG. 10% of it will be real.
Liebsman: And what we’re trying to do as much as possible is have real people being aliens interacting with the world. I think again a strength of my favorite visual effects movies are when the visual effects are interacting with the real world. Whether it’s just they walk into a room and pick something up and go like that, and then you replace that with CGI. I think if you look at even movies like Transformers or—I don’t like putting them in the same sentence—District 9, one of their strengths why their effect is so great is they’re interacting with the real world really well. I’m just talking visual effects guys (laughs).
For more Battle: Los Angeles coverage, here’s my set visit video blog and here’s an on set interview with Aaron Eckhart, Michael Peña, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan and Ramon Rodriguez.