I often wonder if filmmakers I interview are aware of the reviews I give their films. I try to keep the two sides of the job separate; the review is the place I make my opinion known while the interview is where I try to allow them to speak for themselves. I rarely, if ever, get confrontational with a filmmaker in an interview for a couple of reasons - one, it’s not polite and two, it’s pointless. A filmmaker will discuss the flaws of his film years after it opens, not two weeks before it hits theaters.
It turns out Jonathan Liebesman, director of Battle: Los Angeles, knew my reviews of his work. I trashed Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and rightly so. It’s a piece of crap. I was much kinder to his Sundance film The Killing Room, though, singling him out for praise and saying the script failed him.
Apparently that didn’t matter. Liebesman answered the phone like this:
My best reviewer ever, Devin Faraci.
That’s me. Thanks for taking the time to talk. With a film like this, where you have a group of Marines in a military action, how do you balance creating archetypes so that the audience can quickly understand who is who with creating actual characters?
Firstly you acquire the best actors you can because they’ll breathe a lot of life into it. Secondly you do a lot of improv and create an atmosphere where anything goes with the actors so you can try and break free of those types.
How much improv can you do with a film that’s as technically demanding as this, with all the pyrotechnics and effects?
You can do a lot. We did a hell of a lot of improv. Every scene we were improv-ing and riffing. Especially with this visual style; I think there’s a documentary style so you let the actors run with it, you shoot a lot and cut it together.
People have been playing first person shooter games for twenty years now. How much has that made its way into the aesthetic of action films, and especially of military action films?
I think it’s made its way hugely. When you look at embedded footage from Iraq besides the individual characteristics of Marines, oftentimes there is a lot of similarity. You see a lot of this on YouTube, and a lot of the Marines play these games too and find them experiences that are… well, obviously not the real experience, but there’s a lot of it that seeps into films.
How about for you? Does that seep into your style?
Absolutely. I love those games. I’m not a good gamer, I’m not skillful, but I enjoy what the guys have cooked up. There’s a lot of talent within the community of guys who develop the games. I love the scenery and artwork, I think it’s great.
One of the interesting things about Battle: Los Angeles is that we never really meet the aliens. We never get to know them and their culture. For you guys behind the scenes did you actually create backstory for the aliens or are we seeing everything you came up with on screen?
There is a massive bible. We behind the scenes knew what planet they came from, what they needed for that planet, the whole story of that planet. In addition how many wars they fought, how long their machinery lasts, what they do when they’re injured. There’s a hell of a lot of stuff we wanted to know just in case it sort of seeped into the different actions of the aliens. There’s a hell of a lot of stuff that was pretty interesting that wouldn’t have made sense to put into the story. They’re Marines, not scientists, so they could only discover so much - especially since the movie is told from their point of view. And it’s not believable that in the news certain things would be discovered, you’d be like ‘How the fuck do they know that?’
Is this information that you would want to use in tie-in comics or novels or even a sequel?
There’s definitely stuff I’m hoping to put in if the audience wants a sequel. But if they don’t… I just think it’s so cool, I just want to shoot something. I love the world so much, I just want to keep shooting it.
Do you have a vision for the sequel?
I have ideas that I would like to see, yes. Things that I’ve been thinking about that I couldn’t get in the first one, ideas for stories.
One of the most important aspects of the film is the casting of Aaron Eckhart. He grounds everything and has such a great presence. When did you guys decide on Aaron? How important was he to you getting the movie right?
Aaron was actually interested in the movie before I even got the job, so in my mind there was never anyone else. Aaron is such a dedicated actor that from the start he was a partner in trying to ground his character and helping me elevate different things. As you said how do you turn very flimsily written things into fleshed out things, and that’s where I think Aaron is brilliant. In my opinion he made his character something that felt very real.
With an intense film like this there’s usually two ways the set works. One is that everyone is having a good time and playing and blowing off steam that way, and the other is that they stay really intense and take it really seriously. Which was this?
I think we were somewhere in between. I wanted everyone to take it seriously. A lot of the playtime happened when we shut down for the day, and it was a pretty intense atmosphere we were trying to create and to respect.