Depicting the last just war as a hellish landscape of body parts and impossible moral quandaries, Fury is a potent mix of a guys on a mission movie shot with a modern viewpoint. War’s brutalising effects, the atrocities the Nazi regime inflicted upon its own people and heart-in-throat battle sequences are shown with raw immediacy putting you inside the eponymous Sherman as the shells fly.
Closing the 2014 London Film Festival, the film was joined by its director David Ayer, plus cast members Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, John Bernthal and Logan Lerman. At the film’s press conference they spoke eloquently and informatively about bringing to the screen a memorable portrayal of conflict in the final days of World War 2.
Questions were asked by the moderator and journalists from around the world.
If anyone goes into this thinking they’re going to see a typical World War 2 film, they’re in for a bit of a shock aren’t they?
David Ayer: Yeah, they’re wrong. Just plain wrong. Most World War 2 films are about battle. This is about family, a family that happens to live in a tank and kill people. It’s a slice of life, a character study, these guys’ chemistry and the love they have for each other.
Michael, you previously made End of Watch with David. What made you want to come back and work with him again?
Michael Pena: Why? Well, working with David is like getting a root canal. You know it’s going to be painful and you know it’s gonna suck.
Brad, what did you make of your character Wardaddy when you first read the script? Did you get a lot of backstory from David?
Brad Pitt: Yeah, I got a lot of backstory that never actually makes it into the film but informs the character. David constantly painted this picture of the exhaustion, the mental fatigue, the cold and hunger, the cumulative effect of seeing conflict and war and inflicting war on a daily basis. We took that to heart and began filming.
Logan, your character Norman goes through the same journey as the audience, doesn’t he?
Logan Lerman: Yeah, he does. He’s the eyes into the tank crew’s world, their relationship and family dynamic.
Shia LaBeouf: I think we all committed the same. It’s just that I had more time as I wasn’t working at the beginning. Everyone was committed equally…
John, was there ever a moment in the boot camp phase when you thought, this is too full-on?
John Bernthal: Yeah, that was the point I think, to breakdown in our own special way. I think it happened for all of us. The genius of the boot camp and technical advisor Kevin Vance was that when we discovered each other’s strengths and weaknesses we could use the strengths and help with the weaknesses and really become a family. Which was all essential for our first day at work.
Was it always intentional to show the Allied aggression and ruthlessness and the moral dilemmas in war?
David Ayer: The conflict itself truly was this battle between good and evil. Were we going to have human rights and freedom or utter debasement? People often project the moral clarity of the conflict itself into the daily lives of the soldiers, which is not the case.
For the solider on the ground or in the tank turret it was incredibly morally murky, just like any conflict has ever been. If you look back to All Quiet on the Western Front, it explores those same themes.
I wanted to make a film that spotlighted the moral and psychic hazards of war itself and the impression it leaves on the human soul. How it effects this family of brothers.
There has been general discussion since Vietnam about post-traumatic stress disorder. The men in Fury are clearly damaged. As filmmakers what were you intending to show here?
Brad Pitt: The picture we wanted to paint was the same as David mentioned about All Quiet on the Western Front. The standard issue soldier’s experience seems to be the same on either side. This was not a film about sides and who believed what, more about that cumulative psychic trauma that damages the psyche that every soldier carries to some extent and then has to come home with.
I just want to add one more thing to that. If anyone is interested there’s a fantastic book that helped me a lot with this subject by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman called On Killing. He lays it out better than most.
How does it feel to close the London Film Festival with Fury?
David Ayer: For me it’s a great privilege to be here and close the festival. It was shot in the UK and brings great closure to the process. A year ago today we were filming some of those battle scenes so again, it’s a privilege.
Brad and Logan, on screen your characters are kind of mentor and student. How was your relationship off camera?
Logan Lerman: It kind of matched what you see in the film with all of us, that there was a lot of conflict and a lot of respect. But, yeah, there was always that thing that I was the new guy, the liability…
Brad Pitt: When the film starts my crew has been together for three and half years and we’ve just lost a fifth member of our family. At that point this new kids come in at a time when the survival rate for tank crews was not so good. They were having to pull people off the line and throw them into tanks and we had to harden him quickly to get him to function or we may not be going home.
The conundrum of it is the Norman character comes in and represents civility and ideals, everything we had lost and were longing for.
Did you have a sense of who the characters were before the war?
David Ayer: Each character had a very full backstory. Logan knew where he came from, what his father did, his childhood and education. Every character had an incredibly detailed CV and past. There were a few scenes in the script that did detail specifically those backstories, but it became a directorial choice to cut out the classic, “now let’s tell the audience who these people are” stuff.
Had the actors’ performances not been as outstanding as they are, I probably would have had to have used those scenes in the movie. It’s a testament to them as actors that they were able to bring the dimensionality to the screen that we didn’t need that standard issue “let me tell you what everybody did” stuff.
Brad, what do hope cinemagoers will take away from this movie?
Brad Pitt: Our first wish is that the soldiers themselves walk away and feel they were respectfully recognised. You know, war is hell. Talking to vets who were only recently home, one said, “War is ludicrous if you look at it. So you don’t.”
It is an amazing fact of human nature that one year we could be chopping each other up and the next year be sharing a pint.
What do the cast feel the film taught them about their warrior within?
Brad Pitt: I kinda feel I answered that with the previous question. But, it is true that we talk and talk and talk and better ourselves, yet always seem to slip back into conflict.
David Ayer: I’d also say there’s a universality to soldering that was uniform in all the soldiers we had the privilege to talk to. For the most part people don’t go to war for political ideals or personal philosophies, at the end of the day you’re fighting for the guy next to you and who has become your family. That’s something we wanted to get in touch with and I hope that comes across.
Do you feel you could have done what they did?
David Ayer: What’s fascinating about World War 2 is that our army who were drafted into this conflict were our friends and neighbours. The men who fought this war were everyday people who when growing up never imagined themselves in these situations. The warrior is in all of us and it’s just a question of circumstance to when that warrior is awakened.
David Ayer: During the writing phase I try not to envision specific actors because I like the characters to reveal themselves in that process.
But, I did write the role of Gordo with Mike in mind. (Michael Pena punches the air) And as he indicated I’m not the easiest person to work for, so specifically I created a role with a lot of nuance and he had to do his work to bring that to the screen.
Brad read the script, wanted in and I wanted to have him. We’d met before and discussed working together and it was an honour to finally find the right project. After that it became about building a family, finding the right brothers with the right chemistry. And also finding men with a love of commitment above and beyond, not just of time commitment, but to expose themselves to hardship and difficulties that actors typically aren’t asked to participate in.
After such an immersive experience, did the cast find it hard to return to everyday life after wrapping?
John Bernthal: I did absolutely. I think we all did. At the end of the day we put on make-up and say lines, operating under an umbrella of safety that these aren’t real bullets being fired at us. But, up to that point it’s our job to make this as dark and dangerous a set as possible, and be in that mindset.
So, this wasn’t the kind of movie where you finish for the day, go get a beer, have a night on the town and go get Chinese food. You wrap, you fight, work-out and sleep and try to stay in it. Any outside influence like computers or phones were the enemy. So when you try to make your world as dark as possible for eight months straight, going home after that is tough. So what I walk away with is respect and reverence for guys who have real battle still ringing between their ears who then go home.
That had a real effect on me and I’m just a monkey who wears make-up.
Was this the most demanding project you’ve done?
Logan Lerman: Definitely the most demanding project and also the most committed project. Last year I was looking for a really good challenge and after reading the script it was this or nothing. And that’s what David was looking for. We had a lot of time for research on a really detailed level and also getting to know each other, which is one of the most important things on pre-production.
Shia LeBeouf: This has been the most rewarding experience of my life, both in terms of work and in my life.
We’ve seen lots of submarine movies, but not so many tank movies. What were the logistics of giving the illusion of shooting in a confined space for the director and the actors?
David Ayer: We built the interior set modelled on the Sherman tank, upscaled the blueprints about 10% and kitted it out with all the proper equipment. The turrent turned, the gun loaded and ejected shells, the machine guns fired, the radio received and transmitted signals. Everything worked and it was one of the most technically complex sets anyone on the crew had ever worked on.
It was maddening to film in for me. I’m a shooter, I like to get lots of coverage so I would just sit in a corner and cry while it took two hours to light the thing with these teeny LED lights, dozens of them stashed throughout.
I don’t think any of us enjoyed working in it, but it helped the tension you see on screen. These guys can talk about working inside of it, I never had to really go in it.
Brad Pitt: First of all, there is nothing ergonomic about a tank. It is not made for habitation in anyway. There are not steps to get up it or down it, you can lose your fingers bringing the lid down, you’re always banging up against something. But, there comes this point where we all found our little comfort spots, between the bulk and turret, or your coffee wouldn’t vibrate off if you put it here. Cold, instant coffee by the way…
Michael Pena: Nescafe…
David Ayer: When shooting a film actors typically between shots go to their trailers, make calls and do whatever they do in there. But, here Brad stayed inside of the tank on set, so I got very good at climbing the tank because he got comfortable about thirteen feet in the air in the turret.
It was like he was in his eagle’s nest, he would gaze down upon us working…
Could you talk about the scene between the soldiers and their meal with the two German women and why it was important?
David Ayer: During the last portion of World War 2, the United States army weren’t liberators but occupiers, invading a country. One veteran said after they’d crossed the border they captured a soldier who told them, “You’re no longer fighting Nazis, you’re fighting the German people.”
It was a different world and time, we had an army fighting and exhausted, on both sides. The purpose of that scene though is to shine a spotlight on how much these men had changed and could never go home the same.
Brad’s character’s desperation for human connection and normalcy is not allowed by the other members of his crew. It’s a complex scene and the two women, Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg, did incredible preparation for it.
The film was shot on 35mm celluloid. Why did you go for film rather than video?
David Ayer: Either you make films or you make video. Digital tries to emulate the look and range of film. We decided to shoot on film after testing different platforms. The first test was on film and there was such a subtle palette to the world we’d created. In comparison digital had these crushy blacks and muddy greens that lost the differentiation you have when shooting film.
We shot on film with G series lenses, which is an older lens set from the early 80s. True Romance was also shot on G lenses. We treated the final image as film when doing the digital transfer, applying traditional film lights and curves as you would have in a lab.
Film loves skin and textures and I love film…
Brad Pitt: For me there’s no difference working with film or video, but I’m a puritan, I love film. But, also there are guys who are trying to discover their own thing digitally. Not trying to emulate film, but trying to find digital’s own look and its own voice, and I appreciate that as well.
But, I was happy when David make the film call.
Brad, your wife is also making a World War 2 film. Did you share research?
Brad Pitt: We actually had a lovely experience. We don’t normally work at the same time, but we had our schedules all fucked up, so that’s what happened. But, I was studying the European theatre, she was studying the Pacific theatre, I was studying tanks, she was studying bombers and it was good fun for us.
We deal with the psychic damage of the soldier, whereas her film (Unbroken) focusses on the triumph of the human spirit. It’s a very uplifting and beautiful film.
Is there any similarity between Fury’s Wardaddy and your Inglourious Basterds character Aldo Raine?
Brad Pitt: I don’t see it, I think they’re two distinctly different animals for me.
Brad, what would you do if the US Army drafted your child?
Brad Pitt: Well, if they called him then they’d call him, there’s not much I could do. I’d worry as a father, I would make sure he was trained as best he could, and I think I’d start praying.
Moderator: Well, not the most uplifting question to finish on! But thanks to our panel for Fury.