Yesterday I brought you my report from the Louisiana set of Battle: Los Angeles, the Jonathan Liebesman-directed "war movie with aliens" that stars Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Michael Pena and rapper Ne-Yo, among others. Today I've got excerpts from my interviews with many of the film's stars, director and producers, all of them talking about the intensity of the experience on the set, the extensive military training they underwent, the elaborate video Liebesman shot to convince the studio to make the film, and how crappy war scenes on TV look to them after this whole experience.
Check out the interviews below, compiled from two different roundtable interviews conducted on the set in December 2009. Battle: Los Angeles hits theaters March 11.
The project started when director Jonathan Liebesman got a look at Chris Bertolini's script, which he described as "the type of movie I would line up around the block for." What got the studio to give a greenlight, though, was a massive presentation Liebesman gave, complete with visual aids and test footage he had shot on the Sony backlot, along with Aaron Eckhart. Liebesman downplays the presentation a bit before the producers give him proper credit.
Jonathan Liebesman: I made a big point that it should feel like a war movie with aliens, not an alien movie with Marines. I think now, one of the big steps was casting someone like Aaron, who in my opinion is a real actor, someone who can really elevate this to feel like a real story as opposed to a genre picture. That was what I pitched Ori and the producers, that was my take. That's what got you excited, right Ori?
Ori Marmur: He's selling himself a little short. What he showed us is he came into a room with 6 or 7 black bags, and in each bag he had visuals. He came in with alien design that he had gone out and hired a terrific artist to create that was really unique. He came in with charts detailing how he wanted to restructure certain beats to maximize tension, drama, scares. He came in with 12 minutes of pre-vis he had done on his own. He came in with shots from around Los Angeles he had take on his camera and gone home and used software that he had learned to use, where he could drop aliens in .He really came in with an amazing presentation that floored us. When we brought him to the studio he did it for Doug Belgrad and Sam Dickerman, the president of production and senior VP of production, and ultimately for the chairman. He really won the job with an amazing presentation.
Jonathan: I remember getting the job and the day after just thinking, it's incredible. I just couldn't believe I had the job.
Ori: But going back to what you were saying about the redemption thing, Jonathan had gone and put this entire presentation together and got us excited and the studio excited. I remember when we called him to thank him for putting in all that time and energy and financial resources not knowing if he was going to get the job or not, one of the things he said was, he was sick of being the guy that got all the way to the final meeting on things that he loved and was told, it just went to the other guy. So he poured everything into this thing, and whatever was in those six magic black bags.
Eckhart was on board even before the film was greenly to shoot the early test footage; it's hard to overstate how passionately both he and Liebesman spoke about the project together, even starting with the day they shot 100 set-ups on the destroyed Sony back lot.
Ori: If you go on the Sony lot now, where that test was shot is rolling lawns and a brand-new commissary. We shot while they were still under construction, which really worked. We were able to make it look like places were destroyed. We didn't really tell Aaron exactly what was going to happen that day, and we didn't know how long we would have him. The movie wasn't 100%. it was right there, it was close. He was there the whole day, it was amazing. In terms of Aaron's dedication, when we were in Shreveport, he was the only guy in the entire cast who showed up ready to go. Haircut. He looked like--
Jonathan: When I saw Aaron after pre-production I was kind of scared.
Aaron Eckhart: When I walked into your office and Jeffrey's office, there were serious concerns about my health. I tell you, I have been dying to do this role. I have absolutely been dying to do it. I am so proud of this movie. I've done a few movies, I've worked with some good people, but nothing like this. I literally get in the car and go, I don't know if I'll be able to make it through this day. And then I get back in the car at the end of the day and go, I can't believe I made it through that day. And I'm going to say the same thing tomorrow. To have people around you that just care so much about it. This is an actor's absolute wet dream.
Jonathan: To act in front of green screen.
Aaron: No, it's not that. To have something to chew on. You hear about actors wanting to chew on things. The part that I've been given, I feel a responsibility as he does for the film, as the producers do, to make money for Sony and for this to be successful.
Jonathan: Just to push it. Again, he'll do a take, we'll go watch playback, and we'll go into a discussion of how we should push it, and we just fucking go for it. We're saying the same thing.
Aaron: The point I'm making is you don't feel that on every movie. And you guys must not see that on every movie you see. You'll go, oh, they probably could have done more, or they had all this money and that's what they made. I don't believe in my heart that you can say that about this film. I feel like the audience is going to be rewarded with a true experience, and that's what an actor craves.
The actors underwent four weeks of boot camp to get in something approximating Marine shape before shooting; that included Eckhart, who is a solid 15 years older than most of the rest of the cast, and rapper Ne-Yo, making his acting debut in the film. All 13 slept under the same tent that they put up themselves each night, under the supervision of three different actual military Sergeants.
Noel Fisher (Private Lanahan): That actually was a really good thing about doing the boot camp, is that everybody gets along so well just within the cast. I think that really comes across on the screen and in the scenes. We've spent four months now together. We go out, we work out, we go for dinner. These are our boys now, which is what a Marine platoon would hopefully be.
James Hericky (Lance Corporal Mottola): We came up with nicknames for each other too, and half the time we do call each other by our nicknames. Like my real name is James, but I get called Motorola just as much as I do James.
Ori Marmur: They went to boot camp, and they're calling each other by their names in the screenplay, on and off camera. Walking, talking. A lot of the time you're looking at them whether we're rolling film or not, and [military consultant Sgt. Jim Dever] is like, "Did you see that?" The mannerisms are impressive.
Jonathan Liebesman: He's very proud, like children.
Sgt. Jim Dever: I am, I am.
Ramon Rodriguez (Lt. Martinez): [The sergeants] basically showed us how to become Marines. Everything from the way we walked, talked, waking up at 5 in the morning every morning. Everything was us working together, us working as a unit. That was the most priceless experience, because it immediately formed a bond, which is hopefully going to resonate in the film as well. By the time we started filming, we didn't have to go through as much anymore.
Ne-Yo (Corporal Kevin Harris): I never saw myself being in the military at all before this movie. And I would say, after this movie, I absolutely don't see myself in it. Never ever never ever. No no no.
Eckhart's character is the oldest of the Marines, but he's not in charge of the unit-- that job falls to Ramon Rodriguez's Lt. Martinez. Not only is Rodriguez more experienced than any of the younger actors in terms of large action movies-- he had a supporting part in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen-- but he had to deal with being their boss onscreen.
Ramon: I found out that that's real. That was one of the first questions I asked when I read the script. I asked my Marine buddy, is this real, does this happen. He says, all the time. There will be a Lieutenant who's younger, and a Staff Sergeant who's older and more experienced. I think adds a great conflict, I think that adds a great story and a great journey for Aaron's and my character. You know, I'm the Lieutenant and I feel like I have to be in charge of my platoon; however I do feel like I have to listen to him. And if he gives me direction or gives me advice I have to take that in because he's had more experience. There's a lot of conflict with that, where I have to make the call.
Liebesman and his cast are all well-aware of how many alien movies and war movies have come before this one, and are deliberately drawing influences from both previous films and, maybe even more influentially, the hyper-real war video games of the last few years. Michelle Rodriguez was playing Call of Duty frequently when off the set, and everyone, Liebesman and even his military adviser included, happily acknowledged the similarities between their movie and the games-- and how much realism the games actually brought to the movie.
Jonathan Liebesman: I did find myself getting a lot of inspiration just watching gameplay and Call of Duty. It's not first-person shooter anymore as much. What you see is the camera in different perspectives. There's a ton of production value in these games. There's some great directors that have done some good recent game commercials, whether it's my boy Neill Blomkamp, or Rupert Saunders, who did Halo OBS what have you. Joseph Kosinski I find those have been my inspiration as opposed to movies. Beneath that, embedded Iraqi war footage obviously, which has inspired those things.
Will Rothar (Lee Imley): Actually two of our sergeants worked on both Call of Duty and Modern Warfare 2.
Taylor Hanley (Lance Corporal Simmons): That's one of the interesting things about this movie, they're making sure that it's really based in realism. Like more so than--
Ramon Rodriguez (Lt. Martinez): I'm sure y'all know this now, but when I watch military movies now, I'm like hold on, that's now how--
Will Rotha (Lee Imley): TV shows are the worst.
Ne-Yo (Corporal Kevin Harris): Everything, from the way they hold the gun. We're laughing at them now. Before this we didn't know the difference.
The alien creatures in the movie will be represented with a mix of physical puppets, actors in suits and CGI, which made for a challenges for the actors doing battle against creatures who weren't actually there-- particularly Ne-Yo, the freshest actor of the group.
Ne-Yo: Shooting at something that's not there definitely shows your chops as an actor. When in a scene with somebody else you can kind of play off that person and improv if you need to, or whatever the case may be. If you're supposed to be afraid in a scene and you're supposed to be looking at this thing you're afraid of but you know, and there's a director over here yelling "You're scared, you're scared! If you can act, it really pull that out, and if you can't, it shows, and you normally don't get that part in the movie.
Ramon: There's pluses and minuses to it. When you're working with another person, as you said, it's energy, it's going back and forth. But when there's nothing there, the other thing is that there's freedom. You can do whatever you want. What happens, what I learned on Transformers 2, is you almost create the action. So any movement you make, all of a sudden in post-production, if you jump to a shot, he can make that bullet go off now. You create the aliens characters, you make them come to life more.