Total Film – November, 2014

MEAN MACHINE – by Richard Jordan

Brad Pitt leads a blistering WW2 tale as authentic as the tank he calls home. Total Film grills David Ayer and his cast about keeping it real…

Total Film is holed up inside a German Panzer tank. It’s hot, it’s claustrophobic, and there are countless solid metal protrusions on which to snag and bump ourselves (as evidenced by the garbled yelps coming from our less than graceful entry). “Just imagine being in here with four other guys,” says our historian chaperone, “with the heat of the engine behind you, under heavy artillery fire…”

For actors Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michal Pena and Jon Bernthal, there was no imagination necessary. The only difference being that for the duration of the 12-week shoot of their new, action-packed war epic, the tank they called home was even smaller – an Allied M4 Sherman tank dubbed, via some fearsome-looking warpaint, ‘Fury’. “It’s a very dangerous, 37-tonne piece of machinery,” Pitt warns us after our brief ‘cabin experience’. Just getting up and down it, you can easily break a shin. If you bang your head on something, most likely you’ll split it open. It’s an awesomely powerful and challenging machine.”

That was the reason Pitt and co spent much of their prep for the film getting, as he puts it, “comfortable with the beast”. The latest project from ex-servicman turned writer/director David Ayer, Fury sees the Training Day cribe and End Of Watch helmer bringing his own unique brand of gritty realism to WW2. Set in Germany in April 1945, during the last days of the conflict, the film centres on the fictional crew of the eponymous tank – led by Pitt’s ‘Wadaddy’ – as they venture on a dangerous mission that sees them stranded behind enemy lines.

“I realised there’s never really been a contemporary tank film about the Second World War,” says a double-denimer Ayer when Total Film meets him in the bowels of Bovington’s Tank Museum, surrounded by several of the imposing war machines, including Fury itself. It’s from here that Ayer and his team loaned many of the film’s tanks, determined to imbue the movie with his signature authenticity – despite it being his first ever period piece. “It’s ironic, because with these things the armoured forces won the war.

They had the combat mass to break through the enemy. And just I loved the idea of telling a story about a family in a tank. It’s really that simple.”

“The first tim we all got in the tank, it was overwhelming,” remembers Jon Bernthal, the Walking Dead and Wolf Of Wall Street star who plays Fury’s salt-of-the-earth ammunition loader, Grady Travis – a guy who, according to Ayer, “crawled out of a swamp”.

“It was the first time we met each other,”

Bernthal continues. “We were so close. I thought, “There’s no way we’ll be able to do this. There’s no room. We’re going to freak out.’ Then Brad said, ‘It’s going to start smelling very bad in here very fast!’ That broke the ice. By the time we started shooting, we’d been in that thing so much. We had lived in it, gone to the bathroom in it, cooked in it, slept in it. We knew it very, very intimately. It was as comfortable as any living room I’d ever been in.”

Band of Brothers

Even before the lengthy shoot – filmed on lovation with the Oxfordshire countryside doubling for the battlefields of Northern Germany – the cast were put through their paces with a packed, two-month pre-production schedule that involved several meetings with surviving tank-squad vets and intense, Navy SEAL-led bootcamps – designed to, as Bernthal recalls, “break us down and build us back up psychologically.” The five actors soon formed a close bond that helped their onscreen dynamic, but behind it all was Ayer – a notoriously tough ringleader (a trait no doubt honed during his own experiences in the US navy) who purposefully engineered situations that would “encourage” his recruits to band together.

“The military knowlegd, the military training meeting veterans… You just try to provide the actors with as much as possible to work from,” Ayer explains. Ï’m kind of ruthless as a director. I’ll do whatever I think is necessary to get the elements I want. There’s hurt feelings and some bruises. But I think a director’s biggest mistake is to be passive and just let things unfold.”

“We studied tactics, we went to visit bases, we had an endless reading list,” laughs Pitt. “We had these crazy texts in the middle of the night describing the character. It culminated in this bootcamp situation, which was just a real eye-opener for us.” But despite the trials and tribulations of the painstaking prep work, the actor still backs his director’s methods. “We want to be pushed to places we haven’t been,” he continues. “You want to get some punches thrown at you, and throw some punches back. You want to be on your toes. You want that feeling that anything can happen.”

As Fury’s youngest crew member, 22-year-old Percy Jackson star Logan Lerman found Ayer’s bootcamp particularly gruelling, describing the experience as “a big mindfuck”- quite the statement from someone whoo’d just come off the back of working with Darren Aronofsky… “Noah was a piece of cake compared to this,” Lerman chuckles in a relaxed drawl, having swapped his combat fatigues for comfy-looking, chunky knitwear. “This was the toughest movie I’ve ever made. Every aspect of this film. It was definitely the most intense prep I’ve ever been through. David’s an intense guy and he plays mind games. He really pushes buttons and says things to screw with you, and you use it.”

The bootcamps weren’t just tough on the brain, either. Ayer needed his recruits not only battle-ready but looking battle-weary, too…

By this point in the war people were tired and bedraggled and there was a history of years of fighting on both sides, and that was what I wanted to show,” he says. Hence, the five actors were put through rigorous physical military training – all a means to achieving Ayer’s coveted authenticity and honouring the tank crews he feels have been under-represented on the big screen.

“The sleep deprivation was really difficult to manage,” says Lerman. “We’d get an hour a day, maybe two. But on top of that, we’re getting up and doing all this physical work. They had this course they made us do a couple of times a day that was just really difficult. I’ve never been a guy who’s in great shape. It was tough, man. Seriously.”

Ironically, Lerman’s character is the freshest-faced member of Fury “family”. The beginning of the film sees one of Fury’s longest-serving members perishing in battle, with college kid Norman reluctantly drafted in as his last-minute replacement. With much of Fury’s action taking place over 24 hours, Norman is forced to grow up fast, or risk putting his new brothers n even more danger. Ït’s a very tough role because he’s the audience in this movie,” Ayer explains. “He’s the witness. He’s the one who’s most changed by war. The other guys are already fucked. It’s such a searing experience.”

With the fearsome Wardaddy dishing out some tough love to his newest ward (one particularly harrowing scene sees him forcing Norman to literally “kill or be killed”), it’s this central relationship that drives the film’s action. “It’s like raising a son in one day,” Pitt explains of Wardaddy’s journey. “It’s this negotiation, this exchange; in the film you see this trade-off. You see what you think is a very hardened, capable charachter, and the innocence of this kid. And somewhere along, they inform each other.”

“In his mind, he has to be the patriarch of the family – he has to rule with authority, but his guys need to trust his rule as well,” the 50-year-old A-lister – and father of six himself – explains to TF, coolly exuding his own authority despite his laid-back demeanor (not to mention rocking a bright orange fedora that very few people could pull off). And, accoring to Ayer, Pitt naturally assumed the role of leader off-camera as well as on – though, as with everything, that ‘natural’ progression was given a helping hand from the director… “The bootcamp was designed in that way,” smiles Ayer, “to let him asume that leadership mantle. The same sort of things he learned as a parents are the same things in small-unit leadership. I couldn’t have written this role had I not been a parent. Brad and I would discuss raising the tank family, and they’re his children, and how does he guide them? And the cmomplexities of that. It really shows in the film.”

Reality Bites

With Ayer leading from the front, his cast fully committed to the cause of striving for the real deal. None more so than Shia LaBeouf, who, after a troublesome couple of years in the public eye, threw himself into the role of Boyd “Bible” Swan – a religious man who serves as Fury’s gunner and second-in-command. LaBeouf spent two months with the US National Guard of his own accord before joining his castmates at their Fort Irwin bootcamp.

“I remember a funny story with him,” smiles Lerman. “We were in prep in the rehearsal stages, as we were figuring out our makeup – the level of dirt – for screen tests. The {make-up artists] were putting some cuts on [points to his cheek]. They were like, ‘Oh yeah, that looks good.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t really look real.’ He walked out, I see him in the hallway and he says, ‘Hey man, you want to see something fun? Check this out.’ He takes out a knife and cuts [himself]. In the whole movie, he maintained that: he kept re-opening those cuts on his face. It’s all real. He commits to his characters. He sets the bar really high, and he had everyone rising to be with him.”

When TF asks LaBeouf why he wanted to take on the role of Swan, it’s clear that – whatever his methods – he’s not one for playing it safe. “David told me early on that we would go the whole way,” he enthuses, intently. “He said that the experience would change me, that I will, that I will have never worked harder or given more. That he was gonna push us hard. That what we were going to get into would be full-on and brutal. He likes to take things all the way to the edge. That’s where the truth is.”

That truth extended to the use of the WW2-era tanks, rather than replicas and an over-reliance on CGI – even if it meant an increase in on-set mishaps with the temperamental metal behemots. “Oh yea, all kinds of things would happen,” laughs Bernthal. “Tanks would break down. Tanks wouldn’t start. It would add four of five hours to the day. All kinds of shit. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t change it for the world. That sound, that smell, that feel of the real tanks – it just adds such flavour to the piece.”

“My preference was always for practical in-camera effects,” says Ayer. “Instead of the cast reacting to a tennis ball on a string and pretending it’s something, things are blowing up in their faces. Tanks are firing, shells are being ejected. There are a lot of real explosions. There were a couple of days where I think I lost some hearing! There are 600 visual FX shots in the movie. But all the things that are happening in the film are pretty much happening on set. It’s really a miracle that things went as smoothly as they went. Thank God everybody made it through all healthy and sane!”

Make it through they did, but there’s no doubt that the Fury experience had a profound effect on its cast. When LaBeouf is quizzed on his biggest on-set challenge, he simply says, “Leaving,” while Bernthal admits the movie “took a real physical and emotional toll – and I loved it,” But perhaps the most affected was Ayer, himself a former sonar technician on a nuclear submarine, for whom Fury represents something of a passion project.

“My job was to track and classify other contacts,” the director recalls of his own front-line experience. “The only difference for us between peace and wartime was a plastic cover on a switch. It was the Cold War. I learned about the dynamics of people under those extreme conditions. I learned about what it’s like to be the new guy. So Logan’s experience shadows a lot of my own history in the film. I learned how to take care of a machine that my life depended upon… and the bond you develop with it.”