South African director Jonathan Liebesman made his directorial debut on 2006’s “Darkness Falls” (which, he reminds me, was shot down under), since then he’s directed “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre : The Beginning”, “The Killing Room” and “Battle : Los Angeles”, his latest film, opening this month. I caught up with Liebesman to talk about tearing L.A apart.
Did you shoot “Darkness Falls” in Australia? Really? You shot it in Sydney?
And Melbourne and the Gold Coast.
I know your country well.
Did you see, oh, shit, yeah, well, those… No, that’s New Zealand, the earthquake.
Yeah, but we had floods in Queensland.
Queensland. So where do you live there?
Yeah, that’s Queensland. I live in West Hollywood for Moviehole; just moved over about a month ago.
Yeah. A big change. I moved over here because this is where all the action happens.
I guess, like you as well. [laughter] So tell me about this film. What in particular did you draw… What in particular drew you to this film? Because you tried really hard to get it.
Is that right?
That’s right, Alicia. I think it was just the melding of the war genre with alien forms…making a war film with aliens as opposed to an alien movie and just happened to have Marines scattered about. It was just more important… It just seemed like an opportunity, like war movies have been taken to such a level with Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. And it would be nice to know that with the higher-class alien films and I felt that was right.
So you really perched it as a war film, not an alien movie?
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Was it hard to keep the balance of realism when you’re dealing with such extraterrestrial beings?
Lots. Yeah, of course. But I think what’s great is there was the challenge of the movie because if you pull that off then that’s the fun of it. So like I’m just sometimes I have paranoia like I could have done more to make it more realer. But, yeah, I mean we had like a military tech adviser and he helped try and make all the scenes real. It was important that all the actors as US Marines what they would be doing, how they’d be like scoping stuff out. So yeah, that was one of the big things. And then the camera, of course, you try and keep it real there and put the effects in there. So yeah, we tried. We tried our best.
Was boot camp your idea?
I can’t remember if it was my idea but I did… I mean my favourite movies, they’ve made them do it, like in Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. I mean I can’t claim credit for that but I didn’t think it was necessary for the guys to go. And they went for three weeks, which was great, and then I’d visit them and rehearse and then go home while they slept in boot camp.
[laughter] And you go home to your luxurious place.
I would. It’s not… [laughter]
Did you see them change over that process?
Yeah, I saw them become more like Marines. I remember the first day of shooting, it was that freeway scene. They jumped out of the bus, they take their positions and I thought, “Shit! That looks like fucking Iraq or something.” It looked like real Marines doing shit, which was the goal. Very happy.
Yeah. Aaron Eckhart was saying how you showed him some YouTube footage of soldiers in Iraq.
Yeah, I remember the clip.
And they laughed about it that they were trained but then they’re in this chaotic situation they didn’t know how to deal with. So is that kind of juxtaposition of voice on your mind?
Yeah. Because I think what happens is you don’t expect the chaos, you don’t expect people in, well, Marines to be overwhelmed. And then the fact that aliens are causing that is pretty interesting and cool.
So when it comes to the visual effects because you shot it with handheld cameras, did that make doing the visual effects harder to insert the men to the handheld moving shot?
It is more difficult but the technology’s evolved. It’s called 3D motion tracking when you take the shot and there is software that works at what your camera’s doing in a 3D space so you can then put a visual effect within the 3D space that will stick then with the frame. And it’s evolved to a point where it’s easier to do that but it was… They were very challenging shots where the artist has to actually work out by hand where the camera is. So yeah, there was some tough shots for sure.
So frame by frame.
Putting them in. But I also imagine it would make it easier in some sense that it’s moving a lot so you don’t have…
Well, I think it probably makes the render it, the textures… You can be more forgiving on the textures. But as far as putting them in the shots and making them feel like they’re really in the shot, that’s the difficult part.
You seem to use a lot of real sets, is that right? Like the freeway looked like an actual freeway.
It was. It was.
Did you use much green screen or you tried to keep everything as realistic as…
You try to keep it as real as you could but I’d say we shot maybe 80, 70 or 80% real and then 20%… Well, I mean sometimes you have to use a green screen. You have to shoot indoors. There’s a scene where you fight an alien by a pool, that’s a set inside a warehouse that we just filled with smoke. I mean you… It’s not Sydney, you can’t just shoot everything. [laughter]
But you do have this beautiful view here and this is funny talking to you here because this is obviously where the real battle…
This is where the invasion happens.
Took place, yeah.
Right outside there.
Was there much emphasis on that sort of true story into the… Or did you just have an inspiration?
I think it was the inspiration for scouting missions that aliens do and then come back and take our resources and I think Battle: Los Angeles is just again an extrapolation. In my mind, it’s a world war and we’re just following Battle: Los Angeles. And what happened before was they came and they scoped us out, they saw we were puny and they bring everyone.
And do you believe in UFOs and…
I think there’s got to be something. There has to be something out there, some intelligent life. Do I believe we’re being visited by UFOs? I have no idea.
They never seem to come to Australia. I mean America.
No. Nobody has ever spotted anything in Australia?
No. There probably is. But in films anyways.
But you saw that in Wolf Creek, mate.
Yeah, Wolf Creek. [chuckle] But he’s a real person.
Yeah. But before, didn’t they say there were alien signs in Wolf Creek? Come on, mate [Laughs].
That’s right. I should do my research more. Was it fun to destroy LA?
Yeah. I mean it’s fun to destroy anything. [laughter] You’re a god. We’d like just destroying shit, making girls cry. But yeah, I mean, definitely there’s a wishful film when you destroy things and blow shit up. Absolutely. Explosions are fun, they’re very cathartic. We just set them off on set in the morning before we shot. Now get… [laughter] That’s such a shit sense of humour. This is why… [laughter] I’m like, “Oh! That’s really funny.”
It’s like in Tropic Thunder.
Just like Tropic Thunder with all the explosions.
Exactly. That’s what I would do. No. It’s definitely a big cathartic in explosions and destroying stuff, that’s pretty fascinating. When you watch the Discovery Channel and you see tornadoes or something and then watching explosions is the same thing. Everyone just sits in awe and watches it disappear. It’s like a nice moment, 2 minutes as you watch the smoke ring go away. But yeah.
So you got to use a lot of real explosions on set?
A lot of real explosions. We had a great team. We actually did like a lot of that used… What’s that… Flags of Our Fathers, those big battle scenes. And I made sure that we had more explosions on our movie than Flags of Our Fathers.
But less the Michael Bay?
I’d never take on the big Bay. [laughter] I never take on big Bay ever. Too much expected of his explosives ability.
Yeah. Good explosion.
I’m not going to take that on.
Aaron Eckhart, he looks like the kind of guy you would follow into battle. It was surprising that this is his first war film.
Right. Because he…
He looks like that little American soldier.
Yeah. He’s got a great look. So, when I heard that he was into it, I was very excited to have him on board. I mean he is super dedicated. I think I said before he was at boot camp and I’d pull up in a car and he’d have like a… He had this gun trained on the vehicle and was like, “Pull over.” [laughter] But yeah, he’s an absolutely dedicated actor and when you work with him, you understand why all his performances are great because he just pushes everything, which I loved. I loved it.
And he broke his arm during the shoot?
I didn’t even know he had broken his arm because he just carried on and then I think he phoned me the next morning and he was like… Or no, someone told me, “Aaron is in the hospital, he’ll be 15 minutes late.” I said, “What the fuck is going on?” [laughter] Yeah, he’s totally dedicated. Very like… Very, very impressive.
And the stunt that he break his arm on, did that make it into the film?
Yeah, it’s in the movie. It’s at the end when he… That laser pointer falls off the rock and he jumps down to get it and he falls and hits his arm. That way the guy breaks his arm and lives to tell the tale. You use that footage, you know.
Yeah. Be bad for you to say, “Oh, let’s do it again.”
Exactly. “Let’s put someone after that.” [laughter]
And Michelle Rodriguez, she seems like a girl that really loves to get into all the stunts.
Oh, yeah. She is… Michelle is insane as I am sure. Have you interviewed her yet?
Just about to.
Oh yeah. She’s great. Like the thing about Michelle is she is rough and tough and what I love is when you put the camera on her, it feels like you’re making a movie. She has such a charisma, it’s unbelievable. Such a charisma on camera and really keeps things lively and is a great team player. She’s definitely someone, if you’re in a war, I’m not even joking, you want that person by your side because she is loyal and pretty incredible, what she does. Like I definitely learned a lot from Michelle just about film-making and cuts and she’s great.
And she said she’s a big video games fan. This film seem to be bit inspired by that, you mentioned it.
Yeah. I think there’s a… I think… I have a lot of respect for the latest sort of crop of video games whether it’s Halo: Reach, Desert War, or Martin Wolf, I think, is fantastic. Yup, it’s fantastic like artists that are working on those games. And I think that they’re sort of ubiquitous. You see them on YouTube, you see them on the news or… Video games are now a part of the collective conscience, the imagery from the video games, I think, to draw upon them. You can’t look down on that because they are a part of our culture right now.
Yeah. There seem to be a bit of that when the guy’s looking for the alien in the pool. It’s so much like… Yeah.
Like that kind of perspective.
Absolutely. Why not? Why not Sydney?
Just do it.
Why not blow everything up? [laughter] Yeah, and also the way you shot the film, it seemed like you had to often searched for the people in the frame, that you didn’t always give everything to the audience. Was that a conscious decision to make people sort of take notice and find things?
Yeah, absolutely, because I think that when they get involved, give… It causes some suspense and, it’s about these great shots in Rosemary’s Baby where you always try to glance around the door to see her on the phone. Like I think whenever the audiences follows them in suspense and is looking, it’s really great. So that anytime you can draw on those sort of horror technique, it’s helpful.
Yeah, did you take some horror techniques from your previous works?
Yeah, of course. I mean, anything… Sure, absolutely. Those are all about exploiting suspense, so it’s always helpful to fall back on that in a war film where I think it’s all about suspense. It’s all about… And if you look at even a movie like The Hurt Locker, it’s the suspense of the enemy you can’t see, that’s going to kill you. So you absolutely try and draw from that stuff.
And you’ve spoken briefly about possibly doing a sequel. What would that involve if you could do anything? Would it be rebuilding the city or a second attack or getting rid of those aliens?
It’s all about rebuilding the city. [laughter] No, I don’t know. I mean we’ve just started kicking around ideas. I just think there’s a lot to explore in terms of everything. Where does the invasion go? Who are these aliens, you know? Learning more about both sides.
Why they want our water?
There are so many things.