Jonathan Liebesman has been working in Hollywood for several years, albeit on films like 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning' whose commercial prospects seemed to flourish at the expense of critical acclaim. On his latest film, 'Battle: Los Angeles,' Liebesman has set his sights on a project with a decidedly more respectable pedigree, crafting a 'Saving Private Ryan'-style epic about Marines caught up in an alien invasion.
Cinematical caught up with Liebesman at the Los Angeles press day for 'Battle: Los Angeles,' where the filmmaker discussed not only the logistical challenges of mounting a war movie with an otherworldly backdrop, but the progression his career has taken – and he wants it to take – as he movies on to bigger and better films.
Cinematical: It seems like almost any individual sequence could have been a film unto itself. How did you decide how big the scale of the movie was, and where it would begin and end?
Jonathan Liebesman: There was a pre-existing script to follow, and I think it was just kind of about making that story. As you get into the movie, researching it as a director, there's such a rich tapestry for the Marines and the aliens, that yes, I agree, a lot of little aspects became extremely interesting and could be movies on their own.
How much did you want to reveal about the aliens in the film, and how careful did you have to be to not betray the idea that these guys are literally dealing with the practicality of fighting them?
There was always a fine line where all of a sudden someone sounded like fucking rocket scientists – like, "oh, this must be the X,Y,Z." How the fuck would he know that? So there was always the balance between the frustration of 'we want to know more about these things' and then it would be a groaner if that person said this.
When you get such a positive reaction to a trailer or early footage, like you guys did, is it tough or intimidating to have to follow through on the promise of that?
The movie was done by the time they did all of the trailers, so I couldn't really change anything, but I thought the pressure was on them to sell something, and they did a great job with the campaign. As far as whether the film lives up to it, there's nothing I could do about it.
As accurate as you wanted to be with the military procedure, were there moments when that commitment to authenticity got in the way of telling the best story possible?
Sometimes, but the truth is that I wanted to adapt the story's accuracy – like if a Staff Sergeant is arguing with a lieutenant and the tech advisor said that would never happen, I wanted to know, well, obviously there are times when something like this happens, so what would have to happen? What would the situation have to be? It would always for me to do the scene have to be accurate in some way; we would never shoot a scene if there was something that they told me would be an implausible battle situation. Of course in battle, lines get blurred and things get crazy, and there's always that liberty to take, but it was always just important to me to have that sort of sense of authenticity.
You have a great opening sequence and then flash back 24 hours to introduce the characters' back stories. Was there ever a thought since you don't provide any back story for the aliens to simply proceed and let the characters' stories unfold through the action?
I think lots of times there are arguments with the studios; filmmakers want certain things and studios want certain things, and you find a compromise. Ask any filmmaker – you just want to fucking start it off and not set anything up, and just get into it, and the studio is like, "no, audiences enjoy knowing who people are." The fact is that when we played it for audiences, they actually did enjoy the movie more when they saw more about the characters. And I think there's a balancing act, because you know you've got to be skillful in introducing the characters to sort of keep it fresh and authentic, but at the same time, because you're making a big film, you know it's on the studio's dime so you've got to make sure the audience enjoys the movie. Like I do think, sure, if it were for a smaller audience, let's fucking blast off into the movie not knowing who anyone is and find out through action who they are and hope that's enough and be more ballsy. But I don't have the power right now as a director to do something like that.
How much of a trajectory did you have to map out about what was going on while the characters in the film are dealing with their immediate situation?
We figured everything out. The interesting thing to me is, yeah, again, how much do you tell an audience? Like people say, you're telling them too much about the characters, but then not enough about the other things, so it's a fine balancing act. I think we get as much information as them – there's no way our guys would ever figure [some plot details] out, so we are in as much of the dark as they are, and trying to put it together. But as far as filmmakers, you have to know what's going on. You've got to explain to your actors, your crew, your VFX artists; there's a lot you have to explain.
How liberating is it to use aliens as your adversary in a war movie?
I think it's great. You get to not deal with politics, but you get to watch Marines and their camaraderie and you don't have to worry about whether they're doing wrong or right, and you get to see those details, but at the same time you've got to keep the aliens intimidating and believable and grounded and functional, and understand that they are adversaries that are not easily beaten so that you keep the tension up.
How meticulous is the cinematography constructed in a movie like this? Do you shoot a lot of footage and then put it together in the editing room, or are those little zooms and shaky flourishes deliberate?
A lot of what we will do is I'll block out the action and tell the camera operator what I want, and he has a style that we've already sort of looked at where he'll sometimes zoom and sometimes not, so I'll have a lot of footage that does either, and then depending on what's appropriate in the moment. But a lot of the footage I went to was stuff when the camera actually was about to roll out [of footage] and the guy was dropping the camera and then we'd put an alien on the roof in the shot so it would have a sense that, oh, we just caught the guy in a moment. So it's almost like you plan everything and then you get on set and forget everything. Everyone kind of knows the plan but it's all just sort of opened up for interpretation; I thought that was the best way to try to elevate the material is to tell everyone what I want, and then say, okay, you guys are more talented than me at your different jobs, so once we say "action," it's every man for himself.
Because this verite, handheld style has become such a recurrent visual motif, how much do you have to restrain these guys to make sure it suits audiences who might still get queasy watching it?
Of course – you restrain it or you just don't use those shots. But the thing is that it was motivated by the Iraq war footage that I've seen, so I was comfortable using it, but absolutely there are boundaries.
I didn't see 'Darkness Falls' but I did see 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,' and-
Don't see 'Darkness Falls' (laughs).
Okay, good to know. How deliberate was this meant to be as a bump up from those films – not just that you had this idea, but that you were trying to graduate to a larger scale of film?
I don't know. I mean, obviously 'Battle: LA' wasn't my idea, it was the script that I sort of fought hard to get, but I wasn't purposefully trying to do something grander. I was just purposefully trying to do something to do something I was passionate about, which was a war movie with aliens. That was what I was really passionate about – the fact that it's a big-scale movie was sort of incidental to me; I just wanted to do this movie.
Ultimately, how tough is it to imprint your personality on these movies that are so big and have so many moving parts?
It's obviously more difficult. I mean, there's so many things going on; it's tough. You either have to have a final-cut situation like Chris Nolan where you have built the story from the ground up, or you have to have the power of, say, Ridley Scott, and as a filmmaker that hasn't written a script himself and doesn't have the power, I think it's tough to do. But I think it's such an opportunity to direct these movies – honestly, it really is sort of a dream come true – so I just hope that I'm up to the challenge.