David Ayer took a big leap with “Fury.” After smaller projects like “Street Kings” and “End of Watch” (as well as the critical dud “Sabotage”), he went right at the bull with a massive World War II drama featuring one of the world's biggest stars. Over budget and bursting at the seems, the resulting film is a fascinating shaggy dog entry in the well-worn genre of war, one with a lot of ideas flying around but a central intention: exploring a family dynamic in the middle of hell itself.
I spoke to Ayer last week about the film, which was shot on location outside of London last year. We got into the choice of shooting on film, fighting to keep one particularly strong scene in tact and, of course, favorite war movies. Check out the back and forth below.
“Fury” hits theaters Oct. 17.
HitFix: So there is obviously a long lineage of war cinema that the movie joins. I'm just curious to start here, what are some of your favorite war films?
David Ayer: Number one has to be “Apocalypse Now.” And then, I mean, there's a whole bunch I really like but are kind of hard to put in any kind of order. There was a Russian movie, “Come and See,” which was a big influence. It's insane, but it's really powerful and interesting at the end of the day. A lot of European post-war cinema, immediately after the war, just takes a really honest look at the war. Like this German movie, “The Bridge,” about fanaticism and desperation at the end of the war.
Were you looking to, you know, emulate anything or reference anything with how you made this one?
No, for me I was just trying to reference the time as much as possible. Because I think that's one of the problems with war movies is, you know, there's always conventions and things you're supposed to do and ways you're supposed to make them. I wanted to tell a story about just a family. It's a study of a family that happens to live in a tank and kill people. And to build the world around them I just went to the primary sources and looked at thousands of photographs of the war and looked at signal corps footage and studied the Army After Action Reports and memoirs, first person accounts, you know, to try and portray what it may have been like for these men.
I thought it was interesting the choice of 35mm, just because you would expect digital in this day and age, more and more. Why shoot this on film?
It's interesting, you know, our very first test was on film and then because the schedule was so tight I wanted to shoot it on digital. But it's like, nothing beats film. Nothing responds like film. Nothing is as organic as is film. There's more data in film and the colors – film holds highlights better. It holds shadows better. It's just a better medium and, you know, it's sad that so many people are moving away from it, but I'm going to be a film guy for as long as I can.
Did you have to fight for that on this?
I had to lobby for it a little bit because I shoot a lot, but it definitely was worth it in every regard. I mean the movie is as beautiful as it is. Roman [Vasyanov] was able to do such a fantastic job and capture some amazing images because of film.
There's a lot of iconic imagery in the movie, actually. It's gorgeous. You said you wanted to emulate the period as much as possible but what else did you want out of the look, because at the end of the day there are a number of shots that I think you could put up on a wall, you know?
We just wanted it to feel as natural as possible. A lot of movies these days, they're very contrasty. They have these crushed blacks and saturated colors. I wanted it to look like what your eye sees on an overcast day in Europe and so, you know, we tried to do that as much as possible and just getting this cool but lifelike feel and look.
What do you think shooting on film versus digital did that do to the bottom line on the budget?
It depends how much you shoot. I mean, I ended up shooting something like 1.3 million feet and I think we were budgeted for half a million. So, you know, that has an impact. At the end of the day it's all dependent on how much you shoot because digital camera packages are expensive. The lenses are expensive. When you're digital you need extra crew and equipment, you know. But film does have lab costs. I think film's slightly more expensive but, you know, the quality of the images speaks for itself.
I talked to [composer] Steven Price last week and got to know him a little bit last year around “Gravity.” Is that film the thing that kind of drew you to him?
Yeah, absolutely, because he has his own voice. The compositional music for film tends to, you know – you can watch a movie and you hear the score and you're like, “OK, I know when that was made because it was often sort of styled,” you know, conventions and composition and music and score. And this is a guy with his own unique voice. He's a guy who can just squeeze the emotion out of a piece of music. And he's fast, because I definitely gave him a lot of work and it's fast-paced and scenes would come and go. He had to adjust fast and we never really temped the movie. We worked from his demos and his scores as much as possible. And it's hard to find a composer who's that courageous and collaborative, to let his early thoughts out of the barn like that. But it helped us develop the music and develop the movie and get it to where it is today.
I want to ask you about a specific scene in the film, the breakfast scene with Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman and the German girls. I thought it was a pretty bold and amazing scene but I also immediately thought it had to be something you fought to keep in there in tact. Was it?
It is one of those scenes that was always contentious. It took a long time to find. It took a lot of iterations and a lot of time to find. And it's interesting because, you know, I had simplified versions. But the movie, somehow it's like a mainspring, an emotional mainspring for the film itself. And so weirdly, by pulling punches there, the ending wasn't as satisfying. That's what when you finish a movie you really learn, is what are the levers and buttons that make it work as a whole, as a story. But, you know, it's weirdly one of the most intense scenes in the movie. It's a freaking war movie and it's just people sitting around eating.
That's because you have no idea what's going to happen. You have no idea how these soldiers are going to react. I don't think you know them well enough yet to know what they're going to do in this situation, or what Wardaddy is capable of doing in that situation. It's an interesting scene.
Yeah, a lot of mystery there. A lot of character revelations. And at the end of the day, like I said, it's about a family, so this is kind of the – this is like a crazy Thanksgiving dinner.
And the mix is also pretty amazing. To have that much noise and not be like a cacophony. It's very detailed.
Yeah, it was tough. Paul Ottosson did the sound design on it. He did “Zero Dark Thirty” and stuff like that. And then Marc Fishman mixed the dialogue. It was a rough mix because the music was very complex, very layered with a lot of tracks. And you're fighting battle sounds and the battle sounds are very layered and complex. Paul really went out of the way to craft an amazing sound environment. Sometimes you have to pick what you're going to lean on but I was kind of surprised by how much we were able to do both.
Ha, awesome. Well it's a striking piece of work and congratulations on it. Good luck as it goes out into release next week.
Cool. Appreciate that.
Great talking to you.
All right. Bye.