Brad Pitt, Sherman tanks and lots of mud on the set of Oscar contender ‘Fury’

LONDON – On a chilly October day, four Sherman tanks rumble through the mud of the English countryside. They are battle worn and weary, their crews resolute, but they carry scars of a long campaign. For a brief moment the visage makes you believe you've stepped back in time: to April 1945 and the last days of World War II. You haven't, of course; it's just an impressive set for the new period thriller “Fury.”

Written and directed by David Ayer (“End of Watch”), “Fury” follows members of one heroic tank crew as they embark on a dangerous mission into the heart of Nazi Germany. The tank is lead by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), who has his loyal soldiers Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), Trini (Michael Peña) and Grady (Jon Bernthal) at his back. He also has a young newbie, Norman (Logan Lerman), who will no doubt learn some major life lessons under Wardaddy's watch.

Today's shooting setup would seem simple. Four Sherman tanks with the cast's heads popping out ride into a German town. But these tanks are decades old and there is a lot of mud on this road. Lots and lots of mud. So this isn't a 20-minute set up. This shot will take a quarter of the day at least. Moreover, keeping the scene as authentic as possible is harder than you'd think.

Associate producer Owen Thorton has to take a hands-on approach, noting, “Just a second ago when I was standing next to the wall looking at the 'A' camera, I saw a drain pipe with a bar code on it. It was obviously a replacement pipe with a bar code but as they were filming there was steam coming out of my ears. There are no bar codes in WWII! So I got a big handful of mud and in one shot [threw it] and I missed! And got another one and bang, I got it right.”

None of the cast would speak to the small group of journalists who ventured an hour outside London to witness filming (although Peña and Bernthal were polite enough to come over and give a quick “Hello”). Producer John Lesher, on the other hand, was much more forthcoming.  

The former head of Paramount's now defunct prestige division Paramount Vantage, Lesher is in the middle of a major comeback with both Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Birdman” and “Fury” hitting theaters (and no doubt film festivals) this fall. He first worked with Ayer on the critically acclaimed cop drama “End of Watch” and immediately segued into the director's passion project, “Fury.”  

Initially funded by independent financier QED, Lesher says the involvement of one of the world's biggest movie stars changed the equation a bit. He recalls, “When we started thinking about who should be in it, it became, like, 'Wouldn't it be great to get Brad Pitt?' Brad's someone I've known for a really long time. We gave him the script, he read it in 24 hours and he met with David a few days later. He committed to it and like in a week we'd negotiated his deal.”

Casting the “Inglorious Basterds” star as Wardaddy was a no-brainer for Ayer and he feels Pitt's presence has helped the film tremendously.

“[Pitt's involvement] helps this story, I think, get to a larger audience than it may have reached otherwise,” Ayer says by phone a few months later. “But at the end of the day he”s like shockingly normal. I mean, not that it”s a big secret. He”s a regular guy, you know? He”s into his family. He”s just a regular hard working guy from the Midwest.”

Making a modestly budgeted period war movie and making a period war movie with Brad Pitt as your leading man are markedly different things, however. Lesher notes that when Pitt came on board, “it was obvious to us that we should probably get a partner on the movie so that we had the best of both worlds. We have the independence of an independent doing an independent movie, but we have all the support and distribution and marketing that a studio can provide.”

Enter Sony Pictures, who has a successful relationship with Pitt after “Moneyball” and, according to Lesher, had little interest in interfering before or during production.

“We said, 'Listen, tell us what you like and what you don't like about the script. All we really want to do is make a great movie,'” Lesher says. “And they loved the script. I mean they really just said, 'David, tell us your vision for the movie.' He did and they honestly didn”t have any significant notes. They had some suggestions and some of them were really good so David made some minor changes.”

“Fury” is a big step for Ayer. He's best known as the screenwriter of the first “Fast and the Furious” movie and “Training Day,” as well as the director of the underrated “Harsh Times,” “Street Kings” and aforementioned “End of Watch.” Not only is “Fury” the first film he's made that isn't set in Los Angeles, but it's the first period movie he's gotten his hands on. For Ayer, it's heaven.

“I”ve never felt more comfortable as a director because when you do a period movie, it”s like doing a science fiction movie, because everything on camera has to be created,” Ayer says. “We tracked down tanks, but we had to paint and dress them. You see uniforms, but what movies have done in the past doesn”t necessarily reflect the truth of what these guys looked like in the field month after month. And so it”s creating this cohesive world with this [history] to it that for me, as a director, was one of the most exciting things I”ve done.”

The film's authenticity was a key selling point from everyone we spoke to. In fact, you would have thought no other filmmaker or crew had ever made a period or World War II movie before. At the time it seemed ridiculous, but in hindsight that was OK. This crew had a passion for getting it right historically, which is often rare to see on a major motion picture. Case in point, the production's proudest accomplishment: securing the use of the last remaining Tiger I tank.

“Big story point of the movie is the Tiger tank, the great white shark of German tanks,” Lesher says. “A Sherman going up against a Tiger had almost no chance of outgunning it unless you hit it in this one specific spot. Our guys encounter a Tiger tank and Owen and David went down to the Tank Museum in Bovington, which is where there is a running Tiger tank, and got them to agree for the first time ever to allow us to shoot with the tank.”

According to Thorton, there are only seven Tiger tanks left in the world. This particular model, which was limited on set, is the only one that's still running. It's also the stuff of legend.

“This particular tank was captured in North Africa by the British in 1942 and it was shipped home to the UK. When it was on the boat coming home that ship was attacked by a U Boat and the tank was armed and engaged the U Boat,” Thorton says. “The Tiger tank was [eventually] paraded outside Buckingham Palace. It was kind of a major coup and I think Hitler was really pissed off. They bring it out, dust it off once a year and people pay to see it run.”

The Tiger and Sherman tanks are clearly the stars of the movie and Ayer admits they needed “a lot of care and feeding.”

“There”s only a couple times where we had mechanical issues that had to stop work and that was only, you know, temporary,” Ayer says particularly of the Sherman models. “The guys just ran off the set and worked on it right there to get the tank running again. I was always a bit nervous because you didn”t know how they were gonna hold up, but they”re war machines; they were built for war and these things did roll across Europe and win the war.”

Recently, Sony Pictures showed a gorgeous extended reel from “Fury” at CinemaCon (which instantly made it an awards contender) and released an official trailer just last week. Many of Ayer's fans might have been surprised to notice his trademark shaky hand-held camera style was missing from the footage. Ayer's more classic approach for “Fury” is more inspired than you might think: there was an American regiment during the war that would go visit and film the front line units.

“A lot of those cameramen were Hollywood cameramen that served in uniform during the war,” Ayer reveals. “I”ve [watched] dozens and dozens of hours of this footage and I”ve studied it and I wanted to replicate a lot of shooting style of these guys. It's always interesting to see their compositional choices, the choices of subject, and I wanted to bring some of that into the film.”

And, mud, of course. Lots of deep, deep piles of mud.

“Fury” opens nationwide on Nov. 14.

[Note: David Ayer's comments were recorded earlier this month while he was still in the post production process of “Fury.”]