Interview: Jonathan Liebesman, Cast Talk ‘Battle: Los Angeles’

Releasing everywhere this Friday is the highly-anticipated sci-fi/action film Battle: Los Angeles, which follows a group of heroic marines as they take on an army of aliens who invade the City of Angels and attempt to wipe out the human population.

B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen recently sat down with director Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) and stars Aaron Eckhart (Suspect Zero, The Black Dahlia), Michelle Rodriguez (Machete, Resident Evil), Michael Pena (Eastbound and Down), and Ramon Rodriguez (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) to discuss the effects-heavy spectacle, which takes a unique ground-level view of all the extraterrestrial mayhem. Get the full skinny inside.

Battle: Los Angeles

I mean, on IMDB I’m sure it’ll [say the movie is] `action/sci-fi’…[but] my goal…was `I want to make a war movie with aliens’. Not an alien movie that happens to have soldiers.” – Director Jonathan Liebesman

Best known up to this point for relatively inexpensive horror offerings like Darkness Falls and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, South African director Jonathan Liebesman is now edging toward the higher end of the budget spectrum with this Friday’s Battle: Los Angeles, an alien invasion film in which several marines, led by Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), go head to head with fierce extraterrestrial attackers bent on wiping out the population of America’s second-largest metropolis.

The movie has been heavily hyped and marketed for the last several weeks on billboards and in T.V. spots (including in a pricey 30-second Superbowl ad), and so far it’s shaping up to be the first real “event” film of 2011. However, if you’re hoping to witness the large-scale destruction of some of those iconic L.A. locations (a la Roland Emmerich) you might want to check your expectations at the door. Because according to the director himself – and despite what the trailers may suggest – this simply isn’t that kind of film.

Especially with this movie I didn’t want it to be [about]…taking out the landmarks“, said Liebesman, sitting down with reporters at a fashionable Santa Monica hotel located mere feet from the site of the initial alien attack that takes place in the film. “I thought like aliens, to an alien, or to someone who’s not from America, I think that you don’t know what’s supposed to be a landmark. To me, Los Angeles is freeways and buildings and a beach…that’s kind of what it meant to me. I didn’t want the Capitol Records [Building] or the Hollywood Sign. You know, I think…obviously you’ve seen that kind of stuff before, done in $200 million movies. There’s no point in trying to outdo that. So [I] just [decided] do it on a much more sort of ground, visceral level.

To give this “in the trenches” approach (the film is often shot in the style of real-life war footage) a more realistic feel, Liebesman had the twenty or so actors playing the marines go through three weeks of boot camp during last year’s humid Louisiana summer (the movie was mostly filmed in and around Shreveport and Baton Rouge, meaning the “LA” of the abbreviated title could just as easily stand for “Louisiana” as “Los Angeles“) to accomplish the goal of both making them look and behave like actual soldiers on screen and to enhance their sense of camaraderie.

During this process, the group of polished Hollywood actors were broken down by the rank of their respective characters and put through an intense regimen approximating real-life boot camp (albeit with a few concessions, including being outfitted with packs about half the weight of those carried by real soldiers) that included physical drills and extensive weapons training. As a result of this Method-style pre-production phase, Eckhart – who plays the commanding officer of the group in the film – also found himself in a leadership position among his fellow actors, the real world and the fictional world of the film blending together in ways that, as suggested by the actor, perhaps resulted in a bit of friction between himself and some of the younger thesps he was tasked with whipping into shape.

I had to lead the drill, sing the songs, everything“, Eckhart told us, speaking throughout with an almost grim sense of earnestness. “And that’s fun and everything for a day, but when people don’t want to do it, it’s a nightmare. And you end up finally just going, `Are we gonna commit to this or not? I’m not gonna do this anymore as Aaron Eckhart, I’m gonna do this as Staff Sergeant Nantz.’ So I quickly fell into Staff Sgt. Nance, [and] I never got out of it. I only called them by their ranks and their character names. I don’t know their real names. There was just no alternative. And some of them hated me, and you know, some of them got something out of [it]. Can I say that I mentored these kids? No…I’m a hard worker, I did my job. I was in character all the time. If they appreciated that, then I’m glad, and if they didn’t then that’s their problem.

Michelle Rodriguez was essentially the polar opposite of Eckhart when we spoke with her earlier that day about the intense training and physicality required of her role as Tech Sgt. Elena Santos – a part that more or less follows the basic template of many of the previous tough-as-nails characters she’s played. The actress broke down for us the regimen of daily workouts at boot camp – during which the actors would also at certain points rehearse actual scenes from the movie – that would begin at around four or five every morning and which succeeded in bringing some of her fellow actors to their knees.

We’re running around, switching guns, taking them apart, putting them back together, shooting them, and then doing infiltration sequences and trying to re-enact scenes from the actual film“, said Rodriguez, very pretty but with a casual, “just one of the boys” demeanor that makes her quite a bit more accessible than your average starlet (and certainly more so than Mr. Eckhart). “This was all pre-production stuff before actually shooting the film. Which is gnarly, because of the fact of how hot it is in Louisiana, how humid it is. And you know, the gnarly marines that had absolutely no remorse. Like we had people throwing up, and literally couldn’t handle it, `call the doctor, we’re dehydrated!’ [Laughs]…It was awesome though, I love that stuff. Like bring it on, baby!

Also joining the roundtables that day was actor Ramon Rodriguez – best known so far for portraying conspiracy theorist “Leo Spitz” in 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – who plays the role of 2nd Lieutenant William Martinez in the film. Rodriguez admitted to liking the script initially but also feeling uncomfortable about not knowing what the computer-generated aliens were going to look like in the finished product. It was only when producer Neal Moritz (Prom Night, I Am Legend) showed him a five-minute reel shot by Liebesman to sell his take on the film to the studio that the actor was really sold on the project.

[That was] the real turning point for me“, said Rodriguez, whose character suffers from a serious crisis of confidence when confronted with the alien threat in the film. “He had vision…It was amazing because it was no dialogue. It was just sound and picture. And it looked awesome. And again, I connected to it emotionally. I felt like there was some heart to it. And I got to kinda get an idea of what these things were gonna look like. So when I saw that, I go, `ok, this is something I wanna be a part of’.

Actor Michael Pena, who plays civilian “Joe Rincon” and therefore got off relatively easy by not having to participate in the boot camp experience, for his part recalled what it was like having to react to the “tennis balls on a stick” that stood in for the film’s CG aliens during production.

[Liebesman] he had such a good sense of humor about it“, said Pena, a natural comedian who played “Dennis” in Jody Hill’s Observe and Report and has also appeared in several episodes of the Hill/Danny McBride series Eastbound and Down. “And he’s like, `alright, I know…this is a ball’. But he’s like, `trust me, it’s gonna look really fucking cool, and really amazing’. And there [was] one time where they brought something [out]…and it was pretty gnarly. It was in the freeway scene.

Of course, while creating a fearsome and non-derivative look for the aliens is an important component of any sci-fi invasion film worth its salt, Liebesman also maintained that he was less focused on the “sci-fi” of the project than in creating a war film in which the enemy just so happened to be an army of extraterrestrials.

I mean, on IMDB I’m sure it’ll [say the movie is] `action/sci-fi’“, he said, addressing a comment that the film seemed to fall more squarely in the former category than in the realm of pure science fiction. “[But] my goal…was `I want to make a war movie with aliens’. Not an alien movie that happens to have soldiers…So you’re right, there’s an incidental-ness to the aliens.

But at the same time“, he continued, regarding his laser focus on the more visceral aspects of the piece – an approach that didn’t exactly lend itself to, say, cutting to scenes in a meeting room at the White House – “what that allow[ed] me to do is not get into political reasons for `Why are we fighting this war? Is this a good war, or is this a bad war?’ I just want[ed] to [show]…you know, guys who put their lives on the line, how they bond, what they do for us. That kind of stuff. That’s what I was interested in.

I looked at this more as a war movie“, echoed Eckhart, while at the same time admitting to the film’s basic overall function as a piece of escapist popcorn fare: “[But[ in this day and age, who wants to see a war movie where you’re killing actual people? This is a movie of entertainment, you know? So we get to suspend that disbelief and to assign the foe any sort of characteristics that we like. And at the end we don’t have to pick sides, that sort of thing. Or we don’t have to make some geo-political rationalization or something like that. So I feel like that’s good for the movie. I felt like this movie was a movie about…young marines who bonded together and who cared for each other and who had to help each other survive. I think that’s the essence of the film.

One thing for sure is that, although Battle: Los Angeles certainly contains its fair share of horror, it’s also the farthest Liebesman has yet strayed from the genre that succeeded in making his career. This calculated move toward bigger-budget, “four quadrant” filmmaking unmistakably follows the path of Liebesman forebears like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, both of whom started out in horror before moving on to direct blockbuster franchise movies (though Raimi did admittedly make a recent return to the genre with 2009’s Drag Me To Hell). Interestingly, what with his scare-fare roots Liebesman – a native South African who grew up watching the grandiose spectacles of directors like Spielberg and Cameron (fare that often served as the only option in a limited theatrical marketplace for American films) – admitted he isn’t actually a huge fan of the horror genre but rather started out working in it due to its proven track record as a launching pad for budding filmmakers.

I feel like I was more at home with this, because I knew what I wanted more“, he said, answering a question about moving from lower-budgeted genre filmmaking to the epic scale of a Battle: Los Angeles. “I mean, these genres, war movies and aliens, are much more of a passion than horror movies were for me. That was sort of a way to sort of break in, for someone who doesn’t write his own material, and this kind of stuff is much more what I’m interested in and where I would hope to keep going and improving. You know, getting better scripts in these types of genres is kind of what I’m hoping to do.

The plan seems to be working, as the director’s next project is the currently-in-production Wrath of the Titans, the sequel to last year’s disappointing but high-grossing Clash remake which was helmed by Liebesman’s friend Louis Leterrier (Transporter, The Incredible Hulk). Attempting to tow the line between satisfying the disappointed non-fans of the first movie and not throwing Leterrier – who Liebesman described as a “mentor” – under the bus, the director was nevertheless surprisingly open about voicing his frustrations with the first installment’s obvious shortcomings.

I guess I see it as a big missed opportunity“, he told us frankly. “You had such an amazing cast, [and] you have such universal, amazing source material…the take on it that I’m doing is more of bringing the costumes down to reality, [and] the sets…making things real, the camerawork, stuff like that. Putting the fantasy world in a reality. So it’s almost like, take `Gladiator’ and put fantasy in there. To me, that’s…I mean, I guess that’s what I was hoping for when I walked in the cinema for the first one, was a world that I was gonna believe that [just] happen[ed] to be fantastical.

This “gritty realism“, as he referred to it, also factored in to Liebesman’s decision to shoot on film rather than digital, meaning that the movie will, like Clash, be going through a 3-D post-conversion. However, unlike the first movie, which was switched over to the format in a last-minute cash grab, Wrath will be “conceived, storyboarded, designed…[and] edited” for 3-D.

The conversion process has come such a long way in the last couple years“, he said, in a statement that’s still unlikely to sway fans who felt burned by the first movie and its “pop-up book“-style 3-D visuals. “[And] by having a [3-D] stereographer from the start, and [by] thinking of 3-D from the start, we can take total advantage of that process.

As for the possibility of a Battle: LA sequel, it of course all depends on whether or not audiences embrace the ground-level, shaky-cam style filming technique that Liebesman employed to put a unique spin on the proceedings. As for hardcore sci-fi geeks who may be disappointed by this unconventional, more action-oriented approach, Liebesman indicated that perhaps next time he’d focus a bit more on the “sci-fi” of it all by delving into the origins and motives of the aliens themselves.

I think you can get a hell of a lot of brilliant depth [in a film] when you get to know your enemy…[but] that just wasn’t the story that was in the script when I read it“, he said, addressing a comparison between his film and countryman Neill Blomkamp’s more complex take on the concept of “alien invasion” in District 9. “So I think what you’re talking about would be awesome to explore if an audience is interested in more. Which, I don’t know, we’ll see.