If any filmmaker understands the nature of life inside a war machine it is David Ayer. The 46-year-old writer/director of End of Watch began his working life in the US Navy, serving on board submarines.
Ayer’s most recent movie is the WWII picture Fury. It focuses on 24 hours in the life of a Sherman tank crew fighting the Germans during the last months of the war. The five-man team have served together and suffered together through days of combat and violence, and the bond they have formed is made even firmer by the constricted space in which they live and fight.
What inspired you to make a WWII film that focuses on tanks?
As a kid you make the models and such things. Part of my interest was the equipment and then as a filmmaker, I knew that I wanted to make a war film. I knew I wanted to do something about WWII, something very contemporary in the sense of demythologizing, and I realized that no one had done a movie about the tanks, about the armour experience of WWII and these were the guys who won the war. The 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions were heavy divisions and they punched through into Germany and won the war along, obviously, with a lot of Russians, but no one in detail had shown a day in the life of these men.
Did you watch a lot of war films as a kid?
When I grew up, as a kid, we didn’t have cable and a lot of the same movies would be on broadcast television; we had four channels or something and you’d always see Battle of the Bulge and The Longest Day, these standard WWII movies. And like I said, it was the armoured forces that won the war; the paratroopers did cool stuff and they jumped in and they cut some throats. But it was the armour, that combat mass, that was needed to break the line, to break through the enemy, to spearhead into these nations being liberated — or occupied in the case of Germany — and I just loved the idea of telling a story about a family in a tank. It is really that simple. I wanted to tell a story of a family under extreme conditions that lives inside a war machine.
Your experience serving on submarines must have been a real benefit when making this film — like the guys in Fury you were living inside a confined space in a machine of war?
Yes, they’re both very confined. I have lived in a war machine so I understand the life and I understand the regard you have when you are dependent on a machine in terms of keeping you alive. There is the idea of maintaining your home and being ready to fight in it — it is your living room and your office and bathroom all in one. That is what I tried to teach the cast and to get them around real tankers and people who have done this for a living so that they could learn from them. In the Navy, when I first got to the boat I slept in the torpedo room on a weapons rack next to a missile and if I wanted to turn over I had to get out of bed, turn over and slide back in. If you are claustrophobic in any way one shouldn’t go on to submarines or tanks.
Your grandparents both served in WWII. Did they talk about their experiences?
They were career officers so they were in before, during and after the war. My father’s first memory was of the Japanese planes flying over Pearl Harbor to bomb it. That’s always been part of my life and history. I had an uncle who flew 30 something missions over Germany but it’s hard to get any information out of them about the war so I really had to study it and learn on my own. At school you get the cocktail napkin version. ‘The Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor and we saved Private Ryan and there was a parade in Times Square,’ which is about all people learn. Yet, once you get into it, it is incredibly complex, incredibly fascinating. It touched so many lives and I think the most interesting thing is that Americans from all walks of life were drafted and served and so there was a whole generation that went to war as a universal experience. Then they all came back and built the country. It is kind of amazing.
Have you ascertained why there have been no recent movies about tanks in WWII; is it down to the logistics maybe?
It is so counter-intuitive. It seems so obvious. I don’t think good ideas are obvious in retrospect but when I really looked at it you have the Battle of the Bulge, a famous movie that barely features tanks. It was shot in Spain and they were using the wrong tanks for the time. But that’s the movie that everyone thinks of and logistically it is very difficult. I don’t know if anyone could do anything like this again. It took a lot of fortune and effort to accumulate the vehicles and equipment we had. It was a minor miracle getting these authentic vehicles, getting all the Sherman tanks we had, getting the real German vehicles, like the Tiger, because there is an audience out there that knows these things. And for me it was important to get things as right and as achievable as possible with the time and money we had. There are little bits that are off here and there but for the most part I am proud of what we achieved.
The film culminates in a large-scale combat piece. But are there many other combat scenes before we get there?
There are several major battle scenes and each one has an entirely unique flavour and these show how fun it is to be on the winning side and how horrible it is to be on the losing side. And the film is also about not giving up no matter what, fighting with tenacity and fighting with fury. The tank is a character throughout the movie. It is one of the first things we see in the film and one of the last things we see in the film. It is this family’s home and you can tell that they love the tank, that the actors love the tank. But this film is different. I tried to be fairly realistic about the tactics — as realistic as possible, while keeping things visually interesting and alive. People who understand military tactics and armour tactics I think will be pleasantly surprised by the realism with which these scenes are executed.
Camaraderie is a prominent theme in the films that you write and direct…
There is a bond that men who face danger together have and it is very clear in my work. You really see it in End of Watch and people in law enforcement have thanked me for making that movie because it has helped their families and friends to understand their job a bit. I am hoping this is the same for the military — that they can have something to show, a reflection of their lives, however small, and the regard they have for one another and the code of honour. I think that there are universal truths about military service that haven’t changed no matter what the uniform of war is.
What did you find most impressive about Brad Pitt as an actor and collaborator?
Brad is a worker. He is humble and you don’t get the movie star baggage. You don’t get the entourage. He will stand in the mud and eat the cold sandwich with you. He is smart and he would challenge me to do my best work and I would challenge him to do his best work. You don’t want a rubber stamp and you don’t want someone who is high maintenance. All our mutual effort went into making this film and making this amazing character, and he would always force me to ask that question — is this the best version? Have we done our best? He is a perfectionist who knows that it can never be perfect.
Was Wardaddy the first character you shaped when writing the screenplay?
Everyone sort of evolved together. As a writer you have these shadows, these shades in your head and the Wardaddy character was one of the first to emerge from the mists, this idea of a veteran NCO who is an absolute brutal warrior yet has a big heart and loves this family he has created. He loves his men whose lives he is trying to preserve. And for Wardaddy there’s the inner conflict of having to save somebody by destroying their best nature. It is really sad and beautiful in that regard and Brad did a fantastic job of bringing all those flavours of this character to the screen.
That idea of breaking an innocent is the heart of the movie…
It is the heart of the movie. Norman [Ellison, played by Logan Lerman] is the audience in a lot of ways and as he moves through this world he learns about it. He learns that he can’t be who he is and expect to survive in that world, and I think that’s part of growing up, part of life, and we all go through that as we mature. From childhood to adolescence and into adulthood, it has to be dealt with and it is a painful process. Norman’s journey is universal in that way.
It is a serious film, shot in tough conditions and set against a ferocious backdrop, but as a WWII enthusiast could you actually enjoy the process?
It comes in the smallest moments. The first day when we had all five Sherman tanks kitted up exactly as they were in the war, painted up in camouflage that was done properly, and they were all in formation, fully loaded, fully weaponized, and moving out, it was awe-inspiring. Everybody just stopped and looked and you could feel the ground rumble. It was a sight that hadn’t been seen for 70 years and when you see that come alive, it is a powerful moment. And then I start thinking: is the film in the cameras and are they placed properly and have I got time for the shot and when’s the sun going down, and am I going to lose the light? Basically, you get that brief moment and then it is straight back to work.