Battle: LA opens this Friday, and we had the chance to talk with both Eckhart and Liebesman at the Los Angeles press junket about what inspired their passionate response to this material.
Each of the men experienced a moment when they say that they knew that they would die, or kill, respectively, to be a part of the project. For Liebesman the realization came the instant he was introduced to the initial concept:
When I saw a script that took a war movie and an alien film the way this one did, I knew that when I saw the trailer I would have killed to (have) directed that movie. I remember when I saw the trailer for '28 Days Later,' I thought 'oh that was such a good take on the Zombie movie! This was pre 'District 9' and I thought oh this is going to be '28 Days Later' with aliens. I loved the world, I think it's a great idea – a war movie that has aliens.
The director saw an opportunity to be a part of a fresh take on a beloved and oft-explored premise (aliens invade the Earth) and immediately decided to take action to secure the director's chair position for himself. Liebesman had seen several of Neill Blomkamp's short films and approached his fellow countrymen for technical advice on how to create the aliens for his initial pitch presentation. Blomkamp was “very generous” and with his recommendations, and the research he had done on his own, Liebesman began the process of building a concept that would be attractive enough to secure a name for the project – enter Aaron Eckhart.
The actor recalls that when he initially received the script, and it was an alien movie, he was less than enthused. But his agent insisted that he meet with Liebesman and hear his take on the project:
I met with Jonathon before he had the gig. He had mocked up the aliens which were 'very impressive,' then at the end he showed me a page of YouTube and it was some marines going house to house through Fallujah...and it was both organized yet chaotic. These guys showed their training, and they showed their youth, and Jonathan said, 'This is what the movie is going to look like.' Right then and there I said 'I'm in, I'll die for this part,' and I feel like through the filing, and through the final cut we achieved that goal. The goal was: 'This is a war movie – a documentary style war movie with aliens in it.'
The most crucial aspect of the film for both Liebesman and Eckhart was to create a movie that delivered a gritty, grounded, and more “realistic” depiction of war. Military advisers were present throughout the various stages of production. Eckhart trained for months with the military in order to get into physical shape for the role, but also, into the headspace of what it is to be a soldier, calling the film a "love letter to the Marines." He did research and experienced some of what it must be like to be a solider in combat, the connections that are created, and the damage the loss of said connections can do.
I went to Afghanistan and I was out with them way out in the mountains of Afghanistan 40 marines protecting a hill. Out in the middle of NOWHERE. There is no doubt that these guys are bonded in a very real way, they depend on each other for survival. I don’t think they can come back here and find that same bond...and it leaves them without a sense of identity.
Eventually, the entire cast went through a three-month boot camp together in what Eckhart describes as "hotter than hell, Louisiana." The actors would eat in rank, and slowly began slipping very naturally into their divided military roles. Eckhart laughingly says he found it:
Interesting how far some actors would go, and how far they would buy into it and believe it – because sometimes we're out there and I'm yelling at you in character and the guy is like 'dude, I'm just an actor.'
For the director, the military advisers came into play in the development of both the human, and the alien military. "What was really interesting was creating an alien army," Liebesman recalls:
Thinking 'how you would you march into Santa Monica 'Saving Private Ryan' style?' It was important to me that even though they come from outer space (that) we ground them so that they wouldn't destroy us in four seconds. We tried to create something that you understand that even though they are more developed than us in certain ways, they are the same as us in other ways. (They are) a used-up army...probably fought a bunch of wars...probably exhausted.
We made a concerted effort to make these guys tactical, they have a similar way of fighting war. We led the audience to believe that it was equal forces, that they arrange their men in the same way, they attack in the same way, they outflank in the same way, they retreat in the same way. So that we could be in a real war movie, as opposed to them being so strong that they can just come and vaporize the town, because where's the drama in that?
So why the science fiction aspect? Why introduce an alien species as the enemy force in a war movie? For Liebesman, the premise offered an opportunity to deliver a sense of “shock and awe” to the audience without the danger of treading into real world socio-political divisions. It is a chance for viewers to “have a common enemy where we can all come together and fight the same thing and there are no politics.”
Eckhart agrees that the appeal of doing a hybrid alien-invasion/war movie is that:
This movie has a non-judgmental foe, a complete imaginary foe, and that works for us in this context because it is a war movie, and we are going to war and shooting and killing things – but we have no personal relationship other than our imagination...So it can be pure entertainment.
Liebesman attests that the picture created in Battle: Los Angeles is just a snapshot of much larger tale, saying, "This is a search and rescue mission, there's a whole world that hasn't been touched on that hopefully can be." The success of this first film will determine whether or not Battle: LA merits an expansion into a franchise, something the director unabashedly declares would be, "Awesome, every director's dream -- employment for years!" One thing is certain, however: if a sequel does come into play, star Aaron Eckhart is most enthusiastically on board.
I love it, I absolutely love it. In fact, this is the first character that I have ever had in my movie-making experience where on the last day I was sad. I really love this character as you can see. I mean, I usually wear green, I keep my hair short, I can't wait if this movie has a sequel. I love the weaponry, the tanks, I love the bravado and the companionship; and I do love war movies. I mean every kid wants to do that. I've still got to do a Western in my career, I've done a kind of a war movie now. I've gotta play in a Poker movie. I always say an actor should be able to do three things: Shoot a gun, ride a horse, and play cards.
Battle: Los Angeles opens in theaters this Friday, March 11th.