Tag Archives: Brad Pitt

David Michôd on directing Brad Pitt’s latest, War Machine

By Iain Blair

Aussie writer/director David Michôd first burst onto the scene with his 2010 feature film debut Animal Kingdom, a gritty crime drama that won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and 10 Australian Film Institute awards. The film was also earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver).

David Michôd

Michôd followed that up with his second feature film, The Rover, a dystopian drama set in near future Australia following a global economic collapse. It starred Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.

His new film, War Machine, was inspired by the book “The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” by the late journalist Michael Hastings. It stars Brad Pitt as Glen McMahon, a successful, charismatic four-star general who leaps in like a rock star to command coalition forces in Afghanistan, only to be taken down by the quagmire of war, his own hubris and a journalist’s no-holds-barred expose.

Joining Pitt in this cautionary tale of the rise and fall of a larger-than-life military hero is a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Sir Ben Kingsley, Topher Grace, John Magaro, Alan Ruck and Meg Tilly.

Michôd also assembled an accomplished team behind the camera, including director of photography Dariusz Wolski, production designer Jo Ford, editor Peter Sciberras and sound designer Sam Petty. War Machine has premiered globally on Netflix and opened in select theaters on May 26.

I recently talked to Michôd, who began his career making short films, about making the film, working with Pitt and his love of post.

What was the type of film you were trying to make with War Machine?
Something that was bat-shit crazy! That’s kind of glib, but it’s true. I’d been looking for a way into a war film for a while, and given my natural sensibilities I thought it would be a dark and menacing rumination on the horrors of war. Then when Plan B gave me Hastings’ book and I just couldn’t put it down. I began to see the film as a much larger thing, although I never lost sight of that kernel of an idea I initially had for a war film.

Suddenly the world around that idea got bigger and wilder and more interesting. I began to see a movie about the entire war machine, a multi-layered story that spanned the sort of hubristic buffoonery at the top levels, and the real impact and grave consequences that had on the troops on the ground. There was this huge chasm between them. So, I wanted to make a film about that absurd delusion at the top, but also the real horrors of war.

How tough was it walking the tonal tightrope between the beginning black comedy and the increasingly serious nature of the film?
It was very challenging, but the way to deal with it was to stay true to the tones we’d chosen to use, and to use them to show the huge disconnection between the upper and lower levels of the machine. So, I amplified those two tones — the black comedy and the seriousness of the situation. Where the movie starts to shift tonally is with the intimate scenes around Brad’s character, and that begins with the scenes with his wife, played by Meg Tilly. You start to see something underneath all the braggadocio for the first time. You see the ambitious little boy inside this man through her eyes, and around then the edifice starts to crumble.

What did Brad Pitt bring to his role?
He really got the character and the arc, from this vain, ambitious, comically-heightened general to a tragic figure. Today, these top generals often seem to be more academic, but this guy is more old school — the kind of guy who still thinks he’s like some great WWII general, like a MacArthur or a Patton. Brad loved that concept and really ran with it.

Any surprises working with him?
Not really. When I began writing this, it was under the assumption I’d be writing it for Brad, although it wasn’t guaranteed he’d play it. But that was the plan, and I was excited to write it in this comedic vein for him, as I think he’s been under-used in comedy roles. Usually, they’re just supporting roles here and there, like Burn After Reading and Inglourious Basterds, but this was a chance for him to use that skill set in a much larger way, as I wanted McMahon to be amplified and absurd, yet also sympathetic. I felt we should just swing for the fences and go big and go delusional. I knew he would do a great job with the character, and he did.

What were the main technical challenges of making this?
The big one was finding the right desert locations to stand in for Afghanistan, as we obviously couldn’t shoot there, and it’s not easy to recreate all its different terrains. We had to find somewhere in that part of the world to shoot, but so much of it now is very volatile. All the old go-to places like Jordan and Morocco are becoming tricky if you’re there for a long time with a high-profile cast. We also needed somewhere with access to all this military gear, and we knew we wouldn’t get any co-operation from the US military.

In the end, we used the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which stands in for Afghanistan, and then we did most of the interiors on London soundstages. We also shot stuff in Paris, Berlin and LA. The great thing about the UAE was that we had access to all the military hardware we needed, and the moment we started shooting there you could just feel the scope of the movie opening up. You’re looking at all the tanks and the Black Hawk helicopters and the hardware, and you start to feel the frighteningly attractive pull of it all, its raw power. I could really understand how if you were in charge of all this machinery, how it could start to make you feel very powerful. It’s a bit like a drug. If any one of these elements had collapsed, we probably couldn’t have made the movie, but it all fell into place.

How tough was the shoot?
We shot over 55 days, and it was tough because you had the heat and dust and so on, but no tougher than usual. Despite its size, it honestly didn’t feel any harder than making any of my shorts. When you’re on set and the clock is ticking, it’s the same anxiety, adrenaline and sense of joy of creating something out of nothing.

Do you like the post process and where did you do all the post?
I love post, the editing and doing the sound — the whole thing. Like the shoot, we were all over the place doing post. We began cutting in Sydney for four months and then moved up the coast for a while so we could work alongside my sound designer, Sam Petty. Then we moved everything to Goldcrest in London for another four months. The plan was to finish post there, but this movie’s so complex, with so many colors and layers, that we decided to keep working on it and then moved to LA for another four months, and kept cutting there and then went back to London to finish off the music and VFX and other stuff. It ended up being about a year on post.

You cut this film with editor Peter Sciberras. How did that relationship work?
He wasn’t on set, as he feels redundant and in everyone’s way, but he followed us around while we shot so we could talk and I could have a look every day. But I don’t like to pore over my dailies while I’m shooting. We shot Sony CineAlta 4K digital with three cameras often, so there was more footage than he knew what to do with. The big challenge in editing was dealing with that complex, strange triangle between politics, information and tone. The essence of the movie didn’t really change over that year — just the way in which we were framing it. We spent a lot of time getting that framing right.

Can you talk about the importance of the film’s music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and the sound design by Sam Petty?
Because we were making a movie about the insanity of war, I wanted it to have that schizophrenic tone, and that fed into how we dealt with all the sound design and music. Sam did an amazing job, and I just love the music that Nick and Warren did, as it really embodies the tone I wanted. Their music drifts in and out of tones and tunes and time with all these layers. Really, it makes no sense, yet it all hangs together. We did the mix at Goldcrest.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX play a role. Who did them?
BlueBolt in London, and we had a lot, mainly recreating the look of Afghanistan, set extensions, augmentations, clean-up and so on.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
Also at Goldcrest, and it’s so vital now, especially with this brave new world of streaming. The danger is you spend so long on your theatrical grade, yet this is a movie that’s largely going to be streamed. That applied to my last two movies; I spent two weeks doing a beautiful theatrical grade when they were mainly being seen on cable TV. The challenge is for me to pay as much attention in the DI to all the different platforms and formats out there now. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

What’s next?
Not sure. I always come out of a movie feeling like I never want to make another. I need a break to recharge.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The A-List: Director Terrence Malick’s team behind Voyage of Time

By Iain Blair

A new Terrence Malick film is always a cinematic event, and his latest, Voyage of Time, doesn’t disappoint. Thought provoking and visually transcendent, it’s nothing less than a celebration of life and the grand history of the cosmos. It’s a journey that spans the eons from the Big Bang to the dinosaur age to our present human world… and beyond.

A labor of love, several decades in the making, it also represents Malick’s first foray into documentary storytelling and will be released in two formats: Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, the 90-minute version narrated by Cate Blanchett, and Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, a 45-minute version narrated by Brad Pitt.

Of course, as all cinephiles know, it’s hard to say which is the bigger mystery, Malick or the origin of the universe. The reclusive, enigmatic, thrice Oscar-nominated director — who taught philosophy at MIT before attending AFI — is the writer/director of such films as Badlandlaves, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and an upcoming untitled project starring Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara. But in the 43 years since the release of Badlands, Malick has rarely done any press.

Happily, longtime collaborators, such as producers Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda, as well as the film’s VFX supervisor, Dan Glass, and producer, Sophokles Tasioulis, were eager to talk about making the film and Malick’s vision for it.

How long has this labor of love been in the making?
Nicolas Gonda: The ideas behind this film have been gestating ever since Terry’s childhood. He’s always been fascinated by nature and man’s place in the universe. It’s always been on his mind. Sarah and I began working very actively on it about 14 years ago, making budgets and planning all the different shoots we knew we’d need. About four years ago, we joined forces with Sophokles, who brought his great experience making natural history documentaries to both the post part of it and the international distribution.

Why did he decide to make two versions of the film?
Sarah Green: Terry had a very strong vision for it, and he saw opportunities to expand on it this way — he saw it could be for both the educational and entertainment markets. So when he shot, it was for both films, and then we could just edit for each version.

Having worked on many of his films, tell us about Terry’s approach to post.
Green: He absolutely loves post and sees it as this wonderful, exploratory experience for him. Whatever the film is, he always likes to shoot a lot of footage during principal photography, and then he settles down to really explore it in post.

On this one, we all knew the beats he wanted to hit — whether they were emotional or cerebral — but post was also about trying the find the best way to tell this amazing story succinctly and the most emotionally.

Where did you do all the post?
Gonda: At our offices in Austin, and then we finished it all in LA, here at IMAX headquarters in Playa Vista, including the DI.

Sophokles Tasioulis: We had this great post supervisor, Jini Durr, and we were able to project all the VFX on the IMAX screen and really see what we had. It was a real education for all of us, because finishing in 4K is fairly standard, but here at IMAX, that’s their lowest resolution.

How did it work using two editors — Keith Fraase and Rehman Ali — who had also worked with Terry before?
Gonda: They were the main editors, but Terry used a number of editors on the project — a lot of young people who had work on specific shots or scenes. We’d joke that anyone over 25 would be kicked out of the edit room by Terry, because this film really gave him a chance to experiment and work with young kids, which he loved doing.

After all the years it took to become a reality, was Terry happy with the final film?
Gonda: Very, and I don’t think he could have done it 10 years ago. All the recent scientific discoveries put him in a position where it was possible, and using the great imagery of outer space from Hubble and NASA. But then Terry could have continued working on it for another 10 or 20 years.

Green: He’s so curious and knowledgeable, and there was always a new study, a new theory, a new discovery that would excite him. In the early days, he’d give me lists of cutting-edge scientists to contact and learn from. (Laughs) And when they recently announced they had finally discovered gravity waves, I think we all panicked — “Oh no, how will we fit that into the film now?”


 

The Visual Effects

In a career spanning more than 20 years in the industry, Daniel Glass has built an extensive list of credits as a visual effects supervisor on such films as The Hateful Eight, Batman Begins and The Matrix franchise. Voyage of Time is the culmination of a 10-year working relationship with Malick that began with the Oscar-nominated and Palme D’Or winner The Tree of Life.

When did you start on this film?
Ten years ago, but he’s been working on it for decades. He has footage in it that he shot back in the ‘70s. But it’s never really had a script, although obviously the story itself provides a timeline, and he had a huge amount of notes which formed the structure of the film. The whole thing was very much a journey in itself, and one major challenge was keeping up with all the scientific advances made over the past decade or so, and trying to incorporate those into the film.

I heard that you and Terry formed a “skunkworks” operation to deal with some of the imagery you developed?
Yeah, we set up this lab in Austin to do chemical experiments to see how various elements such as liquids, dyes, gasses and fluids — and combinations of them — behaved as we filmed them at high-speed. We used everything from gels and glass to smoke machines and fluid tanks to create a whole range of effects. We’d build up all these layers, to illustrate tiny debris in the cosmos or floating particulates at the microbial level, along with various models of orbs with strong backlight and so on. It really was fascinating work.

We also built our own “flow tables” that we filled with milk and dyes and paints, to mimic galaxies. And we used water tanks, because just a few drops of dye in a water tank can feel like vast nebulae or strange microscopic environments. Those were really effective, and we also used ferrofluids that become strongly magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field to explore other unusual effects, like black holes. When we played with the ferrofluids, we were able to create these wild, amazing shapes by controlling the current around them. So you get very bizarre yet organic effects that suggest some of the theoretical ideas surrounding black holes. We also used salt crystals on a disc, which we then spun very slowly to replicate the movement in asteroid belts. The big challenge was that nearly every effects shot was a one-off, so the breadth of it was a bit daunting.

Where did you do the rest of the VFX?
Like the film, they were very disparate, and from vendors all over the world. Terry’s original mandate to me was that he wanted every shot to feel as if it was created by a different artist, and while that was a beautiful ideal, it was a very difficult process to manage. But we got pretty close to it in the end. He always wanted the VFX to stem from an analog place first, and not have that overly polished, artificial CG look.

Is it fair to say that every shot has some kind of VFX?
Yes, although some are relatively minor, while others used layer upon layer to create an effect. In the end, we used pretty much every digital tool out there, including Maya, Nuke, 3D Studio Max, Flame for clean-up, Houdini, and a lot of custom renderers.

How do you look back on the project now?
In many ways this was a culmination of taking everything I’ve learned over all the films I’ve done, and then reapplying it in a different way, which made it immensely satisfying.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The A-List: An interview with ‘The Big Short’ director Adam McKay

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Adam McKay has become one of the most successful comedy directors in Hollywood thanks to such hits as the Anchorman films, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys and Marvel’s Ant-Man, which he wrote. Considering his resume, he just might seem like the last person in town equipped to make The Big Short, a seriously dense drama about the devastating 2008 financial crisis that is still resonating through every level of American society.

McKay was not only up to the challenge, he took the complex catastrophe and an all-star cast — including Oscar-winner Christian Bale and Oscar-nominated actors Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt — and turned the film into a riveting examination of corruption, greed and incompetence.

I recently caught up with McKay to talk about his process on The Big Short, a Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises film.

Adam McKay and Steve Carell on set.

What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of making The Big Short, considering you’re best known for comedies?
Even in the silly comedies we always have a POV of what’s going on in the world. So obviously Anchorman is skewering ratings-driven news in the US, and Talladega Nights was about Red State pride, and so on. I’ve always been interested in politics, In fact, I’ve written for Michael Moore’s TV show The Awful Truth and the Huffington Post.

So when I read Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, it totally gripped me… the way he fused character with all this relevant information. I couldn’t get it out of my head, so two years later when my agent asked me if I had a dream project I immediately said The Big Short.

You took quite a radical approach with this very serious subject, making it very funny. So you couldn’t help yourself, while your outrage seems to simmer just below the surface?
I knew it had to be funny to sell the outrage. There’s two parts to this story: the first is where the outsiders know what no one else knows, while the big banks roll their eyes at them. They have the truth, and that part is very exhilarating and exciting, to see these corrupt banks be played by these guys. I knew that we’d always have energy and humor. Then there was the second part, when they learn that the corruption goes way deeper than they had imagined. Plus the fact that the whole world could collapse from this was a tragedy.

It’s also a genre-less story.
Yes! That’s exactly why I loved it so much. I believe the old genres are melting away a bit, so I could change tones on this. And, yes, it’s a tough subject, but learning about anything this important — to find out the truth — is exciting. We’re looking behind the curtain for the first time.

On top of a stellar cast, you got a ton of celebrity cameos illustrating knotty financial concepts.

We called them “pop culture icon characters,” and they explain stuff like “collateralized debt obligation.” So Anthony Bourdain came on, and for the end we had wanted Jay-Z and Beyonce, but found it would be easier to get Angela Merkel. So instead we paired Selena Gomez with economist Richard Thaler in a casino.

The film was shot by DP Barry Ackroyd, whose credits include The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips and United 93. What look were you going for?
We went for a very high-energy, “you are there” feel. There have been some great movies about Wall Street — like Wall Street and Margin Call — but they always present it with everyone in perfect suits in these solid, marble buildings; I felt this experience was the total opposite. I wanted it to be frenetic and anxiety-filled — since that’s how the real people experienced it — and that’s how most of Wall Street operates. That whole facade of conservative bankers in austere offices is a bit of propaganda sometimes. Barry was key to that look, and I’m a huge fan of all his work.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and director Adam McKay.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and director Adam McKay talking through a shot.

Where did you post, and what were the main challenges?
At Technicolor on the Paramount lot. I knew it was a very ambitious project with a lot of moving parts, so my main rule was that no idea was off limits; let’s try anything! I’ve never seen a post with so many ideas flying around all over the place. It was very exciting.

The film was edited by Hank Corwin, whose credits include The Tree of Life, Natural Born Killers, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Horse Whisperer and Nixon. Tell us about how that relationship worked, especially considering the sheer volume of visual information he had to process.
Hank is just so experienced and creative, and he was so good at pulling all the material together into this coherent story. Then we hired this young composer, Nicholas Britell, who started very early and had an office right next to Hank’s. We had this great system where Hank would cut a version of a scene and then we’d ask Nick to write something for it, and he’d often plug his keyboard directly into Hank’s set-up and actually score the scene as Hank cut it. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in post. So it was a very tight, very collaborative group.

BGS-02221R      THE BIG SHORT

Do you like the post process?
I love post, and this was one of the best posts I’ve ever had, starting with the DP and editor. They’re true masters of their craft.

This has some great VFX. Can you talk about them?
The big one that’s jaw-droppingly good — and it’s so good that no one realizes it’s a VFX shot — is the timelapse shot at the start of the film. ILM did it, and I wanted to illustrate how banking has grown over the past 30 years, from six percent of the GDP to 24 percent today. That’s why Manhattan’s real estate has gone through the roof.

So ILM created a sequence with all these buildings sprouting up, and there are even occasional smudges of rain on the camera, and no one’s ever guessed it’s just VFX. But if you stop and think about it, you know there’s no way it’s real.

The other big one is the glass eye for Christian Bale’s character. That was so tricky to do, since in reality you’re not that aware of someone’s glass eye except the odd occasion when it doesn’t move, and I didn’t want it to become too obtrusive. So we painstakingly went through every single shot to get it just right, and Lola VFX did a fantastic job on it.

Where did you mix?
Also at Technicolor, and mixers Anna Behlmer and Terry Porter just killed it. I’ve never done a mix quite like it, where it was shot about 80 percent verite, but the rest is framed more traditionally and we go into montages. The sound had to be ambient and real, but then sometimes it wasn’t. So it had to be momen-by-moment.

Where did you do the DI?
Efilm with Company 3’s Stephan Nakamura (who uses DaVinci Resolve). He did an amazing job. DP Barry Ackroyd was off shooting, so I was very involved.

What’s next?
I got a real charge from doing something so current, so I have a few ideas kicking around — one about climate change and another comedy with Will Farrell about immigration.

We’re well into awards season. You’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe for co-writing this. How important are awards to you?
Huge. This is a very unusual movie, so that validation helps a lot.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The sound of ‘Fury’ Part II: Tiger 1 Tanks

By Jennifer Walden

It’s rare for a director to stop a shoot for the benefit of the sound team, but then again it’s not every day that you have a rare WWII Tiger 1 tank on the set… the only operable Tiger 1 tank still in existence. Bringing in the real tank shows just how important authenticity was to Fury director David Ayer, who had the actors’ uniforms made from cloth that WWII soldiers would have worn. Fury follows a WWII Sherman tank crew that undertakes a deadly mission behind enemy lines.

Fury’s Ayer didn’t just have an eye for detail — he had an ear for it too. He wanted a soundtrack that communicated the individual character of each tank, from the engines to the treads. “He asked everyone on set to be quiet as we recorded the Tiger 1 tank,” reveals Eilam Hoffman of Sound 24, a post sound studio based within Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. England.  Continue reading