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).
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.
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.