Interview: Jonathan Liebesman Talks Battle: Los Angeles

By  · Published on July 29th, 2010

Going into Comic-Con I knew very little about Battle: Los Angeles. That seemed to be the case for many last weekend in Hall H where they showed a brief amount of footage from the film. Apparently, it was well received. The idea of a war combat film with aliens thrown into the mix is going to get any nerd’s heart racing. Many have been drawing comparisons to District 9, but that’s not entirely fair or logical. District 9 didn’t really stick to its opening documentary style. Battle: Los Angeles may very well do just that.

Also, when has there every been a straight, flat out war movie with Aliens involved? Unless I’m wrong, there hasn’t been. That’s why despite not having seen a lick of footage I’m excited for Battle: Los Angeles. It’s got a unique concept and director Jonathan Liebesman pitches it well. The idea of Aaron Eckhart leading a big-budgeted action film also makes me even more hopeful. It’s definitely got potential. Lets just hope it lives up to the wild range of possibilities.

Here’s what director Jonathan Liebesman had to say about Battle: Los Angeles:

To start off, what’s the setup going to be? When the film starts are we going to be thrown right into the action or is it a big buildup?

It’s a mixture of both. I know that sounds odd, but you get thrown in and then a break as an introduction.

At the beginning of the film has the war already begun?

I don’t want to give away the structure, but it starts off with a bang.

So you’re not rushing to it?

No. In fact, you don’t see the aliens early on.

What was the decision behind that? Most films would rush to that moment.

Well, the decision was that I wanted the movie to feel like you see the enemy like how the real military sees their enemies in an urban combat. You don’t see them right away. Enemies have tactics, they hide, they don’t want to reveal themselves, they have self-preservation, and they hide behind cars and trees. That was the concept. You naturally see them like when you’re in a war. When you see them, you see them.

Are you playing off a bit on the Alien rule where what you don’t see is even scarier?

No, it’s like… imagine you went to Iraq or any territory where you’re facing something. They would be hiding. Look at District 9, you see those aliens right away. I thought that was awesome, too. It’s whatever works for your story. For our story, I wanted us to see them when the marines would really see them.

How do you introduce the world itself? It’s difficult to do and it’s easy to become pandering with say, a text scroll or an opening voiceover explaining everything.

Again, the whole way of dispersing information about the aliens is how and when we would really know it. Some people get to know it from CNN or showing scientists dealing with certain information.

What’s the alien design like?

I started off with a guy in London named Paul Gerrad and he created something that was very Alien. Not Alien the movie, but alien in as something weird. It wasn’t a creature and it wasn’t an insect. It was just something I couldn’t explain. I loved that. It’s something you can identity with easily. We have an alien I believe in. It’s an army. There’s lieutenants, colonels, medics, and stuff like that. It was important for me to believe that they were an army.

Are they going to be fully CG rendered?

Yeah, what I wanted to do with them would be too difficult to do practically. However, we had reference guys play aliens for the eye-lines for the actors. We had a special technical advisor just for the alien combat sequences. The guys who were the aliens had techniques and tactics so the animators could have something to reference.

You mentioned during the conference that it’s going to be the good versus evil type of story, but is there going to be something to make it a little less black and white?

No, they invade and wipe us out like genocidal Nazis. I think it’s pretty black and white. They look at us like we look at ants. You just wanna get rid of them, but they wanna get rid of us.

Are you going to explain where they came from?

You’ll see some of that. It’s as real as I think it would be. Who knows, but I think reality is stranger than fiction. If this ever happened maybe we would know exactly where they came from.

You’ve said before how you want to make sure there’s a raw vibe to the film like Black Hawk Down, but can you talk about approaching the action scenes with that sensibility?

What we did was that we’d map the battle out, figure out how it would work, and then go in with the camera and shoot the shit out of it. Have the cameraman be a part of the action. It’s very documentary style.

Obviously with that style of chaos you gotta balance a frantic feel with also you gotta make sure it’s comprehensible and easy to follow, how’d you go about doing that?

I don’t know. You trust your instinct as a filmmaker. It’s an instinctual thing. I feel like as I’m making more and more films I go with not being as planned with shots. I wish I knew this on my first movie, but a scene needs to work and then you shoot it. Opposing that to being, ‘This is how all my shots are going to be!’ With this style of filmmaking and going documentary you need to make a scene work and then you go in with your camera. Since that scene is not so rehearsed, the cameraman will be motivated by what the characters are doing.

Will we see a lot of fast cutting or are there going to be a lot of long takes?

The takes were long, but they were cut up like United 93. The takes are ten minutes, but then you cut them up with having two cameras covering. It’s also around sixteen characters, and it’s difficult to cover every character.

These really are your first big action sequences. Was it challenging?

Yeah, but I feel like it’s what I have loved doing the most. It was a challenge, but at the same time, it was something that I loved. To me, challenges are things you don’t enjoy. I think the things you enjoy aren’t a challenge.

Action wise, how rooted did you stay in practical effects?

As practical as possible. Location wise, shooting everything. Explosions, practical. All the special effects elements are shot on blue-screen, but I don’t want CG smoke or that type of stuff.

Do you stick to realism when it comes to the action? Are the explosions going to be grounded or are we going to see Michael Bay explosions?

You know what’s ironic, though? Bay uses a lot of real elements. In my opinion, regardless of what people say about his films his CGI looks the most real. Again, it’s just judgment. It comes to whether or not that explosion size looks appropriate.

You previously said how you don’t like to plan out every shot. Does that mean you’re not big on storyboards?

I shot list everything, but as soon as I get on set it’s in my back pocket. I watch the scene play out and I direct the scene to make it work better, in my opinion. A lot of the shots go out-the-window, because you’re combining shots or a person isn’t moving a specific way. For me, I have to go in with a plan, but I’m very varied to it. I can put the plan in my back pocket and then just shoot. I like working like that because then I know the moments I have to hit and I’m also not married to saying, “Now you have to move the water to the right,” and stuff like that.

Is it difficult always trying to shoot with that sensibility? On certain days you’re obviously not going to be allowed so many takes.

I would rather rehearse a scene for eight hours then to have one hour to shoot it rather than to just start shooting and having the scene suck because nobody knows what they’re doing and the drama doesn’t work. I’d rather have to combine shots and shoot for an hour.

Could you compare working on a film of this magnitude versus working with Platinum Dunes? They’re definitely a creative controlling studio.

Here’s the thing, I got on well with those guys. I had an excellent experience with Platinum Dunes and I think with this it’s a different genre and one that I have more confidence in. I could take the reins more and the producers were comfortable with that. I think with Platinum Dunes – at least with me – there were certain days where I was very confident and they’d let me run. I enjoyed having them at my side asking questions. I know there’s been different experiences, but I had an excellent one with those guys.

Do you have a running time right now?

It’s going to be around an hour and fifty-ish.

So you wanna keep it slim and fast paced?

No… I mean, it’s not an eighty minute movie, but I don’t want it to overstay its welcome either. I just wanted it to be an experience of a real alien invasion and that’s it.

When you got to the editing room how much footage did you have?

I shot like a million and a half feet.

My final question: There was a bit of talk that Battle may be post converted into 3D, is that happening?

No, no. It’s too handheld, and you’d throw up in two minutes.

Battle: Los Angeles hits theaters on March 11th, 2011.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.