Jonathan Liebesman was a mere twenty-five years old when he was entrusted with his first studio production, the killer tooth fairy yarn DARKNESS FALLS. Though the film more than recouped its $11 million budget, it was not well received. His subsequent feature, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING, managed the same trick: profitable, but excoriated. Hollywood is rife with directors who'd gleefully accept this tradeoff. Liebesman, however, isn't one of them.
Conventional industry wisdom holds that it's unwise to turn down a studio assignment early in your career - if only because such opportunities are extremely rare and may never come your way again. So let's forgive Liebesman his past misfires (if you consider them misfires - not everyone does), and concentrate on BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, the alien invasion film on which Sony is gambling rather heavily this March. In blending the unrelentingly chaotic visual/aural aesthetic of BLACK HAWK DOWN with the gung-ho militaristic tone of ALIENS, Liebesman has finally made a movie on his terms (with one significant caveat, which he discusses below). He's proud of what he's accomplished with BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, and hopes to further explore the scope of the film's extraterrestrial onslaught in the likely sequel (tracking suggests that this movie is going to open very big).
When I sat down to chat with Liebesman a couple of weeks ago, he immediately began giving me the good-natured business for AICN's treatment of his past movies. Fair enough. Now that he's made good on the promise so many producers and studio execs saw in him almost a decade ago, Liebesman's earned the right to snap a few stinging jabs at the nattering nabobs of the internet. Yet while he's riding high at the moment (his next probable blockbuster - Warner Bros.' as-yet-untitled CLASH OF THE TITANS sequel - begins shooting this month), Liebesman comes off as a very humble and grounded guy who's grateful to be living the dream. It's hard not to root for him.
When I began recording, Liebesman was trying to remember if I'd reviewed any of his previous films.
Mr. Beaks: Not for AICN. I reviewed DARKNESS FALLS for another website, and...
Jonathan Liebesman: I'm sure that was good.
Beaks: I did write about the BATTLE: LOS ANGELES Comic Con panel last year.
Liebesman: You know what? I'm jet-lagged. I'm just giving you shit. Don't even worry about it.
Beaks: (Laughing) Oh, I'm used to it. So how are you holding up?
Liebesman: Good! I'm just waiting for shit to come out. Fortunately, I've got CLASH [OF THE TITANS 2] to deal with.
Beaks: It must be nice to have the next movie lined up.
Liebesman: Yeah, I can avoid whatever is going to happen. I'm not comparing myself to those guys, but it's like how the directors in the '70s went on holiday when the movie would come out. In a way, I'm going on holiday. (Laughs)
I think with the internet and stuff, you can read so much about what you're doing, and it can dishearten you. It's unavoidable because the internet is right there on your laptop. You're sitting there working or watching a DVD, and when you [take a break] you read, "This movie is terrible," or whatever. And you're like, "Oh, god."
Beaks: But isn't there a measure of satisfaction in that you're doing what most of these critics wish they could do? You're making movies. That must feel good.
Liebesman: Look, I love it. 100%. But you also want to be great at what you do. You want to honor that privilege with something worthy of it, so people aren't always, "What the fuck!?!?" It's awesome to be doing it, but you want to do it well.
Beaks: When you made your first feature, you were a young man. Did you feel like you were ready?
Liebesman: No. I should've cut my teeth on other stuff. I didn't know what I was doing. I should've done commercials or something less public. But I got an opportunity, and... I didn't understand what it meant to do a studio film. And when it came out... whatever. But I think what's happened now that I've hit my early- to mid-thirties is I'm finally hitting my stride. I'm making films where I"m like, "I'm proud this is part of the filmography" - whereas before I'd be like, "Eh." Now I'm like, "You know what? Fuck it." Now that I understand what I'm doing, I'm proud of stuff. It only took eight years. (Laughs)
Beaks: Like you said, you had to learn in public.
Libesman: It's a double-edged sword. It's a great opportunity, but when you fail, it's kind of spectacular. Everyone sees it happen. I think what's important for me is that I'm proud of stuff I do. It's been hard to be proud of the stuff I've done so far. But I can see stuff in this film that I'm proud of, where I'm like, "Wow, I directed that! That's cool!"
Beaks: We've repeatedly heard this film pitched as BLACK HAWK DOWN meets ALIENS. Obviously, BLACK HAWK DOWN hearkens back to stuff like BATTLE OF ALGIERS. Did you go back that far?
Liebesman: Absolutely. When I did the horror films, I was not a horror fan. I didn't have the filmography, the toolbox. But with this, I've loved war movies and I've loved science-fiction, so it was awesome to explore, as you said, BLACK HAWK DOWN, which goes back to BATTLE OF ALGIERS, which goes back to real war footage. It was great. The research was inspiring as opposed to laborious. Also, a massive inspiration was the embedded war footage from the Iraq War, that low-tech kind of stuff. That was a big touchstone. But definitely, when it came to science-fiction... you can keep backing it up generation to generation until you find common ground, which is the best. But BLACK HAWK DOWN, DISTRICT 9, ALIENS... all of these things are in our minds when you read a script like BATTLE: LOS ANGELES. Obviously, you just want to bring that to life.
Beaks: Did you storyboard?
Liebesman: Yeah, I did storyboard. I like storyboarding and shot-listing, and when I get on set... it's not that I throw it away, but at least I have a plan. Then I would watch the actors, and we'd have a military tech advisor. He would say where everyone would need to be, and obviously it would never fit in with the storyboards. But at least I could say to him, "Well, this character needs this kind of a moment." And he would help me figure out what could be technically realistic but also dramatically necessary for certain things. The storyboards would change, but there would be a good guide for the beats of the scene or story.
Beaks: It sounds like the actors had a lot of room to try stuff. Michael Pena said he did a bit of improvising. And it sounds like you had to rein in Aaron Eckhart when he decided his character would exclaim "Cock-a-doodle-doo" at a certain point?
Liebesman: Yeah, I remember that. That was funny. What's great about both of those actors is that they leave it all out on the floor; they give it all, and you have so many options. That's why they've been in so many good movies. You've got to embrace that. If you're cutting them off, then why are you hiring them? With those guys, it was about embracing all of their ideas - and sometimes those ideas didn't quite fit.
Beaks: The film begins with the invasion in progress, and then jumps back twenty-four hours to give us background on the characters. Did you ever consider sticking with that opening and ditching the backstory altogether.
Liebesman: Yes, I did. But I think the studio, and probably rightly so, wanted to introduce the characters. There was a version where that didn't happen, and maybe if I get a chance to do the next movie, that's what I'd like to do.
Beaks: Well, backstory won't be necessary in the sequel.
Liebesman: But even if they're new characters, I just think leaving stuff to mystery is very good. But, you know, I think there is a lot of enjoyment that audiences get out of meeting people, and understanding who the characters are - even though they fulfill certain archetypes you've seen before. So... (Shrugs)
Beaks: But there is something appealing to the whole "character defined through action" approach. Audiences enjoy that, too.
Liebesman: You know what? One day when I have final cut.
Beaks: Point taken. (Laughs) In shooting the action for this movie, how many cameras did you have going. And how did you keep the geography straight?
Liebesman: It's tough. I asked Paul Greengrass after I saw THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM at a DGA screening. I was like, "I'm amazed. I don't know what the fuck is going on, but I somehow know everything that's going on. How do you do that?" He was mysterious about it, but the truth is that if you care about the characters, the audience will read into the geography a lot. Because a lot of this is crosscutting lines; it doesn't obey geography too well. But if you care about the objectives of the characters, you'll understand, "Okay, he's going to dodge the tracer fire and run down that alley. When is he going to do it?" You're anticipating things. If you understand what the character wants, and you hope the character achieves that stuff, I think the geography matters a little less. If you look at BOURNE, a lot of it isn't geographically correct, but you follow because you know what he needs and is trying to do in each moment. It's the audience understanding what the character wants, hoping the character gets what he wants, understanding what stands in his way, and then watching the equation unfold. The more skillful you are at setting those things up, the less the geography matters.
Beaks: How did you keep the actors involved emotionally when they were reacting to tennis balls on sticks and the like?
Liebesman: We had what we called "Visual Reference Performance." These were guys dressed in outfits who would run around that the actors would look at; they were military guys who would create formations and certain things so that they had something to look at and the camera had somewhere to pan.
Beaks: (Getting the wrap-it-up signal) Quickly, regarding the CLASH OF THE TITANS sequel, is it going to be called WRATH OF THE TITANS?
Liebesman: I don't know. I don't think so.
Beaks: Are you going to apply the same visual style you used on BATTLE: LOS ANGELES to CLASH 2?
Liebesman: I want to take an aspect of it. Like I was saying, I want to see a Greek mythology movie that feels grounded, but has all this fantasy. I feel like I've seen all of the stylistic stuff. Peter Jackson did it so well with THE LORD OF THE RINGS; you're not going to do it any better. I'd like to see a movie like GLADIATOR with fantastical elements in it; something that's really gritty and grounded. You've got such a great cast. There's such an opportunity, which, for whatever reason, was missed on the first one. There's an opportunity to do something really cool that hasn't been done in the genre - or at least that I haven't seen.
Beaks: There's unlimited potential with those characters.
Liebesman: Absolutely. It's fucking Joseph Campbell stuff. That's what "The Hero's Journey" was based on. And what we're doing with Sam, as far as his look goes... we just did his costume tests two days ago in London, and he looks very real and gritty. His hair doesn't look like a marine's; he's got stubble and looks older.
Beaks: In terms of the creatures, are you going to do any of them practically?
Liebesman: As much as possible. There are some huge creatures, so we'll obviously use CGI, but there will be as much interaction as possible. I mean, Sam just worked with Jim, so he's all about [interactivity], which is awesome, because it just pushes you as a director to achieve that kind of interaction.
Beaks: He's worked with the ultimate perfectionist, so now you get to live up to that!
Liebesman: Hey, whatever. Anything that pushes me. Anything to make it better. I'll do anything to make something fucking great. Like you said, it's a privilege.
BATTLE: LOS ANGELES begins its box office assault on March 11, 2011.