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Interview: Jonathan Liebesman for "Battle: Los Angeles"

By Chris Eggertsen Sunday March 6th 2011 05:42AM
Jonathan Liebesman for "Battle: Los Angeles"

First off, director Jonathan Liebesman would like to make one thing perfectly clear: his latest film, the sci-fi action spectacular "Battle: Los Angeles", is "not" "Independence Day". You won’t see the Hollywood sign getting vaporized by an alien death ray. The buildings of downtown Los Angeles won’t be instantly demolished into a massive cloud of tiny dust particles. There won’t be a scene of costumed movie-star impersonators running for their lives past Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Because as the director himself well knows, the city on the whole is far less glamorous than all that.

“The truth is…with this movie I didn’t want it to be about taking out the landmarks”, said Liebesman during recent press roundtables for the film at a fancy hotel in Santa Monica, the beachside Southland city which is stormed by a battalion of decidedly unfriendly alien invaders near the beginning of the movie. “To an alien, or to someone who’s not from America, I think that you don’t know what’s supposed to be a landmark. To me, Los Angeles is freeways and buildings and a beach…that’s kind of what it meant to me. I didn’t want the Capitol Records [Building] or the Hollywood Sign. You know, I think…obviously you’ve seen that kind of stuff before, done in $200 million movies. There’s no point in trying to outdo that. So [I] just [decided to] do it on a much more sort of ground, visceral level.”

Indeed, the visual style of "Battle: LA" is much more akin to that of gritty, gut-level war films like "Black Hawk Down" or "Letters From Iwo Jima" than that of any standard Hollywood UFO flick, a fact that may be disappointing for fans more interested in the “alien” than the “action” of it all. However, it was clearly never Liebesman’s intention to satisfy the sci-fi purists in the audience, not to mention those who prefer a little political subtext mixed in with all the firepower. For him, it was more about creating a sense of camaraderie between the film’s central group of marines led by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart).

“I mean, on IMDB I’m sure it’ll have [the movie listed as] ‘action/sci-fi’”, said the director. “[But] my goal…was ‘I want to make a war movie with aliens’. Not an alien movie that happens to have soldiers…there’s an ‘incidental-ness’ to the aliens. At the same time, what that allows me to do is not get into political reasons for ‘Why are we fighting this war? Is this a good war, or is this a bad war?’ I just want to watch…you know, guys who put their lives on the line, how they bond, what they do for us. That kind of stuff. That’s what I was interested in.”

In a film that lacks much breathing room in the midst of all the relentless chaos, there also isn’t a lot of time for explanation as to the exact nature of the threat, not to mention the aliens’ specific motivations for going on the attack in the first place. In other words: don’t expect any subtitled dialogue scenes between, say, a group of alien commanders inside one of the invading warships.

“I do find it frightening when you don’t – you know, that old Spielbergian concept, say in ‘Duel’ or the first scene in ‘Private Ryan’ – where you don’t know your enemy”, said Liebesman. “And I just thought that was pretty interesting. I think you can get a hell of a lot of brilliant depth when you get to know your enemy. That just wasn’t the story that was in the script when I read it. But I think that creating a more frightening experience was the goal here. Just a visceral, ‘we’re in this shit with these guys, we don’t know what’s attacking us, we’re trying to learn what we can to make it outta here’.”

Liebesman, who grew up in South Africa and attended film school there before later transferring to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, previously directed the low-budget 2003 horror film "Darkness Falls" and later helmed splatter prequel "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" for Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes. Based on this resume (which also includes the 15-minute-long short film "Rings", which served as a bridge between the two American-made "Ring" movies) one would understandably assume horror is Liebesman’s first love, but in the room he maintained that his sensibilities lie much more in line with big-budget Hollywood effects spectacles.

“I feel like I was more at home with this, because I knew what I wanted more”, said Liebesman, who regularly brought up Spielberg films as points of comparison and demonstrated an obvious affection for the blockbuster director’s body of work. “I mean, these genres, war movies and aliens, are much more of a passion than horror movies were for me. That was sort of a way to sort of break in, for someone who doesn’t write his own material, and this kind of stuff is much more what I’m interested in and where I would hope to keep going and improving. You know, getting better scripts in these types of genres is kind of what I’m hoping to do.”

This preference for “tentpole” filmmaking is something Liebesman at least partially attributes to having grown up in a corner of the world where big-budget action and sci-fi films are normally the only American fare playing at the local cinema.

“I think…when you grow up in South Africa, you only get to see the big Hollywood movies”, he said, addressing comparisons between his work and that of fellow South African native Neill Blomkamp, who helmed the surprise 2009 sci-fi hit "District 9". “So the influences are probably the same: Jim Cameron, or Spielberg references…so when you see certain scripts, you’re drawn to them, probably because of the same influences. I’m sure there’s something there, but I mean…a lot of people would’ve directed ‘Battle: LA’ if I didn’t. So I was sort of lucky enough to do that, and I’m South African. But yeah, I mean we grew up watching probably the exact same kinds of films.”

The director will continue his trajectory toward bigger-budget filmmaking with upcoming sequel "Wrath of the Titans", the follow up to "Clash" that was scheduled to begin shooting a mere ten days out from the "Battle: LA" press conference. While obviously a much different type of movie than the alien war flick, Liebesman told us he will similarly be attempting to inject a little more “reality” into the standard tropes of – in "Wrath"’s case – the fantasy genre. This approach is in some ways a reaction to what he saw as the shortcomings of the first movie, which he openly (if reticently, given his friendship with "Clash" director Louis Leterrier) referred to as a “big missed opportunity”.

“The take on it that I’m doing is more of bringing the costumes down to reality, [and] the sets…putting the fantasy world in a reality”, he told us of his plans for the sequel, which is being “conceived, storyboarded, designed [and] edited” for 3-D, though not shot on 3-D cameras (due to Liebesman’s feeling that his grittier take for the movie would be better served by shooting on film). “So it’s almost like, take ‘Gladiator’ and put fantasy in there. To me, that’s…I mean, I guess that’s what I was hoping for when I walked in the cinema for the first one, was a world that I was gonna believe, that happens to be fantastical. And so that’s kind of the take on ‘Clash 2’. I’m not saying it’s as gritty as ‘Battle: Los Angeles’, but [I want to] bring a gritty realism to that genre that I haven’t seen in that genre.”

As for a sequel to "B: LA", it of course all depends on whether audiences respond to Liebesman’s unique approach to the alien invasion sub-genre. If they do, he hinted that for the follow-up we’ll perhaps be given more of a window into what makes the extraterrestrial warmongers tick.

“I think…[that] would be awesome to explore if an audience is interested in more [movies]”, he told us. “Which I don’t know, we’ll see.”

In the meantime, you can catch "Battle: Los Angeles" in theaters everywhere on March 11th.

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