One of the most common refrains you’ll hear from talent involved in promoting an upcoming film – despite whatever ugly truths may come out in the press later on – is a phrase that usually goes a little something like this: “We were like one big happy family on set.” While it’s a sentiment that often proves to be untrue, it’s normally expressed to keep the focus on the movie itself – and to perhaps throw audiences and journalists off the scent of any on-set tensions that arose during filming.
Nevertheless, every once in a great while an actor or director will make a decision to throw caution to the wind by opening up about these tensions and expressing their true feelings. Such was the case, anyway, with thesp Aaron Eckhart (“Rabbit Hole”, “The Dark Knight”) at recent press roundtables for the new, massively-hyped alien invasion film “Battle: Los Angeles”, in which the distinguished actor plays Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, a military commander who leads a group of hardened Marines into combat against a battalion of heavily-armed extraterrestrials attempting to wipe out all human life in Los Angeles.
The source of the unspecified friction seems to have stemmed from the Method-style technique Eckhart utilized during pre-production, in which he and the 20 or so other actors portraying the group of Marines were forced to endure several weeks of boot camp in preparation for their roles. Eckhart didn’t go so far as to name any names (though in a recent interview R&B star-turned-thesp Ne-Yo mentioned that at one point he nearly came to blows with the older actor), but nevertheless the implication of disquiet among some in the group was pretty evident in his answer to a question about whether he’d “mentored” the group of younger actors playing his military underlings.
“We did three weeks in boot camp – we had to eat in rank, we had to shower in rank, we slept in rank, all that sort of stuff”, said Eckhart, who spoke about the project with the same seriousness as one would expect from an actor discussing his starring role in the latest heavyweight Oscar-bait flick. “I had to lead the drill, sing the songs, everything. And that’s fun and everything for a day, but when people don’t want to do it, it’s a nightmare. And you end up finally just going, ‘are we gonna commit to this or not?’, and ‘I’m not gonna do this anymore as Aaron Eckhart, I’m gonna do this as Staff Sergeant Nantz.’
“So I quickly fell into Staff Sgt. Nantz. I never got out of it. I only called them by their ranks and their character names. I don’t know their real names. There was just no alternative. And some of them hated me, and you know, some of them got something out of [it]. Can I say that I mentored these kids? No…I’m a hard worker, I did my job, I was in character all the time. If they appreciated that, then I’m glad, and if they didn’t then that’s their problem.”
As for the other actors taking part in the junket, none made mention of the apparent antagonistic feelings that some seem to have developed toward Eckhart during production, though Michelle Rodriguez – who plays tomboyish Tech Sgt. Elena Santos – did credit the actor for bringing a certain sense of realism and urgency to the shoot that helped instantly get her into character.
“Aaron Eckhart, he’s like gnarly”, said Rodriguez, in answer to a question about how she maintained the constant intensity required of her in the action-heavy role. “It’s pretty easy as soon as he walks on set and he starts yapping away. It’s like, you’re in it.”
The other “soldier” on tap that day was actor Ramon Rodriguez – so far best known for portraying conspiracy theorist “Leo Spitz” in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” – who plays 2nd Lieutenant William Martinez, an officer who quickly loses his cool once he finds himself in the thick of the alien onslaught. Initially hesitant to take on the part, Rodriguez was only sold after producer Neal Moritz played for him the five-minute “audition” reel that was shot by Liebesman to sell his specific take on the project to the studio brass at Sony.
“My big issue…was I needed to know: what are these enemies gonna look like?” said Rodriguez of his reaction to reading the script. “Because if the aliens look like crap, to me the movie’s just not gonna be successful. So that was…the real turning point for me, to be honest, was when I met with Neal Moritz, and he showed me this clip…When I saw this five-minute thing, that’s what really kind of told me, ‘ok, this is something I want to do.’ He had vision…it was amazing because [there] was no dialogue. It was just sound and picture. And it looked awesome…I connected to it emotionally. I felt like there was some heart to it. And I got to kind of get an idea of what these things were gonna look like.”
Not that he and the rest of the cast had the opportunity of actually seeing their foes in action, given that the majority of the film’s effects were accomplished with CGI. Nevertheless, for the raspy-voiced Michelle Rodriguez – who was friendly, casual, and seemingly pretension-free during our chat with her – the destroyed landscapes of the sets themselves were more than enough to compensate for the lack of practical effects during filming.
“What’s awesome about this flick, just like ‘Avatar’, is that you didn’t have a lot of green-screen”, she noted. “You’re in a live set, and if anything, what you’re doing is you’re imagining these actual alien creatures running around, and it’s these guys in suits. But the set [helps], because of the fact that you have these cars turned over and a tank next to you, or you’re on a bridge that’s broken. Just the catastrophe of the whole everyday set really helped in creating the environment that you would need to make it a reality. I didn’t have to do a lot of ‘let’s play pretend’.”
She also pointed out that Liebesman’s imagination and skill at working with actors went a long way in provoking the correct reactions from her and the rest of the cast during the effects-heavy sequences, as in when they were instructed to respond to the non-existent alien warships which would only later come to life during post-production.
“He'[d be] like, ‘This is what it looks like. Here are the images. And it makes a noise like this…[makes a growling ‘spaceship noise’]”, said Rodriguez of the director’s methods. “‘And it’s rumbling, and it’s not ear-piecing, but the pressure in your ears is just…’ He’s a storyteller, and he’s really good at it. He did a good job of creating the environment for us, I think. It worked for me.”
The downfall of the tactile nature of the sets, so helpful for the actors in getting into character, unfortunately also led to various on-set injuries, the most serious of which occurred when Eckhart, three weeks before the end of production, fell seven feet and broke his arm in three places after attempting an ill-advised jump during the filming of a climactic action sequence.
“Every day there was something deadly, between the concussion of the…weapon[s], to these five-gallon gasoline bombs going off”, said the actor. “You know, it [was] a dangerous set, there’s no doubt about it. Every day, if somebody [was] in the wrong place they would get seriously hurt. People were going to the dentist every day, knocking out their teeth, and everybody’s ankles were swollen, and fingers were jammed…[Laughs] …but the thing about it was that it was so fun, what we were doing was so fun, that nobody really cared.”
One member of the cast who got off relatively easy – in that he didn’t have to suffer through boot camp in the 110-degree heat of the Louisiana summer (the film was shot almost entirely in and around Shreveport and Baton Rouge) – was actor Michael Pena (“Crash”, “Observe and Report”), who in the film plays the role of civilian “Joe Rincon”, a father that finds himself caught in the crossfire along with his young son Hector (Bryce Cass) following the aliens’ initial attack. The actor, whose most action-heavy role previously was as police officer “Will Jimeno” in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”, during filming became slightly envious of his camo-clad co-stars, who got to play soldier while his main function was to duck behind large pieces of rubble and run for his life.
“Especially in this kind of movie, you wanna be one of those guys that just goes rogue and fucking starts blasting aliens”, said the actor, whose character does handle a machine gun during one particularly desperate moment. “You know, it looked like a lot of fun. Like they’re jumping and shit, and rolling over…[makes a machine-gun sound]…getting blown to pieces, and I had one…I did, I did have one sequence, and I ate it up. It was fun, I don’t know. Who wouldn’t want to shoot a gun at an alien?”
Nevertheless, Pena made sure to voice his appreciation for Liebesman’s way with actors, citing the director’s tendency to allow for some off-the-cuff moments within scenes.
“He would let us improvise, and whatever worked at that moment was what he kept, as opposed to trying to make a line work that was really awesome and read well in the script”, he said of the director’s style. “To me, that’s the best. He would improvise shots, too…if you couldn’t shoot [something one way], he'[d be] like, ‘alright, let’s shoot [it] this [way]’. And he would just shoot something else.”
Despite any tension that may have arisen between the actors during production, at the end of the day the proof will be in the proverbial pudding – i.e. the finished film itself. As far as Eckhart is concerned, its success or failure will ultimately hinge on the emotional core of the material – the group of soldiers who must band together to survive in the face of unspeakable odds. It’s that essential human quality which made the actor approach the project with as much portent as he would have a sober character drama.
“I treat one death in one film – if it’s my son in ‘Rabbit Hole’, or if it’s my Lieutenant in this movie – they’re the same death to me”, said Eckhart. “That’s my job as an actor, is to make it real. My job is not to determine whether or not something is going to the Oscars or not, or has any sort of critical merit, or is gonna make a lot of money or no money. That’s not my job. My job is to go in there and be as believable as I possibly can. That’s what I love.
“I mean, you could look at Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight’, and you [could] say, ‘hey wait, hold on Heath man, this is just a popcorn movie!'”, he continued, referencing his late co-star. “But look what he gave us. He gave us a character for all time in movie history…So I look at Heath, and I draw from Heath. I go, ‘how can I be more like him?’ I need to be, in whatever role I do, as dedicated as he was. As imaginative. Heath lived with that character 24/7, you know? And I admired him, and I loved working with him. So I think that if we’re really to do our jobs correctly, we have to commit like that to every role that we do.”
Even if it means breaking an arm – or perhaps pissing off a co-star or two.
“Battle: Los Angeles” opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.