I had predicted that Jonathan Liebesman‘s Battle: Los Angeles might be the surprise hit of this year’s Comic-Con. I was wrong. I’ve talked with a bunch of people who have screened early cuts of the film, and the buzz I’ve been hearing from these people is overwhelmingly possitive. For those of you who haven’t been following the film’s production, the movie has been described as a Black Hawk Down-style military story set in an alien invasion.
While most Comic Con attendees seemed to like the footage screened in Hall H, it didn’t become a standout of the presentations at this year’s convention (you can read Adam’s coverage and watch our video blog here). Despite that fact, we have transcribed the panel from the Sony presentation in Hall H for those of you not in attendance to read. Participants include director Jonathan Liebesman, producer Neal Moritz, and stars Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez.
Moderator: Jonathan, let’s start with you. These aliens are, from what I can see, which isn’t much, different from any other aliens I’ve seen on the screen. Can you talk a little bit about these particular aliens and what makes them so terrifying.
Jonathan Liebesman: Sure. What we wanted to do was an alien that wasn’t a creature or an insect. I think you know with Ridley’s alien, he sort of pioneered amazing creatures. You’ve seen things like District 9 with amazing insect aliens. We wouldn’t to do something that was literally Alien.
I had a guy in London called Paul Gerite [sp] just draw up aliens of various insect inspirations from like Chris Cunningham, stuff like that. He came up with these images of aliens coming out of the ocean that I couldn’t describe as anything other than alien. And they had almost a hint of biomechanicalism to them, but what I loved is I hadn’t seen this anywhere. And it got me very excited. I showed Neal and I think he responded the same way.
Moderator: Neil, if you could, talk a little bit about the battle of Los Angeles from the 1940’s and World War II, and how that influences a film.
Neal Moritz: Well, there has been, obviously, a lot of UFO sightings across the world over time that a lot of people would think have been covered up. This was a true even from 1942 where, as it says, 1,500 rounds were fired, never brought anything down.
But we thought that it was a great inspiration for a movie about what were all these supposed UFO sightings for? And what we came up with was they were scouting missions for an eventual worldwide invasion that would take place in 2011.
Moderator: Aaron, did you have to do any special military training? Because obviously, the film is from the point of view of one particular marine platoon that is facing these animals. Michelle, you can answer this too. What training did you have to go through?
Aaron Eckhart: Well, we did three weeks of boot camp before production. So we went to Louisiana, where we filmed the movie, three weeks before we started. And we all went through boot camp. We put up a tent, slept in it, showered together, ate together and called each other by our characters’ names. You know, trying to be military. We had marine instructors. We got to know our weapons. We got to know how to think like marines, act like marines, swear like marines, drink like marines.
You know, hopefully we…I felt like…And not only that, but in so doing we got to know each other. You know, our hot points. We got to know our sense of humors, what kind of girls we liked and…
Michelle Rodriguez: Well I’m an Air Force tech sergeant in the project, so I was the most marine like Air Force tech sergeant there, that’s for sure. [laughs] Because I got to train with the boys. Nothing new to me. I do love that world. I learned how to take apart an M4 and put it back together in less than a minute, so that was kind of fun. With a pen. You try that now buddy! Modern Warfare does not teach you that!
Moderator: Jonathan, let’s talk about the decision to give the point of view of the film to be one particular group of marines versus taking on all of the battles all over the world. Was that a specific decision? Did you want that tightness, that closeness?
Jonathan: Well, Chris Bertolini, who wrote the script, that was his decision. And I think that’s what attracted Neal to the script, and that’s what attracted me to the film, too. I found a lot of the embedded footage you find of Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan incredibly powerful. And I thought that would just be a great way to tell an alien invasion story, almost in an urban combat kind of way.
And so that was not my decision, but I mean I think it’s a great one. I haven’t seen an alien invasion film told from the perspective of just a Marine platoon without cutting to the president, or you know, like in Independence Day where you go all over the world. I just love this very myopic view of an alien invasion. It’s very intense and reminded me of movies I love, like Black Hawk Down, but putting aliens in that world.
Michelle: But to give Jonathan a little bit more credit, you know, it was shot in a very specific way. I mean you picked Lucas for reasons as cinematographer. I mean you literally, like…I mean I grabbed…When I saw 40 minutes of it the day before yesterday, you literally like grabbed an imaginary Xbox control and tried to move out of the way. [laughs] It’s very firsthand shooter, the perspective, through the whole process. I think that that really just creates a whole other interesting experience as an audience member watching the movie.
Jonathan: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of influence in our generation from videogames. And again, like, you know, embedded war footage is very first person. So the movie, it does, it feels a bit like Modern Warfare, or a bit like Halo. But I love that. I love that kind of stuff.
Moderator: Aaron, does a film with a story like this, where the stakes are so high, does that give you an opportunity as an actor to explore aspects of the human condition you wouldn’t get to in a romantic comedy or something?
Aaron: Absolutely. As an actor, you always want to extend your range and play the range from top to bottom. I think the audiences like that. When they see their actors going for it and things mean something. When one of your marines dies, or you are up against impossible odds as an actor and you really go for it and you see your guys going for it.
There are times on this movie when we would take five minutes…Jonathan really ran us like dogs the whole time; never gave us any breaks, any water, any food.
Aaron: And we could have afforded it, but he didn’t think it was good for the movie. I would look down at our guys in 100 degree heat in Louisiana and I would go, “Damnit, you are marines!” I mean they had the dust and the grit and the thousand yard stare, and they were worked to the bone. And I just thought, I mean, look I’m an actor. I don’t know anything. But those guys looked like marines and we’re doing some real stuff here.
And as an actor, you go home at the end of every day and go, “That’s why I became an actor. I laid it all out there today. I didn’t hold back. I tried things.” You know, the great thing about Jonathan as a director is that he took every one of my stupid ideas and most of Michelle’s and let us do them. [laughs]
And you know, because we’ve got ideas firing…Our synapses are firing all the time because we’re actors. And Jonathan really let us go there, and I think it really helped the film. He really knows how to work with actors. I don’t know why I said, that, but the film is great.
Moderator: Michelle, you’ve done a lot of action films and a lot of work like that. When a film set is physically exhausting, when it is grueling work, is it harder for you to focus as an actor?
Michelle: No, it’s actually easier for me, because I am more physical than I am, you know, mental. [laughs] But yeah, playing a tech sergeant was actually the challenging aspect of it all, because then I had to do…I had to geek out really. And, you know, I am not used…I am used to doing that on my free time, not like, you know, when I am working.
So it was like…I don’t know. It was the whole process of doing the research, going to the Air Force and seeing what it is that they do when they are tracking modulating frequencies and stuff like that. I found that whole world intriguing. And after that, I gotta say, we really are safe. These guys are busting booty every day tracking all kinds of stuff. So America is a really, really safe place.
But that was, I think, the most challenging aspect of it. The boot camp stuff, yes, it was grueling, it was tough. But I didn’t have to sleep there like they did. And yeah, you know, 100 sit-ups, a couple pushups, two miles. They let me lag behind. [laughs] There are advantages to being a girl. [laughs]
Yeah, the most grueling aspect, I think, was the research.
Moderator: And Neal, what were the elements that you saw in the project that made you want to create this world?
Neal: From the moment I read the script, I loved the realism. I loved the idea of what would really happen if there really was an alien invasion, and what the people who protect us would actually do. So I loved the idea of being in their shoes. And really the kind of point of view, of one marine battalion’s point of view of an alien view and the realism of that is the thing that really attracted me to the project.
Moderator: Now we have time for some questions from the audience. If you have any questions for this panel, we would love to open it up to you so you can ask. We don’t have that much time, but we’ll get in as many as we can, I promise you.
Audience Question: Hi. I’m going to ask my question in a second. But I just gotta say, Aaron, I loved you…
Audience Question: Aaron…
Aaron: You can do it! We’re all pulling for you man!
Audience Question: What drew you to this role?
Aaron: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Moderator: I think he may have seen you in another project!
Aaron: You’re going to make me cry! And then I’d have to kill you.
Aaron: You know, Jonathan came into a meeting…I was meeting Jonathan for the first time, and he showed me a presentation. And he put YouTube up on the Internet and he showed me a video of some marines in Fallujah doing urban combat house to house. He said, “This is what I want our movie to look like.” And I said, “I’m in.”
We made a war movie with aliens in it, and nothing could have been better for me. I’ve always dreamed of making a war movie and having a director like Jonathan. So I would say that Jonathan brought me to the part.
Moderator: You know Jonathan, we’ve all seen footage like that, so much of it, especially with the Internet. Is it a challenge to live up to that, to bring the reality into a big movie like this when we are all so familiar with those scenes?
Jonathan: Of course. I mean especially…there is so much tension in that real footage because you are dealing with real marines in real situations. So I don’t know if you could ever recreate that intensity, but I think subliminally, subconsciously, when people see the film, they will be reminded of that because they have seen so much stuff. And I think it will be very interesting that it is aliens in the place of whatever the enemy is in that footage.
Audience Question: My question is for Jonathan Liebesman. You have the realistic here, the war footage, that looks straight out of Iraq, but then you have the fantastical elements like aliens. How do you find the correct balance between those two things?
Jonathan: I think that’s one of the big challenges that we faced in the movie. And so what we did was make sure that…What I love about, say, James Cameron is all his designs are very functional. You see things and they seem like they can work. So even though you understand that things are not real in his films, they seem like they could work.
And so when we designed the aliens, or the aliens’ machinery, or the way they would arrive, via meteor to Earth, we made sure that it felt like than when you just visually see them, they have a purpose and they work. The aliens are like a real army. They have medics, generals, lieutenants, they have tactics. So we made sure as much as possible from things like the textures that the aliens are made of, to the way they interact with one another, that that felt like they could work. And I think you try and do as much of that as possible to match the realism in the live action footage.
Audience Question: Hello. This question is for Ms. Michelle Rodriguez. You have been known primarily in the movies you’ve starred in as like a macho action girl who doesn’t take shit from nobody.
[laughter and applause]
Michelle: Thank you.
Audience Question: But my question is, have you ever considered doing something of a lighter role or something?
Michelle: Oh, you mean like get raped and win an Oscar?
Michelle: Oh! I’m horrible, I know.
Moderator: She’s tough in real life too!
Michelle: No, you know what it is? I have a tendency to gravitate towards physical things at the moment. It’s just where I am in life now. And you know, the grand majority of the time when roles are written of characters that I respect that happen to be female….because I can’t play a dude! [laughs] Don’t want to. Not interested.
But, you know, it’s just the majority of the time, those are action films. So, you know, I have to stick with what’s out there. And 80% of those guys out there writing scripts don’t understand the balance between femininity and masculinity.
So I hope projects like…you know, you guys were introduced to Salt…can change things like that and more women start writing for themselves. Because I really just feel like it’s just a lack of understanding of what the balance between a man and a woman is. There are independent, beautiful, strong women who are sexy and don’t necessarily have to be butch like the chicks I play. [laughs]
But, you know, it’s just a matter of getting that quality out there in the writing.
Moderator: OK. We have time for one last question, and you are it.
Audience Question: Hello. I’m Wally, USC [xx 15:25]. Anyways, sorry. My question is for Analuscia…I mean, I mean…
My question is, you know, you seem to be drawn towards a lot of strong roles in action films and whatnot. What’s more fun for you, filming a movie like this, which seems to try to be really realistic, or something more over the top, like Machete or something like that.
Michelle: You know, I have to say the exploitation film genre is something that I was just introduced to recently through Robert. But I gotta say, you know, I am a real big fan of all nations coming together in one film. Like, I’ve done a lot of this with you, Neal. Actually, you started it for me with Fast and Furious and S.W.A.T. Which, he produced four of the movies I’ve ever been in! Lucky you.
But yeah, I like it when all these different characters come together in an action film in the name of one thing, whether it’s streetcar racing, whether it’s tactical warfare. I just find it fun. I like teamwork. I like collaborative efforts.
But the exploitation thing is new to me, and I gotta say, it does turn me on. I like it. I think it’s hot. It brings out the sexy in the butch, you know what I mean?
Moderator: Well Battle LA just looks amazing, and I got chills just watching the little piece we did. I can’t wait to see the whole thing when it finally comes out. Congratulations to all of you. Please help me thank these folks for coming out!