MEDIA: You and fellow South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp (District 9) have both directed movies about aliens. Do you think the country has a particular connection with the subject?
JONATHAN: No...I can only speak for myself because I never grew up with Neill (and maybe he had the same thing), but we, in South Africa, only got the big Hollywood movies. So I never got to see art films and stuff like that. So the movies I really loved were James Cameron's movies, or Steven Spielberg's movies--you know, the big stuff that got there. And so I think those influences are the same. And I think Neill is one of those guys who is really instinctively plugged in. And when you see the style of his short films, it's a brilliant, new style. And I think it's definitely something inspiring for other filmmakers then to draw from, because it really brings big ideas into the hands of a guy with a camera and a computer. I think that's a great style. So I think whoever directed this movie would have drawn from that style, and drawn from Black Hawk Down. The fact that [I'm] another South African guy is good for South Africa, but I think any filmmaker would have come to those touchstones.
What attracted you to the concept of melding a war movie with an alien invasion?
Well, I think if you look around the world today, you're seeing a lot of embedded Iraq sort of footage and stuff like that. And to have aliens within that world is fascinating, and a great juxtaposition. And I think it grew more fascinating to me the more I looked at that or Vietnam pictures. My two favorite genres...You've got movies like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, and then on the other side, you have films like Aliens. And to be able to put those together, I think, is [the dream of] any filmmaker who grew up in the '80s and '90s. And what we were trying to do was make a war movie that had aliens, rather than an alien film that just happened to have soldiers in it as an afterthought. It was just an opportunity to try and examine what an alien invasion would really be like from the point of view of a platoon. So I think that was really attractive.
Ever seen a UFO in Johannesburg?
I haven't seen any, but I haven't lived there for 15... [pauses] Yeah, wow, I'm getting older now. 15 years. [laughs] But no, I haven't seen anything. Except an awesome cricket team that's in the World Cup! But no one cares about that here. [laughs]
You secured the job as director on this film by shooting a demo of your vision for the story. Where did that idea come from?
You know, you always read about guys like Peter Jackson, the way he got them to finance Lord of the Rings, and just how these guys got their big projects off the ground. Also, I'd say when Battle: Los Angeles was sort of going around town, I wasn't exactly on the top of many lists. So you just have to go prove yourself. And I had seen short films that Neill Blomkamp had done which were outstanding, and I e-mailed him and I asked him, "How did you accomplish that technically?" And he was generous and gave me advice on what software he used and stuff. And so I went and tried it out, you know? But I always loved the idea. When I read the script and saw it was a war movie melding the genre of war and alien, I was like, "I have to do this, because I know when I see the trailer for this, I'll wish I did it, and I'll want to, like, kill whoever got that job." So it was just whatever I could do to get the job.
How was Aaron Eckhart involved in those early stages?
Aaron was already interested in the movie. I did the demo reel. Then, to take it one step further and show the studio what it could be, the studio gave us a small amount of money and a shooting day, and Aaron agreed to just run around in his gear. And he was awesome.
What material did you present to the studio?
Well, first they saw my demo reel, which was just random shots of Los Angeles with aliens walking around blowing up different buildings. Then I did various shots with Aaron of the freeway scene, Aaron ducked behind a school bus, or Aaron behind pillars while aliens shoot civilians, Aaron rescuing civilians, things blowing up behind him, inside a chopper with someone while the beach is being invaded--you know, just give them a sort of slice of what the movie would be. Just a sort of montage of different moments during an invasion of Los Angeles.
How long was the demo?
Two minutes...Very brief. Because a lot of the effects are difficult. I mean, I'm sitting there on my computer doing them, and you're asking effects houses to work for free, which they don't really feel like doing. You know, the reel with Aaron we shot on, like, January the 31st of '09, and I had to show the studio on February the 14th. So it was whatever I could do working 24/7 within that amount of time on my computer with all the stuff we had shot.
And obviously they were sold on the idea...
Yeah. Well, also, the producers were pretty instrumental. You know, you had Neal [Moritz] saying to them, "I think this is going to be great!" on his Blackberry. [jokes] He walks around with his Blackberry. Hollywood, you know? Blackberries! It's important.
How did you come up with the specific look of the aliens in the movie?
The look was obviously extremely important. We must have spent six to eight months on it before. And I was lucky because I found a guy in London called Paul Gerrard...I just saw a little piece of art in a book that he had done, and I thought it was interesting, and I sent him a bunch of different references, like Chris Cunningham, Salvador Dali--just random stuff that went into this crazy guy from Newcastle's filter. And we just actually met last week for the first time. And he, I attribute, was part of the reason I got the job, because what he sent back to me were these amazing aliens coming out of the ocean in some sort of Omaha Beach/Saving Private Ryan scene. And I couldn't describe the aliens in any other way [than] to say that they felt alien--they didn't feel like animals or insects. Which obviously District 9 did successfully, but I think that you can't go to that well or you'll get killed. So he did something I thought resembled more the Roswell kind of aliens. And then what I love is bringing the idea that even though they can travel across space to get here, they still use weaponry that's familiar to us--I loved that when I saw these aliens, they felt grounded. They didn't feel so sophisticated you'd lose a war right away, and it felt like, "Okay, we could maybe last somewhat against them." So the design was very important, because also, you have to feel like what you're seeing is functional, that it can work, everything needs to have a use. And there was a guy, Ty Ellingson, who does a lot of [James] Cameron's stuff--like he did all the mechs and all the mechanical stuff on Avatar--and [he was brought] in to make things feel like they could work.
How did you decide on the best time to reveal the aliens onscreen?
It was just, "When would you see your enemy first when you go into war?" Probably you'd catch a glimpse of them when you go into the streets, and then maybe you'd have opportunities to see them closer later on. So that was the theory. It wasn't really a dramatic "When would it be great to reveal the alien?" as much as it was "When would you really see your enemy if you were on the streets battling?"
What kind of research did you guys do on the subject of UFOs?
You know, there was a lot of declassified stuff that the British government came out with, and you obviously research everything. I think the thing that becomes clear is a lot of the images from pop culture that we know are sort of very relevant in terms of what you'll find out from the experts. And also, I felt like the more we would do research, the more whatever your imagination came up with felt appropriate...Like we had this idea for these big plumes of smoke that would decelerate the spacecraft as they came through our atmosphere. And that just felt like a cool image. And you'd go to someone and you'd be like, "Is something like this plausible, or would this ever happen?" And they would say, "Yeah, that could be possible." So you imagine images and stuff, [and] then in your design, if you can ground them, they feel plausible.
In creating the specific scenario for this film, what LA landmarks did you want to include?
For me, it was important to not really have any LA landmarks...You know, we were going for a grounded, realistic vibe, and I don't think aliens know what the Capitol Records Building is, or the Hollywood sign. So to me, the images that come to your mind when you think of Battle: Los Angeles...You're just thinking more urban sprawl freeways, that kind of stuff. Those are what I think the landmarks of Los Angeles are: beaches, freeways, concrete jungles. So that was the landscape.
So you were more concerned with how things moved the plot forward rather than the specific geography?
Yeah, of course. I think if I was going precisely by geography, I'd get myself in between a rock and a hard place. So yeah, it's whatever dramatically worked. And the movie's shot in Louisiana also, so there's that suspension of disbelief. But I think what's worked for me was the fact that any city--for some reason--looks like Los Angeles if you have a couple of strip malls, a lot of smoke and dust, and two palm trees, you know? [laughs] It resembles LA.
Is it a greater challenge to make a movie like this when viewers are more savvy--and even jaded--about CG effects?
Yeah. But again, that's what I thought was so great about this thing Neill [Blomkamp] had done in his short. Being handheld and just being nonchalant with your camera and happening to have effects, I think, is what breathes life into them. You know, I think effects have always felt like the camera is being placed and positioned very carefully for them, so you become very immune to them, and they never have their full value. But I think when it's handheld, that adds a lot of value. Of course, if your story is powerful, that will make the effect more powerful, too. In fact, a lot of films that are extremely powerful stories have bad effects, but you forgive them because you understand what they're trying to do dramatically. But to answer your question, as far as CGI goes, I think being handheld and tracking complicated effects into shots where the CGI doesn't feel like it needs to matter is kind of a cool way to give more energy to stuff that people are jaded about.
If it's a box office success, Battle: Los Angeles could start a franchise that follows different cultures and their response to the alien invasion. Do you have any ideas for sequel cities that would not only be interesting backdrops, but also sound cool in a movie title?
Yes, I do. But let's see if it makes money, and then we'll talk about that. Because who knows? You never know in this town. You think it'll be good, and then it doesn't pan out. But yeah, of course--I think there's a great opportunity, especially when a studio has confidence in another movie, to do it better, to take more risks with the script and different things that a studio is more afraid of at first. So that would be great.
Thanks for your time.