David Ayer interview: Fury, war, tanks, Suicide Squad

We talk to writer-director David Ayer about his war film Fury, getting it made, and more...

Released in 2012, police thriller End of Watch arguably marked a major turning point in writer-director David Ayer’s career. While he’d directed films before, they hadn’t received this level of critical acclaim or financial success. Featuring a great pair of performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as a pair of cops cruising the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, it was an engrossing, intense film, where death seemed to lurk at every turn.

Fury is something of a departure for Ayer, whose films, whether he wrote them (Training Day, Dark Blue, S.W.A.T) or wrote and directed them (Harsh Times, Street Kings). It leaves the streets of Los Angeles far behind for a bold and intensely visceral look at the final days of World War II, as seen through the eyes of a five-strong crew aboard the Fury, a Sherman tank trundling through occupied Germany. Led by Brad Pitt as Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, Fury depicts a vicious war of attrition, and the parallels between the violence here and the violence in present day conflicts in the Middle East are obvious.

As Fury opens in the UK, we met with Mr Ayer for a brief chat about the making of the film. Curiously, we were introduced by a publicist as being from a website called Den of Greek, which the director, quite understandably, found a bit puzzling.

Hello, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

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Wait, Den of Greek?

Yes. We’re all about smashing plates at weddings. No, it’s actually Den of Geek.

Oh, right. Den of Geek. So I’m not going to get speared or anything, then.

Certainly not! Congratulations on the film. Like End of Watch, there’s a real attention to detail in Fury. What was your approach to researching it?

I looked at thousands of period photographs. I looked at US army film of the time that army photographers had shot. I read a lot of reports. I tried to find as much unfiltered material as I could – material that hadn’t been editorialized. I looked for common things. You get to the point where you look at a photograph and you know when and where and what unit [you’re looking at]. Everything has its own fingerprint, and you’re looking for those. The breadcrumb trails. I did my best to build them up into a visual world. 

It must be difficult to find your own personal angle on a war film, as it’s obviously a huge genre. But in this, I got the impression that you were finding parallels between the end of World War II and modern conflicts. Is that correct, or am I projecting my own interpretation on it?

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No, that’s very fair. Most World War II movies are about the famous battles, and battles where the outcome of the war was in question. Especially with [the Normandy landings]. But in this case, it’s almost over. It’s fait accompli. We know the Allies are going to win at this point in the war. They know it, the Germans know it, but the killing continues, and it continues in the most vicious way. Children are forced to the front to fight tanks with rockets. It’s not unlike the things we see in our current conflicts today.

I wanted to show that, as morally murky as today’s conflicts are, that our grandfathers also experienced those same things. 

I feel that most of the things you’ve written are about morals and crossing moral boundaries, and the questions doing so raises. Is that what you wanted to bring out in Fury?

I think so. Society has expectations, and there’s a fraternity of men who are franchised by society to use force on its behalf. Whether it’s a policeman who’s supposed to protect a neighborhood or a soldier protecting a nation. What does that responsibility do to a man? Because there’s nothing moral in that very personal moment of being violent towards another human being. It’s only in the larger context. And what are the effects of that on the soul of the individual? The men who fought in World War II, they brought that home to their families, although they never discussed it. It’s something fascinating to me, this blowback, that bleeds back into our homes and our families from violence. 

I was really interested in the way you shot Fury. From the opening shot to the last, it felt apocalyptic, almost hellish.

Oh, that’s very intentional. That’s how I saw this. It’s the Götterdämmerung of Nazi Germany. They had an ideology: not just a political system, but almost a religious ideology that was nothing short of barbaric, and that was being destroyed. For the Nazis, it really was an apocalypse. They wanted everything destroyed: they didn’t think anything should survive of them. The Allies are now the invaders and the occupiers of this landscape that has been bombed for years, this population that has been at war for years. So it’s a very tired world this world takes place in.

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It reminded me of Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron.

Cross of Iron, yes.

That unvarnished, unromanticised perspective.

Exactly. It’s that genre, the platoon movie. It’s a day in the life of soldiers. A snapshot in time: an anonymous day at the close of a war where nobody wants to die but people still have to. That’s the path of the film.

You’re doing Suicide Squad, aren’t you?

Yeah, yeah. It’s official now, so I can talk about it.

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So will you be bringing the same approach, that toughness, the robustness, of your other films to it?

I’m just looking forward to trying a new genre. I love the DC universe. It’s just a big playground and I’m going to have a lot of fun in it. 

What do you think about the state of filmmaking in Hollywood in general? Was it difficult to get Fury made?

No, actually. It was shockingly easy! I wrote the script and within weeks had it set up and greenlit. It was very strange how easily it all came together. I think it’s the exception, but there’s still a place for unique stories, and a home for filmmakers.

I remember you said at Comic Con a year or two ago about bringing a bit of heart back into Hollywood filmmaking.

Yeah. I hope I did that. This was a great adventure, making this movie. Sony were fantastic. They let me make my movie.

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I felt there were two aspects to this film. The exterior world, where you have these huge, real tanks you used. Then the interior, with these guys bonding inside the belly of this metal beast. Which aspect was the most difficult to capture?

For me, I like being outside. I like being in the mud and the rain. The most difficult part was going into our tank interior stage. It was very meticulous, and only one crew could work on it at a time, so you had the electricians and the camera people and the set decorators. It took a long time to get that set looking as realistic as possible. I would just cry in a corner as the hours ticked by! [Laughs]

The location filming must bring its own challenges, though.

It does. The people were fantastic where we shot – very supportive. The best part of it was being out in this amazing countryside. I really remember that part fondly.

And with that, our time is sadly up. David Ayer, thank you very much.

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