Overlord: Blending World War II, Sci-Fi, and Horror

We sit down with Wyatt Russell, John Magaro, and Iain De Caestecker to discuss Nazi mad scientists in J.J. Abrams' Overlord.

Quentin Tarantino once said that filmmakers keep returning to World War II as a setting because that conflict had “the best dressed villains in history.” Obviously a bit glib, the comment still gets to a root fascination with the Nazis: a historic enemy of the United States and, really, all of humanity in an era remembered as the “the last good war.” But with evermore WWII movies released each decade, increasingly storytellers look to put new spins on the material, from the historic to the B-genre … including in this week’s Overlord, a deliciously gonzo mashup of war film grit and science fiction spectacle.

Set during the D-Day landing, a group of wayward U.S. Army Airborne infantry find themselves scattered to the winds over Normandy… and at the center of a Nazi mad scientist conspiracy worthy of one of the Frankenstein movies of that era. This hybrid of relative wartime verisimilitude and horrific hijinks was one of the selling points to three of its four American/Scottish leads, Wyatt Russell, John Magaro, and Iain De Caestecker. We sat down with them recently at Fantastic Fest to discuss just why we come back to the Nazis, and how this film blends their real-life nightmares with a more fantastical one.

Den of Geek: I was really pleasantly surprised that this is much more of a World War II movie with just a tinge of monster movie on there. What brought you to it more, one or the other?

Wyatt Russell: Yeah, I think that honestly what it was to me was an alternate universe World War II movie, where at the helm Julius Avery being able to execute the vision that he wanted to do under the guidance of J.J. Abrams. That to me was why I thought this would be a different movie, a special movie, because it had an element of genre that you slide into by thinking that maybe this is real, maybe? But there are things that happen very early on in the movie that point towards “no it’s not.” This is an alternate universe, and I think that was fun to be able to find on set while we were doing it.

further reading: Overlord Review

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John Magaro: Yeah, it was definitely evolving as you went on. For me, initially, I got into it as a World War II movie, and then it changes as the production went on. Which is kind of wonderful because that’s the story. You start off and you think it’s just a war flick and then it becomes so much more and so much different. So we learned as we went along.

Iain De Caestecker: What accent was that?

JM: I attempted Scottish [Laughs]. How was it? Was it pretty good?

IDC: Because it was Swedish, close to Swedish. [Laughs]

Well actually not to get too serious about it, but I think there’s actually this really wonderful, albeit terrifying, message here because everyone thought the Nazis were going to say, “We are following orders.” And hence that’s what’s going on within the team here too. If they didn’t twinge it a little bit, things would’ve been a lot different. Was that kind of what you pull from the movie yourself at all?

WR: Not really, be honest. To me, this movie…Nazis have been the best bad guys since 1941. And you can probably go back to ’36…

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IDC: ‘30s, yeah. Even before that.

WR: But in terms of the world knowing, ‘45 is a good time to make a movie about a shitty Nazi. And this is, I think, a really unique way of using the world’s greatest bad guys that we’ve used for a very long time, and transporting them into something I think that wasn’t far off from what they were doing. It wasn’t like they weren’t experimenting on people, and it wasn’t like they weren’t trying to make something like this. It wasn’t a monster super soldier that ended up being in our movie, but it wasn’t like that was out of their purview of what they wanted to make happen.

IDC: Yeah, if they could’ve done it, they would.

WR: If they could’ve done it they would! So I think that aspect of it was—I think that if human beings could have done something like this, and it was the Nazis, I can’t see why they wouldn’t have. But in terms of what I draw out of the movie, it’s fun experience that you’re going to go watch World War II soldiers beat the shit out of Nazis that turn into zombies. And they’re not just saving the world from Nazis, they’re saving the world from this idea that this serum—which is a very powerful thing—shouldn’t be in the hands of anybody. And that type of power can corrupt anybody. But you know, it’s a fun movie. It’s a popcorn movie. You know, people enjoy it.

Well talking about popcorn movies, I mean everybody has always been attached to especially the idea of the beginning, the D-Day invasion or Saving Private Ryan. You guys get a very different turn on that with it being in the air. Was what you were trying to do on-set, which I’m sure was just in a very closed little piece, anything like what we got there on the final screen?

JM: Most of that sequence is just on the plane and then you kind of see out the window what’s going on. But all that stuff on the plane it was really happening. You know we’re all stuck in there on that fuselage. Bunch of like 30, 40 guys, a camera crew as well. All the effects, all the squibs going off, they’re going off there. Nothing is added in. The guy flying across the plane is there, the fire is there, and it makes our job harder but also easier. You know, it’s more difficult that you actually have to fight but it makes you feel like you’re actually in that situation.

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IDC: Yeah we were wearing paratrooper gear that’s like 50 pounds of weight already on you and the belts on, a big gimble kind of simulation, mechanical stilts which they ended up not using. So we’re also sort of just bobbing around for like 4 days with 50 pounds of gear on at all times.

I think it’s interesting why specifically there are plenty of films out there where you have a very serious role, but most mass audiences probably think of you as the fun loving guy. Is it important for you to get out there right and launch a larger film like this to be “I’m serious here.”

WR: I think that it’s important for anybody if you would like to play other characters in your career to get out and try other things. I don’t think that means you have to do things that lack humor. Or you have to do things that are only serious, or where you have to cry or do drugs and become a drug addict and lose 150 pounds. I think that if it’s a good movie and it’s something that is good and you can add to it, it’s nice to be able to do. I don’t think that thinking about it too much is necessarily a good thing.

JM: I think that’s the fun of it. It’s about doing different things, trying, testing yourself. Pushing yourself in different directions. That’s what makes this job such a joy.

further reading: Overlord Ending Explained

IDC: Yeah. Everyone in the film has similarities to their characters but- I’m for Wyatt and Wyatt is very, in real life, Wyatt is a very approachable, chilled out [but] this character, this hardened soldier that’s very unapproachable, you know and very tough and stoic, and a testament to wise acting. John as well is very different from his character. His character’s a little bit more of a bully than he is.

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Let’s talk about that. Do you think that maybe there was a little bit behind Tibbet that he didn’t want to let out there? Maybe about his past?

JM: Yeah. Oh, you mean in the situation being frightened? We talked about that with Julius and this is the first time we’ve talked about it today, is fear is a big factor in what these guys are going through. They’re doing their mission but everyone is afraid, and they all deal with it in different ways. And we talked about how each of us deals with fear in that situation and Tibbet may be a wise cracker and maybe busts people’s balls and sort of make the situation like it’s not that big of a deal. But yeah, how could you not be? You’re in a war zone and there’s super soldier Nazis coming at you. So how could you not be afraid?

Overlord opens on Nov. 9.