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November 2014
Issue: April 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Jonathan Liebesman — 'Battle: Los Angeles'

By: Iain Blair

HOLLYWOOD — Maybe only one thing could make LA’s freeway traffic even worse — an invasion of aliens who relentlessly set about destroying the city — and cities everywhere. That’s the set up for Battle: Los Angeles, an epic sci-fi extravaganza from Columbia Pictures, directed by Jonathan Liebesman ( Darkness Falls, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) and stuffed to the gills with explosions, water-spouts, car-wrecks, plane crashes and enough visual effects shots to make the mayhem look stunningly photoreal. 

Here, in an exclusive interview, the director talks about making the film, dealing with all the effects, and his love of post. 

POST: What was the appeal of doing this for you?

JONATHAN LIEBESMAN: “I’ve always been a huge fan of sci-fi films and wanted a chance to create the kind of hyper-real world that sci-fi affords you as a filmmaker. I enjoyed being able to play in a much bigger sandbox in a conceptual way, but we were very aware of making it real and keeping it grounded in reality.”

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make? 

LIEBESMAN: “We wanted to create a gritty, action-packed war film grounded in reality, and the enemy just happens to be aliens. The audience will experience the alien invasion through the eyes of one group of marines, battling to save Los Angeles.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together?

LIEBESMAN: “Tracking the handheld shots was extremely difficult. According to our VFX vendors, we had the most complicated handheld tracking shots they had ever seen.”

POST: How far did you have to push the technical limits of filmmaking to make this happen?

LIEBESMAN: “The guys on our team were incredibly adept — we were lucky to have a team around us that worked hard to achieve what we wanted as opposed to giving us limits as to what we could achieve.”

POST: This was a very complex production. How tough was the shoot?

LIEBESMAN: “I think every film shoot is tough — it’s an arduous process with long hours, and you need strong physical endurance. The actors were incredible, doing take after take of the most grueling stunts, and the crew all pitched in and pushed past any physical duress in order to ensure the movie was the best it could possibly be. That said, it was an incredibly fun shoot. We shot in Louisiana, in Shreveport and Baton Rouge; the shoot was about 70 days all up — we shot September through December.”

POST: Was there ever a time when you went, “What have I got myself into?”

LIEBESMAN: “Not really. I always knew this was a big opportunity for me. When it came down to it, that set, with those actors, and that crew, is where I wanted to be. If ever it felt overwhelming, it only stemmed from my desire to make the most of the chance I’d been given and create a film that I felt could be special.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 

LIEBESMAN: “Yes. I love it. It’s where the movie comes alive for me. The possibilities are endless, and if there’s a problem, you can always solve it if you look hard enough. I also love the world of visual effects and roughed  out some shots myself to show Everett Burrell and Kevin Elam, so I would be in the office late every night. But the truth is, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

LIEBESMAN: “At Sony, and it took about nine months.”

POST: The film was edited by Christian Wagner. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked?

LIEBESMAN: “I really respect Chris and learned a lot from working with him; he’s cut some of my favorite movies and he’s a brilliant storyteller. As well as being a great collaborator, he is also the most hardworking editor I’ve ever worked with, and probably the most creative. He can find ways to cut the footage and create moments you never thought were there.” 

POST: Where did you edit, and what equipment did you use?

LIEBESMAN: “We did it at Sony, and we used Avid Nitris DX Version 4.”

POST: There’s obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there, and what was your approach to dealing with them?

LIEBESMAN: “Around 1,000. We shot a lot of footage. However, even though they were VFX shots we still kept it very ‘run and gun’ to keep it aligned with the gritty, embedded vibe of the film.”

POST: Who was the VFX supervisor and how did that relationship work?

LIEBESMAN: “Everett Burrell — he was there from the very beginning, and we spent a lot of time discussing and testing what light CGI looks best in, how to best utilize real elements, such as flame, rather than creating them from scratch through CGI, and what textures to create the alien with so they would look as real as possible against the environments we were going to put them in. 

“It’s a tough process because you have to continuously turn VFX sequences over so as not to slow down the workflow. But you’re doing that before you’ve seen those sequences cut into the entire film, so it’s tough and takes constant communication back and forth to make sure you’re not compromising either the storytelling of the edit, or the realism of the VFX. We set up a garage band of seven or so artists who would do various VFX shots, and I found that having direct interaction with them made the process much more productive. Kevin Elam was our VFX producer, and he did a brilliant job of shepherding the project and creating a collaborative environment for us to work.”

POST: Who did the effects? 

LIEBESMAN: “Cinesite did the helicopter sequence to Santa Monica, the freeway sequence was done by Hydraulx (who also dealt with most of the alien shots), and Spin in Canada did the attack sequence on Santa Monica.” 

POST: What was the most difficult VFX sequence/shot to do and why?

LIEBESMAN: “I’d say the freeway sequence. There are just so many characters going through their own little stories during a massive battle sequence. The VFX needs to enhance each of those stories and relate shot to shot to one another between all those characters in different places on the freeway. It’s also the first time we really see how the aliens move, communicate on the battlefield, how they interact with their weapons and so on, so you’re not only creating these shots but creating an entire anthropology too in a way. There’s a lot of R&D involved, and a lot of times you’re going back to the same shot over and over, tweaking and tweaking.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

LIEBESMAN: “You can never overstate the importance. We were lucky to have Brian Tyler, a friend and amazing composer, as well as Paul Ottosson, who’s an Academy award-winning sound designer, and Paul Massey one of the best guys you could ever want doing the mix. We were also lucky enough to have Jon Johnson as our sound supervisor. 

“You can only really appreciate the importance of sound once you’ve seen the film play with rough sound and score and then see it finally mixed. The difference is day and night. Sound and music contribute at least 50 percent to your engagement in every aspect of the storytelling and emotion. A scene that never seemed dangerous enough, or visceral enough, or tense enough — suddenly with the right sound and music, all playing at the right levels, suddenly the scene works, suddenly you understand what the characters are feeling or reacting to and you feel it as well. It’s just like editing the picture. You go over and over the same sequences, changing things, trying things, shaping the soundscape to tell the story.”

POST: Did you do a DI? If so, where, and how did that process help? 

LIEBESMAN: “Yes, through Sony and Colorworks. John Naveira, VP of post at Sony, was brilliant in the way he orchestrated the companies to operate on the Sony lot so I could shuttle in and out of the process without having to go off site, which is invaluable for a director during post.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you originally envisioned it?

LIEBESMAN: “Yes. It’s never going to be exactly what’s in your head, but I’m really proud of the reality and intensity that I think we capture. Combining these two genres of gritty war film with alien sci-fi.”

POST: Any interest in doing a 3D film?

LIEBESMAN: “I’m extremely interested in 3D and I’m excited that my next film, Clash of the Titans 2, will be a 3D film. I think it’s the future of the industry, and if it’s done well it allows us to tell stories in a much more visceral way. It’s constantly evolving and I feel lucky to be involved in filmmaking at this point in time, because we’re breaking ground with the technology we’ve been given for storytelling. I think it’s important to remember, however, that no gadget will ever replace good storytelling, only enhance it.”

POST: What are the best and worst parts of being a director?

LIEBESMAN: “The best parts are definitely when you start to see something you’ve envisioned for so long, and worked with so many people, actors and departments to try and create, finally take some shape. Finally it looks like what you had imagined — that’s satisfying and exciting. The worst part is seeing the first edit of your film — that’s always hard in some way. Also if you just can’t get something to work, because you always have to be the one leading the crew, whether it’s in prep, production or post, to find the solution. If you aren’t going to push for it, it will fall to the sideline, be taken over by the next problem, and never get solved.”

POST: So Clash of the Titans 2 is next?

LIEBESMAN: “I’ve just started. I think the cornerstones of modern storytelling stem from these Greek myths. With that said, I want to ground the myth in reality, find the truth of these huge stories and make sure that every detail serves the driving narrative of the film. 

“Clash of the Titans 2 is going to be an action-packed, visceral epic told on a grand scale — but it’s all about grounding the truth, the character and the story, and staying true to that in order to elevate it from the previous movie.”