LONDON - On a chilly October day, four Sherman tanks rumble through the mud of the English countryside. They are battle worn and weary, their crews resolute, but they carry scars of a long campaign. For a brief moment the visage makes you believe you've stepped back in time: to April 1945 and the last days of World War II. You haven't, of course; it's just an impressive set for the new period thriller "Fury."
Written and directed by David Ayer ("End of Watch"), "Fury" follows members of one heroic tank crew as they embark on a dangerous mission into the heart of Nazi Germany. The tank is lead by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), who has his loyal soldiers Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), Trini (Michael Peña) and Grady (Jon Bernthal) at his back. He also has a young newbie, Norman (Logan Lerman), who will no doubt learn some major life lessons under Wardaddy's watch.
Today's shooting setup would seem simple. Four Sherman tanks with the cast's heads popping out ride into a German town. But these tanks are decades old and there is a lot of mud on this road. Lots and lots of mud. So this isn't a 20-minute set up. This shot will take a quarter of the day at least. Moreover, keeping the scene as authentic as possible is harder than you'd think.
Associate producer Owen Thorton has to take a hands-on approach, noting, "Just a second ago when I was standing next to the wall looking at the 'A' camera, I saw a drain pipe with a bar code on it. It was obviously a replacement pipe with a bar code but as they were filming there was steam coming out of my ears. There are no bar codes in WWII! So I got a big handful of mud and in one shot [threw it] and I missed! And got another one and bang, I got it right."
None of the cast would speak to the small group of journalists who ventured an hour outside London to witness filming (although Peña and Bernthal were polite enough to come over and give a quick "Hello"). Producer John Lesher, on the other hand, was much more forthcoming.
The former head of Paramount's now defunct prestige division Paramount Vantage, Lesher is in the middle of a major comeback with both Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman" and "Fury" hitting theaters (and no doubt film festivals) this fall. He first worked with Ayer on the critically acclaimed cop drama "End of Watch" and immediately segued into the director's passion project, "Fury."
Initially funded by independent financier QED, Lesher says the involvement of one of the world's biggest movie stars changed the equation a bit. He recalls, "When we started thinking about who should be in it, it became, like, 'Wouldn't it be great to get Brad Pitt?' Brad's someone I've known for a really long time. We gave him the script, he read it in 24 hours and he met with David a few days later. He committed to it and like in a week we'd negotiated his deal."
Casting the "Inglorious Basterds" star as Wardaddy was a no-brainer for Ayer and he feels Pitt's presence has helped the film tremendously.
"[Pitt's involvement] helps this story, I think, get to a larger audience than it may have reached otherwise," Ayer says by phone a few months later. "But at the end of the day he’s like shockingly normal. I mean, not that it’s a big secret. He’s a regular guy, you know? He’s into his family. He’s just a regular hard working guy from the Midwest."
Making a modestly budgeted period war movie and making a period war movie with Brad Pitt as your leading man are markedly different things, however. Lesher notes that when Pitt came on board, "it was obvious to us that we should probably get a partner on the movie so that we had the best of both worlds. We have the independence of an independent doing an independent movie, but we have all the support and distribution and marketing that a studio can provide."