David Ayer Discusses an Unforgettable Scene in ‘Fury’

Fury movie poster

Fury” was written and directed by David Ayer, the man who gave us “Harsh Times,” “End of Watch” and “Sabotage.” This movie takes us back to World War II and stars Brad Pitt as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a Sherman tank and its five-man crew. We follow them as they go on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. They soon find themselves outnumbered, outgunned and saddled with a rookie soldier barely qualified to serve with them. But even as the odds continue to stack up against them, they stay with their tank which they have named Fury as they consider it the only home they have left.

I attended the “Fury” press conference held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, and among those there were Ayer and actors Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena. For me, one of the most memorable scenes comes when Pitt and Lerman enter an apartment belonging to a pair of German women and proceed to make themselves at home by cooking breakfast. Then they are joined by the rest of their crew who treat the women and the gathering with a lot of hostility. But as the scene goes on, we see them slowly regain a part of their humanity as they share stories which reduce them to tears.

This scene reminded me of a similar one in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” where a bunch of soldiers jeer a captive German girl when she appears onstage, but they begin to cry when she starts singing a sentimental folk song. I asked Ayer how the scene came about.

“That’s a really good question,” Ayer said. “I did a lot of primary source research, and you realize it’s a workaday world for these guys. It’s sort of a blue-collar existence for these tank crews at this point in the war. It’s go capture the town. Go get this town. Take this hill. Take this ridge. Capture that road junction. You’re given a laundry list of tasks and we think about all these famous battles and all these war-winning battles, but I liken these guys to coal miners. They put on their safety gear and go in and do their work and they come out at the end of the day. And a common pattern was they would capture a town and by early afternoon they’d be in control of it, and then they’d start kicking in cellar doors and looking for wine and looking for food, and they’d make… they locals would cook for them, and they’d do what guys do and pass out and get up the next day at 4 a.m. and take the next town.”

“Something is interesting about that, the idea that you’re in this war zone and there’s humanity and there’s people in there,” Ayer said. “In these movies there’s always a one-sided depiction of either side and of what happens when these people are together in this living room. I imagine this scene as the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner. I think we’ve all had those bad family dinners ourselves. The idea is this crew’s a family, and family can be love-hate. No one can wound you like a family member. No one can hurt you like your brother or sister who just says that one thing that spins you. That was what all the training and the boot camp and the rehearsal and the familiarity was all leading up to, for me, was really that scene. To get these guys as close as brothers so that they can go at each other like older brothers can.”

The other actors echoed Ayer’s sentiments about the dinner scene, and Pena, who plays Captain Trini “Gordo” Garcia, described it as the most intense scene he had to deliver in “Fury.”

“I remember we started shooting and I was an emotional mess,” Pena said. “David said, ‘Let me shoot the other guys first so you can get warmed up,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve been doing this for five months, buddy. Let’s just go right now.’ Everyone had big scenes and we’d know when the next scene was coming up or when somebody’s big scene was coming up, and we’d try to be as supportive as possible. These guys Bernthal and Shia—we shot it in a day and a half or something like that. I don’t remember. But they were always there tearing up at every take, really supporting me, because it was almost like us against them. It’s like our big brother is playing favorites to this guy (Lerman) and we all took it very seriously. So when I tell the story about the horses, which he never wants repeated, these guys gave me the green light, so to speak, and they were emotionally there for me as well. So that was the toughest.”

Bernthal, who plays Grady Travis, also talked about that scene and how the countdown to it and others that were equally intense loomed over the actors during production.

“We all had those scenes that we sort of circled on the calendar,” Bernthal said. “We could pretty much count down to the hour of when we were going to get to those scenes. It’s sort of like what we were talking about before like family and going for the jugular. For me it felt like, looking back on it, it wasn’t about those scenes, but it was that at any moment everyone here and Shia and Brad and the boss were armed with this information that could cut you down and break you. And because we were familiar and so close with each other, David and the way he kind of orchestrates the thing, he’ll set people loose on people. He’ll set the camera on somebody’s face, and then rip them apart. Sometimes it’s something that another actor says, and sometimes it’s something he comes up with and whispers in your ear.”

“I’ll be honest with you, after just a month of shooting when he would walk towards me, I’d start to shake and sweat, because I know what was coming in my ear was going to break me,” Bernthal continued. “And even though you know what he’s trying to do and it’s for a result, it scares me now honestly just thinking about it. Also, to do that to one of these guys that you love so much, to see them and to get the word to go after that dude, go get him, and like David said, it’s family, so I know what to say to you to press your button. And it becomes this kind of perverse, beautiful game. We’re trying to cut each other down and break each other. That’s what family does. It was uniform among every tank veteran we talked to. You don’t pick your family. You don’t pick your tank crew. These guys are as close as units can possibly get. That’s what we were going for, that familiarity and that bond. It’s just as dangerous as it is lovely.”

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

The Innocents

The Innocents movie poster

The Innocents” is one of those movies which just washes over you. Anne Fontaine has directed it in such a way to where it never calls attention to itself. Instead it just sucks you into its post-war setting to where you never question the attention paid to the period detail, and you enter the lives of these characters in the same way the movie’s protagonist does as you make the same discoveries as she while the story unfolds. It feels like it has been a long time since a movie has had that effect on me, so that makes this one rather unique.

The movie takes us back to December 1945 in Warsaw. The second World War has ended and Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a young French Red Cross doctor, is treating the last batch of patients who survived their time in the German camps. One day she comes into contact with Benedictine nun who begs her to visit the covenant she lives at, and it is there where Mathilde shockingly discovers several nuns who are pregnant, one of which is about to give birth. These nuns were raped by Soviet soldiers, and the covenant is desperate to keep these incidents as its inhabitants are fiercely private and eager to avoid shaming and persecution from the new anti-Catholic Communist government. But as their strongly held beliefs continually clash with harsh realities, they become reliant on Mathilde to help their sisters with a condition forced unto them.

“The Innocents” covers a part of history that many, including myself, were not aware of before. It was inspired by Madeleine Pauliac, a Red Cross doctor, who documented in her notes the story of these nuns who were raped by Soviet soldiers as much as 40 times in a row. It’s an infuriating crime that many will still not admit happened even though historians know full well that it did. To see it covered in this movie feels like an overdue recognition of the cruelness many women were forced to experience against their will. I came out of this movie angered at what happened to these nuns, and that’s the way I should have come out of it.

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Fontaine’s previous films include “Gemma Bovery,” “Coco Before Chanel” and “The Girl from Monaco” Along with screenwriters Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer and Alice Vial, she has given us a tale where the views and beliefs of believers are forced to clash with those of non-believers. This is always a fascinating debate as our views on religion and God always differ in various ways. Because of this vicious crime that has been perpetrated, the nuns have to confront how their beliefs are threatened and forever changed by it. And then there’s Mathilde who is not a believer but shows no hesitation in helping those who are. This brings about many fascinating conversations which make you wonder if much has changed in the years since World War II.

I’m not familiar with Lou de Lou de Laâge’s work as an actress before this movie, but she is perfectly cast here as Mathilde. Here is a doctor, let alone a female one, who risks her life to help those who could be unfairly persecuted for reasons we would never accept today, and she barely bats an eye in the face of adversity. De Laâge is a natural as she makes Mathilde an especially brave character, but one who is simply doing her job to help those who need mending. Other doctors in that same situation might have stayed away in fear of severe consequences, but de Laâge gives us one who is not out to be a hero in the slightest as she is simply doing the job she was trained to do.

Vincent Macaigne also gives a fine performance as Mathilde’s superior and lover, Samuel. At first it looks like these two will have a relationship not unlike the one Peter Benton had with John Carter on “ER,” but theirs proves to be more complex than that. They fall for one another not out of lust but necessity as their lives may be snuffed out on the front lines before they know it, and that makes what they go through especially unpredictable. Macaigne makes Samuel into a doctor who could have easily fallen into clichéd conventions, but he turns him into a fully fleshed out character who is ready to overcome his deeply held prejudices to help those in need.

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Then there’s Agata Kulesza who portrays Mère Abesse, the Mother Superior of the covenant. This is the movie’s most complex character as she struggles to keep all the nuns in line while committing rash actions to protect them from what she feels would be an unbearable derision. In another movie this would be a character you would come to seriously hate, but here she is a person doing what she can to keep her sisters in line with the faith while doing things they will come to hate her for. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Mère comes to show how that is the case.

In some ways “The Innocents” could have dug deeper into the themes it explores as the movie feels like it only goes so far. Also, its conclusion feels a bit too pat as such circumstances can never be easily solved in so simple a fashion. Still, a movie like this is an immersive experience which demands your attention in a way few others do. Many I know have a ridiculous aversion to movies with subtitles, but I invite them to put that to the side as this one covers a part of history that can no longer be ignored. In a day and age where women are still not considered equal to men, this one reminds us of how that should never be the case.

PLEASE NOTE: “The Innocents” will open on July 1st at The Landmark in West Los Angeles and on July 8th at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Edwards Westpark 8 in Orange County.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * ½ out of * * * *