David Ayer lately has garnered a reputation as a filmmaker adept at capturing man at his brutal worst. His blood-soaked, L.A.-gang drama End of Watch, after all, had cops getting shot, beaten to a pulp, even stabbed in the eye. But deep down, Ayer will tell you he’s a softie. A friend once told him he makes “chick flicks for guys,” a label he wears proudly and publicly. If there’s a through line to Ayer’s recent work, it’s men, armed to the teeth, dropping their guards among one another. Such is the unlikely theme of Fury, the director’s Brad Pitt-starring war drama that has shown substantial legs with $76 million at the box office and counting. Pitt plays a weary tank commander leading a veteran crew (Jon Bernthal, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena) and a new recruit (Logan Lerman) through the final days of WWII, facing a Nazi army determined to fight to the last. Ayer talked war films, life aboard a real Tiger 1 war tank and watching his cast punch Pitt.
You were in the Navy, your grandparents fought in WWII. Was doing a war film a goal?
Kind of. I was always aware of the horrendous conditions these guys faced and the dysfunctional family that comes from that. You cannot imagine what they faced. And I’m a big fan of war movies. But they seemed to be engineered in a specific way. You had one big event, like an invasion. Or a series of episodic events, where you survive the ambush, clear the village, something like Platoon. I wanted something different—the emotional toll. I wanted to show how claustrophobic war can be. A tank was a great vehicle to tell that story. Pardon the pun.
You filmed on one of the last operational Tiger 1s in Europe. Why was that important?
There were two skills I wanted the actors to have. One, they had to learn all the actor shit. Two, I wanted them to be acting while on autopilot, doing things like operating a cannon while not looking distracted. That’s something that feels so natural on camera, but it only works when your actors can operate on both levels.
You made headlines getting your actors to that level, with Navy SEALs overseeing combat between them. Why so rough?
I had the boot camp because (Navy SEALs) would engineer it in a specific way, one that was authentic. It’s brutal. It’s engineered to break you down psychologically. It forces you to change in ways you can’t by being on a set. You throw a punch differently.
Did you really let the actors throw punches at each other?
Yes! They got into it. Actors really do act differently when you put them on a real set, instead of just around fiberglass props. Boot camp wasn’t just about getting people in shape. It was about getting the guys to open up and get to know each other. That’s the story of the movie, the dysfunctional family that comes from that. Too often (in a war film) the mission overruns the journey of the people.
But you must have been nervous someone was going to mess up Brad Pitt’s face.
They really got into it. Every once in a while I had to shout, “Don’t punch the money!”
Fury is fiction woven from real anecdotes. How do you navigate concerns with accuracy?
That’s tricky. (Military life) is in my family, so I had personal experience. I can point to places, where a battle took place. As a storyteller, I did tons of meticulous research. But people like to play “gotcha” journalism with historical movies—this fact wasn’t right, this was left out. But once you have actors in your movie, it’s not a documentary. The purpose is to make these characters real. That’s the only way to make an honest movie about the period. The physics of actors acting with the set and each other are different. You’ll be sitting there with the effects people, watching the action, and you’ll think, “Damn, I never would have thought of doing that.”
How nerve wracking is it to make a movie where real survivors—in this case, WWII veterans—can tell if you got your story right?
Very. The most nervous I’ve ever been was on Veterans Day, when I knew some of them were going to see it. But a veteran said it was the most accurate (war) movie he’d ever seen, that he relives some of that every day. You can’t describe how something like that feels.
Why are war and military movies resonating right now?
I think it’s where America is at. We’re in Hollywood—the coasts, the big cities—and the rest of America is seeing something very different. I don’t know how much stuff out there actually speaks to them or their shared sensibility. (In Fury’s case), I think people are responding because they’re coming in and getting a different animal than they’re expecting.
Which is what?
A story about the big mission and saving the world. That’s not this story. This is about a family that comes from the love and complexity of war. It’s not glorified.
David Ayer photographed by J.R. Mankoff