David Ayer: ‘There’s something maternal about the tank in Fury’

The director’s new film, starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf, follows the crew of a Sherman tank in the dying days of the second world war. Henry Barnes meets him, on marketing operations at a tank museum

• Why Shia LaBeouf slashed his face for his part in Fury
• Peter Bradshaw’s first look at Fury

The gift shop at the Bovington Tank Museum, in Dorset, sells carnage you can take home with you. Alongside the tank fan T-shirts (“Get Foch’d”, “Peek-a-boom!”) and the Kitchener kitchenware stand Airfix models of second world war devastation. There’s a blitzed brewery, a desecrated church and a 1:76 scale model of a “European Ruined Cafe”. Bullet holes have been artfully carved into the plastic. The tiny shop front has been blown out. Dismembered patrons presumably sold separately.

Across the museum’s grounds, past the Kuwait Arena (“Tracked vehicle rides – £3”), director David Ayer has commandeered a hangar. He is on marketing manoeuvres for Fury, a grizzled, gutsy second world war drama that stars Brad Pitt. It is selling war as bloody, inhumane mayhem, a battle of ideals dragged through the mud.

Pitt plays “Wardaddy”, the veteran commander of Fury, a Sherman tank rolling a final tour through Germany at the bitter end of the war. The unit have just lost their assistant driver. A shell blast splashed him all over Fury’s insides. Norman (Logan Lerman) is a clerk drafted in to take the dead man’s place. He has no frontline experience and has never been in a tank, but he is expected to muck in. The new face starts his career cleaning the old one off the dashboard. He sops up the gore, then throws up at the feet of his squad. This is not an Airfix war.

David Ayers
David Ayer poses in a jeep at Bovington Tank museum. Photograph: Geoff Moore/Rex Features

“There’s a convention in the genre where there’s a bit of sepia patina on it,” says Ayer of second world war movies. “You don’t think about the individual – cold and hungry and being shot at. We forget that our grandfathers as young men were confused and scared. They were forced into horrible situations, just like any military person of this generation.”

Ayer, a US navy veteran, talks like a military man. His answers are clipped, eye contact is minimal. Both of his grandfathers fought in the war. He says he wanted to offer “an emotionally different take” on the conflict – a drama that honours bravery, but recognises that heroism is easily compromised. His vision is grim, exhilarating and depressing. A tough watch and a tougher sell. The posters for the film show off the handsome cast (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Scott Eastwood with Pitt and Lerman) perched on the tank, all muddied and sexy. The words “Honour”, “Glory” and “War” are emblazoned above their heads. It’s good propaganda: twisting the truth for the war effort. In fact, honour and glory are in short supply in Fury. The crew’s morals are mutable, their triumphs ephemeral. There is no glorious war, just frightened people losing sight of a common goal.

Watch the trailer for Fury.

“Individual soldiers often didn’t know why they were fighting,” Ayer says. “They didn’t understand how what they were doing on any given day was of any value. Often times, when there was a major battle, even if they won, they didn’t know they’d won. There’s something heartbreaking about that. That someone can make a sacrifice with such a world-changing outcome, and never know that it had value.”

Ayer has made a career of tough, stylised stories about men losing their innocence to the institution. In Training Day – which he wrote, but was directed by Antoine Fuqua – a rookie narcotics detective’s idealism is shattered after a primer in police corruption from his senior officer. The dodgy DEA unit of Sabotage lose their humanity by sticking together. The hero cops of End of Watch come a cropper through their loyalty to the badge. In each case the institution co-opts a rookie and batters a veteran into moral submission. Still, the individual is rarely at fault. The people may be bad, but it’s the system that made them that way.

End of Watch
Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal in End of Watch, another story of innocence corrupted, written by Ayer. Photograph: Scott Garfield/Studio Canal

Every director has issues they are working through, says Ayer. For him it’s losing yourself to a system. In the late 80s he served as a sonar technician on a nuclear submarine, the USS Haddo. He arrived on the sub, nice and shiny from school, but he didn’t know the ropes and it was hard to fit in. He was a cog outside of the machine. In navy parlance he was a NUB – a Non-Useful Body.

“It’s very difficult to show up as a new guy because you don’t have a job, you don’t know the equipment and you’re training for life and death,” he says. “You could make a mistake that could kill people, so you won’t be trusted until you are tested. It’s incredibly intimidating, but it’s also incredibly lonely. It’s a very unsentimental environment, where your feelings don’t matter. Your personal problems are transcended by the needs of the unit, the needs of the mission. You have to change. It’s that change and the effects of that change that are fascinating to me.”

Fury is a character study of an innocent who is coerced into becoming a hardened killer. It plays out this transformation as violent tragedy. During the tank crew’s first attack together, Norman can’t pull the trigger. When the fighting is over, Wardaddy pulls a surrendering German up in front of the squad. He tells the new recruit to shoot him in the back. Norman won’t, so Wardaddy slaps the gun in his hand, pulls his arm into a firing position and forces his finger down on the trigger. He doesn’t need Norman to think, he needs him to kill. Norman stumbles off bleating about his clean conscience, but he’s in. Bloodied and compromised. The NUB has a purpose at last.

The problem, says Ayer, is that the soldier needs acceptance as much as the system needs him to assimilate. The rookie gives himself away to become part of a unit. The unit becomes a family, making home in the tank. Ayer is sceptical about Hollywood films that lust over hardware, but says in this case it’s important to see the tank as sanctuary as well as a weapon. Ayer describes driving to set early in the morning and taking comfort in seeing the tank there.

“You first see this tank and – oh my God – you can’t even climb up it,” he says. “By the end of the shoot Brad could run up it like a gazelle. We’d take his meals to him and he’d eat in the tank. It becomes safety. There’s something almost maternal about it”

Did Ayer feel the same way about the sub? “There was nothing loving about that boat,” he says. “You shit, shower, shave, eat, sleep, work in a machine that is giving you the oxygen you breathe. There’s a regard for it, but it was evil. Wonderful, but evil. An old, terrible, rusty, smelly machine.”

Brad Pitt in Fury
Brad Pitt as Wardaddy, the tank commander at the heart of Fury. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures

Ayer was honourably discharged from the navy at the end of the cold war. He was on an operation when the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union collapsed, the world changed – and Ayer felt adrift. “There was this sudden sense of ‘Now what do we do?’ ,” he says. “You’d show up to play and the other team didn’t. It was very sad. We won the cold war, I guess, but something else emerged. Nobody knew what that was. There wasn’t really any point in staying in.”

In contrast, Fury’s war is unquestionably on. You wonder if, for all the frontline horror, Ayer takes comfort in that. Brad and co’s positions are assured. They bitch and scrap and sweat and moan, but they fight. And they love each other for it. “Best job I ever had,” they tell each other as a platoon of SS soldiers lay siege to their home. “Best job I ever had,” as they mow them down in dozens.

Ayer is sent off to another interview, for TV, in front of a jeep with “Fury” stencilled on in white paint. Outside, a crowd has gathered at the Kuwait Arena for the Tank Action! display. We’re promised fierce fire-fights, thundering engines and life-like explosions. The announcer warns of “Loud bangs throughout the display. You will not know when these are going to happen.” A real-life war experience at last.

Fury is released in the UK on 22 October.

• This article was amended on 20 October 2014. An earlier version said that the dead tank member Logan Lerman’s character replaces was the gunner. In fact, he was the assistant driver.


Henry Barnes

The GuardianTramp

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