The best movie being released this week (and indeed one of the best movies released so far this year) isn't coming to your local multiplex. It's Netflix's "War Machine," directed by Australian auteur David Michôd and starring Brad Pitt, one of the biggest movie stars in the world. It's an abrasive, pitch-black comedy set during America's conflict in Afghanistan and might be the most wicked, funniest, and wackiest wartime satire since Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." (Yes, it's really that good.)
"War Machine" is based on Michael Hastings's posthumously published nonfiction book "The Operators," which itself was based on Hastings's own Rolling Stone report on the bumbling (and, because of the article, ultimately disgraced) General McChrystal. In Pitt's hands though, McChrystal, now General Glen McMahon, becomes something heightened and larger-than-life. It would be easy to call his performance (and the rest of the movie) surreal if it didn't feel so utterly realistic. It's the war that is perverse and weird not this movie, necessarily. And the movie, which fluctuates between maddeningly complex and broadly goofy, is a high-wire act that pulls off its death-defying feat marvelously. It's hilarious, odd and moving. You have to stream it.
I got a chance to speak with Michôd about translating actual events for cinematic comedy, whether or not he could have actually made the movie at a traditional studio, and where he got the idea for the last-minute cameo from Russell Crowe.
Moviefone: When did you make the decision to eschew a direct adaptation of the material?
David Michôd: Michael Hastings's book came to me at an unusual and serendipitous moment. I had already been thinking for quite a while about making a film set in or near Iraq or Afghanistan. And had concentrated most of my thinking on a movie about the brutality of battle. So when Michael's book came to me, I instantly saw a much bigger and weirder movie. I suddenly realized there was a movie there to be made about the entire machine and focusing principally on that strange detachment of the executive level of the military and the brutality of that battlefield.
And, at some point, in the process of outlining the movie, I realized that what I wanted to do was not just make a movie about the insanity of war but I wanted to make the movie feel insane. I wanted to create a kind of sharp and pronounced tonal schism between that upper executive level and the boots on the ground in order to make that distinction more pronounced. And from there it became quite simple, to play the generals like a screwball delusional comedy and play the boots on the ground for real.
What's so fascinating about this story is the scope of this movie is so huge, but then it'll focus on the general and his wife on a date or the soldiers on patrol. Was that part of the approach, too, opening it up and shrinking it down?
I think so. You know, one of the things that allowed me to go from looking for a movie set in a modern war theater to finding it in Michael's book was finding the human affirms of it. Because I can think endlessly about the cinematic execution of war -- the dirt and the dust and the blood and the chaos -- but it's not until you find your very specific human way into the story that an actual movie presents itself. So that was definitely what I found when I read Michael's book and see these characters and I saw something that was really quite large but in a way it grew out of those very specific intimate moments that you describe.
Can you talk about developing the character with Brad? I saw that he cited Kiefer Sutherland's character from "Monsters vs. Aliens" as inspiration.
[Laughs] Yeah. When we made the decision to let this thing play as tonally schizophrenic and to play that upper executive level of the military as screwball comedy, to let the schism be felt in a really pronounced way was to let Brad off the leash. And, in answer to the question How big are we going here? the answer was, I don't know, how big have you got? So long as it's rooted in something true, in vanity and ambition and hubris. Our aim was to play that character as if he were a World War II anachronism walking around in 21st Century military fatigues.
In terms of inspiration, did you look at any of those classic screwball comedies?
It's interesting, I tend not to let myself get bogged down in other films. I'm never unaware of the fact that to make any movie is to build on what's come before. So long as I've watched my movies and studied my cinema in my life, I feel like it would be counter to the larger mission to run the risk of making a facsimile of something that had come before. The great aspiration is to make something that feels unusual. The most glorious cinema experiences that I've had are the ones that leave me feeling like I've seen something that I've never seen before. Whether or not I've succeeded in that endeavor on this one remains to be seen, but it is always the aspiration.
Can you talk about working with Netflix? I read that their only real requirement was shooting digitally so they could have a 4K video file.
My experience was the same. The only stipulation I got during the whole process was, You can't shoot on film, you have to shoot 4K. And I get it. One of the things I like about Netflix is their grand ambition. They're future proofing. They're making films that will live on their platform forever. I like their chutzpah.
Do you think you could have gotten away with this movie in a typical studio setting?
No. We liked the idea of going to Netflix and dropping a rock in the pond, so to speak. We could sniff from the outset that this movie was just going to freak the traditional studios out. It's complex and it's politically complicated and it's tonally mental. And it couldn't be made cheaply. So we just knew straight away that we could hump our asses around town to the usual places or we could just jump into bed with the new kids in town and go crazy.
This movie looks expensive. It's one of the rare comedies that isn't totally over-lit and blown out.
This was, in some ways, the most visually challenging movie I've made in some ways. Given its tonal schizophrenia, I had to work out which of its two tones would determine its look. So I guess where it landed was I wanted to shoot it elegantly and in a muscular way, to not let it have a look. We never pushed the look too hard. Working with Darius [Wolski, cinematographer] was great. I shot my first two films on film and this was my first proper digital experience, which allowed me to shoot with multiple cameras, which I loved. And one of Darius's great skills is he can light a room in the morning to shoot in all directions without too much fussing and tweaking in between set-ups. You can have three cameras in a dinner scene and pretty much stick them anywhere without having to make too many adjustments to light.
Can you talk a little bit about getting Russell Crowe for that cameo at the very end?
You know, I changed the names of the characters from the ones in the book because I didn't want the movie to feel like it was about one guy in particular, one real-life individual. To me, the movie was about a much larger machine and a system that just keeps turning despite its failure. So it was very important to me that you get a sense that the events of this movie weren't some strange aberration, that you were watching a kind of endless conga line of fevered egos following each other into the abyss. So I needed whoever that last person was to carry the chaos of what's to come in an instantly recognizable 15 seconds.
So you said, "Crowe. Bring him in"?
"War Machine" is available to stream on Netflix today.
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