Megan Lehman from The Australian sat down and spoke with David about his upcoming film War Machine, amongst other things. It’s a great read. Here’s an extract:
Sitting down with Michôd, the first thing you notice is that he is comfortable with silence. He welcomes it; marinates in it. Balanced on the edge of a rattan chair in his art deco Bondi apartment, the slight, 44-year-old Australian filmmaker pauses often while internally scanning an impressive vocabulary, letting the quiet deepen and stretch until he lands upon a word that’s just right. The second thing you notice is the large number of house plants casting afternoon shadows on the scruffy Turkish carpets. Lovingly tended succulents gather on coffee tables in jungly clusters; they march along the perimeter of the balcony and swing at eye-level from the rafters. The macramé plant hangers certainly don’t scream man cave.
We’re discussing Michôd’s preoccupation with inflated machismo ahead of the release of his new film War Machine, a prickly Afghanistan war satire starring Brad Pitt as a “rock-star” general whose win-at-any-cost bluster is played for rueful laughs. “Every now and then someone says, ‘Why do you want to keep making movies about men? Don’t you want to make movies about something other than yourself?’” Michôd says, removing his cap briefly to muss up an already dishevelled man-bun. “But they are about something other than myself. I’m looking at worlds that are ruled by people who are supposedly representative of me as a white male and yet who feel completely alien to me.”
A silence reasserts itself, pierced only by the far-off cry of a seagull. Michôd shifts in his chair before reaching for a familiar analogy: “In some way or other this whole enterprise for me is about just trying to look under the hood.”
Only now comfortable writing “filmmaker” on his immigration card when pinballing between his home in Sydney and his base in LA, Michôd says he’s still plagued by insecurity. “When I’m making any film, there’s a strange schism between feeling like we’re doing something amazing and feeling like I am completely f..king this thing up,” he says. “It’s amazing how the two can coexist and oscillate back and forth. I don’t expect that feeling is ever going to go away.”
Here he lets slip something telling. “I’d love to wake up in the morning and think everything I did was amazing,” he says. “That must be an extraordinary feeling for those people who have it. They become objects of scorn for others but, man, their lives look … easy.” Could it be that his fascination with the rhino-hided world of alpha males stems from something akin to envy? He twists the edge of a flared-leaf rubber plant between his fingers and grins: “I wish I was delusional.”
“Ah, America,” begins the voiceover that opens War Machine. “You beacon of composure and proportionate response.” Even before Pitt’s puffed-up general muscles into frame, Michôd’s $60 million Netflix original movie has nailed its colours to the mast. It’s a savage satire on the US military-industrial complex, what its writer-director calls “that self-sustaining machine of babble and jargon” whose only concern is winning. Netflix hails it “an absurdist war story for our times”.
Riffing on The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, a 2012 exposé by the late Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings, the film has Pitt as a fictionalised version of Stanley McChrystal, the four-star general who ran counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan but came unstuck after an unguarded interview with Hastings. “It’s a comedy until it’s a tragedy, if you know what I mean,” Pitt has said.
The film had a long gestation period. “I started thinking about this movie 10 years ago, wanting to find a way into these theatres of war — Iraq or Afghanistan — and doing a lot of reading,” Michôd says. “Early on what was boggling my mind was trying to imagine what the experience of being sent into an environment like that would be like. Most of the early ideas I had were incredibly dark; really, really bleak war-movie ideas, which perhaps isn’t surprising given the tenor of my first two movies.”
Enter Brad Pitt with a maverick plan. Michôd had been on the A-lister’s radar even before Animal Kingdom thanks to his suite of short films. Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, had once tried to set up a feature based on the drug-smuggling book Marching Powder for Michôd to direct but, in the way of these things, it fell over before going into production. “I’m glad I never got to make that movie because, you know, I was young and just wagging my tail and probably didn’t know what I was doing,” Michôd says.
Pitt came to him with Hastings’ optioned book and “I found my way in almost immediately”, Michôd says. “It was a way of examining not just the darkness and sadness of war but its hubris and absurdity as well. I think there’s an extra element of horror you find at play when the men asked to fight these wars don’t actually know why they are fighting them.” He’d found a way to make his war movie. “Also knowing that I was writing the central character for Brad Pitt made me think it was a good bet,” he laughs.
War Machine, which also stars Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton and Topher Grace, is streaming giant Netflix’s most ambitious project to date, and a major step up from Michôd’s short films where he’d “call lunch and then have to run off and make the sandwiches”. The shoot ranged across Abu Dhabi, Berlin, London and Paris. He was in charge of 150 crew and responsible for telling one of the planet’s biggest stars to “move a little to the left”.
Yet it was only while having a post-work drink with fellow Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel in London one night that Michôd allowed himself something resembling a pat on the back. He realised, in that moment, that as he was shooting scenes for War Machine in a former biscuit factory by the Thames, Kurzel and Animal Kingdom’s cinematographer Adam Arkapaw were also in London shooting the big-budget epic Assassin’s Creed and, across town, Greig Fraser, who had lensed Michôd’s 2007 short Crossbow, was working with Ben Mendelsohn on Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. “I just thought, ‘How did this happen?’” Michôd says. “These are all guys I was just making short films with a couple of years ago and now we’re making the biggest movies happening in London at that moment. I think it speaks to the pay-off that can come from the insanity of just hanging in there.
“The rest of it, the logistics, the creative part of it, is frog-in-boiling-water stuff. You know, you just walk on set and Brad’s there and, yeah, it does take a couple of days to familiarise yourself with an iconic personality that you have only previously known from TV and magazines. But the beauty of Brad is he loves directors, he loves being directed. He understands that good acting is always a collaboration between actor and director, and if you’re working with someone who knows that from the outset, the experience is only ever fun.”
To read the entire interview click here.
Photo credit: Trevor King