Happy Friday to you all! McEric here with a review of a new film released today from writer/director Eric Bress (THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT) and star Brenton Thwaites (DC Universe’s “Titans”). Check out the trailer here:
I’ll be honest with you: I haven’t been watching the trailers of the movies I’m sent anymore. I want to have as little knowledge going into the film as possible. I don’t want to know who the actors are in the film, because I don’t want my expectations to be colored by what I’d seen from them before. I don’t want to know what, if any, revelations are shown. I reserve that for when it’s time to put the article together, when I share the trailer with you and try to ensure that I don’t reveal any more than what we’ve both just seen. I’m pretty satisfied with this arrangement, and I hope you are, too.
What you might not know is that occasionally the initial email that I get from the PR firm has an attached “Director’s Statement,” wherein the filmmaker basically gets to pitch you the film before you watch it, and give you some insight into why they put what they did on film and what their intentions were. To be fair, this is kind of cheating. The viewer gets what they get, and like an eloquent speech or a drunken tirade, it’s not on them to discern your actual meaning.
That being said, it was Eric Bress’s attached statement that actually made me reach out for a screener. When I received an email asking who I wanted to talk to from the film, I emphatically screamed his name. I wanted to pick this dude’s brain.
Here is where I’ve failed you: I did zero research. I wanted to watch this guy’s movie and talk to this guy about it. I believed in his idea and his intentions and I wanted to celebrate them with him. I barely perused the cast list, and I gave zero shits who this guy was before he made this movie I was going to consume at this point.
This is the guy who wrote and directed THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT. Regardless of what you or I think of it, that film left an indelible mark on the high-concept twist-ending sci-fi landscape for all films that succeeded it. The man is a legend, and I had no clue. I started his film and in the first frame I saw Brenton Thwaites and my brain screamed “Where have you seen him before?” The frame widens and there’s Alan Ritchson, who plays Hank [my favorite character] from DC Universe’s “Titans,” Theo Rossi who owned every scene he held in both “Sons of Anarchy” and “Luke Cage,” as well as two other actors that I did not recognize but would go on to captivate my attention for the next ninety-five minutes.
The film begins in 1944, on the camp of Chris (Thwaites), Butchie (Ritchson), Kirk (Rossi), Eugene (Skylar Austin, [PITCH PERFECT 1 & 2] as the brainy grunt who reads German and plays piano), and Tappert (Kyle Gallner, [TV’s “Smallville” and “Outsiders”] in a show-stealing portrayal of a deeply-affected weapon of war). They wake the next morning to make their way to their next objective, but not before taking two slight detours: one to blow up a jeep-full of Krauts (featuring a pleasant pop-up from Billy Zane) and another to aid a caravan of refugees emerging from a nearby tree-line. Soon enough they arrive at their destination: a French Mansion usurped my Nazi invaders, liberated by the Allieds, and now meant to be held until its patriots can reclaim it after all the bullets have been fired. Unfortunately for our war-torn regimen, there are inhuman, or post-human, I should say, tenants staying in the house with them.
From this point, the film hits every haunted jumpscare nail on its paint-by-number head, all to atmospheric, chilling effect. Soon our heroes are battling all manner of threats, from enemy combatants, supernatural specters, to the demons swirling within their own psyches.
Eric Bress endeavored to make a film that really took that idea that combat veterans can sometimes be “haunted” and play it to its literal interpretation. What it gives us is a heady, frightening, and ultimately humanizing window into the GHOSTS OF WAR.
I was given the opportunity to talk with both Eric Bress and Brenton Thwaites recently and pick their brains on the filmmaking process. And, of course, I had to ask Brenton about “Titans” Season Three because, in case you haven’t yet divined, I’m a huge DC fan. (Like it’s sick. Still at one tattoo but on any given day that can change. I need constant supervision.)
Eric Bress: Hello. You’ve got Eric and Brenton here.
Brenton Thwaites: Hey!
Eric McClanahan: Hello, gentlemen. How are you today?
EB: Good, how are you doing?
EM: I’m excellent. So I just finished watching GHOSTS OF WAR about an hour ago and I’ve got to say I get emails of movies everyday saying “Hey do you want to watch this? Do you want to review it?” and obviously I can’t watch all of them so it takes something for me to say Yeah, I want to watch that. For this one, it was Eric’s director’s statement with the pitch about exploring living in a constant state of danger and how that prompted him to write this film. So, Eric, having finished this film do you feel that you did accomplish what you sought to do in your director’s statement?
EB: Yeah, I definitely think I did. It’s strange, though, having edited every portion of the film, ad nauseum, every frame… I can never tell if it’s going to be scary unless I’m in a room with other people who don’t know what’s about to happen next. And because I’m loathe to have to watch the film after having seen it ten thousand times, I’ve seen it with others only so often. So far the results have been pretty good. There seems to be a sense of people on the edge of their seat or gripping their armrest of my arm enough that I’m like “okay, it’s working!”
EM: I thought what was fascinating watching the film was that you wanted to create this exploration of the hypervigilance that people who live dangerous lives feel and now that the film is being released, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, there is global social and civil unrest. I a sense all of us are living dangerous lives right now.
EB: Yeah, you can’t even leave the house.
EM: What reaction do you think this audience will have to the film? Do you think many of them may see some of themselves in characters that they wouldn’t have seen in a film like this last year, or two years ago?
EB: Well, first there is the logistic side where people are stuck at home so I’m hoping that when this film comes out Friday, July 17th, they’ll think “Well, we haven’t seen this yet. We’ve seen EVERYTHING else.” And perhaps more people will watch this than ever would have if they had to drive to the theater and pay for the popcorn and all the things that people complain about. At the same time, yeah, it’s coming out right at a moment where, like our main characters, you can’t leave. Brenton states emphatically throughout the film, for reasons that the audience may not understand until they’ve seen the end of the film, they just can’t leave. And they’re getting told by dark forces that they can’t leave. It comes through even on the radio and it’s kind of the life that we’re all living right now.
EM: Exactly. Brenton, tell me about coming aboard this project and how much fun it was to pair with Alan Ritchson again.
BT: Oh man, it was great! We did a movie together about a year prior, and I’d always been an Alan Ritchson fan since seeing him in “Blue Mountain State,” I thought he was just perfect. He’s obviously a comedic genius but has the drama chops to pull something like this off. I read the script and met with Eric and was attracted to the idea that here is a movie that was attempting to do something that I hadn’t really experienced or seen before which was a multi-genre film with the prominent genre being horror, however requiring us to fully get dramatically involved in the World War II aspect. I’d never really done a World War II movie and it felt like the first five or ten pages was a really in-depth look at these five characters and how they’re struggling to survive in World War II, and that’s what drew me in. The rest of the movie didn’t really matter to me; it was really the truth and the relationships that were happening in the field and on the road and in the field with these five guys who had clearly been together in this world for months if not years.
EM: The rest was kind of icing on the cake, eh? And that brings up an interesting point: Eric, you could have easily told this same story of a horror haunting with any conflict throughout history. What is it about World War II that we as a society, as an information-seeking public, that keeps us going back to that well so frequently as one of the most fascinating, often-explored times in human history?
EB: The reason that I chose World War II is that in my mind, growing up in America, watching movies and TV about the sting of the Korean conflict, and that was our lost war. And Vietnam had so much controversy behind it about whether or not these people were fighting for a just cause. World War II to me has always been the pure war, the good versus evil conflict. There was no gray, you know? We were the heroes, we enlisted, we signed up to do what was right against an evil and tyranny that the world had never seen before, or at least since America was founded. And that made it easy, because there are a lot of grays that come into the film later, but I didn’t want to start there. I wanted to start with These Guys are good guys, Nazis are bad guys. Anything that they do shows how they might be affected psychologically by these conflicts but we don’t hate them for it. Then things get more complicated as the film goes on and you see that war can do more damage to the killer than to the killed.
EM: Right. Tappert was a very interesting and conflicted character in that vein. When we first see him we see this barbarism and a few minutes later he’s passing off the gold teeth and warm coats to the refugees as they’re coming out the woods. It was a nuanced character and I appreciated that.
EB: Yeah, to me, he’s a character arc that takes place in reverse. When we first are introduced to him he’s pure worthless human garbage psychopath and as the movie unfolds and you get to see more of his background you realize that he was once the sweetest loving father that ever had the misfortune to get caught up in a war. And that plays backward in the film and that’s why I really like the way that character was drawn.
EM: Now, Brenton, your movements on camera were very regimented, the way you and other four actors moved as a team, clearing the house, camping, going through the fields or city streets, etc. Did you guys do any training together for those scenes?
BT: We did, yeah. Eric did a ton of research on what those formations would look like, and what the camping setup would be like. When we were walking, or rather were on a march, how far apart from each other we would be, not only for the shot but also what would be realistic for that time period. We had a guy come in and teach us the weaponry and how we would hold our guns, how we would clear a room, which was very different from today. The main thing that came up was that today soldiers have armor on the front of their chest so if they’re going to clear a room, they’d go straight on; they sort of just flood in, whereas it was very different back then that it was assumed that, if the shit hit the fan, there was no fighting style. It was kind of just survive. Survive and get through the conflict was the fighting style. But, yeah, in some of those military movements we did have someone who was overlooking us and making sure we had the correct positions for a World War II regimen.
EM: I could see the distinct differences when you were outside covering ground to the conflict when you were inside and there were encroaching soldiers coming in the house and then also with the haunting family towards the end of that time in the house: that claustrophobic, desperate fighting style. Tell me about filming those scenes in the room with the close quarters combat.
[both Brenton and Eric laugh knowingly]
BT: I remember there’s a scene, a little spoiler alert, where I have my knife and I’m aggressively trying to defend myself against this supernatural being, who is actually the sweetest little teenage girl that I’ve ever worked with. Eric’s saying “Keep going. Just, yeah, keep stabbing her. Keep going! I can only use a little bit of it.” So I’m literally stabbing at this girl for minutes on end, minutes just ticking away. Finally I had to say “Eric, I’ve got nothing left. I’m tired! Surely you’re not going to use five minutes straight of me repetitively stabbing this teenage girl.”
EB: Yeah, I may have overdone it. I may have overcooked that turkey, I admit. Especially when then you have to move that camera after the first one and you see: okay, he’s exhausted. That was five straight minutes of stabbing. Everyone was crowded around the monitors waiting for me to yell “cut” I am sure but no one’s saying it. Then finally I say “oh that’s great” and I was so caught up in it, then I yell cut, and I think there was a small reprieve after that. We got the coverage and then we put the camera in ten new places and we have to do it all again. And I look like a freak now and Brenton’s getting exhausted. But that girl was always in it. It was a pretty good moment. And it probably boiled down to about twelve seconds of screen time. Thirteen stabs. I think we actually had to count them one time in editing to ensure that we weren’t too over the top, too gratuitous, but God bless Brenton for having me have him stab probably two hundred times.
BT: [after a brief disconnect from the call] I’m back, sorry. I missed Eric’s excuse as to why he had me stabbing that poor girl so much.
EB: That’s okay, we can move on.
EM: No, the beauty of the excuse is that you didn’t have one.
EB: My mother raised me wrong. That’s all I can say.
EM: And there’s our headline. [laughter] Brenton, I’ve got to ask since I have you on the phone: without spoiling the finale of Season Two because I haven’t seen the finale episode yet [I wasn’t kidding when I said I was happy I wasn’t paying for DC Universe but my free period did eventually lapse] what can we look forward to in “Titans” Season Three?
BT: To be honest, Greg Walker, the showrunner, Greg Berlanti, Warner Bros, and the writers, we’re all in that right now, with creating that storyline right now. I say “we,” I don’t mean I; I’m an actor, not a writer, although I would probably love a bit of creative control, the reality is that I have none. What happened in Season Two is that we saw the family come together and Dick Grayson reclaim his role as the team leader and Season Three is the next level of that, is seeing Nightwing become the superhero that he believed he could have been throughout Season One and Two. I believe that the storyline is that he’s going back to Gotham and we’re in that territory a little bit seeing how Gotham has gone under upon the leadership of certain villains and how he brings back the team to kind of overcome that in Gotham is going to be one of the themes in Season Three.
EM: Good. Very much looking forward to that! Eric, what are you working on next?
EB: I’m always working on a couple of things. Right now, I think the thing that is contained enough to actually get made these days is a film called WRECKING BALL. It’s not quite as… well, it’s brutal, but it’s not quite as gore-oriented or sci-fi-oriented as other work; it’s more of a straight-shooter. It’s a character piece like JOKER, I would say and… I don’t know if I should say more about it. But it’s more of a straight-forward revenge movie but it’s got a lot of violence in it, I must say.
EM: Alright! Color me intrigued. I think we’re just about out of time. Is there anything more that either of you would like to say about GHOSTS OF WAR?
EB: I would say that film was made for people who enjoy haunted house movies but are tired of that same old formula where some sweet old family moves into a house and gets tormented by ghosts but is victorious in the end. This definitely kind of spins that concept on its ear, because I’ve always wanted to see a movie where it was “Well, what if some badasses walked into that house? What if some trained killers moved into a house with ghosts?” And this answers that question that I’ve always had, that “what if…” that a writer wrestles with. So if you like the genre but you’re kind of bored with it, this movie will surprise you.
EM: Nice. Brenton, anything to add?
BT: Yeah, I would note that Eric Bress has a unique kind of ability to implant little pieces that inform major story elements, so that for the keen eye, he or she will be rewarded.
EM: I agree. Well thank you both so much for talking to me today. Best of luck with the film. Stay safe, keep your families safe, and thank you for this.
BT: Thank you.
EB: Thank you, Eric. Have a good night.
GHOSTS OF WAR is available on most streaming platforms today, Friday, July 17th, 2020.
Until next time, stay safe and stay sane.
-McEric, aka Eric McClanahan-