When I found out I was going to visit the set of Battle: Los Angeles, I figured I wouldn't be traveling much farther than downtown L.A. or perhaps Santa Monica. I did see a different side of Santa Monica that I had never seen before on this set, for two reasons. One was the area was essentially reduced to rubble and, two, we weren't really in Santa Monica, California: we were in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was among a select group of journalist who were flown out to Baton Rouge, Louisiana (you know, the other LA) to get a first-hand look at this new action-adventure from director Jonathan Liebesman, which arrives in theaters nationwide on March 11.
Aaron Eckhart stars as Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, who must lead a team of young and inexperienced soldiers against an mysterious alien threat. Chances are, you might be thinking the same thing I was thinking before walking onto that set: we have seen this before. While the alien invasion movie is certainly nothing new, I can tell you from my experience on the set and from watching the fantastic trailer, that Battle: Los Angeles seems like a truly unique experience.
The day we arrived was day 60 of a 68-day shoot in Baton Rouge and, when we walked onto the set, I noticed that the theme song for The Magnificent Seven was playing over the loudspeakers, as a cue for the actors to take their places. Later we heard the classic "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. The energy on the set was still extremely high, which is wonderful to see, especially so late into the production.
I wasn't surprised to see a makeshift Santa Monica in shambles from the alien destruction, but I was surprised to see that the structures that did remain standing were rather authentic to that area of Los Angeles. We could spot a true L.A. city bus (one more battered than usual) off to the side of the set and it was very clear that production designer Peter Wenham did a fantastic job in constructing this Los Angeles look so far away from the actual city. While the actors were rehearsing the scene, I noticed that, attached to one of the buildings was a bright orange balloon attached to a string, perhaps a hundred feet or so off the ground. I thought this was an odd sight to see, especially on the set of a big-budget blockbuster. Just as my curiosity was getting the better of me, wondering what this giant balloon was doing here, director Jonathan Liebesman stopped by to chat for a minute, and explained more about the scene they were shooting that day, along with an explanation of that mysterious balloon:
"This is the final battle and we're shooting the penultimate moment. In the back there, you see an orange balloon. That is going to be, what we call, the command and control center, where the aliens control their air force. Nantz, who is played by Aaron Eckhart, has a laser-guider. He's going to be guiding copper-headed missiles, which will be coming in CGI, meanwhile UFO's are buzzing all over and aliens are coming up. We just have six Marines left, and it's just the final face-off, which we're shooting a piece of today."
So, when you're watching this scene with Aaron Eckhart firing rockets into an enormous alien ship, just remember that all the actors had to look up at is a big orange balloon for a reference point. The magic of acting, people. Anyway, after that brief exchange, the The Magnificent Seven theme was played again and it was time for Jonathan Liebesman and the actors to get back to work. On most movie sets, you aren't normally allowed to be too close to the action and this set was no different. We were warned that flying debris may be heading our way so we were given ear plugs and safety goggles, just to be on the safe side. When they started rolling, the scene starts out with a car being set ablaze behind them with a glorious pyrotechnic effect. We see Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Cory Hardrict and the other surviving Marines taking cover behind a pile of rubble as they fire upon this huge balloon... I mean, command center. The scene was very loud and we couldn't hear what was being said between the actors, but it sure was quite a sight to see.
As the actors went back into rehearsal mode, stunt coordinator Joey Box came over to chat with us. He has over 120 credits to his name as either a stunt double, stunt player or stunt coordinator, most recently in Star Trek, Jonah Hex, and in Tom Hanks' upcoming movie, Larry Crowne. Here's what he had to say about how the actors have taken to the stunt aspects of the production:
"It's been a show where the actors have really done so much of their own work. Our doubles have been here mostly for choreography and blocking stuff out. We've had rappelling, we did a thing where we brought the kids, some really great child actors, who we rappelled 40 feet off the side of the freeway. They were really great sports. We had a sequence where one of our stunt men plays an acting role and he gets blown off of the freeway, goes whirling down and hits Ne-Yo and Ne-Yo breaks loose and goes flying down on the hood of a car. Wait until you see that because Ne-Yo did most of that stunt. It was really impressive, our rap star, R&B singer comes through and did a really good job. All the actors have been great. We've been really fortunate on this show."
"In this, you're doing it all in one. Our goal in this is every time we do something, we're trying to do a continuation. If it's very dangerous, I'll stick a double in with everybody else and he'll break off and involve himself in the stunt. It's all in one. A lot of times in movies you'll this thing up to this cut, this point up to this cut and cut them all together and get reactions. Doing it all in one has more of a danger element to it and it can make it a lot more exciting."
Joey Box had to leave as they were setting up another take of the same shot we just witnessed, only in this take we get to see how committed Aaron Eckhart really is to the project. Early in the take, he slips and falls off a ledge, but he insists they keep shooting and end up with a nice take, whereas many actors would have needed a reset and another take. Shortly thereafter, Chris Freeman, the assistant to producer Jeffrey Chernov, took us to a different set, although we found out later that we were being moved because they were bringing out the aliens and we weren't allowed to see them. Drat!
The set Chris took us too was dubbed "Spanish Town," which was essentially a recreated Santa Monica neighborhood, where the aliens go to find more humans. He described one scene where an alien comes out of a pool and another where the Marines are ambushed by the aliens. Much like the main battle set, there are just some wonderful details in these sets that easily pass for Santa Monica, despite being thousands of miles away from the actual homes they are based on. One of the more intriguing things Chris told us was about the aliens and why they picked a city like Los Angeles to invade:
"The whole idea of the invasion is it's all coastal towns. There are meteorites crashing into the ocean and then they realized they're being attacked, all these coastal cities. It's all over the world. What's cool is there's nothing with the President, like, 'We're under attack! Get me so-and-so!' It's just this group of guys and how their lives are affected. The aliens are water-based life forms."
A perfect segue to learning about these water-based aliens is to actually go into the water. We all put on hip-wader boots (which looked hilariously ridiculous on everyone, including me) and went out to meet production designer Peter Wenham who took us inside this knee-deep sewer set. A brand new photo was just provided to us which gives you a look of this amazing set I got to walk through. Take a look at this new image below:
Here's what Wenham had to say about these glowing orange pods, and why the aliens chose to invade Earth:
"These aliens, although it's not specifically described, are basically incubating. They're down on our planet because water is what they're after. It's never quite explained."
Wenham showed us around the various corridors of this tunnel and shows us where the characters come in and discover these unique pods. It was by far the coolest of all the sets we were shown, which shed some more light on the movie and what will ultimately set it apart from other alien movies. I'd gladly put on those huge rubber boots to take a look at that set again!
That about wraps it up with Part 1 of my visit to the set of Battle: Los Angeles, which arrives in theaters on March 11. Be sure to check back in the next few days for Part 2 of this set visit, where we speak with the cast of this adventure, including Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Lucas Till, Noel Fisher, Taylor Handley, Jim Parrack, Ramon Rodriguez, Ne-Yo, Cory Hardrict and Adetokumboh M'Cormack, along with director Jonathan Liebesman.