This interview with David Ayer, director of the film Fury starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf, appears in the January/February issue of our new interactive iPad edition, along with other exciting bonus content. To learn more, check out the World War II magazine app in the iTunes app store. New subscribers interested in the iPad edition can subscribe in the HistoryNet shop. Current subscribers who wish to add a digital subscription in addition to print should contact our customer service team at 1-800-435-0715. For more help with subscriptions, please read our Digital Edition FAQ.
Director David Ayer’s Hollywood scriptwriting credits include 2001’s Training Day, which earned Denzel Washington an Academy Award for portraying a crooked police detective working with a new recruit. Ayer’s new film, Fury, chronicles an M4 Sherman tank crew in the last weeks of the war in Europe. A former U.S. Navy submarine sonar operator, Ayer had one grandfather who lied about his age to join the navy in 1940 and saw action as a submariner; the other was in the U.S. Army Air Corps. An uncle flew 35 missions as a B-17 gunner. In writing and directing Fury, which stars Brad Pitt as Don “Wardaddy” Collier and Logan Lerman as Norman Ellison, the green GI Collier takes under his wing, Ayer sought to show hard truths about the Good War. —Michael Dolan
WWII: You grew up around World War II veterans. What did they reveal and not reveal about the war?
AYER: My relatives who were veterans never talked about their war experiences. It was frustrating, because as I was growing up I was watching all the war movies—A Bridge Too Far, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge—but my grandfathers and uncles wouldn’t talk about the war, or about why they had nightmares about it. The war left scars on them, and on my family, and I wondered, “What the heck happened?” The war was part of the culture, but it was remote. Partly as a result of that, I became a student of the war. I wanted to understand it.
WWII: What moved you to write and direct Fury?
AYER: For one thing, there’s never been a great American tank movie. Also, as I matured I realized that the war movies I had grown up watching were entertainments. They were not emotionally accurate, and they didn’t show how hard it had been on those guys, what they had endured. By the time the war in Europe was in its final weeks, everyone was exhausted. The Allies were outrunning their supply lines; replacement troops were in short supply. The army was throwing 40-year-old fathers and kids with only a few weeks of training into combat. And these men were fighting a fanatical enemy that was making women and children fight. I realized that it’s the same as has been happening today in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nothing is new under the sun.
WWII: Wardaddy and Norman in Fury suggest Alonzo and Jake (detectives played by Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke) in Training Day—the monstrous mentor and his innocent apprentice. What did putting a pair like that into Fury enable you to examine?
AYER: Most of the characters in Fury have been at war for three years. It’s a miracle that they’ve survived, but surviving has made them cynical, which makes them hard to like. The film is taking the audience into a strange land, and the audience wants someone to relate to, someone who, as they are, is learning the ropes of combat. Norman and Wardaddy develop this wonderful relationship under the most extreme pressures. Fury is not a cookie-cutter movie. It’s a different creature, but that relationship is a familiar one, which is what makes the film work.
WWII: How did your experience as a submariner figure in writing and directing Fury?
AYER: War movies are mainly about action and equipment, but what
I remembered about the service was the guys I served with, who were real characters. They would get on your last nerve and yet, if one of them got into a fight, you would be the first one off the barstool to help him, and vice versa. I wanted to show that brotherhood, which doesn’t occur in any other setting. And I wanted to do it with honesty even though it’s harsh. I mean, these guys are double-tapping bodies; Fury definitely shows the dirty side of war.
WWII: Does the cinematic record of World War II need correction?
AYER: Not correction so much as it needs to undergo evolution. Each generation peels off layers to get at a different understanding of the war. When the guys who fought it came home there was no comprehension of post-traumatic stress disorder; they just went back to their lives. But they had been through hell. World War II really was a war between good and evil. But being on the side of good didn’t make the fighting any easier. The kid in the trench or aboard the tank wasn’t thinking about the battle between good and evil, he was scared and hungry and tired and he was having his heart torn out. That’s what I wanted Fury to get at.
WWII: You contributed to the script of U-571, which notoriously pretended that Americans rather than Britons captured a German Enigma code device, and now you have written, directed, and produced Fury, which seems to pretend nothing at all about the brutality of the closing weeks of the war in Europe. How you would like moviegoers to remember you for each of these films?
AYER: Well, as far as U-571 goes, you have to remember I was one of three writers. It was my first studio job, and not my story—I did script doctor work to punch up the dialogue. I was in my twenties and happy to pay the bills. The Americans capturing the Enigma never came from me. It was just supposed to be a fun action adventure film. Fury is my baby. I hope it helps folks understand a little of the dangers and the brotherhood of combat. The home run is that it becomes the classic World War II armor film.
WWII: Directing a film is like being a general at war—or not. Discuss.
AYER (laughs): I’m one of those guys who think that you’re not really a director until you’ve directed a war movie. It’s one of the last great dictatorial jobs. Of course, making a film is not like fighting a war, but when you’re the director, you have all the responsibility for what happens, good or bad. If you make your day of shooting, that’s great. But there’s another day tomorrow. You’re chasing a vision; you’re trying to get what you want under unbelievable pressure.