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Ghosts of War's director and star explain how you mix Saving Private Ryan with The Shining
World War II and the horror genre have more in common than one might think. Good vs. evil, wanton bloodshed and destruction, and the sheer ugliness of humanity tie the two entities together in a twisted thematic link that shines a light on just how cruel we can be as a species. The moral cost of combat (and especially the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust) is why films like 2018's Overlord work so well. They amplify the one simple fact we all know to be true: war is indeed hell.
The latest movie to mix WWII with the supernatural in an effort to probe that age-old axiom is Ghosts of War.
Written and directed by Eric Bress (best known for 2004's The Butterfly Effect with Ashton Kutcher), the project centers on five, battle-hardened American soldiers who are given the cushy job of guarding a lavish French château in the waning days of the global conflict. The classic men-on-a-mission concept we know so well (see: Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan) takes a turn for the sinister when the soldiers come to realize the once-comfortable estate is haunted by the ghosts (see: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining) of a family that was tortured and killed by the Nazis.
Brenton Thwaites (Titans) leads the squad as Chris. His fellow brothers in arms include Alan Ritchson (another Titans vet) as Butchie, Skylar Astin (Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist) as Eugene, Theo Rossi (Marvel's Luke Cage) as Kirk, and Kyle Gallner (Jennifer's Body) as Tappert.
Taking some time off from their epic battle against the Third Reich and restless spirits, Bress and Thwaites hopped on a phone call with SYFY WIRE to discuss their new, genre-mashing film.
*SPOILER WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers for Ghosts of War.*
Just to start off, Eric, where did the idea for this movie come from?
Bress: I guess I was really tired of all the horror movies where the innocent family movies into a haunted house and you know the rest. And that’s the problem, is that you know the rest. It may have a different twist (i.e. the dead little girl came from a well, not the lake), but there’s always the same thing and I just thought it would be so much cooler to see what would happen if kick-ass soldiers came to a haunted house and yet, they were still outmanned, outgunned, and facing [something] they were totally unprepared for.
What would you say were some of your biggest influences?
Bress: I would have to say the first and foremost influence is 1986’s Platoon [a Vietnam War movie by Oliver Stone]. There’s this scene where Charlie Sheen is the only guy awake at night when the enemy army starts crawling right to where all of his platoon is sleeping. He's the guy that's supposed to be on guard duty and he's falling asleep. You can call Platoon a war movie [but] that’s a horror film right there. It is pure terror at night; you just see shadows walking through the trees and then you definitely see: "No, that’s a guy" and "No, that’s definitely the enemy’s helmet and face."
It's just pure terror and I thought that’s what this movie needs to have a little bit of. You take away the glory and the heroism of most action-war movies, what else is it but horror? Between that and The Shining, those were two of the biggest influences other than Saving Private Ryan and using that cinematic language to set up our characters in the beginning of the first act.
Brenton, what attracted you to the project?
Thwaites: The film seemed to me to be — at least for the first little bit — a war movie, a drama about these five guys who are struggling with being in the war... I liked the opportunity to jump straight into what seems like the last act of character development. These guys are tired, they want to go home, they’re dealing with this horrible reality that we all know as WWII and soon after that, the movie changes genres into a completely different realm.
I just thought, "What an opportunity to throw these real characters and pull the rug out from the audience with a completely new genre." But obviously, having a continuous character journey that we’ve spent the first 20 to 30 pages developing.
Eric, how much research did you have to do while writing the screenplay?
Bress: There was a lot of research that went into everything. I almost could not hire Kyle Gallner to be in the movie to play his role because he had this shoulder-length hair. Even though in other war movies you see guys with mustaches and beards it really wasn’t like that. In World War II, there was a booklet that showed you, "You can have this haircut or this haircut." If you were new, you would probably have the "Freshman Haircut."
They had names for them and everything, but there was no way I could figure out: "How the hell am I gonna [hide Kyle’s hair?]. Am I gonna put his hair under a big wig?" Kyle, who really wanted the role, went online and found out that snipers were given a certain leniency in what they could wear, and that would include a knit cap for if they’re perched in a sniper’s nest on cold nights. It was like, "Thank god you f****in' found that because now we can put your hair under a knit cap and when it’s not there, it’s under a helmet."
I personally wanted more diversity in the film, but before Vietnam, you were white or you were black. Everything was segregated. I did so much research to try to find this one unit where people were diversified and I couldn’t find it. That just kind of crushed of me... I just had to kind of adhere to reality. [The research also came] down to what guns each character would have. It would make sense that Brenton would carry a Colt 1911 and it makes sense that Eugene would have a Browning Hi-Power pistol. Even though you have soldiers in standard uniforms, they each need to have certain characteristics that they would definitely bring into what guns they had.
There are some major twists and turns in the story. How did you want to keep the audience on their toes?
Bress: I wanted to mix some genres here, which is always a risky thing. I wanted it to start out with a war movie and then transition gently into a horror movie where the cinematography, the music, everything slowly transitions. And yet, there were still some surprises to come. I knew that I had to lay a long path for the viewer to lead them down in order to pull the rug out from under them later. It was all planned; some of the things are even kind of tropes that are intentionally in there.
[For example] there’s a nerdy guy named Eugene and a brawny guy named Butchie. Some of the names are caricature names and it was all done so that people would feel so familiar and safe within the genre that they’re watching that they would never expect where the movie ends up going.
Thwaites: Eric set out to create that mixed genre movie and I loved that it was something I’d never seen or experienced before. It seemed unique.
For a movie like this, it's important to make sure the soldiers feel like a sort of family. Brenton, did you and your castmates do anything special to get that sense of camaraderie?
Thwaites: Eric had us in Bulgaria a little bit before shooting. I think it was a week or two before shooting and we pretty much spent every day together. We would have dinner together and just spent a lot of time together. Work-wise, we attended a boot camp to familiarize ourselves with the different weaponry that was used in World War II. [We learned] the weight of the weapons, which pretty much for everyone (except Alan Ritchson) was unprepared for. Carrying these heaps of metal around the Bulgarian countryside was a workout in an of itself. We would watch and discuss movies like Saving Private Ryan and observe how singular their unit was. However, the characters also had very unique and individual backgrounds that enhanced that storyline.
That was it, mate. It was really just spending time together and boot camps and discussions with Eric to really feel the chemistry and that ensemble, which was one of the most important things of this film because we really experience every moment with the five of the crew. There’s not really a moment where a single character goes off and the movie goes with him for a long period of time. We always return to seeing everyone’s point-of-view.
How did you go about occupying the role of a leader?
Thwaites: One thing important for me was to give these guys a freedom to explore and to express themselves and to take action like a leader in these circumstances. My leadership role just included direction and goal. I wasn’t overbearing in terms of rules: in terms of what they’re gonna eat, when they’re gonna sleep... I was really trying to figure out a way to communicate to these guys in a non-aggressive, macho war kind of way. I think that finding these guys tired and at the end of their tether was a way for me to access a more quiet, vulnerable approach to this leader.
Bress: Brenton was able to give me a lead character who’s a leader, but doesn’t do it by being that stereotypical screaming sergeant guy. He does it with this Steve McQueen coolness and quietude, that kind of calm serenity that keeps them all following him. He just exudes a natural follow-ability and all of the others would cling to that and hang onto that.
I thought his character was so much deeper and richer because he was able to make sure the character always shows — while doing some pretty heinous wartime activities — some side of compassion throughout. To his men and even to the ghosts that are gonna appear... It was that extra dimension that Brenton brought to it that I think the whole movie kind of hangs on.
Getting back to the different genres, Eric, what's the biggest challenge of juggling them and making sure one element didn't overpower the other?
Bress: As you know, there’s a pretty big rug that gets pulled on the audience... Other than war and other than horror, we were going to introduce a third and final genre to the end of this film and it’s dangerous. It’s really dangerous. It’s the kind of film that, thank God, I had these adventurous and gutsy producers that didn’t just adhere to the Hollywood formulaic system, or else it would have ended completely traditionally.
Here, I had the opportunity to blend these genres together, but I knew that while the shooting styles were going to evolve through the film, I knew that the score could be the curtains that tie the room together; the instrumentation changes over the course of the film. We start out with big brass sections, just like you would hear in a John Williams score for a Spielberg movie. Then it changes to more sort of electronica in the middle, which is a weirder, analog sound that is used more in traditional horror movies. But the melodies and the themes are the same, so there’s something in the sound that’s tying everything together, even though the movie takes certain departures from the tradition.
Speaking of the horror element, Brenton, were there any times on set where you were genuinely creeped out?
Thwaites: I was pretty scared that Eric Bress was gonna drown me in that tub. That was interesting. He asked me to put some headphones [aka earplugs] in my nose, some little soft headphones, so I could, in a sense, get waterboarded for longer. That was a tricky thing because of the physics; you put your head back in the water in a certain way. There’s only a certain amount of time that you can last before you feel like you’re drowning. The shot that we needed, [Eric] has to get a certain minimum of seconds to get what he needed, so that kind of comes up as one of the trickier stunt sequences to shoot. At the same time, it was a lot of fun.
The haunted house is very much a character in the story. Can you talk about bringing it to life?
Bress: My hat goes off to our amazing production designer, Antonello Rubino, who built every bit of that house on two sound stages, one for the first floor and one for the second floor. He did it in a way where, like in The Shining, I could have one tracking shot that follows the soldiers throughout the entire house in one move early in the film, so we could establish the geography. That was a major undertaking and no matter what part of the house you were in, it was so authentic and so aged ... The house looks 100 years old and even walking around on the set, you would feel like you were in an old mansion.
Eric, you’ve done a bunch of writing since The Butterfly Effect, but haven’t directed anything. What was it like getting back into the director’s chair for this movie?
Bress: The first thing that was different was that I didn’t have a partner this time. For The Butterfly Effect, I had J. Mackye Gruber — he co-wrote it and co-directed it with me. When I first got to Bulgaria, I was sort of in a "fake it till you make it" situation... I found [on Ghosts of War], "Oh, thank god I can lean into my director of cinematography," Lorenzo Senatore, who’s amazing. It was terrifying at first when I got off the plane and I’m like, "Oh man, am I even ready for this?" Once the ball started rolling, I was like, "Oh man, I’m in it! I love wearing all the hats."
Co-starring Billy Zane (the Titanic star also produces) and Shaun Toub (Iron Man), Ghosts of War is now available on DirectTV, digital, and VOD. It's also playing at select theaters.