You may not know the name Julius Avery, but the Aussie director aims to change that with the release of his second theatrical film, Overlord.
Avery initially made waves in 2008 with his Cannes Jury Prize-winning short, Jerrycan, and followed that up with his feature-length theatrical debut, Son of a Gun (2014). Those works caught the attention of Bad Robot and J.J. Abrams, who then determined Avery had the right vision to bring Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith’s World War II sci-fi mashup script, Overlord, to life.
Overlord debuted this fall at Fantastic Fest in Austin to glowing reviews and releases wide on November 9. We sat down with the director to discuss how he was able to balance a meaningful character study about young soldiers on a D-Day mission with a gonzo horror film about secret Nazi experimentations.
When you read the screenplay, what aspect of it appealed to you the most?
When I read the scripts, there was so much to love. It's really intense. There is a lot of sci-fi, horror, and action in the setup, yet you really got behind these characters and you get to love them. I just wanted to push that a little bit more, because the balance is a fine line between emotion and action. I'm a big advocate for loving your characters before they step into a crazy, crazy world. Like John McClane in Die Hard. He’s got some real family s*** going on, and so you really care for that guy when he’s hanging off the side of buildings. I wanted to try and do that. J.J. and I spoke about this, and he's always about getting the audience to lean in, so I thought that was the best way to get the audience to lean in. When crazy stuff happens, if you care about them, you care for them.
Not all movies can shoot in a linear order, but was it important to start production with any specific scene to allow for a mental progression for the actors?
Yeah. I always get myself in trouble with starting with something big. (Laughs) Maybe as I get wiser in this business, I'll start with something easy. In my last film, Son of a Gun, I started off with the prison sequence, which is really intense and hot because we're shooting on location at a real prison. It was the full nightmare in terms of logistics of getting people in every day.
In Overlord, we started off with the C-47 aerial battle sequence, and what it did is really glued everyone together. The [cast] did boot camp, which was about trying to get everyone working for a common goal and experiencing the same things, feeling the same pain and aches and all that. But then we jammed them into, essentially, a tin can and then rattled them on this massive gimbal machine. They were in there for 10 hours a day, in tight, claustrophobic spaces. Everyone was really sweaty and it was hot, as they were wearing all their gear. It was just a really great way to get everyone on the same page.
That makes sense. If they survived that together, then they were a real unit.
Yeah. From that moment they were tight, and when you get your actors all together and feeling like this is something they're in together, then they give really great performances. They all trust your way of thinking. They will trust each other, and they go to that next level. There's nothing worse than having a feeling like there are strangers around you that are going to laugh at you if you drop the ball, or try something fun, or different, and push the envelope.
From the historical perspective, we now know far more about the biological experiments that the Nazis did. Did that help craft a reasonable throughline for the film that set a benchmark for how big you could go with that concept?
We used "Operation Overlord," which is a code name for D-Day in World War II, so that is a jumping-off point. But when we get to the village, it's completely fictional and it's completely fantastical in a lot of regards. Even though we're trying to ground everything in reality with the performances, we're tapping into some pretty supernatural stuff. The experiments and everything they're doing is complete fantasy, but it allows us to have fun with it and to get more of the popcorn moments. Like there's nothing better than seeing a kickass heroine with a flamethrower blasting the zombie Nazi. It's out of this world. There's moments in the film where I go, "Are we doing this? Yeah… we're doing this." (Laughs) But it all fits in this world that we created.
It's refreshing how much of the film is done with practical effects and makeup. Why go that route?
I had a lot of fun working in a very practical way. We did all our special effects and special effects makeup in camera. If there is a guy who snaps his head back, we went with a really analog, old-school way of using puppetry and animatronics. We also had Pilou (Asbæk), who played Wafner and has half his face blown off, in all prosthetics. The great thing about that is the actor gets to see himself in the mirror. It’s not like green screen with dots. And then the other actors get to react to it. I'm selfishly a performance director, and I try to give the actors as much of a tactile reality, because it's much easier to play these characters if it feels real for them. Pilou looked terrifying on set, and he's literally the nicest guy in the world. I had my son in London and I couldn't bring him on to set those days. (Laughs)
I wanted to ask about the last act scene where Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is running in the complex. Was that a oner [a long, uninterrupted shot]?
Yes, that's a oner.
It’s insanely complicated. How many takes did it take to land that?
We had probably eight goes at it. They take a lot of time resetting, and it was a big reset. You're doing a whole day for one shot, but It's worth it, right?
Overlord feels like a complete story, but at the end of the day, these soldiers are still in the war. Did you conceptualize, or have conversations with J.J. about continuing their story in a sequel?
Yeah, look, it's only the beginning of the D-Day campaign. They've got many months to go, and I'm sure there's some more terrifying experiments in the future. So, who knows?
Overlord opens nationwide on November 9.