Total Film - - Contents - WORDS JAMIE GRA­HAM

Spilling se­crets (and guts) on J.J. Abrams’ nonClover­field WW2 thriller.

J.J. Abrams’ top-se­cret OVER­LORD sees a troop of US sol­diers para­chute into France and down a rab­bit hole of un­speak­able genre horrors. TF in­ter­ro­gates pro­ducer Abrams, di­rec­tor Julius Avery and the cast to un­cover the ter­ri­ble truth…

The first thing you need to know is that Over­lord is not a Clover­field movie. Such were the whis­pers when motes of in­for­ma­tion first started to drift around the in­ter­net, and the scut­tle­butt only in­ten­si­fied when the first trailer dropped in July.

“No, it’s not a Clover­field movie, and it never started off as a Clover­field movie,” says Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Julius Avery, on the phone from his home in Queens­land, where he’s re­lax­ing af­ter a hec­tic cou­ple of years. “This is some­thing com­pletely out­side of that fran­chise. I can’t speak for what peo­ple think, but maybe be­cause it had the Bad Ro­bot logo on it, and the Clover­field fran­chise is re­ally su­per-cool. Why not think ev­ery­thing is a Clover­field movie?”

Pro­ducer J.J. Abrams is even more to the point. Call­ing from the set of Star Wars: Episode IX, semi-shout­ing to make him­self heard over the yells and clat­ters of the crew, he states, “It was al­ways an orig­i­nal pitch from Billy Ray called Over­lord.”

Their care­ful phras­ing doesn’t al­to­gether quash the pos­si­bil­ity that per­haps, not at the start, not at the end, but at some point dur­ing Over­lord’s long ges­ta­tion pe­riod, it was dis­cussed whether it could be mi­grated into the Clover­field uni­verse. But even if that was never the case, it’s not hard to see why the whis­pers started.

As the trailer makes clear, this is a bizarre story shrouded in sus­pense and mys­tery, as what be­gins as a seem­ingly straight­for­ward men-on-a-mis­sion World War 2 drama morphs into some­thing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent. It’s not for To­tal Film to re­veal any­thing here that isn’t glimpsed in the trailer, so suf­fice to say that our heroic sol­diers, dropped into a small town out­side Nor­mandy on the eve of D-Day to de­stroy a heav­ily guarded ra­dio tower, stum­ble into the hell of a mad Nazi doc­tor con­duct­ing fiendish ex­per­i­ments in an ef­fort to forge a “thou­sand-year army”. Lab coats, glow­ing serums and an an­i­mated head at­tached only to a spinal cord flash be­fore our star­tled eyes, and nine words burst onto the screen in cap­i­tal let­ters: CHAOS. FEAR. IN­SAN­ITY. HAVOC. HOR­ROR. EVIL. MAD­NESS. TER­ROR. RAGE.

Like the trio of Clover­field movies that went be­fore, Over­lord is a film that de­lights in plung­ing down a rab­bit hole to take view­ers on a most un­ex­pected jour­ney.

Abrams raises his voice an­other cou­ple of deci­bels in his gal­axy far, far away. “Those are the kind of sto­ries I love in any genre, what­ever the movie is, what­ever the sub­ject mat­ter,” he bel­lows. “This just felt to me like it was a won­der­ful way to tell a re­ally scary tale, still with a big heart, in a genre that of­ten is rel­e­gated to B and C treat­ment, and to try to do it A-plus.”

As he yells down the line, the power in To­tal Film’s build­ing – and, in­deed, the whole block – cuts out, plung­ing all into dark­ness for the rest of our con­ver­sa­tion. It is not, we’re as­sured, part of J.J.’s mar­ket­ing cam­paign.

Mar­shalling the troops

Over­lord be­gan life way back in the mid-’00s, when writer Billy Ray, who had then done Shat­tered Glass and Flight­plan and would go on to do The Hunger Games and Cap­tain Phillips, pitched the idea to Abrams and his Bad Ro­bot Pro­duc­tions. J.J. was hooked – “It re­minded me of some­thing that Rod Ser­ling [The Twi­light Zone] might have cooked up; it was not just a mash-up of gen­res but also meet­ing these

young men in this in­cred­i­bly gritty, pow­er­ful, vis­ceral state” – and Para­mount swiftly came on board, with Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) brought in to pol­ish the script.

Fast-for­ward seven years and Avery’s prison-break/heist movie mashup Son Of A Gun im­pressed Abrams and his pro­duc­ing part­ner Lind­sey We­ber. They met with Avery to spit­ball a hand­ful of pos­si­ble projects but the di­rec­tor was most drawn to Over­lord

(“It was com­pletely bonkers, like In­di­ana Jones on acid”) and he pro­ceeded to work with We­ber to de­velop his own ideas and ap­proach. Avery’s pitch, when pre­sented to Abrams, landed him the gig, not so much be­cause it was dark and twisted, but be­cause it was rooted in char­ac­ter.

“My grand­fa­ther was in a cam­paign and I al­ways used to look at his photo al­bums and lis­ten to his sto­ries,” says Avery. “So with Over­lord, we al­ways tried to bal­ance the emo­tion and the ac­tion and the hor­ror. We wanted to care about the char­ac­ters. We wanted to love them. We wanted to be be­hind them as they went into hell. Be­cause if you don’t care about the char­ac­ters, then it’s all for nought. There’s no jeop­ardy. J.J. al­ways talks about get­ting the au­di­ence to ‘lean in’. And I think the way to do that is to love your char­ac­ters.”

On 17 May, 2017, it was an­nounced that Wy­att Rus­sell, Jo­van Adepo, Ja­cob An­der­son, Do­minic Applewhite, Pilou As­baek, Iain De Caestecker, John Ma­garo, Mathilde Ol­livier and Bo­keem Woodbine would all star in Over­lord. The first two are very much the leads of the en­sem­ble, with Rus­sell play­ing Ford, the cap­tain of the squad, and Adepo play­ing Boyce, the in­ex­pe­ri­enced soldier who’s thrown head­first (lit­er­ally – the open­ing plane crash and para­chute plum­met is phe­nom­e­nal) into Op­er­a­tion Over­lord to act as our saucered eyes and tin­ni­tus-ring­ing ears.

Both were pleas­antly stunned when they read the script – “Big crazy shit hap­pens… In the wrong hands, it could have re­ally gone south,” says Rus­sell; Adepo gasps, “It was twisted and in­tense and ex­cit­ing” – and were fully com­mit­ted to show­ing what they could do. For Rus­sell, who’s per­haps best­known as stoner Wil­loughby in Richard ‘This just felt to me a won­der­ful way to tell a re­ally scary tale’ J.J. Abrams Lin­klater’s Ev­ery­body Wants Some!! and who also stars in 22 Jump Street and In­grid Goes West, that meant show­ing a side of him­self that view­ers have not be­fore been privy to.

“I got into act­ing be­cause I could play gui­tar and sports, and be­cause

I love come­dies,” he says. “But there’s an as­pect to my per­son­al­ity that is more like Ford. I wanted to prove that to peo­ple: the strength of a leader in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion. That is im­per­a­tive to buy­ing the story. I al­ways thought in my head, ‘He’s like a phar­ma­cist from Wy­oming who doesn’t want to fuck­ing be there.’ In the ’40s, we didn’t have Navy Seals. Air­borne were the first guys to be a spe­cialised force, and six months be­fore they were work­ing a phar­macy in Idaho. They were not killers. So Ford had been to Italy, done shit, seen bad stuff, but it was im­por­tant to me that he was a real guy.”

As for Adepo, the Bri­tish-Amer­i­can ac­tor who was born in Ox­ford­shire and raised in Wal­dorf, Mary­land, and who is

best-known for his work in The Left­overs and Fences, it was his job to light up the dark­est of sit­u­a­tions with soul and moral con­science. Au­di­tion­ing for the role, he re­duced big, bearded Avery to a pud­dle of tears.

“I was just try­ing to earn the part,” Adepo laughs. “Julius had the ac­tors do a va­ri­ety of ex­er­cises in the scenes we were do­ing and I think they truly opened my heart up to Boyce and al­lowed me the free­dom to ex­plore.”

Ready for ac­tion

Boyce, Ford and all of the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters are put through the wringer. It starts im­me­di­ately, as their plane flies over France be­ing buf­feted by Nazi anti-air­craft fire and sus­tain­ing hits un­til all is spin­ning and aflame and the sol­diers must hurl them­selves into the night sky to para­chute through thun­der­ous ex­plo­sions. The en­tire scene is pre­sented in one shot and is startlingly im­mer­sive – Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan in the air, if you will.

Abrams laughs. “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan is cer­tainly one of the – if not the – clas­sic World War 2 movies,” he agrees. “This open­ing scene, en route to D-Day, is such a pow­er­ful, painful, hor­ri­ble way into a story: these young men hav­ing that sense of feel­ing like they’re about to lose a lot of friends, or lose their own lives. You can’t not think of Steven’s ex­tra­or­di­nary work in Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan. And yet, what I love about what Julius did, is he did some­thing that was in­cred­i­bly sub­jec­tive and wholly orig­i­nal.”

“Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan is the benchmark – it has the most in­tense ac­tion of all time,” agrees Avery. “But I had to find my own path. I tried to do some­thing that would be an ex­pe­ri­ence for the au­di­ence, and that was to get into the head and the view of this young guy, to make the film as first-per­son as pos­si­ble.”

For a movie that ven­tures into flat-out genre ter­ri­tory, Over­lord is in­tent on keep­ing it real wher­ever pos­si­ble. For the scenes in the downed plane, the ac­tors were placed in a rat­tling, pe­riod-per­fect hull on a huge gim­bal and bounced around like pop­ping corn. “We all got tossed about… It was long hours and in­cred­i­bly hot, but fun,” says Adepo, while Rus­sell adds, “It could tilt 30 de­grees. And we were in para­chutes for 10 hours a day be­cause it takes too long to take them off. Your back is fuck­ing killing you and ev­ery­one’s sweat­ing and smells like ass. So when those squibs start to go off and the ex­plo­sions hap­pen, it’s scary. All of the ex­plo­sions and the de­bris fly­ing in your face was prac­ti­cal stuff.” Rus­sell lost weight for the role in or­der to look like some­one sur­viv­ing not on ham­burg­ers but ra­tions, and spent months watch­ing World War 2 doc­u­men­taries to fully un­der­stand what was at stake. He and the rest of the squad were also sent to boot camp, their days spent gath­er­ing wood, mak­ing fires, go­ing on train­ing drills and en­dur­ing a “mas­sive amount of weapon train­ing”. Rus­sell laughs. “Load­ing, reload­ing, load­ing, reload­ing, fir­ing, load­ing… We could do it in our sleep. It’s the worst thing in the world when you see some­one in a mil­i­tary movie who’s only held a weapon for three days.”

They had to be ready to han­dle both the gru­elling shoot and the ter­ri­ble sights their char­ac­ters would be con­fronted with, for when Over­lord ven­tures into sci-fi-hor­ror ter­ri­tory, it does so full-blood­edly.

“There’s this woman with­out a body in the movie,” says Avery. “It’s in­spired by this crazy black-and-white video that’s on the in­ter­net. If you type in ‘Rus­sian Dog Ex­per­i­ment’, the first thing that pops up is this video of a de­cap­i­tated dog which has been kept alive some­how. It’s pure mad­ness. The Rus­sians in the ’50s were do­ing some crazy shit. There are some re­ally fun scares in the movie. When we tested it in front of an au­di­ence, we sat at the back of the the­atre, watch­ing the au­di­ence jump. I think J.J. in­stinc­tively likes scar­ing the shit out of peo­ple.”

He’s not wrong. Abrams, let’s not for­get, is the pro­ducer of 2001 psy­chotrucker movie Road­kill (aka Joy Ride), Stephen King-cen­tric TV shows 11.22.63

and Cas­tle Rock, and, of course, the Clover­field uni­verse. “I’ve al­ways been a fan of hor­ror movies, thrillers, sci-fi,” he says. “That’s some­thing that I was com­pletely game to be a part of. Over­lord was al­ways, in its ini­tial con­ceit, some­thing that couldn’t have been a hold­ing-back, PG-pic­ture. It had to have an edge.”

Hence the hard R cer­tifi­cate in the US, 18 in the UK. But was Abrams ever con­cerned about cross­ing a line? Af­ter all, Nazi doc­tors re­ally did con­duct sick ex­per­i­ments in World War 2, and draw­ing on that for en­ter­tain­ment could be ter­ri­bly taste­less.

“This is a movie where it’s Nazis work­ing to cre­ate the thou­sand-year army,” he says. “Their ex­per­i­ments are all on their own sol­diers. Plus, what they’re do­ing is clearly su­per­nat­u­ral… not within the realms of what’s med­i­cally true. The idea in this was to say that the Nazis are ex­per­i­ment­ing with some­thing that is a genre sto­ry­line, that is not of this Earth. It’s a thing that gives the movie li­cence to tell a story that is not about any kind of war crimes or any­thing that is fac­tual, but more about a mad doc­tor do­ing mad ex­per­i­ments on his own men. We never, of course, wanted to cross the line into some­thing that felt like it was go­ing into any­thing true to life, be­cause that would be dis­gust­ing.”

“Lis­ten, we started off the movie with Op­er­a­tion Over­lord [the Al­lied co­de­name for the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy], which is a great jump­ing off point, but be­yond that, ev­ery­thing is fic­tional,” says Avery. And judg­ing from the re­sponse of test au­di­ences, who reg­u­larly jumped out of their seats and en­joyed Over­lord as a Fri­day night thrill-ride, they got the bal­ance right.

“I looked over at J.J., and he had this huge grin on his face,” chuck­les Avery, and to­day To­tal Film can feel that same joy buzzing down the line from Abrams as he pre­pares to go back to di­rect­ing Episode IX. “To me, the thing about Over­lord is that it is a re­ally tense, hu­man, ter­ri­fy­ing, twist-and-turn ad­ven­ture,” Abrams says. “What I loved about the story that Billy Ray pitched was that it felt like a story about char­ac­ters that I would re­ally care about, go­ing through some­thing that was un­de­ni­ably des­per­ate and shock­ingly hor­rific. And it’s not about sav­ing your own ass; it’s about some­thing much big­ger; hav­ing char­ac­ters that feel re­lat­able, thrown into some­thing that is larger than life. Those are the kind of sto­ries I love.”


‘We wanted to love the char­ac­ters, be be­hind them as they went into hell’ Julius Avery

DEAtH In tHE Sky The bru­tal open­ing scene, in which the sol­diers are dropped be­hind en­emy lines, has echoes of Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan.

nAzI buSI­nESS Jo­van Adepo as rookie para­trooper Boyce (left); Pilou As­baek as Nazi lab rat Wafner (be­low top); and di­rec­tor Julius Avery on set with Mathilde Ol­livier, who plays Chloe (be­low mid­dle).

On tHE Run The squad, led by Wy­att Rus­sell’s Ford (bot­tom), heads into Nazi-oc­cu­pied France (right); Boyce and Do­minic Applewhite’s Rosen­feld try des­per­ately to es­cape (be­low).

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