Logan Lerman has played the lead in the "Percy Jackson" movies, weathered a flood in "Noah" and was the floral centerpiece of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." But the young actor knew he was in for something different when he auditioned for "Fury," the World War II adventure-cum-psychological thriller that opens Oct. 17, and stars him and Brad Pitt.
"I remember waiting for that phone call," Lerman said, "and for about 10 seconds after I got it, I was excited -- and I guess relieved, too, to have gotten the part. And then, all the anxiety kicked in."
A frank depiction
Audiences will be anxious, too. "Fury," written and directed by David Ayer ("End of Watch," "Sabotage"), portrays the American GI in World War II with a kind of frankness and brutality that Hollywood has seldom dared display, especially regarding the warriors of the Greatest Generation. The story focuses on a single tank command during the post-D-Day push into Germany, at a time when a panicked Hitler and his desperate Third Reich were doing everything to stop the Allies, including putting children into uniform. The mental damage inflicted by total war, endless carnage and the bottomless capacity for human cruelty leaves the ostensible heroes of the film -- including Pitt's character, the tank commander Wardaddy -- bordering on the psychotic.
"It's disturbing," agreed "Fury" producer Bill Block, "in the sense that it shows the realistic behavior of the U.S. soldiers having to kill and kill and engage in hand-to-hand combat and what it does to you and what it turns you into." Other directors have made highly realistic war films, too, he said, citing Oliver Stone ("Platoon") and Sam Fuller ("The Steel Helmet," "The Big Red One"). But such an approach is apt, he said, considering what the armored divisions had to suffer in the waning days of the war.
"We basically sent these guys out in tin cans and they got eaten alive," Block said. Regarding one extended scene in the film, in which three American tanks confront one superior German model, he said, "That Tiger tank battle is accurate and that's how they won the fights -- a three- or four-on-one battle in which three know they're going to their deaths. The final statistic was something like 50,000 Sherman tanks lost to 13,000-14,000 Tigers. It was Porsche vs. Henry Ford. Like going into a gunfight with a knife."
That the production found vets to talk to was a minor miracle, Block said, "because the survival rate was so low for those in the armored divisions. In the tank warfare against the Nazi Tiger and Panzer, they just all got burned up or killed. The casualty rate was, I think, over 90 percent. Just to have survived it and lived to tell the tale really impressed Logan, Brad and John, Shia and Michael."
John, Shia and Michael are Bernthal, LaBeouf and Pena, who play the other members of the hardened tank command under Wardaddy's leadership and into whose midst young Norman Ellison (Lerman) is unceremoniously dropped. A trained clerk-typist with no combat experience, Norman is expected to immediately man a machine gun and mow down Germans, which he does, with increasing satisfaction, belying the usual movie-driven stereotype of the pencil-pusher thrust among the war heroes (see: "Saving Private Ryan").
"He's a character who's very complicated," said Lerman, who added that getting into the role required a great deal of research, and learning from those veterans about what living through the war was like.
"They were really generous," he said. "We heard stories that really helped all of us get into what they were going through, and about the realities of war that you don't see in a lot of World War II films. Less about the glories and more about the harsh realities -- the violence, the stress and the kind of day they had to live through."
Learning from the source
Gathered together by Ayer, who comes from a military family, the vets told the actors things that "they said they'd never spoken to anyone else about," Lerman said. "But they were sitting in a room with people trying to make an honest film, and they were able to talk about things they'd stored away in a very locked-up, closed space that they never wanted to really revisit. But they felt comfortable enough and I'm sure it was therapeutic to talk about. For us, it was fascinating."
At press time, Lerman said he'd only seen rough cuts of the film, not the finished version, but he had seen the trailer. "They're working it more along the action of the film," he said of the marketing. "And it's a lot more than just an action film, which is intriguing. People are going to be surprised that it has so much depth."