“The war tried to kill us in the spring, then the summer,” John Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) recalls from the relative safety of home in the opening moments of “The Yellow Birds,” reflecting on his time patrolling Iraq after he’s come back to America and though he’s the one seen with the gun, you never feel as if he’s not the one in the crosshairs in Alexandre Moors’ feverish drama.
Based on Kevin Powers’ novel of the same name, “The Yellow Birds” follows a pair of soldiers to hell and back — the 20-year-old Bartle and the 18-year-old Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan), who’s planning to accrue enough time in the service to help pay for an education at the University of Virginia. Neither are necessarily cut out for the soldier’s life, something Murph’s mother (Jennifer Aniston) is well-aware of as she implores Bartle to look after her son right before they deploy, yet even with that admonition, Murph goes missing in combat once overseas, a disappearance that’s gradually explained as Bartle begins to reclaim his memory of what happened, scrambling desperately to resurface some details while actively trying to avoid remembering others.
It is an ideal subject for Moors, who previously — and fearlessly — recounted the reign of terror in Washington D.C. during the fall of 2002 in his debut “Blue Caprice,” using the relationship between 41-year-old sniper John Allan Muhammad and his protege Lee Malvo as a devastating examination of violence as a demonstration of masculinity. “The Yellow Birds” takes a similar angle in contemplating both Bartle and Murphy’s choice to serve as a measure of their manhood, as well as a potential source of Bartle’s subsequent reticence to talk about his brother-in-arms, and working from a script by his frequent collaborator R.F.I. Porto and David Lowery, adds a distinct new wrinkle to the stories of veterans who have an even fiercer fight on their hands when trying to put their time in combat behind them than when they were on the field of battle.
Although “Yellow Birds” centers on its characters’ desire never to go back, Moors’ direction, as well as strong performances across the board from a cast that also includes Toni Collette, Jack Huston and Lee Tergesen, allows one to dive right into the experience, offering up breathtaking battle sequences that linger in the mind for an audience as vividly as they do for those onscreen, and as the film arrives in theaters after premiering last year at the Sundance Film Festival, the filmmaker spoke about the patience, geography and planning required to pull off something so memorable, as well as what it was like to get his young cast in the right mindset and how he used music to get everybody on the same page, working with an international cast and crew.
I seem to recall about “Blue Caprice” that you were looking for a down-and-dirty shoot to make as a first feature – were you looking to scale up with your second?
Yeah, it’s night and day, the scale of both films, but it’s funny because when I read the book, I still envisioned somewhat a smaller movie still. I wanted to take a handful of soldiers and just find a remote village in Morocco’s mountains and we’d just park ourselves there for a month and shoot, much like the way we did for “Blue Caprice.” Then I remember the first day on set – when I counted, there were like a hundred trucks parked, and I realized this was going to be quite a different beast. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of people on set every day.
What was it like to find Morocco as a location for the Iraq war scenes?
I was very thrilled. There are no longer many locations in North Africa where you can shoot film because it is too dangerous, but Morocco is extremely safe and has a long history of filmmaking. The people on our set used to work with Bertolucci – you name it, and there’s a strong film industry and a lot of support from the government, so I had a great, great time. It was very important for me to find a place that these breathtaking, out of this world scenery. The landscape is also a character in the film and the soldier needed to feel alienated from the environment, so we spent a lot of time scouting the mountains and trying to find those remote villages and scenery.
I always like to shoot in places that are a little challenging and pushing the boundaries. I find it usually very stimulating and I like to shoot in places that haven’t been shot before or that we feel we’re separated from the rest of the world. But because of my appetite to find a location that was further and further [away], [I remember] we ended up one morning in a small village and although we were told, it’s okay we could shoot in that village, after a half-an-hour, the entire village came down on us and basically kicked us out. There was like a mob of a hundred people that stormed the set and kicked us out because they didn’t want us there, so we jumped back in our SUVs and were driven away. We didn’t even do two takes.
I’m always so impressed with the colors you get to heighten the mood of any given scene – is that something you enhance after filming or do you map out a palette before shooting?
Absolutely, and no, the film was very little altered [in post-production]. We didn’t do color correction. It’s about choosing the right location and the right colors for the dirt and the mountains. We shot in October, so the sun is very low in this part of the world and it creates these kind of fantastic lighting moods very easily. Then after that we made a point of shooting at certain hours when we knew we’d get the effect that we wanted. Daniel Landin, the cinematographer and myself, spent a lot of time discussing the quality of the image we wanted to get and watched many films together.
Was the shoot scheduled so you’d shoot in Morocco first?
Yeah, it was very important to shoot the war at first [because] it would put all the actors in the proper mindset for when they’d be coming back home. It was particularly true for Alden’s character because we spent a couple of weeks in Morocco where we were really surrounded with his fellow soldiers and friends and whatnot, and then all of the sudden he comes to America and all of a sudden, he was by himself and stripped of all that camraderie. That’s exactly what happened in the shoot, so that was the proper way [to schedule it].
What sold you on Alden for the part of Bartle?
I had no doubt that Alden was going to explode. I was lucky enough that I was really able to do auditions with a lot of young actors for the part, but my mind was set on Alden right away because I thought he was just cut from a different material. He reminded me of more of the classic actors like Steve McQueen or Cary Grant. He had a maturity that I thought was something that you don’t necessarily see in young actors these days.
How did you get these young guys into shape for this, not just physically but mentally? I understand there was a boot camp.
We had this ex-Marine consultant, Dale Dye, a very seasoned professional who’s worked with everyone and he was extremely helpful to us. He basically took all those young kids for a few days into the mountains of Morocco and they were sleeping in the outdoors and learned weapons and learned ambush tactics. It was fantastic too to not only have them learn the craft, but also create a bond between everyone immediately.
This seems to touch on a similar theme as “Blue Caprice” did in how violence becomes an extension of what’s considered masculine. Was that part of the appeal for you?
Definitely. I could see after “Blue Caprice” how it was a continuation of exploring certain aspects of America’s fascination with violence or at least the use of violence for political means, so there’s definitely a continuity, especially with regard to young people basically being taught violence. The idea of these young recruits in the film – Tye [Sheridan, who plays Daniel Murphy] is only 17 and just dropped in the middle of this horrific place and asked to do terrible things can be seen as a continuation of [Lee, the young man in “Blue Caprice”] in some ways, the other side of the coin.
You move seamlessly between the war and domestic life as Bartle experiences it – what was it like to coordinate so those scenes from different shoots would interact as much as they do?
We tried a lot of things because the film is not linear – there were many options and we tried quite a few assemblies in the edit room, but in those particular moments when the scenes at home intercut with the scenes at war, those actually were very well-prepared and well-crafted ahead of time. When we were shooting in Morocco, we knew the camera would be at a certain angle, shooting a certain way with a certain scale and that when we would go back [to America], we were looking for the perfect shots to match them to. I like those moments particularly because it was the cinematographic transcription of that feeling of carrying the war within oneself and not being able to forget it or having PTSD. A lot of those things were not in the book and some were not even in the original screenplay. We invented them when we were shooting, trying to find ways to convey that feeling without words and have that war imagery creep up on Bartle at times.
For the film’s final scene, which I won’t spoil, you’ve said you had been listening to Radiohead while shooting it although it’s a different Radiohead song that’s actually in the film. Is that common practice for you to get the mood of a scene?
Absolutely. I actually have a lot of fun putting music on speakers during a scene to set the right tone. And sometimes it lends itself to really some strange things — for a lot of the battlefield [scenes], those last shots when you see the dozens of soldiers walking at dawn in the war field, we had like an opera and different mood music blasting through the jungle to convey a sense of dread. Because a lot of those soldiers were Moroccan, it was difficult to be able to convey [what should happen in the scene] by words – because there were so many languages being spoken on the film – French, Arabic, English, German, Italian – it was a real international crew, and the [actors playing] soldiers came from all around, so I thought putting on music was like a universal language that would immediately be understood by everyone. They would know how to place themselves and what would be the tone of the scene right away.