Q. In doing your research for the movie, was there anything you learned about World War II that surprised or shocked you?
A. Toward the end of the war, how fanatically the Germans were fighting, pulling kids out of classes and arming them [to fight]. And I had this realization that what our grandparents experienced in that war was just as morally murky as anything happening today.
Q. Audiences will have their own take on this but, as the filmmaker, what were the key themes and points you hoped to get across to viewers?
A. Family. Brotherhood. Comradeship. It’s really the study of a family. It’s a day in the life of this tank crew and I think no other military unit is as bonded as a tank crew because you have these gentlemen living inside this steel box. That’s their home, their office, their living room, their bathroom. They learn everything about each other. And then it’s [about the question], how does this crew or unit survive in such a horrendous environment?
Q. Is there a moment or scene in the film you’re most proud of?
A. The opening shot took a lot of work. There was a lot of detail and resources [needed] just to do that one shot. Normally, I don’t like to invest so much in one shot. But it’s a beautiful shot.
Q. What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
A. Actually, the dinner scene, which is a bit of a surprise considering the rain and the mud and all the difficulties we had [outside] moving these seventy-year-old antique monsters about. But with that scene, there was just this psychological warfare the whole time and this incredible tension with the cast. They did an incredible job. But it was emotionally exhausting to film.
Q. Did you have this cast in mind while you were writing the script?
A. Normally, I don’t think of actors as I write a part [but] I did have Michael Peña in mind and wrote the part of “Gordo” for him. And then Brad Pitt came on board. After that, it really became about building a family [and] building the chemistry and finding actors who would feel like they’d known each other for years and could achieve that in their work.
Q. How much do you think shooting in the real tanks helped the actors with their performances?
A. Well, they learned their stations and they learned their combat roles as tank crew. What’s difficult for actors is to go into a scene asking, “Where do I put my hands?” or “What do I do?” Through all the training and the work with the real tanks, they knew all that. They knew it as second nature. They could do it in their sleep. So, [on set], instead of focusing on their activity, they could focus on the emotional work and the acting work.
Q. In your opinion, what are the iconic war films that have stood the test of time?
A. For me, it’s Apocalypse Now (1979). But, for this, I really studied Roberto Rossellini’s work and Italian neo-realism. And there was a Russian film called Come and See (1985), which was incredibly disturbing. There were a slew of movies [made] immediately after the war and it was interesting for me to see how Europe looked at itself right after the war. It was very influential.