Discussing the complexities of the psychological and physical horrors of war, with both civilians and soldiers alike, can often times bring everyone on a provocative and emotional journey. People with varying degrees of experience and knowledge of national security all feel they can offer the best insight into how their country should be protected from both foreign and domestic enemies, even if they don’t overtly appear to be threatening. Determining the best course of action to take on the issue of personal and national security is grippingly presented in director Dito Montiel’s new psychological suspense thriller, ‘Man Down.’
The drama, which was written by Adam G. Simon, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 6, 2015. Lionsgate Premiere then acquired the American distribution rights to the suspense thriller, which the distributor released earlier this month in select theaters nationwide.
‘Man Down’ follows U.S. Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) as he returns home to America after he finishes his tour in Afghanistan. He’s surprised to discover that the place he once called home is no better than the battlefields he fought on overseas. He’s accompanied by his best friend and fellow soldier, Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), a tough Marine whose natural instinct is to shoot first and ask questions later. The two friends desperately search for the whereabouts of Gabriel’s estranged son, Johnathan (Charlie Shotwell), and wife, Natalie (Kate Mara).
In their search, the two Marines intercept Charles (Clifton Collins Jr.), a man carrying vital information about the whereabouts of Gabriel’s family. As the two friends revisit the past, they unravel the puzzle of Gabriel’s experience and what will eventually lead him to find his family.
Through flashbacks, Gabriel reflects on his life with his family before he was sent into combat, as well as his subsequent military training, fighting on enemy soil and therapy session with his empathetic Marine captain, Peyton (Gary Oldman). Gabriel is not only forced to physically fight his new opponents at home, but also contemplate on the emotional circumstances that led him to have lost his connection with his wife and their son.
During a recent exclusive interview over the phone, Montiel generously took the time to talk about directing ‘Man Down.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he was drawn to helm the psychological thriller because he wanted to show how strong the bond between a father and son can be, no matter what challenging circumstances they’re put through together. The filmmaker also mentioned that he immediately knew LaBeouf could naturally portray the protagonist, who he described as someone who would willingly fight any obstacle that threatens his family.
Montiel began the conversation by explaining why he was interested in directing ‘Man Down,’ and how he became involved in the project. “I had read a rough draft of the script. I’m either always writing or reading,” the helmer noted with a laugh. “Something really appeals to me about stories that focus on the friendships between fathers and sons. The fact that the father in this story really wants to protect his son really drew me in.”
The filmmaker then humbly revealed that when he was a child, his father had epilepsy, and he would occasionally have seizures. “I would have to put my hand in his mouth, so he wouldn’t bite his tongue. One time when I was really little, he unintentionally hurt me while I was helping him. I asked him to stop, and he did, which was unusual, because most times you don’t have control.
“For some reason, the film made me think of that vision,” Montiel shared. “Through everything, even the bad moments, the father in the film could still see his son. That seems like a strange way in, but for me, that was the vision that came to me while I was reading the script. So I thought this story would be interesting to make, especially with Shia.”
Speaking of working with LaBeouf, Montiel previously worked with the actor on the first film he wrote and directed, the 2006 crime drama, ‘A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.’ After their experiences on that movie, the filmmaker shared why he felt casting the actor in the role of Gabriel in ‘Man Down’ was the right decision. “When I got through reading the script for this movie, I thought, Shia would be so good for this. So I’m going to call him,” the helmer revealed.
“We have remained friends over the years, since we made my first movie. So I told him, ‘I’m going to send you something, and I think it might really be good,'” Montiel said with a laugh. “I thought making the film would be interesting, because it would take some serious commitment to the role.”
After Montiel first contacted LaBeouf with the offer to take on the role of Gabriel, the actor called the director back a few hours later. “He said, ‘I’m in,’ and I said, ‘That’s so great.’ Normally when you make a film, you have your dream list of the people you want to work with, but sometimes you have to keep going down that list,” the filmmaker explained.
In addition to wanting to work with LaBeouf again, Montiel also thought “This would be one of those cases where Kate Mara would be great, and she said yes. We then shot for the moon with Gary Oldman, and he also said yes.” the helmer admitted he was both happy and surprised the actors agreed to star in the film, and eagerly awaited the opportunity to begin working with them on developing their characters.
“Once the actors are cast, I like to get to know them, so that I can revise the script a little bit, and incorporate them into the story,” Montiel then divulged when he began discussing whether or not he rehearsed with the cast. “While they’re all great actors, it’s also always a little bit of fun to bring a part of them into the movie.
“I’m not always a fan of having a lot of rehearsal time. But this is such a complex film in a lot of ways for the actors, so it was worth running through things on the weekends. We would go to the locations and run through the mechanics,” the director explained.
“There are so many things that have to be right,” Montiel also pointed out. “We were dealing with a subject matter that unfortunately, a lot of people do understand. So we didn’t want to come across as not having it correct. As a result, we did a lot of research. Shia is passionate about being remarkably prepared. So in a nice way, that helped everyone else get into that mindset.”
Speaking of his own research process, in addition to reading Simon’s script, the filmmaker delved into doing research into several topics before he began filming. “PTSD is a universal situation that isn’t particular to only veterans. Any difficult situation can bring that on. So the theme is universal,” Montiel sympathetically noted.
“In the film, there’s a family in a little house. When you bring these three people together, hard times can arise, and a lot of that felt relatable,” the helmer explained.
“As far as what Gabriel was going through, I luckily have a few good friends who are Marine sergeants. So I had them clued to my side during the whole film,” Montiel shared. “Besides emotional things, there are technical aspects I had to include, like recruits not calling their rifles a gun to their drill instructors,” he shared with a laugh. “I learned those things quickly…I wanted to make sure the topic didn’t feel exploited or misrepresented in the film.”
Montiel then shared why he felt it was important to show both the psychological and physical struggles that American soldiers face in a film like ‘Man Down.’ The director noted that “We’ve been playing the film at all-veteran screenings, and it’s very strange being in those rooms.
“One man who attended one of the screenings shared that he had served five tours, and when he then came back to America, he was homeless for four years,” the filmmaker shared. “You think, there’s something so terrible about that. Homelessness is terrible, period. But you think that when someone serves their country, it’s really terrible that they can’t get a job or a home when they return to their country. I don’t know if this is more important than anyone else’s story, but it’s a pretty important one.”
Montiel added that “In a way, it’s a heightened sense of what we all deal with. I don’t think that anyone goes to war without experiencing something; it’s hard to think that soldiers can pick up and go away for five years, and then act like it never happened.”
Not only did the helmer call the chance to screen ‘Man Down’ for veterans and active military personnel a remarkable experience, but he also enjoyed bringing the thriller to such festivals as the Venice International Film Festival. The director shared with a laugh that “I couldn’t believe I was in Venice, and we received a standing ovation! The veteran screenings were also incredible, and I have never experienced anything like it. We were in rooms with close to 300 people who either experienced the same circumstances themselves, or are close to someone who went through a similar situation.
“The responses at these screenings have been incredibly moving. Nice discussions have happened at the end of the film. There have also been arguments about what should be done,” Montiel also added with a laugh. “While making the film, there was never a plan to make it something that people would continuously talk about.”
One of the key elements about the drama that raises discussion amongst viewers is the fact that the story isn’t told in a linear fashion. “There was always a plan to mess with time, as that’s an interesting thing I like to do. The passage of time and friendship are two themes that always stick in my head,” the helmer explained.
‘Man Down’ also features distinct cinematography, particularly during the scenes in which Gabriel and Devin are looking for Natalie and Jonathan. Montiel shared how he decide what kind of cameras to use to create that look as he worked with the film’s Director of Photography, Shelly Johnson, who he called incredible.
Johnson “has worked on huge movies like ‘Jurassic Park III,’ so I thought, how weird will it be for the two of us to work together? I’m always running around and saying, ‘Do you have a camera? Okay, let’s shoot something.’ Shelly, meanwhile, is really precise,” the filmmaker explained.
“We shot the movie in 22 days, but it still looks beautiful to me; it doesn’t look as though anything was sacrificed. Scouting-wise, we looked for a place that looked like it can fit into a post-apocalyptic world, since we didn’t have the budget to build it,” Montiel admitted. “Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina delivered that in New Orleans. So we location scouted these places,” and the crew couldn’t believe what kind of conditions they were in.
“We found a 15-block area that hadn’t been touched. It has since been torn down since we filmed the movie, but there was a 15-block housing project that just sat there, and it looked like it came from World War II. We said, ‘There are trees growing out of the houses, so let’s film here,'” the director recalled.
“We couldn’t afford special effects, so we wanted to find a place that gave us that feeling. Shelly’s such a talented DP that he was able to make this little movie look like it was a big movie,” Montiel also noted.
The director added that with small movies, location scouting starts with looking at cities that offer the most tax breaks for independent films like ‘Man Down.’ “This time, the tax break in New Orleans was our friend,” he noted. The filmmaker also added that the city has areas that look like the locations where Gabriel and Devin would train, as well as spaces that could fill in for the post-apocalyptic scenes. “New Orleans played a really big part in the film. The reality of necessity can make it a fun trip,” he also pointed out.
“There has been a Six Flags amusement park there that has been abandoned since Katrina. There are roller coasters there, and it’s remarkable. There’s also a Ferris wheel that’s covered in trees,” Montiel shared. “I thought, I would love to film here, but it wouldn’t make any sense that our character’s hanging around in an amusement park,” he added with a laugh. “So it was really hard to not film there.”
In terms of making films independently, as opposed to with a bigger studio, “I imagine the processes aren’t all that different. I’m sure there are differences-you probably get better food over there, and a little more time!” the helmer stated with a laugh. “But everyone’s trying to make a good film.
“It’s funny-the movie business is the only one where people think that $1 million isn’t a lot of money. I’m blown away that someone would put $1 million into a dream that someone else had and wrote down,” Montiel admitted. “It doesn’t necessarily work that way in the outside world. You don’t dream of a restaurant, and then someone will tell you, ‘I’m going to give you $1 million for that dream.’ But in independent films, $1 million is still a lot of money.”
But the director emphasized that making any kind of film is a risk. However, he feels that if “you surround yourself with the right creative people, everyone’s going to try to do their best.”
While ‘Man Down’ was shot independently on a shorter shooting schedule, the actors performed most of their action sequences. “Shia won’t let anyone do his stunts,” Montiel divulged with a laugh. “Jai’s the same way. They’re over the top with that stuff. If we were filming a scene in which their characters had to be pepper sprayed, they wanted to be pepper sprayed. If they could do things for real, they wanted to do it. If Shia and Jai can’t pull off a good fight, then I don’t know who could!”
Watch the official trailer, and check out the poster, for ‘Man Down’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello