Land Of Bad interview | Director William Eubank on making a gritty action thriller with Russell Crowe

Land Of Bad director William Eubank
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Director William Eubank talks to us about his new action thriller, Land Of Bad, and how he turned a horse racing track into a warzone.

Over a decade into his career, director William Eubank still takes an indie, hands-on approach to his movies. On his latest film, the action thriller Land Of Bad, he personally filmed all of the inserts – the little cut-away shots that emphasise something key to the plot – using an FX3 digital camera.

“Everyone’s always saying there’s not enough money to do them,” Eubank says, “so I just do them myself.”

It’s an echo of the DIY approach that got Eubank into the movie industry in the first place. In his mid-20s, he spent over a year building a detailed space station in his parents’ garden, as well as an American Civil War-era bunker in a neighbours field. These formed the setting for his extraordinarily ambitious debut, 2011’s Love, a Kubrickian sci-fi odyssey made for just $500,000.

At the time, Eubank was working for Panavision, an experience that gave him an important grounding in cinematography and digital filmmaking that still informs his work today. As Love began winning awards on the festival circuit in the 2010s, his growing profile led to the Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi thriller, The Signal (2014), the ocean floor sci-fi horror Underwater (2020), and supernatural spin-off Paranormal Activity: Next Of Kin (2021).

All of which brings us to Land Of Bad, a military action thriller of two halves. It follows rookie soldier Sergeant Kinney (Luke Hemsworth) on a top-secret rescue mission in the Philippines; the twist being that Kinney is a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) – a service member who specialises in calling airstrikes from attack helicopters or drones.

The other half of the story follows Russell Crowe’s Captain Grimm ‘Reaper’, a drone operator who has a remote perspective on Kinney’s mission from a Las Vegas air base.

It’s a tense, gritty film, with welcome flashes of humour – particularly from a winningly gruff Russell Crowe. Eubank stages the film with the same stylish verve he brought to his earlier work – his early beginnings as a micro-budget filmmaker undoubtedly helped make Land Of Bad look far more expensive than its sub-$20m price tag might suggest.

Ahead of Land Of Bad’s UK cinema release, we caught up with Eubank over Zoom to talk about the film’s making and lots more besides. Here you’ll find out how some of its key scenes were shot next to a horse racing track, what his neighbours thought about staging a battle sequence on their farmland all those years ago, and his thoughts on Gareth Edwards’ The Creator.

Congratulations on the film. It’s really fun. I wasn’t expecting it to be as funny as it is.

Yeah, yeah. I like funny stuff. I’m always trying to plug some humour in. When you’re doing an action movie, you have to check yourself a few times: “Is this funny, is this gonna work in the context of the scene?” But thanks – I’m glad you dug it. Russell [Crowe] is a hoot in it.

Oh yeah. He’s fantastic. How key was he to getting the film greenlit? Would it have been made without him, do you think?

It definitely would have been harder, that’s for sure. Maybe there’s a world where other actors would have greenlit it. I had a relationship with him, so it was something I could reach out with, and I knew he’d be perfect to do it. And then once we did get him and he said, “If you can pull it all together, I’m in,” that obviously just sort of sends the ball rolling down the hill. And once you start to get the cast agreeing to do things, it really helps just push the darn thing forward.

As a filmmaker, you’re always working on five or six things at one time. And then it’s really about what project’s going to get some traction. And I think the moment [Crowe] agreed to do it was really our traction point on Land Of Bad.

One thing I really appreciate with the action scenes, which are terrific, is how you establish the geography. You take the time to establish where everybody is in relation to each other where the potential threats are going to come from.

I appreciate that. To tell you the truth, I learned… So first off, I’ll say a couple things. One: on Land Of Bad, the geography was incredibly difficult. We had many, many all-day meetings about the geography surrounding the dam area, because we unfortunately only had one cliff face, but I made it seem like the cliff face wrapped around. That was incredibly complex to pull off, especially with how the lighting was. When we were setting up the positions where the actors are going to be, I had to put these huge, huge hoists out on the fabricated cliff position for the [actors]. There were a lot of complexities to that.

Now, the reason I put so much effort into that specifically was, I ran into a huge problem on an earlier movie I did called Underwater, where, as they were moving through the darkness, and the characters were trying to get their way to this other station for safety, it was so dark, you couldn’t tell where you were, and you really had no geography or understanding of what was happening.

I learned from that movie that, if you can’t orient the audience, even on the most basic level, then it’s very difficult to know when or where or how you should be afraid. It’s almost like you feel lost, both geography-wise but also tension-wise. So in that movie, I had to add pillars. I digitally added them later, which said, ‘we’re at pillar 10. And when we get to one, we’re gonna be there’. So that way, you had some geography to keep track of as you went along. So I’m really big on that blocking and geography. Sorry for the long answer, but it’s important.

Russell Crowe in Land Of Bad. Credit: Signature Entertainment.

No, that’s really interesting. I love the use of slow motion as well. I wonder if your work at Panavision gave you grounding with that?

Yeah. I was there at a very fortunate time for my work. Going back to even my early early commercial stuff, I was using the very earliest, slow motion cameras that were available. Before the Phantom existed, there was a medical camera called a Weinberger. And I was using that, in the early days when people were still using Photo-Sonics.

So I came up at a very fortunate time where I was completely digital at Panavision while everyone else wrote it off. There was a way for me to work my way up at Panavision by doing digital. And then lo and behold, [the industry] all went digital, so I was in a really good position. But yeah, I’ve always just loved seeing things in slow motion. Back in the day, you would have to shoot with Photo-Sonics and just hope you got something cool. Whereas when this new technology evolved, you could do a take and check it and see what it looks like, then do it again. That really was magic to me, and I’ve never stopped doing it.

Unfortunately, I have a psychological thriller next, and I’m really racking my brain. I’m like, ‘I always slide it in somewhere, but I’m not so sure on this one. This might be the first film in my entire career where I don’t do slow motion.’

Maybe it could be in the opening credit sequence or something?

Yeah, there you go!

The thing with this digital slow motion is the clarity: you can actually individual particles in that.

Absolutely. Yeah. I think it’s fun, because so much action today is really just shaky cameras… There’s two things: you can take a breath during a slow-motion shot, and really think about the context of what’s happening in that moment. You’re emotionally connected to it in a different way. But I also think it gives us a way to study the face of the character or understand the emotive moment better than doing it just fast and cutting and going on with it. So it’s always been a fun tool for me.

I guess so much of filmmaking tends to be about compressing time, but in slow motion you suddenly see a moment in time extended.

Yeah, you’re seeing something new, because you don’t see slow motion every day. So much of good filmmaking is where a filmmaker really shows you something fresh, something you haven’t seen in a while, and that’s why you wanted to watch a piece of cinema in the first place is to learn or see new, give your brain something to chew on – whether that’s a visual thing or a new idea or whatever. I think that’s why we want to watch movies, you know?

Liam Hemsworth (left) and Luke Hemsworth (right) in Land Of Bad. Credit: Signature Entertainment.

The fresh thing in [Land Of Bad], for me anyway, was its boots-on-the ground, JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller] operators. I’ve never seen that in a film before. I read that you scrapped an earlier draft of your script after you went and saw how they worked. I just wondered, what changed? And how hard is it as a writer to sort of let go and say, ‘right, we’re rewriting this.’

Oh, it’s pretty easy [to rewrite], once you see how wrong you are and how it works. If you’re doing something semi-realistic, it’s pretty easy to throw out what you realise is no good.

So that was pretty simple. I was seeing how the [JTAC] guys work together, what their relationships are, how they work under pressure, what the stories are. A lot of the stuff that we went to see were training missions. There were fake but big explosions going on around them to give some sense of being under fire. And working tactically, when things are going wrong. They have live jets really blowing stuff up. I mean, it was pretty chaotic, and seeing the chaos, and seeing how a JTAC is trying to basically be an air traffic controller while they’re hiding under a log or a rock… really, it’s just such a crazy job.

I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh’. And then what was also interesting was we were at Fort Irwin [training centre in the Mojave Desert]. So there’s a lot of interaction with different branches [of the military] – we were seeing how the JTAC was dealing with the Air Force versus dealing with Marine helicopters. And there were so many crazy details.

Read more: Land Of Bad review | War is as stylish as hell

For instance, a Marine Apache helicopter can clear himself hot; like, he doesn’t need to be told ‘you’re cleared hot, you’re okay to fire’. Whereas an Air Force person has to be cleared – they need to be told by the JTAC on the ground, ‘you can shoot’. And it’s funny, they told me that’s a blessing and a curse. Because sometimes, the Marines, they’ll just go in hot and start going crazy. And if you’ve not put the chess pieces together correctly, it can be really bad.

On the other hand, they said when you’re hiding, and don’t want to poke your head up, and shit has really hit the fan, it’s terrifying. And you’re just praying to get out of this alive. It’s really nice to hear the Marine on the other end of the line, because they’re just going crazy out there. And these [JTAC] guys would light up telling these stories. I was like, ‘oh my god, we have the script totally wrong. We gotta go back and redo this’. But it was a pretty cool experience in general.

I read that your budget on this was something like $20m or maybe less?

Yeah, yeah. It was pretty tight for some of the things we were trying to pull off.

It looks terrific on that budget. What was the process for maximising that?

There were so many crazy budget things that happened. Some of them just happened because it was busy in Australia at the time, so we didn’t have a soundstage to shoot on. So all those caves sets and all of the military facilities were built underneath these bleachers at a horse race track, which was painful, because then we had to shut down anytime there was going to be a horse race.

It’s just weird things that you normally wouldn’t have to deal with on a movie with a little bit more budget. But the biggest thing that we did was block shooting the Reaper section [with Russell Crowe] versus the jungle action section. That’s pretty much how you would do it [at any budget], because they’re just different settings. But what was so cool about the way we did it is, we shot all the action first. And we really had drones up in the air, getting all the footage all the time.

Then we had Liam [Hemsworth] come in and act in another room and [he and Russell Crowe] would be connected via headsets. But then Russell actually had [on his monitor] the things happening in front of him from the perspective of the drone that we shot. And maybe there’d be a camera crew on it or something, but he was able to still see exactly what was happening. And even crazier, somehow our art department – I have to give them credit for this – built it so he could use his joystick and really zoom in and zoom out. Basically almost fly within the context of the shot. He could fly around, zoom in on stuff. And that was pretty incredible. It really gave everything a lot more realism.

Intense action in Land Of Bad. Credit: Signature Entertainment.

Do you think this is the way that more filmmakers should be going? For example, another film that springs to mind, although very different from yours, is Gareth Edwards’ The Creator

Oh, yeah. What an incredible feat that was, just pulling that off with that little camera and whatnot.

Yeah. Just from a technical standpoint, it’s fantastic.

I actually own that camera now, and I shot all the inserts for this movie with that camera. It’s the FX3 – I believe that’s it.

Yeah. I remember because he talked about that a lot in interviews.

Pretty darn cool.

But do you think Hollywood should adopt his and your approach more widely? That fluid approach to making a film?

No. The reason I think Gareth is able to pull that off is he has such a background… if you go all the way back to Monsters, he has such an incredible background in VFX, and knowing what he can gather practically and then how he can manipulate that shot with just a couple of [changes]. A lot of directors probably don’t come from that background, or they’re more story-centric, and they’re not quite as visually enhanced as Gareth’s brain is. He just knows how to do it.

You know, I think I’m partially in that direction. But I don’t quite have the toolbox that he does in that regard. But I do have a bunch of those tools. When it comes to 3D modelling and matte painting, and things like that, I can understand the scope of the work. But Gareth really is… he’s a talented dude, that’s for sure.

You’ve also come from a very hands-on filmmaking background, though. I remember when Love came out…

Oh, yeah. That’s cool. A lot of people don’t know of that one.

No, no, it’s fantastic. I remember getting the disc through the post.

You know, it’s funny as Gunner [Wright] from that film, he’s coming up this week. We just moved out of LA, just a little ways. And Gunner is coming up to stay with us this weekend, just to have fun and have a barbecue and whatnot.

Well, he’s in this film [Land Of Bad], actually, he plays one of the drone operators at the end, and initially I actually named him Lee Miller [the name of his character in Love]. But then I decided, like, I gotta change that. So I gave Lee Miller [the name] to somebody else in the movie. I figured I can’t always name Gunner Lee Miller in every movie I do. It’s not very nice to him, really.

Gunner Wright in Love (2011). Credit: National CineMedia.

What are your memories of making that film [Love]? One of the enduring stories is, of course, you built a space station in your parents’ garden.

Oh, man, that was wild. But I’m glad I did it. I don’t think I’d have a film career if I hadn’t done that.

I think back about that time, and I’m like, ‘Man, I had so much energy’. I guess as you have kids, and you get older, you just lose your energy. The energy and the enthusiasm that propelled me to make that space station and shoot that movie in the backyard is mind-blowing to me now.

I take a little bit of it every time I do inserts, because in every movie, whether it’s Underwater, or this movie, every movie, I always end up doing the inserts just for speed. And you know, everyone’s always saying there’s not enough money to do them, so I just do them myself.

I try to always remember the kid who was building that space station and I’m like, ‘Okay, gotta keep going, Will, because the younger version of yourself would have run circles around you at this point. So just keep going.’

How long did that space station take to construct?

Oh my God, it was almost a year and a half. And it was almost two years in some regards, because there were some other little parts that I built. The Civil War [set] was on a neighbor’s [land]. My neighbours had a big ranch, and so we shot all that over there. They had a cattle ranch, and when I was building all the Civil War stuff, they’d always come riding up on their horses, and they’d have family in from out of town and they’d be like, “This is Will and he lives over there. And he’s building… well, we don’t really know what he’s building, but he’s shooting a movie over here.” And they’d get off their horses and come look at it all of a sudden, you know, like I was crazy.

I was thinking about what an adventure that was recently. Angels and Airwaves, Tom DeLonge’s band composed all the music for Love. One of the members of the band [David Kennedy, guitarist] launched James Coffee. He watched Land Of Bad and sent me a bunch of coffee. He was like. ‘It’s such a cool movie. I’m so glad you’re still doing movies’. They’re all great guys.

Your second film, The Signal – the story behind that’s pretty fascinating as well.

Yeah, that was another wild shoot. It was such a fun time with all those actors. They went on to do some great things: Olivia Cooke, Brenton Thwaites, Beau Knapp. They all went off and are still doing some amazing movies.

It’s funny. I watched it last weekend, because we had some family visiting. And they wanted to watch Land Of Bad again. But we’d just watched it, so I said, ‘Why don’t we watch The Signal? You’ve ever seen that one’.

I was like, ‘Oh, man’. You can see the younger version of yourself. It feels a little soft – there’s a sharpness in the mix that’s missing. And the edit is missing. When you’re younger, you don’t know exactly what you’re shooting for yet. So it’s not as poignant, but I was still blown away by seeing the younger ideas, but there were some things where I was like, ‘Oh, I wish I could re-edit that and make it a little more specific.’ but it was still fun to watch.

Laurence Fishburne in The Signal (2014). Credit: Focus Features.

When I first watched it, I didn’t know how tight the budget was.

It was an unbelievably tight budget. That’s why anytime a line producer tries to tell me, ‘oh, we can’t afford to do that’ I’m like, ‘I was in a freaking helicopter bombing across the Taos Gorge Bridge, shooting a big rig trying to not totally flip over. Trust me: if we could do that for $10,000, we can definitely do what I’m talking about in this movie. You just need to help me figure it out better.’

I’ve had that conversation with a lot of line producers. But Land Of Bad was written during The Signal – I don’t know if you knew that.

Yeah. I did read about that.

So watching The Signal again with the family visiting: it’s a PG-13 movie, but there’s some weird, creepy stuff in there. I was really like, ‘Oh my God, this movie’. A couple interesting things. It was edited by Brian Berdan – a terrific editor who cut Natural Born Killers. His first movie was Blue Velvet with David Lynch. He did a number of others as well – he did a bunch of Twin Peaks. So it was very interesting watching The Signal compared to what I create now with Todd Miller, who cuts my stuff. He’s born out of the Michael Bay world – he worked on The Rock and Con-Air, a lot of those 90s action thrillers. All the Transformers. Seeing the difference in style between the two different editors is really crazy.

When I was making The Signal, I remember I was driving home from shooting one of those scenes with Laurence Fishburne and the truck driver [Robert Longstreet]. He’s such an amazing actor, and it’s so creepy and weird. But I was like, ‘Oh my god, I gotta have another movie ready to go after this. Everyone’s gonna be, like, ‘What is he doing?’

Lin Shaye is so creepy in that movie. I’m like, ‘Man, I gotta have another movie ready to go, because this is too weird’.

That’s why we started writing Land Of Bad. We wanted more of a regular action thriller. And it was funny watching the movie the other night. I was like, whoa, this movie, even though it’s PG-13, it’s really creepy. Creepy in a David Lynchian way. At least those performances from Lin Shaye, and Robert Longstreet – they just brought a real level to that movie that’s just wild.

Looking at your filmography, it’s all original genre filmmaking, albeit with one exception. Is that important to you, to do original material? And I wondered what your early influences were in terms of science fiction or just genre stuff.

I’m a huge Ridley Scott fan. Anything Scott has ever done, he’s such a visual artist. And he has command over so many elements of his filmmaking. I’ve always been a huge fan. The breadth of his work is very, very wide. Probably because he started directing a little later, and was doing so many commercials before all that. Both Ridley and Tony Scott were huge influences on me.

Actually, Brian Berdan, who cut The Signal and part of Underwater also, he cut a lot of Tony Scott stuff – Man On Fire, Domino, all those really cutty, crazy films.

I love a lot of early Polanski stuff – I love Chinatown. I love Kubrick. I’m a big fan of a lot of movies that probably most people like. And so I’m constantly trying to keep making different things. With Paranormal Activity [Next Of Kin], which obviously wasn’t an original thing, it was such a fun way for me to explore a different medium, trying to tell a story with a little handheld camera. It was such a fun exercise.

So as a filmmaker, I want to constantly be doing new things, showing new things and exploring new genres and new ideas and then trying to put my spin on them.

Kristen Stewart in Underwater (2020). Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Am I right in thinking that The Epiphany is definitely your next film? I know you’ve got a lot of potential projects lined up.

It seems like it is, yeah. But you never know exactly how things are shaping up, but we’re finalising a lot of stuff right now. And of course, that movie is being produced by [Sylvester] Stallone. So we’re working on schedules and figuring out how this is all going to go, but yeah – hopefully. Fingers crossed that it’ll be the next film. Again, it’s a new genre for me.

Have you been working with Stallone quite closely, then, in the run up to that?

There so much work on a film like that. I mean, I’m not the writer, but there’s a lot of foundation and construction work that goes into things where you’re just setting the film up and getting all the pieces in place. So we’re loosely in that stage now. More to come soon!

Is that the secret, though, as a filmmaker, especially of original things, is to make sure you have plenty of projects in your back pocket and at different stages?

Oh, yeah. All the time. Because you never know what’s going to happen. I wish it was more certain than that. I’ll tell you this: what stinks about being a director is… it’s the coolest job in the world and I have pinched myself every day, I’m so happy and lucky to do what I do. But the problem is, you can’t be like a producer where you’ve got 12 things happening at once. Everyone you’re working with wants to feel like there’s only one thing on your mind. So you really do shut down – you go into total shutdown focus mode, once a film is going.

I don’t have one here, but that’s why I have these big books. Every one of my films has The Big Book. And that big book is the real director of the film, because that’s where all my ideas, all my blocking, all my boards, everything has gone into that book. And so by the time you’re actually directing the film, you’re really just going through the book and turning the pages…

I always tell my assistants on my movies, I’m like, ‘Don’t worry about me, just make sure this book gets home every day. You know, everything is in this book.’

So the book gets its own seat on a plane or something like that?

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

William Eubank, thank you very much.

Land Of Bad is out in UK cinemas on the 26th April.

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