Screening on-demand, Alexandre Moors ‘The Yellow Birds’ looks at the harsh reality of war.
Alexandre Moors The Yellow Birds is not a Hollywood-type look at war, it’s a harsh real look questioning the purpose of war and giving a new meaning to “War is hell.” From insisting on location shooting, rather than filming in America to the long casting process, Moors talks about how his adaptation of The Yellow Birds purposely was edited to emotionally punch the viewer.
Read our chat below:
How were you first introduced to The Yellow Birds?
I was first introduced to it by the producers Jeffrey Sharp and Evan Hayes when they optioned the book by Kevin Powell. They were looking for directors and they reached out to me.
Ultimately, David Lowery wrote the first draft of the screenplay. I was brought on to direct it and felt so blessed. From day one, it was such unique material.
What was it that made you want to tell this story as you were hearing about it?
It was quite a natural progression topically from my last film, Blue Caprice. That was a film about how young children are taught violence and the effect it has on them. In a similar way, Blue Caprice was a critique of the appetite America has for violence and its legacy. It was so coherent for me to do something like that.
This film is a take we no longer see in war films. Most war films are designed for a specific audience. There is a horrible trend nowadays where they tend to pick heroic episodes, it’s about the guy who saves his platoon. The trend is to have people cheer for what’s going on.
So, I was thrilled to read a story where it opens itself to more allegory. The film is not only, something where we question the purpose of war and what it does to the young men sent there. It is also a film that opens up the way we talk about those things.
The big inspiration for me was Apocalypse Now and everyone still holds that as an iconic film of the Vietnam War, even though it’s a burlesque of poetry and a satire. I was happy to embrace that and deal with a film that looks at dreams and analogy.
I loved that it wasn’t a gratuitous film for a war movie. Your use of violence when you did show it was effective.
One way battle scenes are conducted in war films is that we make them purposely pointless. There’s no plan or stakes. The soldiers don’t know what they’re meant to do and when violence erupts, it comes randomly. In my opinion, one of the components that makes it disturbing or vivid is that there is no heroism behind it. It’s hard to make sense of the violence that strikes around you and that makes it even more disturbing and that for me is something you can feel on your skin.
You used Morocco as your location, can you talk about the scouting a bit?
Location scouting is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking and something I dedicate a lot of time to. There was initial talk about recreating Iraq in the USA and the first thing I said was that I wanted to go to a place and landscape where they were characters. I wanted to achieve that feeling of isolation. We took several trips to Morocco until we found something near Marrakesh that would fit the film and what we were looking for.
Talk about the editing and how you’re cutting between the war and what’s going on with the parents back home.
We spent almost a year in the editing room. I’m very involved in the editing aspect. The challenge, I think, because the narrative is non-linear, we realized there were endless possibilities as to how this film could be edited.
It took us a moment because we tried a linear version of the film. We also tried an even more deconstructed version than the final cut. We finally found a version where the viewer was left a little confused. Since the film touches on PTSD and the idea of war as a thing that is everlasting in America. We’ve been at war so long that people don’t even know when it started, or when it will end. Joe Klotz and I tried to convey the feeling of
“Have we been here before?” and “Is this later?” That whole confusion was a component of the story.
You have an incredible cast with Toni Collette, Jennifer Annison, Tye Sheridan. How did you pull your perfect cast together?
It’s a long process. Let me tell you that. It takes time and effort. When you’re casting, it takes time so you could end up losing the guy you cast a year ago by the time you’ve finished casting the last one.
Tye Sheridan was attached from day one. He was a strong supporter of the film having met the author and he carried it for a while.
Alden Ehrenreich was cast barely a month before we started shooting. There’s no perfect way to assemble the perfect cast. It’s really about assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
This is your follow up to Blue Caprice, how was this journey for you as a director?
It’s hard to make a second film that your feature debut. The bigger the film, the harder it is to make. Blue Caprice was a small indie film. It was about me gathering my friends and the people I knew and trust. All of a sudden when you’re making your second film after having some success with your first film because it suddenly takes longer to get the financing, the casting and I think it’s a different beast altogether.
There was a three-year gap from when I was first told about the book to when we shot and that’s a standard time. I found it nerve-wracking at times.