“With Overlord, what you get is an incredibly fun, terrifying, weird, freaky, bizarre, sweet, and ultimately satisfying roller coaster ride”
“It all started with an incredible script that Billy Ray wrote,” says Overlord producer and Bad Robot founder J.J. Abrams.
“The thing I loved most about the premise was that it took a classic World War II movie and smashed it into a monster horror film. It’s a very unique concoction. The idea of those two genres coexisting felt like it could make for an incredibly intense and fun ride.”
Abrams says he was gripped by Ray’s story from the first page. “The opening sequence in particular reminded me of something that Rod Serling might have come up with. It was intense and funny and full of characters and action, and that was just the very beginning of the script.”
With only hours until D-Day, a team of American paratroopers drop into Nazi-occupied France to carry out a mission that’s crucial to the invasion’s success. Tasked with destroying a radio transmitter atop a fortified church, the desperate soldiers join forces with a young French villager to penetrate the walls and take down the tower. But, in a mysterious Nazi lab beneath the church, the outnumbered G.I.s come face-to-face with enemies unlike any the world has ever seen.
From producer J.J. Abrams, Overlord is a thrilling, pulse-pounding action adventure with a twist.
Directed by Australian filmmaker Julius Avery from a screenplay is by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips ) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) from a story by Billy Ray.
Bad Robot’s Jon Cohen, who served as executive producer on the film, was equally impressed by the dazzlingly fresh concept from Ray, an award-winning screenwriter and director whose copious writing credits include such blockbusters as Flightplan, The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips.
He also co-wrote The Hunger Games and State of Play. He is the writer/director of Shattered Glass, Breach and Secret in Their Eyes.
Ray also created and executive produced (with Christopher Keyser) the Amazon series “The Last Tycoon.” He served four terms on the WGA’s Board of Directors and is currently a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors.
The writer’s current projects include the recently wrapped Gemini Man, starring Will Smith and directed by Ang Lee, and an as-yet-unnamed Terminator film to be directed by Tim Miller.
“Overlord is a natural fit for Bad Robot because of its distinctive fusion of ideas,” says Cohen. “It’s a great character story and a thrilling World War II movie, but you’ll find humor in there, along with emotion and sentiment, and we always want that blend in our movies. Overlord felt like the perfect combination of that.”
Balancing different tones and genres to create a unique and satisfying hybrid is something Bad Robot specializes in, says Cohen, citing 10 Cloverfield Lane as a prime example.
The secret to creating that balance, says Abrams, can be summed up in one word: character. “One of the things we try to do at Bad Robot is tell stories that are as much about the characters as possible. The idea with Overlord was to spend the first half of the movie getting to know these young American soldiers, and then, little by little, take the audience into a terrifying genre movie where they care about and love the characters.”
Abrams believes this approach is especially important when dealing with creature features. “Not every movie we make has monsters in it, but films like Overlord are best when you believe in the situation, you believe in the characters, and you’re truly invested in their world. It’s much scarier that way.”
Perfecting the film’s shift from military adventure to sci-fi horror required going through numerous drafts, says Cohen. “Billy is a relentless writer and kept pushing to make the script better and better. The goal was to drop a few breadcrumbs along the way so that the change in genre doesn’t come out of left field. But at the same time, you don’t want to tip your hand too early about what’s really happening in the story.”
The intrinsically frightening nature of WWII combat helps smooth the transition, according to Abrams. “The horrors of war are already there in the story, so when you suddenly get thrown into the freakish fantasy material, it actually doesn’t feel like that much of a stretch.”
Cohen credits Abrams and Bad Robot producer Lindsey Weber with elevating the material. “J.J. and Lindsey were crucial to the film’s initial development,” he says. “They have great instincts about character, story, and structure, and J.J. constantly pushes for things that are unlike anything else out there. At every stage in the process he made Overlord better, which forces everyone else to raise their game as well.”
A Guiding Vision
While script development was still under way, the producers began searching for a director whose dynamic sensibility and flair for action would take Overlord to the next level. The Bad Robot team had been impressed by the crime thriller Son of a Gun, the auspicious 2014 directorial debut of Australian filmmaker Julius Avery.
“We thought it was fantastic and energetic, while also giving the audience a reason to care about the characters,” says Cohen. “We also liked that he came from more of the thriller side of filmmaking as opposed to pure horror, and would give Overlord the level of grittiness it needed.”
Julius Avery directed the feature Son of a Gun (2014), and also helmed the award-winning short film Jerrycan (2008), which won the Cannes Jury Prize and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. He also wrote the Palme d’Or nominee Yardbird (2012). Avery has received numerous other industry awards including Best Short Film at the Australian Film Institute Awards; Best Australian Short Film at Flickerfest; a Special Jury Mention at the Tribeca Film Festival; Best Direction in a Short Film at the Australian Directors Guild Awards; and Emerging Australian Filmmaker of the Year at the Melbourne International Film Festival. His work earned Honorable Mentions at the Sundance and Berlin international film festivals.
A longtime fan of Abrams and Bad Robot, Avery was invited to meet with the producers following a private screening of Son of a Gun. “They talked to me about what I wanted to do next and showed me some scripts they were excited about,” recalls Avery. “The one I instantly responded to was Overlord. It blew me away because I’d never read anything quite like it, and it felt so different from what I’d already done.”
Although the script’s intense action and originality are what first caught Avery’s attention, the director says he also shared a deeper connection to the material. One of his formative experiences as a boy was when his grandfather, a veteran of Australia’s participation in the Allies’ North African campaign during World War II, showed him photographs of his adventures. “He’d sit me down on his knee and show me these incredible pictures,” says Avery. “Ever since then, I dreamed of making a movie set during the war.”
According to Weber, Avery was exactly the type of director Bad Robot wanted to helm Overlord. “Julius is talented, opinionated in the best way, collaborative, and a real student of cinema and of character,” she says. “He also happened to have a fantastic vision for the film, so we knew that he should be the one to direct Overlord.”
Abrams was convinced Avery had the vision to create a grounded, believable world in which to set the fantastic elements that are revealed later in the story. “What I loved about Julius’s approach to Overlord is that he saw it as a classic men-on-a-mission movie that just happened to go to a really freakish and scary place,” says the producer. “He understood the feeling of what those opening reels needed to be in order to set the table for what comes next.”
The Bad Robot team’s belief in the director’s skill behind the camera paid off, says Cohen. “Julius lends a sense of energy and a dynamic cinematic nature to everything he shoots, which is exactly what you want on a movie like Overlord. He was passionate about the script from the get-go and had a great vision for guiding it there. He delivered in a very big way.”
A Pair of Brilliant Writers
After completing numerous drafts of the Overlord script, Ray moved on to writing and directing the series “The Last Tycoon,” which he also created. At that point, the filmmakers asked acclaimed screenwriter Mark L. Smith to work on Overlord’s final production draft.
Smith was fascinated by the film’s unique concept and quickly agreed to join the project. “The whole thing was set in such a cool universe, and I thought the mix of genres was great. I loved the idea of this incredibly screwed-up World War II adventure, where you think it’s a straightforward action flick until it becomes something else entirely. All the ground work was there; I just ran with it and had fun.”
Another major incentive for Smith to take on the assignment was the chance to partner with Abrams. “It’s amazing to collaborate with J.J. because his brain operates on a whole different level,” says the screenwriter. “He sees things that I’d never find on my own, and he’s got such a wonderful imagination. You can throw out one little nugget of an idea and he’ll give you a shotgun spray of great concepts. After that, it’s just a matter of choosing the best ones.”
Smith worked with Bad Robot to develop some additional characters and steer the film toward the ensemble piece it eventually became. “Billy Ray and Mark Smith are brilliant writers in many different genres, and we were lucky to work with both of them on Overlord,” says Abrams. “They got the script to a place where we felt like it was the movie we all wanted to see, which meant we didn’t have to reinvent it as we were shooting.”
For Smith, who co-wrote the harrowingly authentic adventure film “The Revenant” with Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, one of the goals in writing Overlord was capturing as many period-specific details as possible, particularly during the film’s first half. “Blending the real and the unreal is a little tricky because you want to stay true to the historic time period,” he explains. “I strived to be respectful of everything that was going on in 1944, but I also needed to mix in this whole fantastical element, which meant walking a fine line sometimes.”
In keeping with Bad Robot’s commitment to telling character-based stories, Smith spent time fleshing out the individual personas of each of the protagonists. “Action means nothing if you don’t have characters the audience cares about, so the first thing I did on Overlord was hone the voices of the soldiers,” says the screenwriter. “Once you develop strong relationships between them, you can drop them into any world, no matter how strange, and the story will hold up.”
Another of Smith’s contributions to the script involved ratcheting up the tension among the soldiers in the unit, who range from terrified inductees to war-weary veterans. “We start with this very diverse group of soldiers who are forced to work with each other,” he says. “It would’ve been easy to have them all get along and have fun, but we decided to kick things up a notch. That way there’s even more for them to be concerned with when the horror begins.”
After working closely with Avery to finalize the script, Smith has high praise for the director. “Early on, Julius walked me through his personal vision for the film,” he says. “He’s got such an amazing eye in terms of angles and images, and he catches things most other directors wouldn’t see. The guy just knows how to make each scene feel special. He and J.J. really got the best from each other on Overlord.”
Bad Robot has introduced audiences to some of the most memorable monsters of the last decade, including the rampaging behemoth in Cloverfield, the destructive alien in Super 8, and a menagerie of mutants on the TV series “Fringe.” But as fearsome as those beasts might be, Overlord contains arguably the most disturbing creatures Abrams and his crew of effects wizards have dreamed up yet.
“We had endless conversations about what they should look like,” Abrams says. “One of my favorite things in Overlord is this strange freak that hunts our heroes when they’re underground. It’s incredibly designed, beautifully performed, and utterly terrifying.”
The fact that this living nightmare was primarily created using practical special effects only adds to the horror, says Abrams. “This isn’t some creature we put in later using CG. It’s physical and real. That’s what I love about the threats in Overlord. Watching them come to life using a combination of prosthetics, performance and some CG work to enhance things was amazing.”
Prosthetics designer Tristan Versluis worked closely with Avery to achieve exactly the look the director was envisioning. “We spent weeks talking about the creatures in the film and did a lot of different designs to nail down the right image,” Versluis says. “Our visual references were all over the place: We talked about transparent skin and muscles on top of exposed muscle. We considered how bones can break and re-form. We went everywhere for inspiration, including a lot of real-life medical conditions and a variety of animals.”
In one particular instance, Avery brought in a curious object for inspiration. “The script described this one character’s appearance as rotting from the inside, so the skin needed to be dark and bubbled,” Versluis explains. “Julius actually went out one day and came back with this strange sort of black mushroom, or fungus, stuck to a branch. It was matte black and all blobby and gross. He handed it to me and said, ‘I want it to look like this!’ So we used that mushroom as a reference for organic bubbling skin, and ran a few tests to see how the lighting picked it up.”
As Overlord prepares to invade theaters around the world, Abrams couldn’t be more excited to thrill a whole new generation of moviegoers. “With Overlord, what you get is an incredibly fun, terrifying, weird, freaky, bizarre, sweet, and ultimately satisfying roller coaster ride,” he says. “I always knew, in the right hands, it could be really special, and Julius Avery has done an incredible job with it.”
Cohen agrees. “It’s a thrilling experience where you’ll be deeply invested in these characters and their survival. It keeps you riveted in your seat, and it’s the kind of movie that takes you somewhere you haven’t been before.”
Despite the story’s horrific elements, Smith expects audiences will be pleasantly surprised to discover how funny the film actually is. “Beyond the action and terror, there’s a lot of laughter in Overlord as well,” says the screenwriter. “We built humor into a very suspenseful situation, which helps ease some of the tension when you need a break to catch your breath.”
For viewers concerned they might find the mayhem, monsters and mad science in Overlord too disturbing, Avery has a helpful message: “Anyone who’s scared by the imagery should stick with the movie all the way until the very end, because I guarantee they’ll come out with a big smile on their face.”