“Allied is absolutely a story of betrayal and that’s the universal theme of this film: how we react when we start to think someone we love isn’t who they say they are.”
From Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis, the innovative director behind Forrest Gump, Cast Away and Flight, comes Allied, at once a mesmerizing espionage thriller, sweeping war drama and passionate romance between two assassins who may be fated soulmates or deadly enemies – or both.
In a sumptuous, visually evocative production that roams from Casablanca to London’s Blitz days to German-occupied France, Zemeckis creates the kind of grand tale that flourished in Golden Hollywood – full of mystery, thrills and romantic heat – yet told with all the richly immersive power of 21st Century cinema.
For secret World War II operatives Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), the key to survival is never being truly known by anyone. They are experts in deception, play-acting, second-guessing and assassination. When they accidentally fall for each other in the middle of an extraordinarily risky mission, their one hope is to leave all the double-dealing behind – but instead, suspicion and danger become the core of their wartime marriage as husband-and-wife are pitted against each other in an escalating, potentially lethal test of loyalty, identity and love…with global consequences.
Max Vatan has been trained by the British SOE to be intrepid, coldly focused and silently deadly. He knows exactly how much to show of himself and what to omit. He can leave behind his Canadian upbringing at a moment’s notice and assume any identity. And yet, nothing in his training prepares him for what he goes through when he meets the woman known as Marianne Beauséjour in Casablanca. They are supposed to be a temporary, pretend couple – but even though Max’s cautious head tells him not to get involved, his heart cannot help but be magnetized to Marianne, with her vivacious wit and probing questions. As they turn, against all odds, from make-believe couple to real one, the line between their false identities and the real truth threatens them more than any mission they have yet survived.
Some true stories you hear once and can never forget.
That was the case when screenwriter Steven Knight – an Oscar® nominee for Stephen Frears’ London thriller Dirty Pretty Things and honored for the screenplays for David Cronenberg’s Russian Mafia tale Eastern Promises as well as writing and directing the daring one-man drama Locke – heard the story of two undercover WWII spies who fell madly in love only to be set mortally against each other when their true identities were exposed.
They say all is fair in love and war, but when the two combine in the most volatile of ways, the moral certainties of the world can quickly spin out of control.
The story that instantly obsessed Knight centered on a Canadian spy and a French school teacher turned resistance fighter who met on assignment, then defiantly decided to marry, a practice that was discouraged by intelligence agencies. Still it seemed a happy ending – until abruptly, one was outed as a double-agent providing vital intel to the enemy, putting their love and their lives in imminent danger.
Sudden romances were known to spark among some World War II operatives working in life-and-death situations at close quarters, especially since men and women often posed undercover as couples. But there was a daunting rule – the so-called “Intimate Betrayal Rule” — that hung over them: should two agents marry and should one discover their partner divulging secrets to the other side, that agent was expected, in heartbreaking self-sacrifice, to execute his or her lover without delay … or face immediate hanging for high treason.
The idea of lovers facing the ultimate dilemma between the shatterproof promises of marriage and their profound loyalty to country in a must-win war for the world’s future fascinated Knight and became the jumping off-point for a script that soon was drawing lots of attention.
Knight re-envisioned the story to center on a particularly hard-nosed and proficient assassin, Max Vatan, who is not the type to let flirtation cloud his thinking. He made Max a member of the legendary, highly-trained British Special Operations Executive (SOE) – the top-secret intelligence agency that was ordered by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze,” and did exactly that, collaborating with the French Resistance in a series of audacious sabotage missions and assassination attempts behind Nazi lines.
Then, Knight created the alluring, enigmatic woman even Max could not resist with the French resistance fighter Marianne, who is every bit as smart, skilled and tough as he is – yet might not be what she seems. The mistake people make in such situations is feeling, says Marianne, but neither can turn off their longing for the other. From the start, Max and Marianne are constantly testing and teasing one another in playful ways – but that play becomes deadly serious when Max is forced to shadow his beloved wife to answer the most unthinkable question: could she truly be a traitor?
The snowballing intensity, shifting trust and sheer danger between the two, unraveling across several war-torn countries, made for a read that was as sensuous as it was relentlessly suspenseful.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an epic wartime thriller and grand, tragic love story like this,” says producer Graham King, who knew as soon as he met with Knight about the script concept that he wanted to make the film. “It’s the kind of rich storytelling on an ambitious scale we rarely experience anymore and it’s also very relevant to today’s world. It’s about what war and divisions can do to the beauty of love.”
A Visual Innovator’s Pov On WWII: Bob Zemeckis Takes The Helm
Producer Steve Starkey hopes the film gives audiences a chance to experience the kind of sweeping narratives that that have themselves been swept aside in an era when most films are either huge fantasy blockbusters or small-scale dramas. By harking back to the vaster dramatic canvases of Golden Age filmmaking, he sees Zemeckis bringing modern immediacy to the sprawling suspense epic.
“For people not raised on the 1940s style of movies, they’ve likely never seen this kind of picture, one that offers a big, visual spectacle and excitement but also profound human emotions,” says Starkey. “The film was made in the most modern, technological way which makes for intense action. But Brad and Marion also embody the kind of grand movie romance we haven’t seen in a long time.”
As Zemeckis’s first foray into WWII territory, executive producer Patrick McCormick notes that the film heads in a different, more psychologically thrilling, direction than the battles that have long been a cinematic staple. After all, the danger for Max and Marianne goes beyond the gunfire of their missions and the bombs showering London; they also face a more insidious peril: the hidden truth.
“Though the film is set against the stunning backdrop of World War II’s different warfronts, Allied is a story of double lives, one that is incredibly compelling on a human level,” McCormick observes. “What’s so exciting is that in every scene in this story, the two main characters of Max and Marianne are operating on two different levels – what you see and what you don’t — and their every action resonates with unspoken secrets. That makes for a powerful and unique subtext to both the thriller elements and the love story, because there is a boiling cauldron of suspicion coming to a head beneath them just as the war is building to its climax.”
Producer Graham King knew he needed a director who could bring a dynamic, contemporary sensibility to an expansive Golden Hollywood scope of storytelling running the gamut from espionage and assassinations to seduction, betrayal, fear, courage and unbreakable love. Ironically enough, that director ultimately came to him. “Bob Zemeckis walked into my office one day and said ‘I love this Steve Knight script and I want to direct it.’ I had never even met him before, but I was a big fan of his work,” recalls King. “I learned later that Bob has long had a desire to make a World War II film.”
Continues King: “Having Bob come aboard was absolutely essential to making the film the way it was made. It’s the reason the film looks the way it does and also a big part of the reason we were able to cast Brad and Marion. Bob may be known as a technical genius but he’s also very character-driven. It’s so rare to find both in the same person and that is exactly what this story needed.”
Steve Starkey, who has been working with Zemeckis since the pioneering animation-live-action-hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit, believes no current filmmaker could be a better fit for Allied. “If you have a story you want told on a grand scale, then you have to think of Bob,” he notes. “He is a filmmaker who loves to tell a big story. He is always willing to hang it all out there and take huge creative risks.”
Zemeckis’s long and varied career has been marked by both visual innovations and cultural influence, with films ranging from the seminal Back To The Future series to the comic special-effects fantasy Death Becomes Her to the historical adventures of Forrest Gump to the recent The Walk, which recreated the extraordinary tightrope journey between New York’s former World Trade Center towers. But Zemeckis has equally been associated with films that are about the raw power of storytelling as in Cast Away, the story of one shipwrecked man reckoning with his life, or Flight, which excavated a heroic pilot’s inner battle with alcoholism.
And yet, for all the wide span of stories Zemeckis has explored, he’d yet to tackle the genre of the period romance. Nor had he brought his visual style to the evocative landscapes of WWII — and both called to him as a filmmaker. He was drawn to Allied at once as an absorbing mystery, a web of deception, a fresh look at survival in WWII and a love story of unusual depth and power that becomes about lasting honor. Above all, he saw a film full of visual potential that could match the story’s themes.
Says Zemeckis: “The screenplay had a sweeping, epic, romantic feel. The thing I most love to do as a director is to move audiences — and when you have a story as powerful as this one, and with so many emotional twists and turns, you have immense opportunities to do that. This type of story is perfect for a filmmaker like myself because I like to make audiences really feel and use all the tools as my disposal to do that.”
Zemeckis saw the story as one that asks questions we all ask of loved ones – Do I really know you? Can I trust you completely? Will you betray me? How far would you go to save what we have? — but these same questions take on a deadly, mounting ferocity within the high-wire world of WWII spies.
“Allied is absolutely a story of betrayal and that’s the universal theme of this film: how we react when we start to think someone we love isn’t who they say they are,” Zemeckis comments. “It’s something that happens in life, but in the realm of Max and Marianne, you have two people already pretending to be someone else from the get-go and the truth is elusive to them. So how do you establish trust? And how can you even talk to your loved one if you believe the enemy is listening in on you?”
As soon as he read the script, Zemeckis had a driving vision for the film’s style – capturing not just the devastation of WWII but equally the exuberant, fervent life of people intoxicated by the sheer wonder of survival. He re-creates with the verve of 21st Century style the tense but glossy glamour of occupied Casablanca; the austere, windswept beauty of the Moroccan desert; the shadowy corridors of the SOE’s Baker Street offices; the powder keg of Dieppe, France where a failed Allied raid left behind a Nazi occupation and struggling French resistance; and the shattered but boldly defiant London of the Blitz.
“I especially loved how the screenplay really evoked the feeling of war-torn London,” Zemeckis says. “London was being bombed nightly but despite that, the people carried on with the life of the city. That was even their slogan: carry on. So that was something I wanted to capture in this: a world where the machinery of war is always there in the background – and sometimes in the foreground – yet people are living with a kind of total abandon because they realize that life could end at any moment. There was a kind of fatalistic quality both to the way people behaved and the way that London looked in that time. That really interested me – and that’s what I wanted to created both in the atmosphere of the film and its design. It’s a world where people are trying to defy death at every turn, including Max and Marianne, whose love develops in danger and cannot escape it even when they marry.”