That is the pure reason why I can’t watch horror. It’s because I do believe in everything I see. Except for the media!
If you recall, writer-director Eric Bress’s chain-reaction thriller The Butterfly Effect was a sleeper hit when it arrived in theaters in 2004. Exploring controversial existential themes, the film tapped into philosophy and quantum physics to awaken the imagination of the general public. At the core was Chaos Theory—a delicious contradiction—a science of predicting the behavior in inherently unpredictable systems. The film’s title card posited that a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia could result in a hurricane halfway across the world. Given their sheer numbers and the determination with which they flap their little wings, isn’t it extraordinary how rarely that actually happens?
Although different in a myriad more ways than they’re similar, Bress’s new feature Ghosts of War—only the filmmaker’s second time at the helm—flaunts the same cinematic and grandiose “what-if?” line of questioning. If you’ve ever wondered whether poltergeists or Nazis would make for the more formidable adversaries, Bress might be the first and last filmmaker to push them into the ring to fight it out and wow the crowd. And as far as hauntings and temporal displacements go, Ghosts of War is a horror film that feels aptly dislodged in time. It could easily have come out two decades prior, around the same time as The Butterfly Effect, when suspensers seemed obligated to reveal their structuring conceit in a last-minute, sometimes last-ditch, twist. The so-called “gotcha” thrillers that build towards a climax in which significant moments we’ve seen are played back to remind us in rapid montage so we can piece together the clever ways in which we’ve been had.
It’s 1944 and five Army grunts are assigned to hold down a palatial chateau in the French countryside and relieve a unit whose members wear the sleep-deprived and nerve-wracked faces of men who’ve spent several nights in a haunted house. Seeing as that is the case here, the men can’t leave fast enough. The comrades experience paranormal activity straightaway—signs that they’re in for a modern-day movie haunting, which they would recognize had they been born a few decades later. Lieutenant Chris Goodson (Brenton Thwaites) is leading the charge of men, one of whom speaks German, and whose spectacles and aversion to combat peg him as the group’s intellectual. And so, upon discovery, he thumbs through the Nazis’ journaled account of their torture of the family who once lived in the chateau. Meanwhile, our soldiers conjure up and spiral into conspiracies of their very own. In the end, the twist ending will render all of this meaningless.
Anthem reached out to Thwaites in Australia for an in-depth conversation.
Ghosts of War hits On Demand and Digital on July 17th, after it bowed on DirecTV on June 18th.
How have you been adjusting to life in Australia after COVID-19?
Things have actually taken a bit of a turn if you head down south. There’s a bit more outbreaks down in Victoria and New South Wales. But where I am in Queensland, it actually seems to be pretty controlled in comparison to the rest of the world. We’ve been really lucky, man. We’ve just been at home. It’s an opportunity to really connect with my kid and my partner. It’s an opportunity to train a little bit more and try to eat healthy, which of course I’m not doing very well with. I’m telling myself that I should do that. [laughs] But most of our job [as actors] is done at home. We can study movies and read books and prepare and keep our mind active at home.
I can relate to that, and isn’t technology awesome? Luckily, there are virtual press screenings now and we can just hop on a call like this, considering junkets have gone by the wayside. The World Health Organization projected just the other day that it’s “very unlikely” countries will eradicate the virus completely. For the worst hit parts in the world like America, The New York Times reported there won’t be a return to a sense of normalcy as we once knew it until Summer 2022. It’s confronting.
Look man, I can only feel for the people that have had it really bad and obviously a lot of people have had tragedies out of this, whether it’s health or economic or whatever. To be honest, I can’t really complain a lot because, you know, I’m at home. I’ve been away from my work traveling overseas. I’ve been on lockdown at home since this happened. Me and my family are safe. It’s been about trying to develop new skills. My partner is going back to university. She’s creating a lot of artwork and different kinds of things so that’s been good. I’ve had a chance to really spend a lot of time with my kid. It’s about trying to see the positive at this time at home, you know?
Your character is confronted with something quite different in Ghosts of War, but traumatic just the same. This movie is so nuts, Brenton. I had a lot of fun watching this.
Oh great, dude! That’s so fantastic. That’s the goal, you know? That’s the whole point.
Without spoiling anything, it’s a wild concept. How was this pitched to you?
I got the script and met with Eric Bress. As soon as I started talking with Eric I just thought, “Wow, this guy has seen every horror movie. He’s read every Stephen King book. He knows horror.” [laughs] But his approach was quite dramatic. It was from the mindset of drama—he’s a realism director. So he wasn’t really treating the movie like a horror film, although it was. He was treating it more like a World War II film and that really inspired me because I’d never really done that and, you know, I obviously wanted to jump into that world as much as anyone. I had my reservations about how superficial the horror could look like or could seem. But Eric’s determination to create a first act that really felt real and honest—the true history of World War II—and his specificity to do that was what originally made me take the movie.
I think it’s safe to say that we’re unlikely to see American soldiers in a shootout with Nazis in a haunted chateau in cinema anytime soon, if at all again, after this.
Was this your first time playing a soldier?
I’d dabbled, but this was the first time I played a soldier in a period setting. I’m trying to think back to all my past roles… I played a soldier in the Vietnam War in flashbacks before, but it was nothing as committed to creating the realism of a time in history. I’ve been up for a lot of war stories in the past. Obviously, World War II is a well-told time and we know a lot about it. But what I loved about this one are the subtleties of these characters from the get-go. It read on the page and I think it was successfully translated to the film that these guys have been traveling for months, if not years, away from their families. They’ve been psychologically and physically damaged from the reality of fighting in World War II. That seemed to me a great place to start the film. You felt weathered right from the get-go. You always wanted to see how the weight was lifted from their shoulders, right from the first five pages. I just thought if I could pull this off, then the audience will want to do that as well. They will have the curiosity and the intrigue about how these characters got to where they are and how they stumble out of that level of stress and anxiety and tiredness. I thought it would be interesting to them as well.
You guys filmed in Bulgaria, right? What can you tell me about this spooky chateau?
There were two elements to it. We shot the interiors on two separate sound stages in Sofia, Bulgaria, at Millennium Studios. One sound stage was for the downstairs and the second sound stage was for the upstairs. I have to say, it was brilliantly designed by Antonello Rubino who had the foresight and specificity to design the house around a few dream shots that Eric had in his mind from the get-go. He really wanted to create a sense of suspense with extended, moving long shots taking us through the house. The design allowed us to do that. So that’s the interior element to the house. The exterior was this amazing chateau, or mansion, that was a king’s house before Bulgaria became a democracy. Really, I’d never seen anything like it. As you’ve seen, it’s this ancient, imposing character in itself. It screams, “Do not enter.” [laughs] So they were really lucky in that.
How superstitious are you in real life, Brenton? I’m just wondering—when you go off and do a movie like this where there are supernatural elements, does it come off to you as totally fantastical or do you maybe believe in that kind of stuff? I’m talking about ghosts and spirits and whathaveyou.
Oh man, you actually just taught me something about myself. That is the pure reason why I can’t watch horror. It’s because I do believe in everything I see. Except for the media! I do believe, man. I have a level of openness in my head that is willing to believe in any kind of film. I do lend myself to being a little bit too vulnerable and open to some movies because, obviously, some of it’s supernatural and you believe in what you call are ghosts. There is a level of belief that is with me when I watch these films, even when I watch Oculus, after living with the technicalities on set. The stress we’re in and the anxiety of making a movie doesn’t take away from the fact that I get scared shitless when I watch it. [laughs]
If I can take you back—the first time you made a huge impression on me was in Son of a Gun. I remember this distinctly because, at the press screening in New York City, a film critic leaned over during the credits, asking, “Who is that guy?” You know right away when someone has star quality.
Thank you, thank you. I’ll take that compliment.
I think that movie is so underrated. Do you have fond memories of making it?
Oh man, the best. I have the best memories making that film. Yeah man, I only have fond memories. We shot in Western Australia. Obviously, my costar was Ewan McGregor, who is just the sweetest man in the world. He really put me under his wing for that movie for the entirety of the preparation and production, the press junkets. He was really a great mentor for the shooting of that film. It just kind of cemented the bond that I would end up having with becoming an actor. I had a wonderful experience.
That was one of A24’s earlier movies. Wasn’t that a big year for you? I also remember Alicia Vikander telling me that she got the part in Ex Machina while making Son of a Gun. It seemed like you both were hitting the big time then. It was a moment.
Oh man, well, I’d say she was hitting the big time. She became a massive star. It’s kind of crazy to see that and to have worked with her. I’m super happy and proud of her winning an Oscar, and doing such great work. We were both in this zone of getting offers. I was in an element of my career where I was getting the movies that I wanted to do, you know? I booked a movie called The Signal while I was on Son of a Gun. I remember having a FaceTime with Will Eubank, the director, and he just said, “Let’s go make this movie.” There was really nothing to it and that was that. I remember thinking, “Wow, this movie is for no money. It’s super low-budget.” At the time, I had a few different options to do and it was a risky choice. But to be honest, I just jumped at it because I loved the script and I loved Will Eubank. I was auditioning for things like The Fault in Our Stars and The Maze Runner and different kinds of movies at the time that they were casting. That’s just part of my journey, man. You get some. You make a decision. You go towards a movie that will dictate the next movie, which will dictate the next movie, the next movie, the next movie… So that time was great. I have nothing but fondness of that time. I was reading great material and I was meeting fantastic directors. That led to obviously The Signal, which led to The Giver, which led to Pirates [of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales], which led to all these different kinds of opportunities. It was a really great steppingstone in my career, Son of a Gun.
Brenton, you don’t age, do you? Jesus Christ. You made a pact with the devil.
[laughs] You should see me now, man. I look like Kung Fu Panda. My eyes are just black. I feel like I haven’t slept since Ghosts of War.
How do you think looking young can determine what’s offered to you in the way of roles? I imagine there are pros and cons, depending on what you’re going up for. Maybe you look too young for certain parts, but at the same time, you don’t really age out of roles either.
Yeah, that’s a good question! It’s something I talk to my team about all the time. I guess it really is up to the material, you know? This is an example of it working in my favor, I guess, or the director kind of adjusting a little for me. But I did a movie called An Interview with God, which was a drama about this guy who, basically, his marriage breaks up, he loses faith in the world, and wants to run away and leave his wife. The character at the beginning of the movie was returning from the Afghanistan War as a reporter. He was written for about 35, I think, or early to mid-30s. I really responded to the material so I met with the writer and the director. I just said, “Maybe he can be mid-20s. I have a daughter. I haven’t slept in three months so I can probably pull this off!” [laughs] And they believed me. It’s one of my proudest movies because they trusted me and they let me take that risk. I don’t know if I’d be able to play high school anymore. By the same token, I don’t know if I could play like mid to late-30s action hero. But there is a certain gap in there for young men that are learning to be the man that they’re going to become for the rest of their lives, you know? So that development stage of becoming a man in whatever way is really my wheelhouse. There are a few opportunities in that zone. As you said, some movies require the character to have been battle-hardened by war or to have been in college for 20 years or to have had a life already before they experienced the movie—and sometimes I look too young.
All that aside, you can’t underestimate talent, which you clearly have. You’re very gifted.
Oh thanks, man.