Making the new film, ‘Man Down,’ changed its writer and director

Making the new film, ‘Man Down,’ changed its writer and director

Kate Mara and Shia LaBeouf star in the new post-war thriller, 'Man Down.' (Lionsgate Premiere)

In the new film, Man Down, U.S. Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) returns home from his tour in Afghanistan and finds that the place he once called home is no better than the battlefields he fought on overseas. Accompanied by his best friend Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), a hardnosed Marine whose natural instinct is to shoot first and ask questions later, he searches desperately for the whereabouts of his estranged son, Johnathan (Charlie Shotwell), and wife, Natalie (Kate Mara). In their search, the two intercept Charles (Clifton Collins Jr.), a man carrying vital information about the whereabouts of Gabriel’s family. As we revisit the past, we are guided in unraveling the puzzle of Gabriel’s experience and what will eventually lead us to finding his family. The psychological suspense thriller also stars Gary Oldman.

Writer Adam Simon and director Dito Montiel recently spoke about bring this powerful story to the screen.

Adam Simon:

When I prepared to write Man Down, a lot of things were weighing on my mind. Fatherhood. Family. Desperation. The fact is, I was homeless at the time, sleeping in a Santa Monica, California parking garage bathroom behind the acting studio where I’d been studying. I’d been through a divorce and a bankruptcy. I’d lost everything. I was separated from my children and going through some heavy emotions, trying to figure out how I’d gotten to where I was, and what lay ahead. One of my instructors told me, “Take the anger, take the frustration, and tell that story.” So, I did, wrapping real, personal experiences into a fictional setting.

Sitting in that parking garage, staring at the notepad in front of me, I thought about my son. We’d spoken on the phone earlier that day, and it was devastating having to explain to him why I couldn’t be with him, why I couldn’t afford the drum lessons he wanted. “One day this will all be worth it, I promise,” I said. I wasn’t even sure I believed it myself.

But it became the driving force of the story I started writing: a father’s relentless pursuit to see his son. At the time, I had been taking notice of how many veterans I met on the street, men and women who’d given their all for their country only to be given the least in return. They were proud, but hurting. When the scandal surrounding the Veterans Administration broke, it became imperative that my struggle had to be theirs. I listened to veterans who talked about family betrayals, about a desire for their lives to go back to some form of personal normalcy. Out of those talks, and my own experiences, grew the character of Gabriel Drummer, a soldier living on the streets, penniless in a post-apocalyptic world, battling with his sanity, haunted by his memories, and struggling to be a father again. Gabriel would do anything to erase his past, start over, and just be a father and husband.

With that, Man Down came to life on the page. The finished script brought immediate interest. A producer optioned the script, and set up a meeting with Steve McEveety, John Shepherd and Patrick Hibler at Mpower Pictures. Quickly I realized the story had found its home. They spoke excitedly of their passion for the subject matter, and told me that Man Down would get the treatment it deserved. Endless discussions, meetings and rewrites followed. I worked odd jobs to get by, and stayed with friends while Mpower sought out actors and directors for the project. At times the process felt like a rollercoaster, but we were all in agreement that it would take a special group of artists – talented, driven, crazy artists – to jump on this project. Then I got the call I didn’t realize I’d been waiting for.

“Adam Simon, this is Dito Montiel,” the voice on my phone said. “Brother, I love this f***ing story and I am going to fight like hell to make something beautiful from it. Tell me everything.”

I had taken the Pacific Surfliner train down to visit my father, an Army Reservist and retired police officer, and suddenly this call came in from a director whose work I greatly admired, his gentle voice telling me he wanted to turn my script into a movie. That was an amazing conversation. We talked about our lives, relationships, and struggles. We spilled everything about what we thought of life and death, music and film. When Mpower had mentioned his name, I was excited. But now that we’d talked, that comfort that comes with knowing somebody got your story, and wanted to protect its integrity, was a big relief. He saw the soul of the film, that it lay in the story of a family just trying to survive a whirlwind of events beyond its control. A father, a mother, and a son, fighting to stay together amid a looming war at home, and abroad. Before that phone call, Dito had my respect. After that call, though, he had my trust. He was precisely the madman Mpower had been looking for.

Dito Montiel

Man Down is my sixth film in eight years, and certainly the most challenging in many ways. And yet believe it or not, that’s one of the reasons I couldn’t love it more. You don’t jump into a complex, much discussed topic like the psychological and physical horrors of war and expect it to be easy, but this one got under my skin as both a provocative scenario and an emotional journey. It’s earthy, real and honest and that’s how I like it.

Ever since we’d made A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006), Shia LaBeouf and I had been looking for the right thing to do together and we found it in Adam Simon’s powerful story about a father looking to preserve his family in a devastated world. With Man Down, we wanted to take the particulars of what soldiers go through and separate it from the stuff of news and headlines, from the sense that it happens to other people, and explore it realistically as an up-close-and-personal story that could happen on your home front. As Jai Courtney’s character Devin says, “The war is coming home.” There’s the battlefield over there and its expected violence, but we’re kidding ourselves if we can’t recognize how what happens before and after we send soldiers into battle isn’t just as important in dealing with the horrors of war.

It goes without saying that when you’re getting a screenplay like Man Down into shape, trying to get its intricacies and epiphanies just right, you start imagining your dream cast. Mine became a reality, and that never happens. The emotional map of Man Down is a tricky one, full of characters whose sensitivities hold secrets, but whose humanity is ever present, and with talented actors like Kate Mara, Gary Oldman, Jai Courtney and Clifton Collins on board, and Shia at the heart of it all, I could not have gotten luckier. When you see the film, you’ll understand why they were my dream team.

Although Man Down deals with a post-apocalyptic world, at its core, it’s an emotionally honest story of human beings in traumatic circumstances. Though we used visual effects, we kept them spare and shot everything on real locations, so our actors had all the tools they needed during filming to create a world that you could practically touch, instead of something out of a fantasy. In that regard, Man Down was an indie in every sense of the word. Between the 24-day shoot, our hard-working producers thinking on their feet, and a shooting ethos that meant running around with one camera and capturing whatever we found, this was down-and-dirty filmmaking to the core. I believe it’s what makes Man Down a truly in-the-moment story of war, home, and family.

Man Down is now playing in theaters.

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