On a cold, rainy morning in November 2013, director David Ayer was dealing with a temperamental star.
Actors Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal had all taken their places on the set, a farm in a sleepy town in the countryside west of London dressed to re-create Germany in April 1945. But the title character, a 70-year-old M4 Sherman tank named "Fury," had stalled in the mud.
"Mud is a design element in our movie," Ayer said, as a military consultant who had driven tanks recently in Afghanistan wrestled with the vintage vehicle, trying to get it started again.
The wet earth isn't just an aesthetic choice — Ayer's aim with "Fury," which arrives in theaters Friday, is to show that despite its "Good War" mythos, World War II sucked men down into the muck, particularly as exhausted Allied soldiers swept across Germany at the conflict's end.
"World War II was just as dirty and brutal as Vietnam, just as confusing," Ayer said. "The idea is to get inside of that mental experience, to understand the emotional life of the men. Who wants to be the last guy to die in a war?"
As the writer of the 2001 cop thriller "Training Day" and writer-director of another portrait of the LAPD, 2012's "End of Watch," Ayer, 46, has demonstrated a particular knack for telling stories of men under pressure.
On Thursday, Warner Bros. announced that Ayer would be directing a DC Comics property due in 2016 called "Suicide Squad," about a ragtag band of supervillains forced into heroism.
"Fury" moves the heroic tough guy trials into the claustrophobic space of a tank, as a five-man crew, led by Pitt's stoic but damaged noncommissioned officer, nicknamed "Wardaddy," takes on a dangerous and possibly futile mission. LaBeouf, Peña and Bernthal's characters have already forged a grimy, tightknit family under Wardaddy's command when Lerman's wide-eyed young newcomer, Norman, joins the group.
Though Ayer had fantasized about making a World War II tank movie for years and accumulated a trove of books and memorabilia, he wrote the script in one feverish month in January 2013.
The military is part of Ayer's DNA — his grandfather served in World War II, and Ayer himself worked on a nuclear submarine after joining the Navy at 18.
The appeal of the tank crews in particular is that "they were the tip of the tip of the spear" during World War II, Ayer said.
Bill Block, chief executive of independent film finance and production company QED, bought Ayer's script the night he read it in early 2013.
"I wanted a David Ayer movie," Block said. "Something thrilling, masculine, with a political scope to it and a true, heartfelt emotional finish. And I knew the character of Wardaddy would attract a major movie star."
Pitt, too, quickly came aboard "Fury," with a reported budget of around $80 million, and Sony signed on to distribute. By August of that year, Ayer had assembled his five leads in a warehouse at England's Pinewood Studios, where they engaged in training, including sparring sessions, to help them play a cohesive, physically close group of men.
"I went in there thinking we were gonna play nice," said Lerman of the sparring exercise, which Ayer participated in as well. "It all started with one punch from David where he hit Jon Bernthal in the face, and Jon was bleeding, and it was like, 'Oh, this is what we're doing.' Once you feel comfortable enough to punch someone in the face, I guess you can do anything with them."
That rough-and-tumble approach continued once the cameras started rolling — for a crucial early scene in which Wardaddy is trying to break Norman of his civilian sensibilities, Pitt punched Lerman in the face and smacked him with the butt of his gun.
"In order to be a good director for a movie like this, there's a real physicality to it," said producer John Lesher. "You can't just sit in your chair and yell 'action.' You have to really get in there. Although I can't think of another director who would punch his leading man in the face."
Occasionally the brutality of war got a bit too real over the 89-day shoot. A stuntman was accidentally bayoneted in the chest during one rehearsal (he's OK), and LaBeouf, an intense and sometimes wobbly character off-screen, slashed his own face, had a tooth removed and quit showering for the sake of realism.
And those are the just the stories that have filtered out from the private set.
"The key to David's process was for us to be completely unprepared for what was gonna happen next," Lerman said. "That he was going to take us places that were gonna challenge us, traumatize us, really push us to our limits. But some things happened that, well, maybe in 20 years when nobody's career can be affected, we'll talk about it."
Ayer's military and blue-collar background stand in contrast to many of his contemporaries — directors who had middle-class backgrounds and went to good colleges.
In person, he's a little guarded and hard to know. Born in Champaign, Ill., Ayer moved as a teenager to South-Central L.A., where he was one of few white kids in a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood. After leaving the Navy, he was working in construction for some screenwriters when he got the notion to start writing himself.
Ayer's wife is Mexican American, and one of the few things the director had to complain about while filming in England was that country's lack of tortillas.
"David has a very different worldview," Lesher said. "He writes about broken characters trying to find connection. He's a very loyal guy. He has this street, guarded quality, but there's a crackling wit under the surface."
Reviews for "Fury" have praised its portrayal of male intimacy and, in particular, Pitt's performance as the self-sacrificing, hard-to-know paternal figure, Wardaddy.
"On set, David was the dad," Lerman said. "We were all kind of brothers, Brad included. But David, we all sought out his approval, just like you would with your father."