The Yellow Birds director Alexandre Moors on Kevin Powers' novel adapted by David Lowery and RFI Porto: "The book is beautiful. A beautiful piece of English literature." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The Yellow Birds, shot by Sundance award-winner Daniel Landin (Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin) and edited by Joe Klotz (The Paperboy, Lee Daniels' The Butler) with a a terrific score by Adam Wiltzie (Francis Lee's God's Own Country, Garth Davis's Lion), stars Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan with Jack Huston, Jennifer Aniston (also an executive producer), Toni Collette, Jason Patric, Lee Tergesen, and Nikolai Kinski.
Alexandre Moors joined me for a conversation on his second feature (after Blue Caprice with Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond). The first time I heard about Kevin Powers' novel The Yellow Birds was from the director of Augustine, Alice Winocour when she was in New York for her film Disorder (Maryland) during Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in 2016. Matthias Schoenaerts played Vincent, a soldier returning from Afghanistan who suffers from PTSD.
Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) with Maureen Murphy (Jennifer Aniston) and her son Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) at Fort Dix
Alexandre spoke with me about Ann Roth dressing Aniston and Collette, the evolution of the new cut of his film since its world premiere at Sundance last year, Story Mining & Supply's Jeffrey Sharp's role in getting David Lowery involved, the connection to the performances of Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond in Blue Caprice, what broke sound designer Tom Paul's heart, how Jason Patric created Captain Anderson, and using the novel as a starting point to expand the territory of war films.
A river is more than a river. A missed chance to dance can have a devastating effect. Time can stand still frozen or speed up when survival seems to be governed by fickle chance. Alexandre Moors' The Yellow Birds, screenplay by RFI Porto and David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) is an emotionally taut story of two young soldiers, Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan), whose lives unravel right before our eyes.
The camera sways from one unstable reality into another. US Army Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston), a man who tattooed the names of fallen men on his back and enacts rituals on the battlefield, offers curious protection for his two charges. The casualties of war are not only those who serve, as shown through the mothers of the raw recruits.
Murphy (Tye Sheridan) with Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston) and Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich)
Jennifer Aniston plays a very hopeful and concerned Maureen Murphy (a 21st century Doris Day). She and her husband Jim (Lee Tergesen) attend the send-off dinner for their son Daniel before he is being deployed to Iraq. They meet Brandon Bartle there and Maureen quickly appoints him to be her surrogate and to look out for her son. He promises her more than he can keep.
Toni Collette is Amy Bartle, Brandon's mother. She has a rocky relationship with her boy. She is discouraged by him when she wants to come to the army base in a very tense phone call exchange where she appears to have already lost him.
“I would prefer not to,” says Bartleby, the scrivener in Melville’s short story. His truncated namesake, suffering from PTSD and carrying a heavy secret, could second the sentiment. Trying to make order of the disjointed fragments of his life has become impossible. Alden Ehrenreich’s performance is remarkably un-soldier-like - and that makes perfect sense in the context of what the film is telling us about soldiers and children, growing up and dying, foreign lands and the war on the home front.
The Yellow Birds has been edited from a runtime of 116 minutes to 94 minutes for its theatrical release in the US.
Alexandre Moors on David Lowery: "What happened is Story Mining's Jeffrey Sharp asked him to write the screenplay. At that moment he was supposed to direct the film and then he took a different engagement [Pete's Dragon]." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Anne-Katrin Titze: The version coming out now is not the same as the one that was at Sundance last year.
Alexandre Moors: No, it’s much shorter.
AKT: It’s re-edited? I love the first quote from the novel.
AM: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.”
AKT: “And the summer.” Very powerful. Was that always at the beginning or is that new?
AM: Those lines were always the beginning. But the visuals underneath were not. I changed the opening. Now it opens on the moody melancholic shots of the river flowing. Giving us a prescient of what’s going to happen.
AKT: You notice it but it doesn’t have the full meaning yet. Only at the very end we come full circle. Also the scene with the dance gets a completely new meaning later on.
AM: The new cut really re-centered the story around Bartle. I think the film was to gain a lot by being simpler. The Kevin Powers novel actually is very thin. It’s like 100 pages the most and it’s a poetic wandering of the mind. It has a lot of automatic prose almost. And it’s very light in hard narration, in drama.
So it wasn’t necessarily to the best advantage to pile up on the drama. And have the thing being too circumvent or long, the way we had it in Sundance. It gained much more power by being a bit more minimal and simple.
Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan
AKT: Powers has a new book out [A Shout in the Ruins], doesn’t he? About the Civil War?
AM: Yeah. I haven’t read it.
AKT: I haven’t either, yet. The first person who brought up The Yellow Birds book to me was Alice Winocour, the director of Augustine, when we discussed her film Disorder which also talks of PTSD. The image that first comes to your mind when you hear the title Yellow Birds is not that of war.
AM: The book is beautiful. A beautiful piece of English literature.
AKT: And your connection to David Lowery?
AM: David Lowery is a friend. But what happened is Story Mining's Jeffrey Sharp asked him to write the screenplay. At that moment he was supposed to direct the film and then he took a different engagement. And Jeffrey who had mentioned it to me years before called me back and asked if I would still be interested in directing it. And then we wrote a new version of the script.
Toni Collette is Amy Bartle, Brandon's mother: "But there's no more dad, no more guide. The oldest character [Sergeant Sterling] is Jack Huston who is like 25."
AM: No, I wrote it with RFI Porto, who is my friend and screenwriter.
AKT: You wrote Blue Caprice with him.
AM: Yeah and many more.
AKT: The sniper idea is something that connects the two films very strongly. I thought about Blue Caprice at the moment when the car approaches. I thought, I know this. And then I realised, oh, I know this from your film!
AM: Oh my! It's interesting. Yeah, I never thought of that. I never thought of that particular moment or the crosshair or any of that. Of course, what attracted me, was there's a straight continuity of theme. It's really the same story about how do we teach young people. How do we bring them up in this world where violence is a way of weaning in America. It's something so familiar.
And how do we breed this new generation, those kids that are 16, 17 years old, into becoming killers? That's what's happening in Blue Caprice but it's also what's happening in Yellow Birds. It's almost like the other side of the coin. What I was thinking more, there's a scene in Blue Caprice where the young boy Malvo [played as Lee by Tequan Richmond], is trying to enlist. You see a military store or outpost.
AKT: I remember. And they say "You're not of age yet."
Alexandre Moors on Alden Ehrenreich's character: "The new cut really re-centered the story around Bartle."
AM: They're saying "You're too young." That's why he's not going. It's funny, I saw Isaiah Washington Friday at the première in LA. He couldn't do it, but I had offered him to play the role of the Colonel who visits the troop at night. Because the character of Muhammad [John in Blue Caprice] was in the Army.
And he kind of failed and got dismissed because he was doing questionable things but I thought it would be interesting to have him in The Yellow Birds as almost an alternate reality.
AKT: I thought of his character from Blue Caprice when Bartle and Murphy speak about how crazy everything is. And then one of them says: You would be crazy if you didn't think this is crazy. And that's the exact opposite of what's going on in Blue Caprice. The "father" tells the "son" all of this insanity is normal.
AM: Wow, that's very interesting. I was just watching the behind the scenes of me and Ronnie writing that scene, because I was looking for something behind-the-scene. We came up with that scene when I was like, "No, it's normal. People do it all the time."
AKT: Is that one of the central ideas, what becomes normal? Also what in the war becomes normal?
AM: Yes, exactly.
Alexandre Moors on Captain Anderson (Jason Patric): "He conjures himself. He just appears."
AKT: And then you have the two mothers and their realities. One of the scenes I really liked was when Bartle arrives, sees his mother waiting at the airport, and doesn't go out the gate. That was perfectly edited.
AM: My sound designer Tom Paul said that's one of the moments that breaks his heart.
AKT: Your cinematographer Daniel Landin worked on one of my favorite films, Under the Skin. He captures in Yellow Birds those two worlds that blend, that become in a way one. They start doubling each other.
AM: Yeah, they are kind of the shadow of one another.
AKT: The abandoned house Bartle finds in the forest is similar to the bombed-out house where he last sees Murphy in Iraq, no?
AKT: No? You didn't construct it that way?
AM: Everything was very well thought out. That's why I was also very attracted to the process. I thought the book was such a poetic subjective material, we could really expand the territory of war films. Which are usually very narrow, usually a true story or recollection. And with this movie we could really go into allegory or symbolism and conjure all those different aesthetics. The dream aesthetic.
Alexandre Moors on Tye Sheridan's character: "I didn't pick Murphy. That's in the book but definitely there's a paragraph or page where Murph is upset because of his name."
So we put a lot of breadcrumbs. And there's a lot of symbolic meanings going through. And funnily enough, this one never crossed my mind. But I'm not surprised because once you make that kind of construction everything starts to speak to one another.
AKT: I thought Bartle was reconstructing that house.
AM: The plastic window that floats is the same in the tent with the plastic partitions.
AKT: Also the two figures in black - the woman and Captain Anderson [Jason Patric]. Anderson is a character who is otherworldly a little bit.
AM: He is a little ghostly, yeah.
AKT: He is ghostly. From another world.
AM: Also he conjures himself. He just appears.
AKT: He felt like a visitor from a film from the 1930s.
AM: Exactly. Or Fifties, like the G-men, the men from the government. Also he is one of the only father figures, if you noticed.
AKT: Oh, yes. Now that you say it.
The Yellow Birds Q&A with Alexandre Moors and RFI Porto moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze on June 15 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AM: There are no grownups in the movie. Except the women, the mothers. But there's no more dad, no more guide. The oldest character [Sergeant Sterling] is Jack Huston who is like 25.
AKT: Yes. Where are the adult men?
AM: Also he [Jason Patric] was very focused when he came and he speaks in a sort of old-fashioned and very slow way. He did all that by himself. He had a very strong idea on how he was going to play the character.
AKT: The names are the names in the novel. Bartle, I suppose, is named after Bartleby, the Scrivener? Melville?
AM: Interesting. I don't know exactly where Bartle comes from. The sad truth is there is a law in filmmaking. If there is already a soldier that is named John Bartle so you can't make a movie with that name. Because they could come after you. So they check for all the characters' names.
AKT: In Herman Melville's short story from the mid 19th century, the character of Bartleby refuses. He works on Wall Street and one day he refuses to do what is asked of him until the day he refuses to live. His answer is "I would prefer not to."
AKT: To everything that is said to him. He simply refuses to live the life that is given to him. And I thought, that is Bartle at that point. He has given up. Maybe I am overtaking the names but is Murphy playing with a variation of Murphy's Law? What can go wrong will go wrong?
AM: Yeah. I didn't pick Murphy. That's in the book but definitely there's a paragraph or page where Murph is upset because of his name. It's like a bad omen. He is worried.
The Yellow Birds opens in the US on June 15. Alexandre Moors and RFI Porto will participate in an opening night Q&A moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze following the 7:10 screening at the Village East Cinema.