Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is now in theaters and it’s one of most gripping and tense films of the year. Imagining the United States torn apart in a modern civil war, with the Western Forces, Florida Alliance and others fighting against states loyal to a dictator, it looks at the last days of the combat against the federal government.  It’s an intense and gripping film, showing the devastation of just what a modern civil war would do to the U.S., and what the possible endgame would look like if a dictator fell. Whatever a viewer might take away from the film’s story, one certainty is the intensity of the combat scenes. Gunshots ring louder than most movies, troops work to cover each other and advance through enemy territory. Helicopters swoop low to provide fire support to pinned down soldiers. All the while audiences are thrown into the mix, the camera in the middle of the action as the combat unfolds. 

Told through the journalists’ eyes, the film shows different parts of the conflict proper. From an encounter with armed gas station owners to a skirmish between loyalist forces and Hawaiian-shirt clad rebels (identified solely in the film as “Commercial Soldiers” in the credits), the action and scale of the military forces involved only grows as “Civil War” goes on. It all climaxes with a massive combined arms offensive to take Washington, D.C., with the troops of the Western Forces fighting the holdouts loyal to the unnamed President through the streets of D.C.

The ideas and script were the work of Garland but Ray Mendoza, the film’s military advisor, was key in the staging and execution of that action. Mendoza, a former Navy SEAL with 16 years of service, now works advising productions such as “Lone Survivor” on creating realistic combat and accurate depictions of the military. For “Civil War,” Mendoza used Garland’s script and ideas as a basis, then essentially choreographed all of the set pieces. He also brought in other veterans to help with the verisimilitude of the troops on screen. 

The collaboration between Mendoza and Garland was fruitful. The two are now set to co-direct another military film for A24, “Warfare,” based on a script the pair wrote. That is expected to begin production later in the spring. Ahead of that, Mendoza spoke with Task & Purpose about his work on “Civil War.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Task & Purpose: How did you get involved in this? When you came in, did Alex Garland have things mapped out or were the combat elements entirely in your hands?

Ray Mendoza: I worked with a stunt coordinator who read the script and said “hey man you should take a look at this, you’d be perfect for it.” He had nothing but good things to say about working with Alex and how open minded he was and what a great collaborator he was. The combat scenes were kind of vague, but they were there. I knew there was this big siege into D.C. There were other kinds of battles throughout the movie as well. As usual it’s a little vague on some of the stuff, unless I read a script where a veteran writes a combat scene. 

'Civil War' (photo courtesy A24)
‘Civil War’ (photo courtesy A24)

Q: Once you were brought in, what was the collaboration process like? When you’re mapping things out, from that early skirmish with the Hawaiian shirt guys to the D.C. scene, what was the process like?

A: It usually takes a few days. Actually a few hours, once I go to a location. That first scene, the guys with the Hawaiian shirts, took a few hours. It’s pretty contained, it’s pretty small. I go in there, I look at the script and I try to honor what was written for the most part. Then usually I start to kind of flag things. A lot of time it’s written without them knowing where we’re going to shoot. There’s a scout which determines the location of each scene. Then the action scenes, you read them, then based off of the scene it’s limiting or it limits what is written. You either say we’ve gotta find a different location that can facilitate what you wrote or here are some suggestions and this is where my advisor role comes in. “We can do this, or we can pivot because the location facilitates this kind of movement or this kind of action beat.”

I kind of draw a football play and present that to the stunt coordinator and some special effects guys to see if it’s even feasible. Then I’ll present that to Alex and his team. Usually they want to see it, so we’ll do a pre-visualization of what it’ll look like. I’ll bring in some of the stunt guys, if there are some vets available I’ll bring them in and we’ll rough it. We’ll figure out the timing and the beats as close as we can to the script. Alex will come out, we’ll look at it and start brainstorming where camera placement will be, what shots they’ll be, what kind of lenses we’ll be using. Once he signs off on that, we do another few sessions and we start making it a bit more stunty. We bring in stunt guys, I say “I want bullet hits here.” The special effects guys are there too, the stunt department’s there, picture car guys are there. I can say “I want a truck here with a 50 cal on it or a 240.” “Bullet hits will be here.” Then we have to decide if we’re going to plaster in these bullets, if it’ll be dust hits, plant ons, and do we need to do a bunch of retakes? There’s a lot to it. You have to understand how film works. 

For people in the military it’s kind of the same process or same flow. If you’re going on an operation, how are you going in? Are you using tanks, are you using Bradleys, are you using helos? You’ve got to go liaison with that squadron. Who’s going to be your quick reaction force? At SEAL teams we don’t have quick reactions, so I’ll have to go to whatever brigade or battalion I’m attached to and ask what’s your response time? What do you need from us? It’s very much the same flow or process, working with multiple people getting an idea out there, communicating it clear and concisely as possible to get everyone in the process to achieve one objective. It’s why I feel I can navigate through this stuff very easily. I try to do a one for one. It’s similar to trying to get air support.

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Q: The action scenes in the film are incredible, with great sound design. For the prep, how did you break down the level of skill or experience each side might have? In the D.C. scenes you have a professional, fighting army, with coordination and air support. In that earlier Hawaiian shirt scene, it feels much more irregular.

A: The Hawaiian shirt scene was definitely different from the D.C. scene. We looked at the characters and asked “are the prior military or just gun enthusiasts?” Initially it was just “they’re normal people that picked up guns.” Then when we saw the movement we wanted them to be, and, well it’s up to the viewer. If I was to watch it as a viewer I’d say they have some kind of training based on how they move, based on the C-grip they have on their rifle. 

Aesthetically there’s what I like to call grounded action, a little more documentary style. So [Alex and I] had this conversation of what do you want the bullets to look like? The explosions? What do you want the deaths to look like? Not to knock on “Transformers,” but “Transformers” is a much more cinematic movie with explosions, big fireballs in the air and laser guns. We had to have that discussion on aesthetically what action do you want? He said “what looks real?” Well when a grenade goes off there’s not a huge fireball, it’s just a fast burning explosive that violently explodes. It’s fast and quick and he said “that’s what I want.” When someone dies, there’s no big flip. It’s like a switch, the lights turn out. He said “that’s what I want.” He really wanted it to be real. I think that resonates throughout the film, not just with what I did, even in moments like the mass grave scene.

Q: I have to ask about the big D.C. battle set piece. You were shooting in Atlanta and had a White House replica, but how much equipment did you have? Did you actually have tanks and helicopters? 

A: We had one real tank. All of the helos are CGI, so kudos to [the special effects team.]

Q: How much prep went into that? You have the final shootout inside the White House with the special ops guys, but before that you have street-to-street fighting, with the tank and large units. How many people were you directing? Did you have a battalion sized force?

A: Pretty close. From when I showed up in Atlanta to build that thing, it took five to six weeks. It was how much can we build in our budget? How much will be set extensions, your blue screen stuff. How many people do we have, how many rounds do we have? Can we get this tank? It was so much for me to go through to do that. It was a massive communication exercise. There’s so many little things. Even when people watch films, you’ll hear them say “that’s not accurate!” It’s hard to get it accurate because there’s so many little things to check on.

Q: The finale goes from a street battle into that fight inside the White House with what looked like a special ops team. I saw that some of the actors in that unit were veterans. But how do you go about planning an assault through the White House? 

A: I approached it like any other compound or any other series of hallways. We just removed the White House element and it’s just a hallway, right? A shoutout to my veteran brothers and sisters that were on it, they made it easier. There was less you had to explain. When I expressed that to the production, it’s easier for us to call in veterans that I know to help with the maneuver of the thing than it is to cast stunt guys. It’s the understanding of basic tactics of shoot, move and communicate, which every basic infantry person knows. When I say “move from A to B,” they know how to do it. With the SOF guys, that just helps speed up a lot of the choreography. There’s still the planning of squibs and everything else that goes into a scene. The planning here was different from before going into the White House. There it was more structured, there’s a lot of explosions. You have to do things step by step. 

For the White House I kind of created a 360-degree immersive world for Alex. It’s awesome to watch him do his thing there, he could point his camera wherever he wanted. I created this movement so no matter where you put the camera, one of the veterans in there was doing something. Even if they’re not on camera. It was easier to run it as this 360 immersive world. That’s where that more documentary, veritas feel came from. Even if it got silent for a minute. Alex, an awesome storyteller that he is, he lives on that. Traditionally, people would cut out of it, “oh the silence is uncomfortable, we have to put something there.” He chose to hold the silence in the middle of a gunfight to have it only to pick up again. Anyone who has been in gunfights knows that happens a lot.

Q: How many takes did it take to get it done with all of that?

A: It was kind of broken into about four sections so you had all of that. Then you have Kirsten and Wagner, there’s coverage on them. That’s the other component too, firing in and around them. I couldn’t tell you, it was a lot.

Q: We know you can’t speak too much about “Warfare,” your next film for A24 that you are co-directing with Alex Garland. But going from working with Alex as an advisor, how did you end up teaming up for this?

A: He let me run in my element [in “Civil War”]. Some guys, like Peter Berg [director of Lone Survivor], they’ve let me run a little bit, which helped me grow and learn. Alex was really like “do your thing.” I did and I think he saw — well it’s more of an organization thing. He saw me communicating it, I was able to get people on the same page and I guess he thought maybe I was ready for the next step. He was constantly mentoring me and having discussions about what I want to do in the industry. There’s a lot of stories I want to tell, military in nature. Stories from the regiment, Special Forces, SEAL teams there’s a lot of military stories I want to tell thatI feel need to be told. We discussed that  and there’s a story I picked that he felt would be a good one to tell. 

“Civil War” is in theaters now. 

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