Interview: Director Mark Burman Talks Ambush

Ambush is the new Vietnam War set action picture starring Aaron Eckhart and Jonathan Rhys Meyers from director Mark Burman. It tells the story of a group of young elite commandos, led by Captain Drummond who are tasked with collecting highly classified information that can change the fate of the war.

Mark Burman stopped by recently to to chat with me about the film.


First of all, I loved Ambush. It feels like a classic war movie like Apocalypse Now; was that one of the main inspirations behind the film?

Absolutely and thank you! It comes from two prongs. One is I started a new film company five years ago that only focuses on one type of film, which is dramatic action. I grew up watching movies, where I was cognizant of what was going on screen in the late 60s and 70s to the early 80s. To me these were the best dramatic action films and that’s what we want to make.

Dramatic action films are films like The Wild Bunch, French Connection, Sorcerer, Deliverance – extreme men in extreme circumstances. I have a love of history and I like warfare in history. I saw there has only been really one tunnel rats movie, which aside from the scene in Platoon, there was a low budget horror film about 15-18 years ago from Uwe Boll. I thought, Well, why don’t we take a more serious approach to this and turn it from a combat film when you’re above ground? Going into the Hitchcockian thriller when you go underground. A lot of my influences are a lot of the classic, functional action directors like Don Segal, Sam Fuller, Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Robert Aldrich and Richard Brooks, and those were the big influences on my style of how I made the film.


You also have an amazing cast here. Can you talk a little bit about working with them?

Sure. I mean, we had everyone from Aaron Eckhart, who is a phenomenal actor from the big screen to the small screen to stage, Jonathan Rhys Meyers who is a Golden Globe winner. Both of those actors treated me like gold. They really treated me like a king, they gave their all for the performances. The ensemble were all seasoned actors, and they’re young. These guys have been on Broadway and they’ve been on TV. We filmed in Colombia for the majority of the shoot, so we were on a stage in Bogota, at Fox Studios and then we were out in the jungle. They just were into it; on their days off, they stayed at this kind of compound in the jungle and they would all stay together and barbecue together. They really just gelled together as an ensemble cast and it really comes off on the screen.


Yeah. Now, how did you go about creating the tunnels? Was that all on a set? 

We have a great production designer named Carlos Osorio; he and I really researched the tunnels of Củ Chi and such; we gave them a little bit more of a stylized feel because the real tunnels of Củ Chi where the tunnel rats were, and a lot of those were kind of boring looking. So we gave it more surface because when you looked at them it looks just like a hard mud flat, which will not do. How we really gave the look to the tunnels is a strange reference, but I went back to the old Jan De Bont films he was DP on in the early 90s like Hunt for Red October and Flatliners and Twister (he directed that) and that kind of look he used with the old lenses and the lighting techniques. We brought those into the tunnels because really it just goes from an old-fashioned war film into a Hitchcockian thriller when you get into those tunnels.


I’m a big music score fan and immediately I thought that score was reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s score to John Carpenter’s The Thing with that minimalistic synth sound.

Absolutely, it’s a little The Thing, you got it and there was another reference I used. It’s these great composers called We Are Dark Angels and I produced a Paul Schrader film called Dog Eat Dog a few years back, and they did the score. I asked them to come on and score this and I really had them reference Tangerine Dream, because of The Sorcerer Theme and Thief. There had not really been a synthesized Vietnam war film, the closest thing to it would be Philip Glass for Hamburger Hill, and I thought that would be an interesting combination. Usually there’s the old rock and roll and all that and we just didn’t have a budget to put that in. So, I said “let’s just let’s jump that and make a cool, pulsating score”.


Yeah, and it is. Is it going to be available for purchase at some point?

The soundtrack will be coming out next week.


This being set in the Vietnam War, how challenging was it to make sure everything was accurate to the time period?

It’s very challenging because if someone wears a modern day watch,  everyone’s gonna point it out. There’s been a few things online still about some of the guns don’t look at that level.  We had a tight budget so we did the best we can. I mean, we used our modern-day Huey of the National Police of Colombia and dressed it as a Huey, it came off really good. The machine gun on the turret is from 1982. That’s not 1965 Vietnam, but we tried to get the wardrobe as close as possible to that look of that time period, then everything around that, too.


IMDb states this is inspired by true events, is that correct?

You can say it’s inspired by true events but I would say it’s more in the spirit of what preceded the tunnel rats before they became the tunnel rats. So, in a way it is true from reading some of the stories into the tunnel rats. Traditionally the tunnel rats were much smaller than these actors but these guys aren’t the tunnel rats yet if that makes sense. Carlos did a magnificent job. The tunnels really just have that great stylized look.


Oh, yeah, very much so. I thought it really just captured the whole claustrophobic feel.

That was the whole thing. We were feeling claustrophobic filming in those tunnels too on the set; they were tight.


I don’t think I’d even be able to shoot that (laughs).

(laughs) Some of the actors were starting to get shortness of breath. 

What was it that made you want to direct this feature?

I’m 58 now and I directed my first feature when I was 28. It’s been 29 years before that. I wanted to get back into directing. When we wrote this, I decided I really want to direct this. It really has that vibe of what I’m trying to do is make dramatic action characters, dramatic action stories, and it had that vibe, and I just thought this would be the perfect one to kick it off again.


Was there anything cut that you regret? Or did the film come out exactly the way you wanted it to?

I didn’t have to cut very much at all; the line producers were trying to get me to cut the helicopter and I fought for that. We constantly were trying to start during the pandemic, which was awful. It was just literally even if we’d get everything set, the bank would pull out, because they were pulling all their projects. That was the biggest headache was just trying to get everything coordinated during the pandemic. We really shot last year when people were really coming out of it. We were originally supposed to start shooting in March 2020, then the pandemic hit. We literally were two weeks away from shooting and everywhere in Colombia closed – its borders, the financing entities, and the bond companies pulled everything. Then we had to hold it together to get it into production. That was the most difficult part of this film.  Aside from that making the film was easy compared to just trying to deal with something that nobody had ever done in modern times.


Yeah, it really changed every industry with how we do things. It’s crazy.

It really is.


What would you like audiences to take from Ambush?

I want them to see that part of history, even though it’s a serious war film, I really want them to be entertained and stimulated by it. We made it with a lot of passion and heart for authenticity, for realism. But also to get the spills and thrills and the visceral thrills of cool explosions and helicopters and people shooting each other. All the elements everybody likes in an action film, whether they say it or not.


I particularly liked that it was all done practically.

I really appreciate you saying that as I’d say 97% of the explosions were practical.


You can tell, you can always tell.

I know. That’s what I said! With CGI it doesn’t matter if you spend 100 million bucks. It just does not look the same.


Yeah, it doesn’t have the same weight to it. Well, thanks very much for taking the time to chat with me today and all the best with the film.

It was great to meet you, thanks so much.


AMBUSH will be released in Theaters, on Demand, and on Digital February 24, 2023.