Monday, January 26, 2015

Filming Against the Sun

Exclusive Interview with Director Brian Falk 

I love a good history movie.  In fact, I am a history movie junkie.  The best of such films cannot only tell us something about the past but perhaps even something about ourselves.  I had these thoughts in mind when I recently interviewed Brian Falk, director of the brand new adventure drama Against the Sun.  Produced by the American Film Company, the semi-independent motion picture is intimate and revealing.  According to the movie’s website: “In one of the most harrowing true stories of World War II, three U.S. Navy airmen crash land their torpedo bomber in the South Pacific and find themselves on a tiny life raft, surrounded by open ocean. No food. No water. No hope of rescue. Against incredible odds, these three virtual strangers must survive storms, sharks, starvation—and each other—as they try to sail more than a thousand miles to safety.”  In my interview questions, the director expounds upon some of the intricacies of bringing a story of this nature to life in an authentic and dramatic manner.

Perhaps you could start us off by telling us about the mission of the American Film Company?

The American Film Company was founded in 2008 by entrepreneur Joe Ricketts to make movies based on engaging true stories from American history. It’s a mission the company has taken very seriously from its first film, The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, to its latest, Against the Sun.

How did you first hear about the saga of Harold Dixon, Gene Aldrich, and Tony Pastula stranded at sea?  What motivated you to produce this tale as a motion picture?

I received a draft of a script about the story from screenwriter Mark David Keegan. That script became the basis for Against the Sun.  There’s an old nautical adage: “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” That idea—that we as humans are often at our best when things are at their worst—was something I was interested in exploring.

The casting choices for the three main characters were excellent.  How did you come to choose the actors you did?

I first want to say that working with those three guys was one of the greatest joys of my professional life.

I met with Tom Felton first. His enthusiasm for the material was contagious, and although he’s famous for playing Draco Malfoy [in the Harry Potter films], Tom is actually the sweetest guy. He also agreed to do an audition tape with our casting agent so I could hear his American accent. When I saw that video I knew Tom was meant to be Tony Pastula.

I met a few “Dixons” but none were quite right. Then I heard that Garret Dillahunt was available and we rushed the script to him. I was a big Deadwood fan so picking him to play Dixon was a no brainer.

I met many “Aldrich” actors. It was Jake Abel’s audition that really sold me. Aldrich was from southeastern Missouri, which has a real accent. Jake was the only guy who really went for that in his audition, and that told me he was willing to take risks, which I knew all of the actors I chose would have to do. I could not be happier that I chose him, and that he chose this project.

In recent years, many historical films have been held to higher standards of authenticity.  What measures did you take to ensure this in your film?

In the scripting phase, we sent drafts of my script to a consultant, Robert Cressman, an expert on the U.S. Navy and World War II, in order to make sure everything, from the characters’ period vernacular to the specifics of flying a torpedo bomber, was accurate. We also used many real WWII-era props, and handmade other props to the exact specifications, such as the Mae West life vests and rafts. Any time there was a question on set about authenticity of a particular prop or line of dialogue, my response was always “let’s double check.”

A great strength of the film is the cinematography.  While one might imagine that an entire movie in raft would become monotonous, it is anything but.  Would you care to elaborate on your filming techniques that sustained the drama and suspense of the movie?

It was always my goal to make the movie visually interesting, even given the limiting circumstances. Luckily, I’ve worked with Cinematographer Petr Cikhart for many years, so we speak the same language when it comes to shot selection, composition and sequencing. We started with very specific story boards, which we then translated into shot lists for each day. Our goal was always to keep a scene moving and not get stuck on a master shot.

Brian Falk on set.
I was rather pleased to see that this film was rated PG.  Nearly all war films are rated PG-13 or R these days--making many difficult to use in educational venues for young people.  Was this script decision made with that motive in mind?

While it wasn’t necessarily a goal to hit a PG, it was great to make a movie that can entertain the entire family—without buckets of blood or gratuitous sex scenes. A good story still works.

In many ways, I felt this film was reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat—a wartime survival story of high tension on the high seas.  Even more will undoubtedly see a similarity between your film and a significant portion of Unbroken.  How do you perceive your movie as distinctive from others?

Of course there will always be similarities between movies about people in small boats on the open ocean. And I, of course, watched Lifeboat again before making this movie, mostly to look at how a master like Hitchcock blocked his actors. It’s great. But it’s also film noir and Against the Sun is not. Unbroken has closer parallels, but luckily the movie business in not a zero sum game. If people like Unbroken they will probably like Against the Sun too, and vice versa.

What is the next project for you and/or the American Film Company?  Do you find that there is a viable market for such historical films?

At the moment we’re hyper focused on the roll out of Against the Sun. And instead of waiting to see if the market is viable, we’re trying to create a market for this movie by digitally targeting specific groups of likely buyers. It’s a first for the film industry, and time will tell if it’s successful or not.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Brian Falk for taking the time to discuss his film with me.  I also thank Alfred Levitt and Kurt Graver of the American Film Company for helping to facilitate this dialogue.  Learn more about their movie productions here.

Check out the trailer for Against the Sun.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Point of Regret

This week I tuned in to watch the pilot episode of Amazon's new Civil War drama entitled Point of Honor.  Centered on the fictional, elite Rhodes Family of Lynchburg, Virginia, the show blends historical fictions, paradoxes, and boatloads of clichés.  A 21st century equivalent to North and South, the soap opera presents an historically improbable yet cinematically predictable plot of torn families and loyalties in 1861.  At the outset of the conflict, the Rhodes elders elect to free their slaves in the wake of Fort Sumter--to the consternation of the daughters.  Better yet, one of those daughters is married to the northern West Point classmate of her brother.  While a vast minority of real-life planters freed their slaves, including John Randolph of Roanoke, most did not do so until after their deaths.  In Point of Honor, however, the youthful Rhodes clan free their slaves, renounce the institution, and then inexplicably fight for the Confederacy defending that same institution.  While the show does not sugarcoat the horrors of slavery as in many Lost Cause films, it is nevertheless an historical oxymoron and squanders an opportunity to delve into profound issues of the time period.

In short, Amazon's Civil War production suffers from The Patriot Syndrome. In that 2000 Revolutionary War film, Mel Gibson's character owns a South Carolina plantation on which there are no slaves.  Rather, the African Americans on the property "work the land as freed men."  The absurdity and scarcity of such a scenario is equally embraced in Point of Honor and other films.  Morally upstanding white protagonists somehow always have to be the exception rather than the rule within their slave society. There's nothing wrong with creating main characters with flaws--as online shows such as House of Cards have revealed. In this context, there is a certain lack of creative courage with Point of Honor.  

Additionally, the show has received criticism for it simplification of antebellum issues and contemporary social strife.  As Sonia Saraiya with Salon writes: "The pilot demonstrates ridiculous historical inaccuracy and mind-boggling racial insensitivity, but that doesn’t even really cover it. It’s more that the show is offering up a narrative of whiteness in the South that is worryingly, terrifyingly convenient in a world still very much plagued by racial inequity."  In this regard, the program seems to care more about evoking sympathy for the elite planter class than conveying some semblance of authenticity.  Considering that show writer Randall Wallace also penned the equally inaccurate Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, none of this should come as a great surprise to viewers.

From a military history perspective, the show begins with a commendably orchestrated recreation of First Bull Run, but quickly spirals beyond reality with a series of hackneyed skirmishes and a perverse Union officer with a Colonel Kurtz-style blood lust.  Typically, I embrace most film productions about the Civil War era because I fervently believe that cinema has the ability to spark interest in the past.  Unfortunately, Point of Honor provides little use to educators except to reveal another episode of fantasy historical exceptionalism.  The question remains: Why do screenwriters insist on fabricating narratives when true stories are far more astute and revealing?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Through Fog and Fire

 The Battle of New Orleans by Don Troiani.

This week marked the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.  Despite the fact that the clash occurred a full week after hostilities officially ceased, the battle remains a celebrated moment of the understudied war.  Regardless of this peculiarity, the battle offered resonance to the young American republic by vindicating the results of the Revolution.  With the outcome of the war unknowingly decided, the green troops of the thirty-nine year old United States squared off with battle-hardened Britons, many of whom would help thrash Napoleon into submission only six months later at Waterloo.  

By December 1815, the war stood at a point of uncertainty.  The previous August, British forces under the command of Robert Ross drove American forces from Washington City and subsequently torched the capitol.  Within the month, however, the United States attained resounding victories at the Battle of Plattsburgh in New York and at the gates of Baltimore.  Amidst this tactical seesaw of defeat and victory, displeased anti-war Federalists congregated in Hartford, Connecticut in December to contemplate the possibility of secession from the Union.[i]  This home front unrest occurred against the backdrop of ongoing peace negotiations between British and American diplomats at Veldstraat in Ghent, Belgium.  The British officials wanted to negotiate from a position of strength.  At this time, they hoped Sir Alexander Cochrane and his massive force of 10,000 men could capture the port city of New Orleans to lend leverage at the treaty table.[ii]

But one man in particular was determined to prevent this scenario: General Andrew Jackson.  Although not looked favorably upon by President James Madison, Jackson was appointed commander of the 7th Military District and oversaw actions of the greater New Orleans region.  His colorfully gruff experiences as a soldier, frontiersman, lawyer, and duelist earned him a confident aura that prepared him to face off with the enemy he so despised.  Jackson’s intense abhorrence of anything British was bitterly linked to his experiences during the Revolutionary War.  That conflict claimed his mother and two brothers while Jackson himself was scarred by a spiteful British officer.  Facing his old foe at New Orleans was Andrew Jackson’s opportunity for retribution.[iii] 

Arriving in New Orleans on December 1, 1814, “Old Hickory” defiantly exclaimed to crowds in the city’s Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square), “[Y]ou must all rally around me in this emergency, cease all differences and divisions, and unite with me in patriotic resolve to save this city from dishonor and disaster which a presumptuous enemy threatens to inflict upon it.”[iv] He continued his oration by revealing what was at stake by explaining they, as Americans, belonged to no czar or emperor: “No – we are the free born sons of America; the citizens of the only republick [sic] now existing in the world; and the only people on earth who possess rights, liberties, and property which they dare call their own.”[v]  Despite the fact Jackson was a slave owner, he viewed military service by the men of New Orleans as a civic obligation regardless of race.  Therefore, Jackson commanded what was likely the most racially and culturally diverse fighting force seen until the military’s desegregation in 1948.  Standing in the general’s ranks were Creoles, Spanish settlers, Native American scouts, African Americans (both free and enslaved), Kentucky militia, U. S. Regulars, and even Baratarian pirates under the command of infamous buccaneer Jean LaFitte.  By this time, Jackson’s eclectic force numbered 4,000 men.[vi]

But that number remained a far cry from Cochrane’s 10,000 crack troops.  By early December, the Brits entered Louisiana from the Gulf of Mexico and sailed their way to the northern rim of Lake Borgne, located about a dozen miles southeast of the city.  There, on December 14, American officer Thomas Ap Catesby Jones reformed his gunboats to engage the much larger British flotilla.  The Yanks lost two vessels and incurred a causality rate slightly greater than they inflicted.  (Jones was among the wounded.)  Despite the sinking of several British barges and buying Jackson some time, the encounter at Lake Borgne was an unsuccessful endeavor for the Americans as it offered the British free access of the surrounding lakes. Furthermore, many of the bayous and canals were not blocked, giving even further flexibility to the British boatmen.[vii]

The British began landing in force the following day.  Before day’s end, scores of infantry advanced to the Villeré and La Coste Plantations a sheer eight miles south of the city – and then stopped.  This halt became a lost opportunity for the British to capture the city while American forces remained largely disorganized.  The invading army believed Jackson had far more men than he actually did.  Nevertheless, panic ensued in the streets of New Orleans.  Out of fears that many citizens would corroborate with the enemy, Jackson established martial law.  He warned the citizenry: “[L]ook to your liberties, your property, the chastity of your wives and daughters” by serving rather than shirking.[viii]  

The Americans quietly rushed to the nearby Laronde Plantation bordering the Mississippi River.  Only a few hundred yards separated the two lines as dusk fell.  Into the early evening of December 23, the U.S.S. Carolina covertly sailed its way downriver into the darkness of the vast Mississippi, hoping to catch the British encampment off guard.[ix]  At 7:30, its guns echoed in the still Louisiana night, raining iron upon unsuspecting Redcoats unaccustomed to combat in the darkness.  “By the Eternal they shall not sleep on our soil,” Jackson smirked.  The Battle of New Orleans had begun.[x] Immediately following this loud commencement of hostilities, some 1,500 U. S. troops ambushed the British camp, engaging in brutal hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, knives, and tomahawks.  Despite having the element of surprise, the boisterous Americans were forced to withdraw amidst a thick fog that created confusion and friendly fire.  The two armies remained in a tense standoff for several days as they mended their wounds.  This situation, however, did not prevent Jackson’s furtive Tennessee rifleman from sneaking into British camps to wreak havoc under the cover of night.[xi]

On December 25, the day following the signing of the Ghent Treaty, Sir Edward Pakenham arrived on the field.  As the replacement for General Robert Ross (killed in the Baltimore Campaign), Pakenham was a flamboyant and battle-tested leader who was also the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington.  Aspiring to Wellington’s feats in Europe, Pakenham was eager to achieve his own decisive Waterloo-style victory against the American bumpkins.  At thirty-seven years of age, Pakenham was undeniably one of Britain’s most trusted officers.[xii]  Upon arrival, the general immediately surveyed the lines.  In the time since the December 23 skirmish, Jackson transformed the Rodriguez Canal into a formidable line of fortifications.  Pakenham concluded the only way to drive the enemy from the field was to attack them head-on, for the Mississippi on their left and the Cypress Swamps on their right largely prohibited the British from exercising any grand flanking maneuvers.  (The main British advance was delayed thanks to the marshy conditions.  The commanders did not wish to repeat such an exercise.)  Three days later, Pakenham sent forth scouts and pickets to test the American lines and determine the weakest points in their defenses.  Shortly thereafter a massive British cannonade was initiated to further weaken “Line Jackson.”[xiii]

Shortly after ten o’clock, over two dozen heavy British guns and scores of rocket launchers unleashed a flurry of shot and shell upon the American defenses.  Jackson’s headquarters, located as the Macarty Plantation, suffered damage from over 100 artillery projectiles.  Initially frightened by the rockets streaming through the air, the American defenders soon realized they posed little threat and were nothing more than ineffective psychological weapons.  The men were further assured when Jackson himself rode up and noted, “Don’t mind those rockets . . .they are mere toys to amuse children.”  Another colorful tale of the artillery contest involved British batteries which used barrels of sugar for their fortifications.  As ideal targets for American gunners, these barrels burst upon impact and rained sugar on the guns.  When matched with the heat of the artillery, the sugar quickly melted into sludge and disabled multiple cannon.  Yet, the bombardment as a whole was no laughing matter.  Jackson lost several of his precious guns while the duel raged.  Major Howell Tatum later noted, “I had never before witnessed so severe a cannonade for the time it lasted, as on this occasion (even in the 6 weeks of siege of the City of Charleston in 1780) the firing was, almost, without interruption on both sides for nearly three hours.”[xiv]  The main attack was soon to follow.

That moment came on January 8, 1815.  Pakenham’s battle plan was extremely complex.  His success rested in timing.  The British strategy involved a three-pronged attack on Line Jackson.  General John Keane was to lead his 3rd Brigade in an attack upon the American right flank along the river.  At the same moment, Major General Samuel Gibbs, with nearly four full regiments, would strike Major General William Carroll’s defenses on the grounds of the Chalmette Plantation.  For the grand finale, Major General John Lambert would rush his highlanders into the breach as Gibbs overran Carroll’s stronghold.[xv]  However, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins of the British 44th Regiment failed to order his men to collect the ladders necessary for scaling the earthen walls of Line Jackson.  This seemingly insignificant logistical oversight proved a fatal error for the attacking force.[xvi]

As the fog lifted from No Man’s Land on the morning of the 8th, two British rockets were fired from either flanks of the attacking force as signals to commence the assault.  Almost 9,000 strong, ten regiments of seasoned troops emerged.  Due to the sheer size of the force, however, the three phases of the attack were launched at different times – weakening the overall effectiveness of the column.  The British troops were cut down at a significant rate before the American defenses.  Canister shot decimated entire companies.  General Gibbs fell mortally wounded.  Pakenham suffered the same fate when he was struck down.  Lambert too was wounded while trying to assist Gibb’s efforts.  With the British chain of command literally shot to pieces, the attack quickly deteriorated into a mass retreat.  What resulted was one of the most one-sided victories in American military history.  While the Brits suffered in excess of 2,000 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing, Jackson’s force sustained only seventy casualties.  A resounding cheer arose from the American lines as their enemy “skedaddled” across the open field.[xvii]

Upon their return to the city, Jackson and his men were greeted with a triumphant celebration.  When word of the Treaty of Ghent arrived some weeks later, those celebrations were echoed throughout the entire nation.  Although the Battle of New Orleans took place following the war’s official end, the engagement helped create the identity of a stalwart nation that enabled itself to defeat overwhelming forces and cement its national character.[xviii]  This new sense of pride and patriotic euphoria reignited the notion of Manifest Destiny – that it was America’s providence to explore, expand, and endure.  Perhaps no person in the nation’s young history helped usher this ideal more than Andrew Jackson.  As a noted frontiersman and leader, he eventually rode his fame to the White House.  Jackson embodied all the motivations and contradictions of the evolving nation.  Although he was a firm defender of the Union and stated that all were “born free,” these sentiments were not conveyed to slaves or Native Americans during his administration.  Nevertheless, the Battle of New Orleans helped forge the man and his republic amidst a new age of expansion and reinvention.

Works Cited

[i] Stuart, Reginald C. Civil-military Relations During the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2009, 110.
[ii] Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004, 292.
[iii] Remini, Robert Vincent. The Battle of New Orleans. New York: Viking, 1999, 12.
[iv] Ibid., 43.
[v] Brands, H. W. Andrew Jackson: His Life and times. New York: Anchor, 2006, 163.
[vi] Vogel, Robert C. "Jean Laffite, the Baratarians, and the Battle of New Orleans: A Reappraisal." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 41.3 (2000): 261-76. JSTOR. Web. 8 Dec. 2010, 265.
[vii] Remini, 53-5.
[viii] Smith, Zachary F. The Battle of New Orleans.  New York: Forgotten Books, 1904, 34.
[ix] Tallant, Robert. The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans. New York: Random House, 1951, 134.
[x] Remini, 73.
[xi] Ibid., 77.
[xii] Pickles, Tim. New Orleans 1815: Andrew Jackson Crushes the British. London: Osprey, 1997, 51.
[xiii] Groom, Winston. Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Laffite at the Battle of New Orleans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 270.
[xiv] Remini, 111.
[xv] Picles, 24-5.
[xvi] Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford UP, 2007, 12.
[xvii] Remini, 149, 192.
[xviii] Ibid., 185-7.