Friday, May 27, 2011

Military Realism On Screen, Interview with Martin Walsh

Currently, I'm in post on both the concept trailer and the short film, and life is passing one render bar at a time, so there isn't much to report till the fine cut is done.

However, rather than let the blog languish, I've decided to do an article on authenticity of military and action films, as how it relates to what we see on screen, the movement of soldiers/cops/professionals/crims, the way they hold their weapons, and I'll be interviewing industry professionals in the know.

The response has been great, but it's larger than one article, so I'm presenting it as a series of interviews on authenticity...

First up is the producer of the award winning feature documentary 'Long Tan' narrated by Sam Worthington. (Avatar, Clash of the Titans, Terminator Salvation)

Martin Walsh is a former Commando, and is perfectly placed to comment on realism and authenticity on screen.

I wanted to know how important was it to Martin to represent genuine and authentic infantry behaviour and weapon handling in his recreation of the events of Long Tan, a pivotal battle for Australian Soldiers in the Vietnam War.

It was very important. Having served in 2 Commando Company I was very conscious of ensuring we reflected proper weapons handling procedures and infantry tactics as much as possible.

I knew it was important to get all of the elements as accurate as possible so that these type of things didn’t distract from the story, the individuals and the recreations. We worked with Ian Sparke on the uniforms and equipment etc and we secured a great film & TV weapons expert who was actually recommended by one of the Long Tan veterans, Sgt Bob Buick.

We used experienced ‘military actors’. People like Ian Sparke provide ‘actors/extras’ who have been trained in basic weapons handling for the specific period, ie. WW1, WWII, Vietnam, Korea etc. He also provides uniforms and equipment. I was also on set to ensure that tactics and weapons handling was as accurate as possible. In fact I actually performed some scenes myself, for example a couple of scenes firing an SLR in the prone position and changing magazines rapidly. Whilst the actors were familiar with using the weapons I was proficient (even though I hadn’t handled an SLR since 1991!).

I actually have many Army training manuals from the 1960’s and this combined with continual discussions with the Long Tan commanders and other veterans ensured we got the tactics right. There are some difference between the 1960’s and when I served in the late 80’s and early 90’s but surprisingly much of the infantry tactics were still the same. However, we did have to make some comprises for the camera in relation to infantry tactics.

Usually the spacing between soldiers is up to 10 metres meaning an infantry section would be spread over 100 metres. If we stuck to the letter of these tactics we would only ever see one or two soldiers in frame so we have to ‘squeeze’ soldiers into the frame for the benefit of the viewer.

Another example of making compromises is the radio procedures. I wrote all of the radio dialogue based on actual radio logs, interviews and other related material. We had to significantly shorten the radio dialogue because calling in an artillery fire mission and other radio communication takes longer than what we have portrayed.

In addition, I had to make some compromises in the dialogue relating to military acronyms and codes so the essence of what was transpiring could be understood by a lay person but it still sounded like real military communication.

Before we even started pre-production, my discussions with the director and FOXTEL was around how important it was for me to treat the accuracy and authenticity as seriously as possible and that I would be the final arbiter of any decisions. I didn’t want this documentary to be just another basic documentary with interviews and a couple of recreations, I want it to be dramatic and entertaining which is why I added the additional layer of radio communications to help bring the story, the drama and dynamics of the battle and stories to life.

FOXTEL originally suggested Ian Thorpe to narrate the documentary but I stuck to my guns in choosing and casting Sam Worthington as I felt he (an actor) would be the best person to bring the narration and storyline to life. I actually saw Sam Worthington at a preview screening of Somersault when the cast, director and producer answered questions after the preview screening. His manner, looks, accent and speaking style instantly resonated with me as a Vietnam era digger, in particular 21 year old Private Paul Large who died in the last minutes of the battle.

Simon: Being that it is a war documentary, did you and your team make the film for veterans and military enthusiasts as your key demographic, did it play a part on the thought process for filming?

We made the documentary as part of the overall marketing plan for a movie on Long Tan. The timing related to the 40th Anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan – 18 August 2006. We have also driven and managed all of the PR and Marketing related to Long Tan and we drove a huge effort around the 40th Anniversary and releasing the documentary a few days prior to this anniversary was our goal and we just made it! The primary audience was 25-55 year old male & females and 56+ male & females.

We tried to make the documentary for a mainstream audience who probably didn’t know much about the military and or the battle. But, we also wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t disappoint former or existing military veterans, especially those who were in the battle and other Vietnam veterans. So we made it for mainstream audiences first and veterans / military enthusiasts second.

Simon: Part of bringing a sense of realism and place to actors performance is the advisory team and genuine sources of information you give them, Martin and his team made sure the actors and extras had the best available to them to recreate the battle.

I’ve mentioned the artillery and the infantry scenes but one of the other stand outs for me was the infantry recreations. We got some young, Australian Vietnamese extras from Brisbane and of course they hadn’t had any weapons or infantry training. We had to give them a crash course and I’d organised Sgt Bob Buick to visit the set that day. He took them aside and gave them a pep talk and some visceral descriptions of what happened on the battlefield and how the enemy performed.

These guys were absolutely brilliant. Their aggression, enthusiasm and performances were amazing considering they’d never done it before and I can only credit much of that to the impact Sgt Bob Buick had on them in terms of being a person who was actually there and being able to paint a picture of what the enemy were doing that day. Once again actors were performing with freezing cold water being poured on them in very low temperatures (including me) and shivering between takes. Everyone knew however from the crew behind the scenes to those in front of the screen how important this story was.

The infantry scenes were recreated with the ‘military actors’. The artillery and APC’s scenes were done with real military personnel.

We had to go to New Zealand for the artillery recreations as we couldn’t find any working 105M1A1 artillery pieces from the Vietnam era in Australia. The NZ Army were more than willing to help us as they understood how important the battle was. An interesting aspect of the artillery was Palmerston North, NZ had the worst snow storm in history the day before we flew over. The soldiers of 16 Field Regiment, RNZA met us mid-morning at their base and we proceeded to the range were we would conduct the artillery firing. It was around -5 degrees Celsius.

The ammunition for the artillery gun had to be transported from another location and because many roads were closed had to take a significant detour. The result was that we waited around much of the day because the truck with the ammunition didn’t arrive until we’d almost ran out of light! We only had one day scheduled for this shoot and our nerves were frayed by late afternoon when the ammunition finally arrived. When we arrived in the morning the soldiers were creating the gun emplacement, filling sandbags and creating the pit. Long Tan NZ veteran, forward artillery observer Morrie Stanley was actually with us and the NZ soldiers asked Morrie whether they would have been wearing shirts or not in Vietnam.

Morrie said they weren’t as it was very hot and humid in Vietnam so the NZ soldiers removed their shirts, remember it was -5 degrees and we had a fire truck spraying cold water over the gun area whilst they were firing to simulate the monsoonal rain conditions. These guys were amazing! We were rugged up to the hilt but these guys took it in their stride. They knew how important this was to Morrie, the veterans and their unit and wanted it to be as good as possible. 
My only disappointment was we had to fire blanks and therefore the artillery gun barrels didn’t move backwards when fired but we didn’t have any choice as we couldn’t get live firing guns at such short notice.

Filming in Vietnam:
It took me months to build a relationship with the Vietnamese government to eventually secure permission to film at Long Tan and permission to interview some Vietnamese veterans. I worked through the Australian military attaché in Saigon and the Australian Consul General and Ambassador in Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City.
I eventually secured permission to film and through all the interviews we did in Vietnam we had members of the Politburo monitoring the conversations but at no time did they ever stop, edit or express any concerns with what their veterans were saying. Their government minders and advisors were absolutely fantastic and very supportive and this went a long way to paving the way for PM John Howard being the first Australian PM to visit Long Tan later that year.

Defence Support:
Ironically the Australian Defence Force was going to provide a lot more support but the East Timor crisis broke out and we lost access to all the APC’s and the Huey choppers! There was absolutely nothing we could do. After some scrambling we were able to secure access to one APC up in Townsville and because all of the unit’s soldiers were in East Timor the duty office team (a skeleton staff) proudly volunteered to man and drive the APC for us.

The big question I have and the premise of conducting these interviews is, when you watch action sequences and recreations, can you describe how you know a trained actor versus an untrained actor.

This is getting much more difficult as every movie usually has expert military advisors on set, training, monitoring and advising actors and directors. In addition, even when real soldiers or police etc are used many times a director might ask them to do something for dramatic purposes or for other set, shot or positioning reasons which differs from authentic tactics.

Obviously I do cringe from time to time when I never see any weapon’s stoppages in films, unlimited ammunition, no ear plugs and some over dramatic, obviously choreographed and rigid handling of weapons. I’ve temporarily lost hearing in one of my ears on a number of occasions when an ear plug fell out during a live firing exercise. Many veterans who have been in prolonged, close combat like Long Tan have hearing problems today. People who’ve been trained and drilled with weapons and tactics would do things much more fluidly and naturally.

Best Examples:
I think Black Hawk Down was pretty good and so was Saving Private Ryan. Little touches like in Black Hawk Down when one of the soldiers fires his weapon next to the ear of his buddy and his buddy going deaf temporarily. Another scene when the strobe was thrown but didn’t hit its mark first throw etc. These imperfections are what usually happens in battle and it is something we have been working to capture in the Long Tan movie. Ie. weapons stoppages can be very dramatic and suspenseful, barrel changes on a machine gun, lightning hitting artillery positions during the battle of Long Tan and many other events.

Here are some behind the scenes photos from the Long Tan documentary on Flickr

You can watch the full Long Tan documentary here

Martin's youtube channel with historical footage and other related media coverage of Long Tan is here
and his Research Material is on his blog here

All Long Tan production photo's belong to Red Dune Films, and all copyrights are reserved. Thank you to Martin Walsh for his contribution and help, very much appreciated.

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