A retired US Marine captain tells Michael Idato how he shaped actors into soldiers.
Night after sweaty night in remote rainforest, the small group struggled through exhausting patrols carrying heavy packs, with the relentless tension of an unseen enemy. Each morning the men woke to the rattle of machine-gun fire.
No it’s not war as re-created in the blockbuster new miniseries The Pacific, just the 10-day actor boot camp that preceded it.
In 2007, Australian, American and Japanese actors who had won roles in the sequel to the 2001 series Band of Brothers, were shipped off to trenches on opposite sides of a makeshift battlefield under the watchful eye of the man considered the toughest in the game.
If a great war epic is sold on its authenticity, the watchdog in post-Platoon Hollywood is Dale Dye, a retired US Marine captain who has worked as a military adviser on scores of film and television projects, including Platoon, Band of Brothers, Born on the Fourth of July and Saving Private Ryan.
Dye’s manner is a blend of the gruff charm you might expect from a veteran actor and the confidence of a career soldier whose decorations include the Bronze Star for valour and the Purple Heart.
Speaking in a Missouri drawl, he describes his career with the Marines, including tours in Vietnam and Lebanon, as “22 of the best years of my life, son”.
He talks with speed and candour. His favourite war movies are the little-known The Steel Helmet (1951), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) and The Big Red One (1980), and he dismisses the hip HBO war series Generation Kill as “the Rolling Stone, rock’n’roll treatment of war”. He talks straight and takes no backchat – from actors or journalists.
The Pacific, on which he served as a technical consultant, is based on two best-selling memoirs: With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie. It re-creates the Pacific theatre of World War II – including the battles at Guadalcanal, Okinawa and Iwo Jima – told from the perspective of three marines: Sledge (Joseph Mazzello); Leckie (James Badge Dale); and John Basilone (Jon Seda).
In addition to consulting on scripts and production, Dye supervised the 10-day boot camp which gave the actors a compressed version of the 13-week Marine Corps basic training. “I put them through an extraordinary amount of pain and agony,” Dye says, proudly. “There are two ways to go about this – you can work from the outside in, and in about three days I will teach you how to handle a weapon and wear your uniform right. That’s fine but it will be very superficial.
“I work from the inside out … I want to reach inside your chest, I want to pull that throbbing heart out and show it to you. “I want you to understand it in your guts and in your mind, and if I can get there, I have a magical performance, because you can’t lie at that point, you’re automatically telling the truth.”
Despite his admiration for many actors, Dye seems to have little affection for the process of acting. “Actors have been raised most of their working lives to think that the sun rises and sets on their individual personal ass, which it doesn’t,” he says. “They’re concerned about ‘how many lines do I have?’ and ‘how’s my hair and which angle?’ and that’s antipathetical to the way military people approach things. We look at a bigger picture, a mission which is more important than we are.”
Actors will also lie because “that’s what they do. But I have spent 30 years raising other people’s children and I know when you’re lying to me.”
Authenticity is important to Dye, especially when, as in The Pacific, the stories being told on screen are based in fact.
“I teach [the actors] that there is something more important than them and that when you’re doing a project like this, when you’re working with things that really happened, and people in whose honour, in large measure, you are doing this, then that is crucial. So while I am sure they pissed and moaned about how hard it was … it is important that these guys feel that and understand that and know that.”
It may come as a surprise to the actors he teaches but the process can be painful for Dye – an uncomfortable echo of his tours of duty in Vietnam and as a member of the peacekeeping force in Beirut in the early 1980s. “You’re dealing with emotions and I’ve felt these emotions, I’ve been there and it’s sometimes painful for me because I have to revisit those things I wish I hadn’t seen or wish I hadn’t done,” he says.
The old Marine speaks in one breath about the awfulness and exhilaration of war. “The truth of the matter is that Hemingway was right – he said war is man’s greatest adventure and he’s right. There is no other human endeavour where you can experience the full gamut of human emotion,” he says.
“Everything you can feel you will feel in combat, every bad thing a human being can do you will do in combat, every good thing a human being can do you will do in combat, so it’s a minefield but it is wonderful fodder for understanding.”
Dye pauses, and becomes philosophical for a moment, admitting something you suspect many soldiers feel but few say aloud – he wishes there were no wars. “Nobody hates war worse than a guy who’s been through it,” he says. “But we’re tribal by nature and tribes generate friction, friction applied generously can produce violence and that is the nature of our beast. I’m sorry. I wish I could fix it. I wish we weren’t that way but we are.
“You can’t stop fighting – all you can do is understand what causes it, the effect it has and then maybe we’ll think twice.”
When the subject of his own experience of war comes up, he lets his guard down a little, reflecting on the romantic notion of becoming a soldier and how it did not resemble reality. “Nothing is more honourable, nothing is more respectable than to selflessly serve a nation and a people – put your life on the line,” he says. “Now when you’re 18 or 17 or whatever the hell I was, that all seems pretty cool. Then of course you go to war, somebody shoots you and you go – you know, I may have been wrong about that.
“The first time you hear that round come by your ear and you realise somebody is trying to kill you, or the first time you kill a man, it affects you and a lot of the romance gets sucked out of it. But that didn’t really turn me off. I said, ‘OK, this is what I signed up for, this is the role, this is the business, this is what it’s about and I’m going to do it.”‘
The Pacific, he says, is a story of courage and of the horror of war.
“I see it as a celebration of the human spirit that can survive the horrors of war and that equates to courage. I see it as both things,” he says.
Asked if the soldier is the ultimate hero, he sidesteps the question – instead describing the soldier as the ultimate public servant. “Whether or not he’s a hero depends on your definition of the word hero but no one is more selfless than a soldier. Who else is going to risk his life for you? Who else is going to face what he has to face for you?
“He doesn’t know you, he doesn’t care about you but he’s willing to die for you. That’s pretty heroic.”
Dye has worked on both sides of the camera, teaching actors to play soldiers accurately and playing soldiers himself, with roles in films and series including Casualties of War, Band of Brothers, Rough Riders, Saving Private Ryan and even Starship Troopers.
“I kind of became an actor by accident. They saw me teaching and thought that guy is interesting, put him in front of the camera,” he says. “I’m the most typecast guy in Hollywood – I’ve played every military role there is. But my heart is still in teaching, my heart is still in training guys to portray it – it’s my agenda. I think those selfless people, who are willing to serve and sacrifice, to put their lives on the line, need a fair shake in the popular media. I’ll take whatever opportunity I have to shine that light on them.”
Hollywood gets it wrong, he says, when ego enters the equation. “It’s a Hollywood attitude – you get so full of yourself that your storytelling chops get confused with your political views and the next thing you know you’re just making up crap because you think somebody will pay you $10 to go see it on the screen.”
Dye won’t name his worst student but he will name stars he respects after working with them. “The best … look, I’ve had some terrific students. Tom Hanks [Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump] is a great student. Tom Cruise, believe it or not, has really got a tremendous heart, he’ll do anything, he’ll keep doing it until he gets it right, Sam Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Johnny Depp and lots of names that don’t run trippingly off the marquee.”
Of his students in The Pacific, he describes Joe Mazzello as bright, Jon Seda as a man in possession of “a real sense of honour, of ethics”. He says Dale is “an intellectual [who] vastly overthinks things.”
Dye says the boot camp experience almost always ends in tears. “The first kind, ‘I’m tired, my ass hurts, I can’t do this, I’m an actor’ – you try that shit and I will personally kick your ass up between your shoulder blades, I will not tolerate that,” he says. “The other kind, those times when you hit walls – psychological walls, emotional walls, physical walls – the arm goes around the shoulder and we walk away. I will tolerate those tears but I want them shed in private and that’s why I walk ‘em away.”
Australian actor Gary Sweet, who plays Drill Sergeant Haney in the series, wasn’t the best student of Dye’s method. He bucked the system for 6½ of the 10 days – enduring the machine-gun wake-up calls that Dye would accompany with the phrase “hear that boys? That is the sound of freedom” – until he “got sick of doing night patrols by myself and doing push-ups with my pack on”. Sweet says: “I realised I wasn’t going to win.” He then fell into line.
To his credit, the actor didn’t cry, nor did he come top of his class. He did, however, take great delight in standing next to Dye when – at the end of boot camp – the tranquillity of the Queensland rainforest was interrupted by the sound of the approaching bus. Turning to Dye, Sweet smiled and said: “Captain, you hear that? Now, that’s the sound of freedom.”