Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tuesday Talk May 14th: BRAVO!

Today I'm interviewing Ken Rodgers, the documentary filmmaker behind Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor.

Chris:
Ken, I'll be honest with you. I'm not a huge fan of history myself, because it can't be calculated or broken down into formulas, and there are no lightsabers. But I have always tried to take opportunities to explain the military to my children, what they do, why we need them. They have seen parts of this documentary, and I plan on viewing it in its entirety with them in the future.

Ken:
This film certainly isn't about calculations; statistics, formulas, etc. This is a film about the emotional toll of war on combat veterans. Although it covers 15 men from the same unit over a relatively short period of time, the emotional costs are similar to those you will find across the spectrum of wars. So, even though there are no maps, pointy-headed experts, nor riffs of statistics, what one sees in this film is true history, the kind that doesn't get told much in the film world.

And as you point out, yes, regardless of our political views, from time to time we need these men, there Marines, soldiers, air men and sailors to go and serve the country--all of us need them whether we want to admit it or not.
 
Chris:
While I appreciate the points of view represented in the work, I would like to focus on the process, the logistics of undertaking this project.

Ken:
BRAVO! has been simmering in the recesses of my memory almost from the moment I left Khe Sanh and headed back to the US. In some ways it almost feels like I was supposed to be viewing what happened so I could tell the story. I don't really believe in that kind of stuff, but it feels like that was my purpose in Vietnam...to tell the story of war, the ugly, dirty, comradeship part. I wrote an un-published novel that draws on my experience at Khe Sanh. I have composed short stories, poems, essays and blogs about war and its horrible effects on humanity. I think that is one of my jobs.

After giving some thought to what genre would be most appropriate to render this narrative, we felt the best way to tell the story of BRAVO! was not through me writing the story, but through the voices of the men who lived it. Not through oral interviews, but through video. And yes, I--and the film editor--chose what eventually shows up in the film, but it is the men telling the story; their memories, emotions and observations that make it so powerful.

Chris: 
First of all, when did you decide to take this project on?

Ken:
My wife and co-producer, co-director, Betty and I were at a Khe Sanh Veterans reunion in Denver in 2009 and there were a relatively large number of men there who I served with in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment in Khe Sanh, Vietnam in 1967-1968. Betty sat and listened to us tell our stories about the seventy-seven day Siege of Khe Sanh that went on from January 21, 1968 through April 7 of that same year. Every time someone got up and left the table she thought to herself that another story had evaporated, so to speak. She approached retired Lieutenant Colonel Ken Pipes, USMC, our company commander (or Skipper) during the siege, and asked him if anyone had ever told the whole story of Bravo Company at the siege. He said that there had been efforts, but nothing really came of it. She asked him if she and I could tell the story. He said he wished she would. On the way home, Betty informed me we needed to make a movie and I said. "Oh, okay," and as long as all we did was talk about it, no big deal. But then, later, we got involved with the Idaho Media Professionals and they turned out to be great cheerleaders, and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation granted us a little seed money—this was in early 2010---and away we went on our filmmaking adventure.
 
Chris: 
Do you have a rough estimate of how many man-hours went into putting this all together, before you began touring for screenings? How many miles traveled to get all of the interview footage?

Ken:
Any time estimate would be very rough, as we did not keep track, but I am going to estimate for just Betty and me: 5000 man hours. This does not count the associate producers, sound folks, video folks, editors. A lot of time spent, and I suspect that if we weren't new to the game without any experience in film, that number for us would be somewhat smaller.
 
Chris: 
How cool was it to work in George Lucas's studios?

Ken:
In some ways, hanging out at Skywalker Ranch was the coolest thing that happened in this experience. The talent and the understated decor and architecture and the state-of-the-art facilities were all pretty overwhelming. There are Oscars in the offices and a lot of tastefully rendered Star Wars and Indiana Jones artifacts throughout the lodging, the facilities, the library. Mixed in are lots of classy full-sized posters from old movies. On Lucasfilms' Skywalker Ranch, there are longhorn cattle on the hills and turkeys hanging around the organic garden and there are vineyards and olive orchards. Deer abound along the creek bottoms. Being there in the sound studio and seeing the three pros re-mix the sound on the film was one of those experiences that you look back on for the rest of your life and wonder if you were really there. Mark Berger, the sound re-mixer, has four Academy Awards and the film and sound editor, John Nutt, has a BAFTA award. These are pros with lots of chops. Betty and I are novices. So it was heady, heady stuff.

Chris:
What would you say was the most important thing you learned during this whole process?
 
Ken:
The most important thing I think I have learned from the creation of BRAVO! is, if you have a dream, go after it. Life is full of obstacles. All storytellers, novelists and screen writers know this. And it is true. We all must overcome obstacles. So, if you want to make a movie, and you want it badly enough, using persistence, patience, flexibility and motivation, you can make a movie.
 
Chris:
I don't know if it was the television I watched it on, or if it was done for effect, but the voice dialogue and some of the more dramatic sound effects varied wildly. When it was turned up enough to hear the interview, cuts to weapons fire made everyone in the room jump. I felt this added some shock value, and heightened the experience. Coincidence, or...?

Ken:
First, I think in every location where I have watched BRAVO!, the sound has been different and I suspect that has to do with differences in both equipment and acoustics. The best I have heard it, of course, is at Skywalker Sound's mixing studio and private theater where we screened it for selected donors and the employees of Skywalker Ranch.

Second, sound is extremely important in this film, and its prominence is no coincidence. It was loud at Khe Sanh. Battle sounds are often as terrifying as the tactile effects of explosions. Sounds are signs of what is happening and oftentimes sound acts as a harbinger of what will follow. John Nutt, the film and sound editor, makes most of his living doing sound work, so he knows his stuff. He felt—he is also a veteran of the Vietnam War—that the viewer should get an inkling of how terrifying the sounds were at Khe Sanh, how much they contributed to the chaos.

Chris:
At one point, I was worried that the DVD was glitching, but after watching, it was obviously used for dramatic purposes, I thought to great effect. Were there any other subtle editing devices that we may have missed on the first viewing?

Ken:
Of course, the business with Frank McCauley talking about shooting people and associated clips during the "Payback" segment of the film are controversial and provocative techniques that force the viewer to contemplate what it is like in combat. As for other editing techniques, I am sure there were a number. One I can think of right now happened toward the end of the film in the "Aftermath" section. When the Department of Defense film clip is playing, you can hear wavering music and you can hear a separate stream of music where male voices are singing. The voices of the men are meant to represent the voices of the dead at Khe Sanh and if you notice, they rival and often overshadow the narrator and the original music in the original clip. John Nutt thinks, and Betty and I agree, that the most important thing about this film is not statistics and body counts and that kind of stuff, but the death and destruction and damage to humanity and the voices of the singing men help show that.

Chris:
Is there any advice you would like to give someone who is contemplating taking on an endeavor of this magnitude?
 
Ken:
We had no idea what we were getting into when we began this film. We have made some mistakes, some fairly expensive ones. If you begin something like this and you have funds, hire professionals to help you. If you don't have funds, find them. If none of that works, don't be dismayed. Onward!

On a separate note, one of the biggest issues we have dealt with is copyright law; intellectual property rights, the licensing of other people's creations for use in BRAVO! This is a big issue and as we go forward with changes in how we deliver art, I think intellectual property rights will loom larger. My advice, learn all you can; use your own creations instead of someone else's; retain an intellectual property attorney.

Chris: 
Where is Bravo! available for purchase?

Ken:
BRAVO! will be available for purchase very soon (within the month) at www.bravotheproject.com.

Chris: 
Thank you for your time, I know you are busy touring around the country, screening Bravo!, working on other projects of your own, and consulting on projects with others. I may make it through your book of short stories soon, to be honest I can only handle one or two at a time. They are slices of reality that people don't like to see. Each one seems to say that 'This is the way the world is sometimes.' They're abrupt, sometimes brutal, and well, not the kinds of thing a Fantasy guy like me typically reads.
Thanks again, looking forward to your future endeavors.

Ken:
Thank you! Regarding the book: Brutal and rough it is. A slice of how the world was for me when I grew up and earlier in my younger days. It is about the people who populated my world. It is fiction in a fictional place, but the emotional truth is very real. The fiction writer's job is often a case of entwining disparate threads…memory, something he heard someone talk about, something he read somewhere, imagination, and creating characters we care about who deal with the obstacles in their lives. I also try to portray multiple sides of a story and to not make judgments, if possible.