While promoting the release of Recon, writer/director Robert Port and producer Rick Dugdale discuss their work on the film, from the responsibility of adapting Richard Bausch’s original novel to the long and arduous process of casting the leads. They also discuss how veteran TV director Rod Holcomb helped out with one major change that changed the whole visual style of the movie. Finally, they discuss showing the film to real life war veterans and how their reactions were crucial to knowing if the whole journey had been worth it.
Recon is out now on Digital and VOD.
I just talked to Richard, and we had a great chat! We talked about how a book is a book, a movie is a movie, and they can be as different as they want to be. So I guess, my first question is, how do you decide to treat the book as sacred, and how do you decide when you want to do something that you want to do in a movie?
Robert Port: In general, I love books. I majored in American literature, so I’m a big book guy. I’m always reading books. When I was a kid, I wasn’t playing sports, I was reading books and watching movies. For me, they’re indistinguishable in that a great book has great characters and tells a pretty central, strong theme, and a great movie does the same thing. I could list all my favorite movies: Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, and all my favorite WWII movies that influenced this one so much: The Bridge over the River Kwai, The Great Escape, and whatnot.
Robert Port: They’re very similar in terms of strong characters, strong themes, strong books. I don’t necessarily sit there and go, “Oh, that’s a cool concept, I can make it much better.” My favorite screenwriter of all time is William Goldman. He was a book author first, and I think they do a really good job at what they do, they spend a lot of time writing books. So I looked at books I could adapt that met that criteria for me. Peace was a bullseye. I read the book review in 2008. I just pulled it up. It was May of 2008, it was a Sunday evening, I was reading the New York Times before I had an iPad, and I called my agent right away. I got through the first paragraph of the New York Times book review: “Four soldiers, one day, a tale of morality,” and I was just, like, I’ve gotta have this book. It checked all the boxes for me. I read the book a day or two later, and just fell in love, and optioned it. It’s been an 11 year odyssey since then.
Alexander Ludwig has been one of my favorite actors for a really long time.
Robert Port: He’s great.
Tell me a little bit about casting your squad? They really carry this movie.
Robert Port: I was trying to cast it for 11 years. I’m not going to go through the list of actors that I met with. A lot of them are quite well known who might have done it, but it’s all because of Rick that we got Alexander.
Rick Dugdale: I did a film called Blackway with Anthony Hopkins and Alexander Ludwig, a few years ago. And I got to know him and learn how good he was, how talented he is in all of his work. At that time, Rob and I kinda kicked around this idea of the movie. I think when we first talked about it was 2010, four or five years before I did Blackway. After that, I started thinking, wait a second, Alexander Ludwig could be one of the parts in the film! And then we cast it with a few other people we knew, who I wanted Rob to meet. Including Sam Keeley, who I got to know working with his longtime girlfriend, Hera Hilmar. And then Chris Brochu, same thing. He’s a guy we’d worked with before, and as everything started coming together, I was throwing these names in front of Rob, saying, “Hey, I think it should be this person, you should talk to them.”
Robert Port: Chris was a great one. We could not fill that role!
Rick Dugdale: We saw a lot of people, but you know…
Robert Port: Hundreds!
Rick Dugdale: I always secretly hoped… As a producer, you never want to push too hard on the director, you want the director to make their own decisions, and obviously Rob and I have a great relationship, we have a lot of trust. But we saw a lot of people for that role, and we still weren’t convinced. And I quickly called Chris Brochu, I said, “Hey, put yourself on tape for this.” He’s in L.A., we’re in Canada for prep. I think, a film like this, when you’re basically going into the trenches, going into the wilderness in a cold winter… You want to go into those trenches with people you know. This was not going to be an easy film to make, and we got lucky by casting people that we knew what they were like to work with. I think the result is in the finished product.
Robert Port: Rick’s underselling it a little. When it came to the character of Asch, I was… Look, the beauty of doing a WWII film is… There’s been a lot of amazing WWII films, and people go in wanting to like and love WWII films, because the good and bad are clear. We’re not going to hurt your brain figuring out who the good and bad guys are. But because you’re walking in the footsteps of giants, you’ve gotta make your own little imprint. So, when it came specifically to the character of Asch… Alexander Ludwig was phenomenal as Marson, and Sam Keeley was perfect to play Joyner, but we could not cast Asch. The reason was, and I was a stickler on this one… I’m Jewish, and the character is Jewish, not that I took it any more importantly, but I didn’t want… So many of the actors were doing their version of a Neil Simon character. Neil Simon is a genius, and the movies and plays he’s done are brilliant. Nobody’s touching that. I kept saying to Rick, “Unless I’ve got Matthew Broderick, this is gonna look just like what it is, which is these guys who grew up with these amazing characters they’ve seen on Broadway, and that’s what they’re doing, and we can’t do that!” We were in the middle of a snow storm, and Rick turned to me, and he was driving, he said, “Can you send some sides, e-mail them to Chris Brochu?” I sent them, and when he sent the tape, I got on a plane the next day, from freezing cold Kelowna, met him in Brentwood, near where I live, we had coffee, and I just fell in love with the kid. We started filming 48 hours later. It was remarkable.
You’re working on, basically 11 years of pre-production, and then it comes down to those final days. When did you have a script, and was THE script that you used? Were you sitting on a script for a decade, waiting to get the resources and funding and all that to finally get off the ground?
Robert Port: The short answer is, we had multiple scripts, but in the end, we shot the original script.
Rick Dugdale: Yeah. Exactly. It was set in different places for if we were shooting in different places. And then we honed it in once we were getting closer and closer. The biggest thing was from night to day.
Robert Port: That’s a great point. In the book, and the way I originally wrote it was, it starts in the day, goes through the night, and ends at dawn. Rod Holcomb, who is an amazing director, he directed the pilot of E.R., and the last episode of E.R., he’s a tremendous guy I’ve worked with for years in television, he always mentored me in directing… He read the script, back when this thing was getting serious, going into pre-production, we had lunch and he said, “Great script!” Rod is an amazing, intimidating, brilliant guy! He said, “I’ve got one note. Why the hell are you shooting this at night?” And I said, “Uh… Rod, you of all people!” I started espousing the answer, you know, it starts in the day, they go through the night, and then it’s sunrise and it’s rebirth! He goes, “That’s great, buddy. But name your favorite WWII movies.” So I did. Saving Private Ryan, Bridge over the River Kwai, The Great Escape… He goes, “You notice they’re all shot during the day? You can’t see anything at night in the woods! You’d might as well shoot on a soundstage.” So that great piece of advice. About the second day or dailies, Rick and I were looking at it, the vistas were so great, it was so beautiful, and I turned to Rick, and I literally told you that story.
Rick Dugdale: Yup!
Robert Port: And I said, what are we doing, dude? Let’s just shoot during the day! To Rick’s credit, great producer that he is, he said, “You’re 100% right, let’s go for it.”
Rick Dugdale: Seeing the performances of the actors, we knew we didn’t want to limit them and create obstacles. We were shooting on a mountain, and trying to get crane lights for moon lighting was going to be an obstacle anyways. Seeing their performances, which were so true to the real weather, we didn’t want to lose that in the darkness.
Robert Port: We collectively made a very good choice, there.
Rick Dugdale: I’m not Spielberg, but the challenge is simply that… The biggest challenge, pure and simple, was logistics. We were up a mountain that did not have a paved road. We were going up on ATVs and snowmobiles. Lugging equipment up there just to get decent light for the actors, forget about the backgrounds, it would have been a major hassle. Then, the idea that you would have to key light in a way to highlight the shadows of the woods and stuff, that’s a pretty enormous undertaking on the budget of an independent film.
I think this movie works so well because it is an independent film. Because you don’t have a producer who goes, “Why don’t we have a big, 40 minute battle with a thousand soldiers going up against each other.” That would kind of miss the point of this whole story, I think.
Robert Port: Thank you for saying that. Richard Bausch wrote it, the book is incredible. I adapted it into a screen play, and I had a vision, but RIck, that was pretty gutsy of you to sign off on my little train of insanity to make a war movie that doesn’t have a scene of 50 people jumping out of airplanes. I am curious, what kind of struck you about that?
Rick Dugdale: You know what? My grandfather was in the war, and I’ve always been eager to do something like that, but when you’re doing a film like this, and you’re right, there’s been so many WWII films and the bar is set so high… But starting at Richard’s book and your script, it’s about the characters. The characters are so appealing that you can draw an audience, and you’re going to draw on the actors in order to draw in the audience. The characters are so rich that I never had a doubt that we were going to get the right actors to portray those parts, to be able to give us the audience we need to see the movie. I think that’s the best way to look at it. The characters are so rich that you want to follow their story.
Robert Port: I think that’s very well said, and that’s a credit to Richard’s book. And it’s based on a true story. You start with the truth, you go from there, and it generally works out.
I know you’ve been doing screenings and playing the movie for real veterans. How have they responded to it? And at those earliest screenings, are you on needles and pins waiting to see if they’re gonna storm the booth and crucify you?
Robert Port: My brother, the good doctor, Michael Port, the star of the port family, (Laughs), I’m the black sheep… He deals with, in his practice, some interesting military folks. Former and current SEALS who have hurt themselves in battle, maybe even one of them was in the Bin Laden raid. Early on, I asked to show it to a couple of those folks, because I was petrified. Rick, I think you were scared, too. Not because it’s anti-war. It’s very pro-military. I’m extremely pro-military, pro law enforcement. But still, to your point, you don’t know how people are going to react. But yes, the response from them has uniformly been, “this is incredibly realistic.” That’s the best thing I could have hoped for.
Rick Dugdale: I think the one takeaway I’ve seen from showing it to people is that they look around and say, “Yeah, that’s what we go through.” There’s an internal struggle they go through, and there’s a bit of realization that we’re shining a light on what they’ve always felt. I think that’s what gives them the confidence that makes us proud of the film. We’re telling a story that maybe doesn’t get out there that often.
Right. Because there’s an idea that if you’re not waving a flag and wearing a flag pin and shouting Rah-Rah and all that, that you’re perceived as critical and anti-military, as opposed to anti-war.
Robert Port: I’ll quote my grandfather, he fought in WWII. He escaped from Vienna, went back, won a Bronze Star, and he had quite the story, which was by no means unique. I find everyone I speak to who has a relative who fought in WWII had an incredibly individual story. But he wrote his little memoirs. He didn’t talk about his experiences, but he did write a 20 or 30 page memoir he typed up, and I re-read it recently. Really, in preparation for a lot of this. There’s a lot of talk of morality in it. He used to say, “They called us heroes, but we were just trying to survive.” But I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the film, myself, Rick, we’re overwhelmingly pro-military. It’s being pro-real. I think, if you speak to any soldier, at least I’ve spoken to, and I’ve spoken to a lot, I don’t know anyone who is pro war. They don’t want to go to war. They have a job to do, and they do it. But that’s different from being pro war. I think that’s why they’ve responded so well to this film. We treat the military respectfully, and we honor them by telling a story of incredible moral ambiguity, which is, in reality, what these guys go through over and over. Men and women in the military go through this over and over, the ability to take a life or to not take a life. Asking a 20-year-old kid… Like in my grandfather’s memoirs, he wrote, who hadn’t slept in three nights, and had been through the Battle of the Bulge, and then ask that person to make that decision in a second. I mean, good luck. I get bent out of shape if my espresso machine isn’t perfect after I’ve had a full eight hours of sleep. How these kids did this, it’s incredible.