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Categories: Features

Avery T. Phillips breaks down the five simple steps to making military films as realistic as possible and why that’s the best thing for them.

Source: https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2018/10/24/review-hunter-killer-is-a-submarine-movie-on-steroids/

If you write a military script or embark on the production of a military film, it helps to know what you’re doing. There will be people watching who know what they are talking about and will call you out if you make a mistake.

Remember the horrible action movies of the 1980s? The ones where Arnold Schwarzenegger empties four magazines or bullets in a scene without ever reloading? Or where Jean Claude Van Damme shoots downward at an approaching enemy and hits him in the chest? Real gun enthusiasts knew they got it wrong, and they will know when you mess up in your film too.

Enter the movie Hunter/Killer and the outstanding performance of Gerard Butler. How does this film get it right when so many others go wrong? The cast immersed themselves with the submarine crew and learned some key information.

“We actually wrote [the details of submariner life] into the script,” Butler told the website We Are the Mighty. “And we realized it was a whole other character in the story. And when we started — the difference that it made!”

The actors also watched a naval movie with the crew and took note of how they picked apart the incorrect details. They knew they had to get it right and made that a priority during filming. So what are the ways movie makers can do the same?

Consult With a Historian

There are dozens of great military consultants, but when they are on set and make suggestions, they are sometimes ignored by directors. However, they are there for a reason. Much of military history is well documented, but no one knows it better than those who lived it or have researched it for a living.

The key here is not only to hire a military historian and military experts but to truly listen to them to get it right. The movies that get it wrong are the ones where these experts are dismissed in favor of director wishes or ease of production. However, there are some great films that really do get it right.

Any producer and screenwriter who is committed to getting it right will defer to the experts and those who have actually served in the uniform they are attempting to portray.

Complete Realistic Training (Whenever Possible)

Want to know what basic training is really like? The best way is to go to basic training, and we’re not talking about the Pauly Shore In the Army Now comedy version (even though many of those scenes were filmed at Ft. Sill Oklahoma with actual drill sergeants) but more like the Full Metal Jacket experience.

Want to know what air assault training or HALO training for Army Rangers is actually like? Go participate in the training if possible or at least watch those who are going through it and interview them. Get a sense of what things feel like, smell like, and taste like. Understand the fear and anxiety that blends with adrenaline in those moments.

Above consulting an expert, being there is even better — another aspect Butler got right in Hunter/Kill. If immersion with troops is an option, it’s one of the best ways to get it right. 

Read Manuals and Ask Questions

Want to know the regulations when it comes to uniforms and other equipment? Honestly you should. One of the fastest turn-offs for vets and others watching your movie is uniform inaccuracy or botched procedures. Many of these manuals are easy to find online, and following them when it comes to costuming, dialogue, and even the order in which things are done is relatively easy.

Don’t be intimidated either. There are photos and videos online that will help you get it right, and, going back to the first point, you should ask questions and listen to your military historians and advisors. They know what they are talking about, and they have your best interests at heart. Consulting manuals is one of the easiest ways to get it right. A good example is the movie Wonder Woman — proof even superhero movies can get it right if they try hard enough.

Narrow the Scope

Let’s face it: It’s much tougher to get it right if you are filming a military epic following several units. Narrow your focus to a small group or crew. Almost every successful film does this. Why does it work?

First, one of the rules of thriller and suspense is to isolate your heroes. This helps build tension, but it also makes getting the details right easier. A limited number of uniforms with a limited number of ranks and awards is just simpler. And in a small crew, getting procedures right is much easier than trying to understand several different positions and scenarios.

This also makes your film more palatable to non-veterans or those who are less familiar with the military, their uniforms, history, and procedures. You have less to explain and get right, and they have less jargon and idiosyncrasies to try to comprehend. A narrow scope is one of the surest ways to get it right.

Have a Realistic Transformation

The hero’s journey makes a great Disney film, but what a soldier learns in one incident is directly relatable to that incident. A newbie does not move to being a grizzled vet in one interaction. It takes years for that transformation, so be sure your timeline is realistic.

Also understand that the hero kissing his family on the tarmac upon his return is rarely the end of the story. War is rough, and often extensive counseling is needed to recover. Suicide and PTSD are common, and while your film may not be about telling that whole story, be sure that the ending is not just happily ever after, but a realistic one.

Veterans and those who deal with these issues will not only like your film better, they will be thankful for your honest portrayal. This helps you keep it real and gives those who are not vets a realistic view of the aftermath of war.

The new thriller Hunter/Killer is one of the movies that gets it right, from the uniforms, to the procedures, to the attitude of those who serve in our naval forces around the world. Want to make your film beloved by veterans, historians, and aficionados in audiences everywhere? Work to get it right by listening to the experts, researching the manuals, narrowing the scope of your story, and being realistic about an actual hero’s journey.


Posted on Nov 27, 2018

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