By: Gregg LaGambina
Second in the series.
While describing the highly decorated military career of Captain Dale Dye, it’s impossible to overstate the breadth of his experience and how much it has helped to inform his work in film and television over the past quarter century. After enlisting in the United States Marine Corps in 1964, Dye survived more than 30 combat operations during the Vietnam War and was awarded three Purple Hearts, among numerous other medals for valor. He continued to serve in the Marines after the war, rising through the ranks to become Master Sergeant, was commissioned to serve in the Multinational Peacekeeping Force in Beirut in 1982, and retired as a Captain in 1984.
Along the way, he earned his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland, he worked briefly at Soldier of Fortune magazine, and has written 12 novels. But it was his enduring love of movies – particularly military films – that inspired him to found Warriors, Inc. in 1985. Dye’s authentic experience – combined with his no-nonsense candor – has not only made him and his company a valuable asset to advise filmmakers seeking to depict the psychological toll of warfare on its participants, but has even led a few directors to go directly to the source and cast Dye in supporting roles instead of extras who have never actually seen combat.
One common thread runs through all of Dale Dye’s military advisory work. Whether his company is running a boot camp for actors in the Philippine jungle for Oliver Stone’s Platoon, or he is consulting with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, or he’s working with Terrence Malick on The Thin Red Line – Dye’s approach is almost always about psychology and the individual in combat. Anyone can teach you how to carry a rifle, but only those with combat experience can tell you what it feels like to carry a rifle in a real war.
Most recently, Dye wrapped work as the Senior Military Advisor on The Yellow Birds, the film based on the best-selling novel by Iraq combat veteran Kevin Powers that had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year. CreativeFuture recently visited with Captain Dale Dye to ask him about his work on Yellow Birds, the secret to merging your life experience with your career, and what he hated about war movies so much that made him determined to help make them better.
Gregg LaGambina: There is so much I would like to ask you about your military service, but that is only one part of your career. Why don’t we start with how you managed to make your way to Hollywood after you completed your combat service in Vietnam?
Dale Dye: Well, I was casting about for something to do that would keep me off the barstool in the VFW hall, keep me from being a cubicle rat, and keep me from being a cop, which are typical things that military people end up doing, unfortunately. I sat down with myself and I said, “Well, what can I bring to the table? What is it about me that’s different?” A common denominator seemed to be that I was a movie buff. I’m a film fan. I’ve seen a lot of movies – practically all the war or military films – mainly that’s what I was most interested in. And what those movies had in common is that they mostly just pissed me off.
GL: What pissed you off about them?
DD: They just didn’t reflect who we are, what we are, how we relate to each other, what we do in extremis in combat and that sort of thing. And I thought, “Well, that’s odd.” Because I’ve seen the title Military Technical Advisor in the credits. So I thought, “There’s a mystery here.” And I’m not good with mysteries. [laughs] I like to solve them! So, I went to Hollywood, frankly, as ignorant as you could be [about the movie business]. I began to look around and what I discovered was, yes, there were military technical advisors, but the emphasis was on “technical.” They taught actors how to wear a uniform and they taught them how to carry a weapon – that sort of thing. But, they didn’t go deeper. And I thought, “Well, there’s the problem.” These actors are portraying something that is so far out of their wheelhouse – their realm of reference – they need somebody that will get to their hearts and to their minds and to their emotions. They need someone who can explain that, or who can teach them about that.
GL: What were some of your early ideas about how to fix this problem?
DD: I thought back on my own experiences and I said, “Well, the real key would be full immersion.” I mean, you have to make them walk a mile in those military boots. But that was a tough sell. Hollywood had made war movies for years and years and years and made zillions of dollars. They didn’t need some craphead like me who was a military guy and obviously, therefore, could have no creative bent whatsoever. Which was hubris and it pissed me off. But, at any rate, I tried to sell my theory to anybody who would listen, frankly [laughs]. And there weren’t many! Just to cut all the middle out of this – I ran into a guy who knew a guy who knew Oliver Stone.
GL: What interested you about Oliver Stone enough to meet with him?
DD: I had discovered through my research that Oliver Stone was about to do a military movie, based on his own experience as a combat infantryman in Vietnam. And I had spent a long time in Vietnam at war. I thought, “Well, nobody knows that war like I know it, so I’ve got to find this guy.” Through a long series of machinations, I managed to get Oliver Stone’s phone number and I called him and I said, “Listen. If what I read in the press is true, you need me and we need to meet.” And being Oliver Stone – who, at that time, was not yet famous – he said, “OK, let’s meet. Let’s talk to each other.” We did. And after we sniffed each other’s butts, like dogs [laughs], he decided that what I was telling him was right. He wanted that experience for his actors in this film he was doing called Platoon.
GL: Let’s start with Platoon. What kind of training did you develop for the actors on that film and how did your company – Warriors, Inc. – emerge out of this first, big project?
DD: He allowed me to take 33 actors, including some who would later become huge stars. I’ll drop a few names here: Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen. I would take them for three weeks, up into the mountains of the Philippines – the Philippine jungles – and make them live and train like we did when we were 19-year-olds in Vietnam. I did that and it was rugged and it was rough, but it was full immersion. You lived as though you were in Vietnam. We brought the actors down out of the hills and we made this little $5 million movie and we brought it home. It promptly won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Oliver was kind enough to acknowledge that I had a great deal to do with it. From that point on, it was onward and upward. The phone started ringing off the hook. All those people who wouldn’t talk to me before now wanted me to work on their projects.
GL: In terms of vocations, “Hollywood actor” might be the exact opposite of “combat soldier.”
DD: [Laughs] Well, certainly the opposite background and motivation!
GL: Are some actors more combat-ready than others? Would you consider fighting alongside any of the actors you’ve worked with, or are most of them hopeless?
DD: There have been some that have certainly been better than others, let’s put it that way [laughs]. What I’ve found is the more serious an actor is about his work, the less he’s worried about being a star, and the more he’s worried about a really credible portrayal on screen, the better he takes to the training. I really work a psychological bent. I do not let them even think about acting or movies or roles or any of that stuff. I fully immerse them and I punish them if they get off the track. I think what happens is that they’re used to that sort of training. They’re used to being little chameleons. So, if I do it right and if I teach well, and if I lead well – they respond marvelously. I mean, we must have trained about five or six hundred of them now. Some really huge names, too. But because my method is so different and so unique – and because it had never really been done to that extent in Hollywood before – I think it was seen as kind of the actors’ workshop to beat all actors’ workshops. We’ve just had marvelous success with it. I still hear from many of them that I’ve trained who say, “You’ve changed my life. You’ve changed my perspective.” And that’s very gratifying.
GL: Besides your military service, what else about your background do you think makes your expertise particularly valuable to filmmakers?
DD: The thing is, I created a job that perfectly merges my background and my interests. You’ve got to merge your life experience with your work. And that, I think is the culmination. How do you get any better than that? I don’t think you do! I get hundreds of emails each month from young men and women who are getting out of the service and have read about me and what I do and they all want to do the same thing. But what they don’t understand is the years of work and proving yourself and always shaping the method and always wrapping what you’re doing in training around what the script calls for. We’ve done the future wars; we did Starship Troopers. So how do you know what the military will be like in the 25th century? Well, you don’t! You invent it. So you also have to have that creative bent. We’ve done Alexander, which is Ancient Greek history. How do you know what that was like? You don’t. So you have to do your research. This is a head game. Just because you served four years in the Army and did three tours in Iraq and three tours in Afghanistan, it doesn’t mean you can do what I do. You really have to be a student of military history and you have to be a student of psychology, you have to be a student of leadership, you have to be a student of teaching. If you can do all of those things – fortunately for me, I guess, not many people can – but, if you can do all of those things and you can shuffle all of those cards into the deck, then you can do what I do.
GL: You’ve talked a bit already about what you didn’t like about war films and what you wanted to fix about them once you retired from the military. What are some war films that you admire and what did they get right?
DD: Movies didn’t probe the psychology of a soldier, our relationship with each other, the love that exists between men in extremis that have to depend on each other. So, when you get to that, when you get to the gamut of human emotions that occur in combat when your life is on the line; when you get into that area, then you’re really getting into something that, I think, portrays to the public what real soldiering is like. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Platoon. I love Sam Fuller’s movies, because he was a veteran. He did this little, beautiful film called The Steel Helmet.
GL: That’s considered to be one of the great war films. It’s in the Criterion Collection.
DD: Yeah, and it was made for like $250 thousand! It can be cheesy, but his examination of a small unit in combat and the characters that make up that unit is just perfect. It’s letter-perfect. And the reason is, he gets it. He was there. So, when you’re in that area, it’s not all about big special effects and stuff. That just bores the shit out of me. Because it’s only one part of combat. Combat is a human contest. It’s a contest of wills. It’s a contest being able to turn to your right and see that guy and knowing that he’s going to be there for you and he knows you’re going to be there for him. That’s the real thing. That’s the real deal. And that’s what I like to get into.
GL: So, you can skimp on the effects as long as you get the mental aspect of combat just right?
DD: Yeah. Because whatever else they got right, if they don’t get the human aspect of war right, the rest of it doesn’t make any difference.
GL: Your company has worked in an advisory role for Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. The former is a more traditional war film that combines action sequences with intimate character studies, but the latter is far more cerebral and impressionistic. Can you describe your approach working with these two filmmakers and their very different visions of war?
DD: I think they’re very similar in some regard. But the filmmakers’ styles are worlds apart. Terry, I think, is an artiste with an “e.” He attempts to take internal things, psychological things, and try to portray them visually and that’s very difficult. That’s a tough row to hoe. Whereas Spielberg knows where the emotional buttons are. He knows better than any director that I’ve ever worked with where the emotional buttons are and he never misses one. Or at least he hasn’t missed one when I’ve worked with him and I’ve worked with him a lot. I guess it’s two different, but acceptable and enjoyable approaches to the same human experience. I’m not going to sit here and say one sucks and one doesn’t, because that isn’t true! [Laughs]
GL: Depending on the budget and the location, do you ever feel as if you’re actually preparing for combat? Does it ever blur the line and become almost too real?
DD: Oh, yeah. I’ve had that experience.
GL: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
DD: I think a flashback to combat is never a good thing. But, it happens. It happened several times to me and Oliver on Platoon. It’s happened to me a number of times, both in front of the camera and behind the camera. I guess that’s just the nature of the beast. That’s something that I have to deal with. But I’ve learned that if I try to keep all of that stuff inside, if I try to internalize it, it’ll just eat at my guts. So I sort of expunge it through what I do. And I talk to people about those experiences, so they’re less tough on me.
GL: Is film still the best medium to give someone an idea of what combat is like who hasn’t served in the military? Are movies a good way to inform the public about the reality of combat?
DD: I guess so. Look, I would love it if I could get people like you to read thick volumes of military history or military novels, but I can’t because you’re a birdbrain [laughs]. Now, most people have about a 20-second attention span. And, so, I can do one of two things: I can sit and bitch about that, and complain about the audio-visual generation, or I can bring the mountain to Mohammed. I can get into your realm. I can get into what will communicate with you and use that to try to teach you about these things. That is, frankly, what I perceived 25 years ago when I started this kind of work. I know how impactful film can be, if you do it right. With the exception of smell, I can bring you as close as many people will ever get to the experience of war, to the experience of men and women in uniform – the real experience. And, in so doing, I think I can teach. If I’m not teaching specific history, as we did in Band of Brothers or The Pacific – at least I can give you a shading, a general look at the service and sacrifice that these people in uniform and at war offer. I think that’s important. I think my agenda – when I built Warriors, Inc. – remains the same. And that is simply to shine some long overdue and much-deserved light on the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform.
GL: Your experience in Vietnam obviously informed your work on Platoon. You mentioned having to imagine future wars (Starship Troopers) and reimagining ancient wars (Alexander). The Yellow Birds is about combat in Iraq, which is real and ongoing. Did you have to bring some different type of experience to this film in order to train the actors?
DD: Well, you have to understand that I talk constantly to young men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They want to talk to me.
GL: Of course.
DD: And what I discovered is that the combat experience – believe me – is common. There is very little difference in getting shot at in the jungle than there is in getting shot at in the sandbox. I get that. And I brought that to Yellow Birds. I was very gratified to be asked to do that film. I get a lot of films that aren’t in my personal wheelhouse, simply because I’m also a creative person. I understand filmmaking. When they asked me to work on Yellow Birds, I had read the book and it was excellent. It’s not only a description of soldiers in combat in Iraq; it’s a psychological study. And I really appreciated that. The producers had in mind really doing a piece that examined the impact of brutal combat on men in extremis. I loved the part about Private Bartle [the main character, portrayed by Alden Ehrenreich] after his combat experience, after he came home. I thought that was so reflective of so many experiences that guys had after Vietnam, that guys had after Korea, that guys have after Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought it was a probing of that experience which wasn’t maudlin and it really rang true to me. I thought, “Well, I really want to be part of this.” And I’m glad I was.
GG: In that way, your work on a film like The Yellow Birds not only lets audiences into a world they might not ever see, but can also help to remind us that right now – even as we both speak – people are coming home every single day from that part of the world.
DD: I hope so. I really do. I thought Yellow Birds was an opportunity to do that and as I said, I was delighted to work on it. There are some brilliant young actors in it. I had the opportunity to train them. I didn’t get all the time to train them that I wanted, for various reasons, but I think I was able to communicate to them that experience. I was able to help them fathom it on an emotional and a psychological level. That’s really what I wanted to do and I think we did that.