Friday, June 1, 2012

The Launch

Just a quick note to say that this writer is absolutely blown away by the response to the movie in just the first four days.

First, we had a Twins promotion on Memorial Day itself at  Target Field in Minneapolis. The two WWII planes in the film (a P-51 Mustang and one of only six airworthy P-38 Lightnings left in the world) flew over the field as actor Reed Sigmund ("Gorski") finished the National Anthem. The trailer played on the Jumbotron. War re-enactors assisted in the flag-raising. Executive Producer Jeff Traxler parked an authentic WWII half track on Target Plaza. And actors led the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th-inning stretch.

Since then, the movie has consistently been in the Top 80 best-selling DVDs and Blu-rays on Amazon. It's selling out at Wal-marts. People are renting it at Redbox. Positive reviews are flowing into Facebook, Amazon, IMDb and iTunes.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Report from the G.I. Film Festival

At first, it feels like kind of an odd juxtaposition to be walking down a red carpet at the foot of the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. But that's how the G.I. Film Festival rolls. And if you think about it, why not? The relationship between film and the military is arguably one of the industry's strongest and longest-standing.

Except that the GIFF, now in its fifth year, doesn't exist to further tout the big Hollywood military blockbusters. Its purpose is to shine a spotlight on independent fare that portrays the military in more intimate and non-conventional ways. (Like "Memorial Day" itself, the festival isn't pro-war or anti-war; it's pro-empathy.)

We were fortunate enough to play last Saturday night as part of a special GIFF event honoring military spouses. The evening included an awards ceremony honoring the Lifetime TV series "Army Wives" and was attended by lead actors Sally Pressman and Brian McNamara. And we played after a cleverly conceived and well-executed 6-minute short film called "High Card Trumps," directed by Geoffrey Quan.

The organizers of the festival couldn't have been nicer, and it must be said that after a dozen screenings, the film has never looked or sounded better than it did at the GIFF. While the theater itself was chilled to about 55 degrees, the audience reception was pleasantly warm, especially after the show as we hob-nobbed with media members and fellow filmmakers.

After the screening, director Sam Fischer invited me, executive producer Jeff Traxler, producer Craig Christiansen and editor Bill Rammer up on stage for a brief Q&A, where I was once again surprised that one of the most frequent questions we get involves how we accomplished a certain scene involving a prosthetic body part. The line of the night went to Jeff Traxler, who quipped that "we were done with that actor, anyway, so we thought we might as well shoot him."

When we returned home, we were thrilled to find out that the GIFF has awarded us "Best Narrative Feature" of 2012--our second such award if you include the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Thank you, D.C., and thank you, GIFF!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Report from the Austin Screening

Gotta love it when your director and one of your star actors help set up the "step and repeat."
Okay, we're not talking about the Austin of South by Southwest fame. We're talking Austin, Minnesota--birthplace of three legends: John Madden, my wife, and Spam.

Wednesday, May 9, was a special screening set up by "superfan" Kathy Green, a woman who simply loved the movie so much that she decided to set up her own event to share the film and benefit the wonderful organization Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. Sam Fischer, John Cromwell ("Lt. Bud Vogel"), Sean Dooley ("Sgt. O'Hara"), Craig Christensen and I were honored to be there to watch the film with 200 other southern MN folks, many of them in uniform.

Each screening crowd has reacted somewhat differently to the film, and what was surprising about the Austin audience was how much they seemed to get the movie's subtle attempts at humor (most appreciated by the screenwriter). As we signed posters after the show, I was asked by a grateful vet where I got the idea to give SSgt. Kyle Vogel an issue with migraines, as he was plagued by the same issue after Vietnam. Although it was a somewhat random decision in the service of giving a hero an Achilles heel, the truth is that migraines are a significant issue and marker for other health problems among returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The most memorable moment for me was getting the privilege of meeting a rare, real-life Rosie the Riveter--a woman who worked as a machinist in World War II. It once again hit me that these amazing people are out there, unnoticed ... at the supermarket, the gas station. People who in one way or another served in what WWII historian John Keegan aptly called "the largest event in human history." For the most part, my GenX tribe knows nothing of the sort. And although I hope we never do, we should honor and appreciate the people who endured that experience before they disappear from view.

Say what you will about small American towns; one thing I feel each and every time we visit one is that the thread of history is a bit longer, connections to the past stronger. Thank you, Kathy. And thank you, Austin.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Report from the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival

Memorial Day's true theatrical debut last Saturday was memorable on many levels, a few of which I'll recount here.

First, there was the comment made by a friend of mine as we headed from the venerable Nicollet Island Inn over to St. Anthony Main, where all MSPIFF films are shown: "Is that line for your movie?" I looked over to see the entire tunnel leading to the theater (which resembles a sort of ground-level skyway) filled with people. Yes, this was a home crowd, but it was still an amazing sight. (Apparently, Memorial Day was the first of 200 MSPIFF features to sell out.)

Given the "friends and family" aspect, the crowd began the production a bit rowdier than most, as each crew member's respective faction clapped and whooped when that person's name appeared in the opening credits. But then a silence descended for the rest of the film. I've been to half a dozen screenings now, and this is always a nervous moment. Are people quiet because they're engaged or not engaged in the material? Our military audiences have tended to be more emotive during the film. Other audiences have been more subdued until the end. You just never know.

When it was over, I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing what sounded like a sincere and authentic burst of sustained applause. One never knows in these situations if people are just being nice, but I know you can't completely fake enthusiasm (or tears, for that matter, and I did hear some sniffles along the way).

Afterwards, director Sam Fischer invited every cast and crew member present to join him for an audience Q&A. I was asked if I have a military background, which opened the door for me to tell one of my favorite stories: While filming in the Kasota limestone quarry, a former Special Forces soldier (now a top-level Army public affairs executive) told me how much he enjoyed the script and asked me if I had any military background ... to which I smiled and responded, "Sir, I'm holding a latte." (Actually, it was an iced espresso with Half and Half, but oh well.)

The most original question we've ever received came from a teenager who asked one of the actors, "So how did it feel to die on camera?" That led to a rather interesting discussion of the use of prosthetic body parts in film ... and gave me quite an education on that front.

Upon looking on for any new reviews inspired by the showing, I spotted this:

"My husband, a Vietnam Vet, cried during the movie. He is still silent about those days, but the movie affected him deeply. I recommend [Memorial Day] highly for its ability to draw you in and keep you. You meet and bond with the characters and see the conflict in their lives about generations of wars, and at the end you are still thinking about how war affects those you know and love."

Many thanks to that viewer, and I hope this movie might one day open the door for her husband to open that proverbial footlocker. That's what this is all about. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why "Memorial Day" Is Worth Your Time: Reason #5

After the most recent screening of "Memorial Day," a reporter asked me a question that threw me for a loop: "Why did you decide to give [James Cromwell's character] memory issues?" The reason that rose to the surface was this: While I was writing the screenplay, I was also conducting an oral history project with my then-94-year-old grandmother, who had dementia.

The condition wasn't too severe at the time. In fact, she was still living independently in the house in Roseville, Minnesota, that I had been visiting since I was a kid. She was in remarkable physical shape, and in her lucid moments, she was sharp as a proverbial tack. But those moments were fleeting, and I soon realized that the process of trying to mine memories from someone who is losing them as you speak is both profound and ironic. I wished I'd started sooner.

Early in the process, I realized that my grandmother's memory loss wasn't random; it was hierarchical, like a distillation process. She couldn't remember what she'd had for breakfast, but she could tell you the moments from childhood and young adulthood that mattered most, like giving birth to my mother and her twin sister when the doctors told her that she was going to have "a big boy" (a story that came up in almost every session, both because it was important and because she didn't remember telling it to me already).

Even if her stories were short on detail, I could see the pictures as my grandmother spoke. I could see her mother giving food to homeless wanderers who would knock on their front door during the Great Depression. I could see her ice skating in Cherokee Park, where it was routine for flirtatious boys to skate up from behind and slyly take girls by the arm. I could feel the "wait until your father gets home" aura of tense family dinners. I could see her walking to school over the High Bridge in St. Paul, a rigorous routine that today would cure childhood obesity. I could see my grandpa courting her by buying a used car and stitching old suit jackets over the seats. And finally, there was the story that came up so often, I decided I had to put it in the film: the moment my grandmother's Catholic faith was tested by a priest who told her to "keep walking" to her proper parish when she tried to give Confession at a church that was much closer to home.

My grandmother passed away almost a year ago, and she never got to see the movie. The artifacts of her life are now spread throughout the family, like so many footlocker souvenirs (I now re-possess a Waterford Crystal candy dish that I bought her when I lived in Ireland as a college student). I realize that she taught me much without even trying, like how to live a good life and how to be grateful for it. But mostly, she taught me that stories are the one thing that lives forever. If you tell them.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why "Memorial Day" Is Worth Your Time: Reason #3

Do you know who Snookie is but not James Cromwell? Shame on you.

Most regular folks know Mr. Cromwell as Farmer Hoggett from "Babe," and yes, the actor received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for that performance. But let me tell you something, James Cromwell ain't just Farmer Hoggett. His IMDb page lists 157 titles and growing, including other memorable roles in "L.A. Confidential," "The Green Mile," "Six Feet Under," and of course, "The Artist."

My hope is that some day this incredible American actor will be most commonly known as "The guy who played Bud Vogel in 'Memorial Day.'" Because this is one of the biggest roles he's played in a feature film, and he absolutely nails it.

Sure, I'm biased. But I only echo the sentiments of others who've seen the movie in screenings: When "Bud" takes his first drink of lemonade on the porch at about 14 minutes into the movie, everything changes. The movie grounds. A palpable weight settles over everything. The story feels like it's really starting. And you just want to pull up a chair next to "Opa" and listen for bird calls.

I can't claim to have any inside scoop on Mr. Cromwell. I spoke briefly to him on a few occasions on set, and I wrote him a long and hagiographic (look it up) thank-you note when the film was over. I can tell you that he's as kind and generous a human being in person as you would imagine. But mostly I can tell you that this role should cause the country (and, frankly, the Academy) to finally give him his proper due.

Why is "Memorial Day" worth your time? Because you get to see one of the world's greatest actors at the top of his game, absolutely shattering that patronizing "character actor" moniker, and bringing to life a man who's so specific that he becomes universal.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why "Memorial Day" Is Worth Your Time: Reason #2

From the very first meeting we had on "Memorial Day," back when it was just an idea, I've said that this isn't a "war movie." I still believe that, but it's hard to work against the convenience of that term. So let's accept that this is, to some extent, a war movie. Within that genre, I would argue that "Memorial Day" might just be the first war movie for women.
What you don't see is that Grandma is watching this whole thing.

Now, I hesitate to even say that, and it feels strange to type it. It seems to smack of sexism. After all, we now live at a time when 20 percent of all new recruits, 15 percent of all active-duty military and 11 percent of forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. Women see war, and women see war movies (though not nearly as much as men, that can't be disputed). Plus, the main characters in "Memorial Day" are, in fact, men. So what do I mean by that? 

In "Memorial Day," we see a woman (Betty Vogel, "Oma") who has spent decades living with a husband who won't talk about the war. What happens to her on an emotional level when her grandson finally cracks that code and breaks the silence? In Iraq, it takes a doctor ("Lt. Tripp") to accomplish the same feat for the older Kyle. Betty is far removed from the war; Tripp is smack dab in the middle of it. But they both pick up on all-too-familiar patterns of male stoicism, and they both do their part to fight that battle. 

For the people who market war movies, the assumption is that your main appeal is to young men who want to see stuff blow up. "Memorial Day" challenges that assumption on several levels. Yes, we have stuff blowing up. And tanks. And planes. And guns. So if that's what you want to see, you won't be disappointed. (We have the first flying P-38 to appear in a film in some 60 years, as a matter of fact.) But this story isn't just about how men relate to war. It's about how women relate to the men who relate to war.

And, like many things related to this movie, I don't think that's ever been done before. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why "Memorial Day" Is Worth Your Time: Reason #1

When "Memorial Day" was just an idea without a script, Sam Fischer and I sat down one day to interview a series of veterans--older guys who had served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam (in fact, one vet we interviewed served in all three). All of those on-camera interviews were compelling, but one moment in particular stuck with me over the next five months as I wrote the screenplay.

One of the vets, I'll call him Mike, seemed especially uncomfortable in front of the lights. As our interviewer asked him questions about his time in Korea, he was difficult to understand. He spoke in a deep baritone rich with experience, but he also spoke quickly, often in a kind of laughing mutter, and he didn't seem comfortable.

At one point, Sam and I looked at each other and wordlessly communicated: "Let's let Mike off the hook." Sam thanked Mike for taking the time, told him we "got what we needed" (a white lie if there ever was one), and said we could be done with the interview unless there was anything else Mike wanted to add. To our surprise, he kept right on talking over Sam. In fact, at one point, he paused and looked to the side. His voice lowered a pitch, his speed slowed down, and I remember him suddenly being much more intelligible, as if he was a different person.

We kept the camera rolling as Mike proceeded to tell us about the time he was on the front lines and found a 5-year-old North Korean boy near an air compressor. The boy, clearly lost, abandoned or both, emerged from under a tarp and hugged Mike like there was no tomorrow. When Mike offered him some food, he ignored the spoon and fork and dug right in with his hands. Not knowing what else to do, Mike drove the boy back to camp.

The camp ended up "adopting" the boy, even giving him odd jobs and teaching him some English. Mike grew more and more attached to him, and with the boy refusing to go back home (wherever that was) and no one emerging to claim him, Mike decided to go through the process of legally adopting him.

Everything was all set for the boy to board a plane for the States. Mike had filled out all the paperwork. The Army was providing transportation, and Mike's parents were waiting on the other end of the world to give him a new home. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, a South Korean aunt swooped the boy up. Mike never saw or heard from him again, despite two attempts to do so once he was stateside.

Some time after digesting that story, we turned the lights off, everybody took a minute, and we again thanked Mike. "You know," he said. "This is the first time I've talked about the war since the day I got home." My jaw dropped. Not only had this man told a story worthy of its own movie, but he had just informed us that the first time he had shared his war experiences was over half a century later in front of complete strangers, with lights blinding him and a camera in his face.

This is when I realized what this movie could really do. It was the moment I understood that most vets actually want to tell their stories; they're just waiting for someone to ask, even to insist. And it almost doesn't matter who's on the other end of the conversation, just as long as they're listening.

Why is "Memorial Day" worth your time? Because nearly everyone who has already seen the film in screenings has approached me, Sam or the dozens of others who made this movie and said, in effect, that they know a Mike. If he's still living, they suddenly feel inspired to talk to him. If he's not, they feel a twinge of remorse that they never got the chance.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Introduction

My name is Marc Conklin, and I'm the screenwriter of a new film called "Memorial Day," starring James Cromwell, Jonathan Bennett, Jackson Bond and James Cromwell's doppelganger son, John. (That's me in the picture, although I usually don't look that Hollywood.)

I'm starting this blog two and a half months before the official release of this film, because I see this as more than "just another movie," or even "just another movie named after a holiday." The title of this blog ("open the footlocker") provides a clue as to why. 

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, "Memorial Day" is a feature-length drama about a boy ("Kyle") who finds his grandfather's World War II footlocker while spending a Memorial Day afternoon at his farmhouse. After some cajoling, Kyle strikes a deal with his grandpa ("Bud"): He can pick any three items from the footlocker, and Bud will tell him the stories behind each one. 

It would be interesting enough to flash back to Bud's stories from the 82nd Airborne (which we do), but the film also flashes forward to Kyle's later experiences with the "Red Bulls" in Iraq (34th Infantry out of Minnesota). Kyle's experiences parallel Bud's in key ways, and the movie is ultimately about how that day on the porch helps both grandfather and grandson deal with their experiences.

My experience in working on this film goes far beyond the days that I sat on set watching director Sam Fischer magically make it all happen. Every step of the process--starting with sitting in a hunting lodge in Le Center, Minnesota, as we interviewed living veterans from every American conflict from World War II to Afghanistan--certainly gave me something to remember. 

But this blog isn't just about me (fittingly) sharing my memories. It's about making the case that this film is for everyone. I went into the project thinking of it as the first-ever war/family movie. (And indeed, it is.) But to me, it's also far more. It's a human movie. It's for anyone who's ever said or heard the words "don't ask grandpa about the war." But it's also for anyone who's ever held back sharing any difficult story. It's about encouraging others to tell those stories. And, in fact, it's about the immortality of storytelling itself.

Between now and the official release of "Memorial Day" on May 29, I'll be writing "Five Reasons Why 'Memorial Day' Is Worth Your Time," and maybe a few reports from film festivals and special screenings. Stay tuned.