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.