I made my first war movie for Mr. Hammond’s Lit class in the 11th grade. We’d been reading O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which is about the Vietnam War. I was inspired to direct a war movie on par with Saving Private Ryan.
The script was about an elderly veteran writing a memoir. He recalls a moment when he’d looked into the eyes of an adversary before he killed him. My friend Casey got his grandfather, Art, to play the part. He was a real Vietnam War veteran.
Art cried to himself while reading portions of O’Brien’s text to the camera. None of us understood why he was so moved. Nobody asked if he was okay.
Later, Mr. Hammond and some of the other teachers wanted to know who’d played the narrator. They thought his performance was stellar.
I was unhappy with the finished project. The flashbacks were poorly executed. Looked like a bunch of sweaty teenagers playing paintball in Florida flatwoods.
The uniforms were mismatched. Air Force gear. Camo fatigues. An olive jump suit. Oversized hand-me-down boots looking like clown shoes. Air-pump BB guns.
I made a second war film for Mrs. Blankenbuehler’s American History class a year later. Much effort was put into production design. The film was to be an historically accurate portrayal of the Vietnam War. I began my research by watching Saving Private Ryan over and over and over again.
I bought camouflage fatigues and World War II helmets from the army surplus store. The helmets were olive and didn’t match the fatigues. Everybody in Vietnam wore camouflage. So I got camouflage fabric from Wal-Mart and glued it to the helmets. They were pretty convincing when it was all said and done.
I bought several airsoft AK-47s from SuperFlea. The muzzles were orange-tipped, like BB guns. So people would know they were fake. I spray-painted the orange caps black to make them look real.
Fifteen friends showed up at my house on the day of the shoot. Everybody got into fatigues and selected their weapons for the day. We planned to shoot in an abandoned lot on a cul-de-sac in the back of the neighborhood. I had everybody march to location for fun. Made sure they all looked serious. Like real soldiers. Soldiers on a mission.
I was vaguely aware of bystanders watching our march. People cocking their heads at us as they mowed their lawns and washed their cars and pruned their rose bushes. Eying us suspiciously.
We got to the empty lot and prepared to shoot. There were some handsome dirt mounds that would look great on camera. I mapped out all the shots. My friends feigned masturbation with their guns.
There was a woman watering her azaleas at the house next door. She was watching us closely. Her toddler was playing with trucks in the driveway.
The first shot was a closeup of Ryan, who was poised behind a dirt mound. In the viewfinder he was all helmet and rifle with palmettos in the background. I was about to roll off the first shot when Azalea Mom screamed.
A police cruiser roared into the cul-de-sac, lights flashing and sirens wailing. Azalea Mom grabbed her toddler and ran into her house. The cop jumped out and pointed his gun right at me.
He told everybody to drop their weapons. Everyone did. Had us put our hands in the air. And we did. Then he told us not to stick our arms directly above our heads like they do in the movies, but straight out. Parallel to the ground. So we did that too.
Cop asked me if everybody in my gang was present and I said yes. Nobody hiding in the woods? No. You sure ’bout that? Yes.
He was quiet for a while, trying to register what the hell we were doing. Then he went ahead and asked what the hell we were doing.
I said I was making a war movie and these were actors. He asked if the rifles were real. I said no. Then he lowered his gun and approached.
He grabbed Ryan’s gun, looked it over. Said that airsoft guns had orange tips to show they’re fake. I told him I’d painted all the orange tips black to make them look real.
He said that if I wanted to shoot a war movie, I should go ahead and do it in my own backyard. I told him I would have but my yard didn’t look much like Vietnam. The woods around the cul-de-sac were better.
Seven calls to the police about our movie. It had been three months since Columbine. Adults were still weary of gun-wielding teenagers. I wrote a paper about the Vietnam War for Mrs. Blankenbuehler instead.
I reattempted the shoot seven months later. There was a huge tract of virgin land behind the SpaceCoast Credit Union. People went out there to ride four-wheelers and shoot real guns at washing machines.
I did more research. Watched Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan. Bought vintage Vietnam uniforms. Ordered deactivated grenades. Found a hollowed missile shell at the army-navy store. It was four feet tall and olive green with stencil lettering on the side.
I bought five mortars and dismantled them. They would be buried in the sand and detonated at key moments while rolling. Figured buried mortars would look just like mines and grenades when exploded.
The actors arrived at the SpaceCoast Credit Union in street clothes. We had about twenty people to grab all the duffel bags from my car, which contained military fatigues, guns, props, fake blood, and SunChips. Then we marched through the woods.
I selected a scenic gully. I asked Ryan to bury the mortars. We’d forgotten to bring the shovel so he used his hands. The actors were getting dressed and selecting weapons.
A potbellied guy on a four-wheeler drove right through set. He flicked open the visor on his helmet and asked if the AK-47s were real. I said they were airsofts. He told me they usually had orange tips so you’d know they’re fake. Then he wished us well and drove off.
My buddy Billy and I hiked back to the cars to grab cases of water and found a police cruiser parked right by my car. A cop was pacing the lot, radioing for backup. I spun on my heels to go back into the woods but he spotted me and told me to get my ass out in plain view. So I did.
He told me to put my hands in the air. I stuck them straight out, parallel to the ground, and he told me to put them straight up. So I did. He pointed at my purple Honda Civic.
This your car?
The front passenger door was open.
The cop was sweating bullets. Had a hand on his holster. The radio was clattering to him. Promising backup.
He asked me to identify an object in the passenger seat. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he commanded me to slowly approach my car. As I approached he backed away from me like I was armed.
Then I saw it.
The missile shell.
I explained to him that it was a hollow shell. Unscrewed the cap and showed him that it was filled with towels and T-shirts and stuff.
He called off backup. Asked what the hell I was doing in the woods behind the SpaceCoast Credit Union with missile shells and such. I said I was making a war movie for school.
Cop laughed and admitted that I’d scared him good. Said he didn’t quite know how to deal with folks blowing up banks and such. I reiterated that I was just making a war movie.
He said that if I wanted to play war games I should do so in the safety of my own backyard. Otherwise I could scare some folks and get shot. I agreed.
Cop told me that he’d let me play my war games out in the woods. But only on the condition that there be absolutely no guns firing. No explosions. He said that if he heard something go boom, my ass was grass. I promised him there would be no explosions.
We pushed farther into the woods and filmed our movie. Three out of five mortars exploded and sent dirt ten feet in the air. Still looked like a bunch of teenagers in fatigues shooting paintballs at each other.
The final shot was a wide view of the carnage. Bodies strewn about. Billowing smoke. One blood-soaked survivor getting to his feet, surveying the aftermath. Potbellied guy on a four-wheeler speeding through the woods in the background.
Now I only make character dramas.