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Director series: John Dahl


When he began making The Great Raid back in October 2001, director John Dahl had no idea that by the time his movie would be released America would be at war once again. The film is based on the release of 500 American POWs from a Japanese war camp in the Philippines in 1945. “What I liked about this story is that it reveals that freedom often comes with a price of sacrifice,” says Dahl, whose father fought in the Philippines. “It shows how our country has been able in the times of greatest need to really go deep and overcome huge obstacles. We did it in Cabanatuan and we will do it again when needed in the future.”Certainly, Dahl had his own obstacles to overcome, not least of which was recreating WWII-era Philippines in a modern-day production shot entirely on location on the other side of the globe. He tells Below the Line of the collaborative effort involved in bringing this moving tale to the big screen…Below the Line: You shot The Great Raid in Australia and in Shanghai. Why those two places?Dahl: We needed a subtropical climate and a large workforce. At one point Thailand was discussed but it was the monsoon season. The other option was Hawaii. We found that Australia had more resources. Simple things like lumber is expensive in Hawaii. There’s more infrastructure in Australia. And Australia has a very established film industry and sound stages. Then Shanghai: we looked at trying to recreate Manila in 1945 in Australia, but it became complicated and expensive. Miramax had been flirting with the idea of doing other films in China, so we took advantage of that. The film studio we used in Shanghai was 70 acres, which is massive. In the movie you see five city blocks, cable cars, a church, a river… all of that exists on the backlot.BTL: What kind of historical accuracy were you going for in terms of things like props and costumes?Dahl: That was a large part of the production, and it accounted for our long preproduction period. We started preproduction in October 2001, and began shooting in July 2002. We had a [US] military supervisor, Dale Dye, who’s done close to 50 movies, and we had a Japanese military supervisor. And Bill Breuer, who wrote The Great Raid, supervised. Our producer Marty Katz was in the army and a veteran of Vietnam and he has contacts in the US army and the Department of Defense. We’d get all these people involved to try and find things and come to a consensus. The art department was massive. The set of the camp was 200 by 250 meters. Trying to actually bring things in from the Philippines all the time was a challenge. Vehicles were a huge thing: to find them, to paint them the right color, to keep them running… it was endless. We had three planes that were built in the ’40s flying around all the time. The Hudson Bomber we used had to leave our set half an hour before sunset, because it didn’t have the instruments to fly at night, and that was a time challenge because we wanted to shoot it at sunset.Lizzy Gardiner, our costume designer, spent a great deal of time and energy to get the correct materials together to make the US and Japanese uniforms. It’s not that easy to get WWII material anymore so we had to scour the world for it. There’s only two manufacturers of the herringbone material that was used in military uniforms. The webbing on the belts and holsters was hard to find, to coordinate and design. For Lizzy it was a massive job. Then she had the challenge of how do make the uniforms look dirty enough. We ended up putting cooking oil on them.BTL: Did you use real weapons?Dahl: We did. We sourced all the weapons from China. But they wouldn’t let our armorer go to China to inspect them, because they were at a military installation and they didn’t want anyone to know where they were. Australia has very strict gun laws, so part of negotiating to film in Australia was to get them to allow us to use weapons and bring them in. We wrote a $150,000 check and sent it to China in the hope they would fill a container and send it to Australia, and then we had to hope that Australian authorities wouldn’t send them back, because the serial numbers weren’t exactly correct. Our team of armorers had a very big job, keeping track of all the weapons. There was tight security on set. After we’d finished shooting, all the weapons were gathered up by the Australian government and destroyed.BTL: Talk about your collaboration with your cinematographer, Peter Menzies Jr. What were you going for in terms of look?Dahl: I was thrilled to get him. He’s Australian, and he’s such a great cinematographer. We had to figure out how to shoot at night when there was little light. And our set was massive. We wanted to give it a feel of an older, almost like a David Lean movie. We decided to use Super 35 because we had so much night shooting. When I think of WWII I think of it in black and white. But we were outside and there were these bright green colors and bright blue skies; we chose to desaturating the film and bring it into a more narrow spectrum to give a feel that you were watching something from the past. We had so many days shooting outside and had to shoot in different weather conditions, so we settled early on on doing a DI to give us greater control over the image and the quality.BTL: Had you done a DI before?Dahl: I hadn’t done DI before. It was interesting. Film timers have been doing [their work] forever and they’re so good at it; they look at a film and they hone in on a particular look. What’s a little frustrating with digital timing is it requires more time. I think I spent a month timing it. The director and DP need to be there most of the time. It’s hands-on and you’re going through every shot in the movie and timing it. It’s a very time-intensive process. We’re all kind of adjusting to it, because normally you’re mixing a film when you’re color timing, but you can’t be in two places at once.BTL: The weakening of Joseph Fiennes’ character as he gets sicker is effectively created. He looks progressively gaunt and his eyes start to bulge, and you know he’s struggling to hold on to life. How was that achieved?Dahl: It was a big job for hair and makeup. The makeup was fantastic. I hardly ever had to go to the makeup trailer; they were always spot on. All the POWs had to be on a very strict diet; Joe [Fiennes] lost a great deal of weight; which all of them had to do. They were eating yoghurt and vegetables throughout the shoot. And at one point Joe injured his face in a surfboarding accident and we had to change our schedule completely as he was off for five weeks. That meant all of their diets got extended by five weeks. I later heard they cheated a little bit with beer and pizza!BTL: The film is low on whiz-bang visual effects, yet you have quite a large team of visual effects artists. Were there effects challenges we don’t see on the screen?Dahl: If you notice the visual effects then we screwed up. In fact, it was a huge effects show. We used over a million-dollars-worth of digital effects in the film. Our visual effects were done at Animal Logic. In the opening shot, the ships were added, tents were added and extra planes were put in. The shot of Manila and the river was actually shot in Shanghai, and that’s modern-day Shanghai on the other side of the rivers. We took out the barges and painted in a new cityscape. Every blood hit in the move was done with visual effects. We found it was easier to shoot if we just put dust hits on people. Dust you can clean up, you can keep reloading and reshooting parts over again; blood hits just make a complete mess.BTL: How authentic was your sound design?Dahl: That was another big component. Jon Johnson, our sound designer, went to great lengths to use real sounds of real weapons from the ’40s. The Australian government let us go up and fire live rounds, and those sounds were recorded and sent to Jon in the US. John ha
d done the sound for The Alamo, which was all period weapons as well, so he knew what he was doing. You can’t go to a library to get this amount of detail.BTL: Your had two editors, Scott Chestnut and Pietro Scalia, who edited Black Hawk Down and JFK, among others. Why two editors?Dahl: I’ve done a lot of films with Scott; he’s a really talented guy. We had over a million feet of film when we came back to the States; that’s a huge amount of footage. We were able to get Pietro, who’s fabulous, to come in and help us. He started out doing the raid part, a lot of the action at the end. It was a great process as a director to work with two editors; they both had different styles. The hardest part was trying to remain faithful to the military history and the factual events, and at the same time trying to entertain an audience and move the three stories along. Putting three stories together was something I hadn’t done before; you have to really be careful because if you take too much out you lose the story and if you put too much in you bore people.BTL: The musical score is quite forefront and very traditional. What was the thinking behind that?Dahl: Trevor Rabin did the score, and we loved it. I wanted a very traditional, melodic score. We wanted to make it feel like it was made in 1945. Pietro and I loved the music he’d done, it helped with pacing and created the atmosphere.BTL: Your actors had to undertake a rigorous 10-day boot camp in Queensland before filming began, to give them a taste of what they’d have to portray. Did you send your crew off to boot camp?Dahl: Their boot camp started on the first day of shooting! Our crew was fantastic. I love Australia, partly because the mantra of the entire country is “no whining.” For filmmaking, what could be better? It was interesting shooting in Australia, because the war in the Pacific had a big impact on them. Had the Japanese not been turned back, they were set to attack Australia. So people had strong feelings about the war. Getting kangaroos out of the shot was a challenge, however. We were shooting on a farm and there were a lot of kangaroos.

Written by Sam Molineaux

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