The "On Duty" panel at this year's ATX TV Festival. The discussion focused on the increasing ways military veterans are moving behind the camera to better projects focused on their stories.
From L to R: Jared Lyon (President of Student Veterans of America), Mikka Alanne, and Eric Bourquin.
From L to R: Graham Yost, Anna Fricke, and Tyler Grey.
AUSTIN, Texas—If you ask Graham Yost—prolific TV producer with a resume including Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and Justified—accuracy in on-screen military portrayals is a relatively new phenomenon, similar to how tech ranging from the latest hacker tools to futuristic autonomous bots have recently become increasingly grounded in reality. Ground zero for this idea won't surprise any fans of this particular entertainment genre.
"In some historical military films, there have been some training of actors, but I think a lot of this really starts with Dale Dye and [Saving] Private Ryan ," Yost says during ATX TV Festival's panel on modern military television. "That set a template for people, and we wouldn't have done Band without it. In fact, when the cast of Band gets together every year, the day they pick for their reunion is the first day of bootcamp. That's when they felt they came together as a unit."
Of course, even projects like Band and Saving Private Ryan ran up against limits to realism despite lauded end-products. Even if Yost and others could set up months-long bootcamps for actors and get prop and VFX teams to recreate gear and tactics as accurately as possible, historical wars inherently had the sad hurdle of firsthand accounts increasingly being inaccessible. Donnie Wahlberg (Carwood Lipton in Band) was uniquely fortunate that he could connect with his real-life inspiration, Yost recalls. But the same approach to research and accuracy couldn't happen for The Pacific, and it gets increasingly difficult for any newly proposed period projects as 20th-century wars and veterans from WWII to Vietnam and Korea age.
While military projects on TV in general feel less frequent today—"We had a huge boom in military drama to now almost everything being cancelled," says Mikka Alanne, showrunner of NatGeo's new Iraq War miniseries, The Long Road Home. "But it ends up being cyclical, and I think it'll come back. There will always be a place for these stories."
But current projects appear to have a distinct advantage. Not only has there been a swell of new series focused on more recent military happenings (meaning more vets to tap as research resources), but these shows have started enlisting veterans to be more than just fountains of knowledge—they're increasingly becoming technical advisors, producers, directors, and even actors.
"I've got two SEALs and two former Army operations vets as three producers and an advisor," says Tyler Grey, a former Army ranger working as an actor and producer on CBS' new SEAL Team. "We hired 150 [veterans] over the course of a season between stunts, acting, and other various roles. Whenever I can push for a veteran to get these roles, can they do it? Are they good? Let's do it."
More than technique
Getting veterans involved directly with TV and film projects comes with a multitude of benefits according to the panel; increased accuracy merely represents the most obvious one. As just one example, the CW's Valor focuses on a female pilot in Army special ops according to executive producer Anna Fricke. While the show did snag two female veterans for its team—April Fitzsimmons and Shamar S. White—originally, the CW had a former SEAL in mind to act as the show's technical advisor. But then Fricke started having conversations with Grey, given the veteran has a reputation as a go-to contact in Hollywood for military projects.
"[The show']s about 160th Special Ops helicopters, but you were going to use a SEAL," Grey recalls. "I said, 'Let me get you the guy… I need a 160th guy. I don't need a guy, I need the guy."
"And Dan Laguna was definitely the guy," Fricke recalls, speaking about the veteran formerly of the Special Operations Aviation Regiment. "The man who wrote the pilot had a brother who was a Ranger, so we wanted to be respectful and tell this story and why they did what they believed in as accurately as possible."
For the vets themselves, that sometimes subtle-on-screen dedication to the truth feels important. Poor portrayals of war and military life can at best lead to veteran viewers being taken out of the story and at worst can perpetuate misinformation or inaccurate stereotypes. And even if budget restraints or network concerns prevent a project from being a 100-percent accurate depiction, having a veteran around for production ensures a level of authenticity that avoids such pitfalls.
"I ask vets all the time, what do you think about the way military is portrayed? 'It's horrible, it's wrong.' OK, so how do you think it's going to change? If we're not there, will it magically fix itself?" Grey says. "'Is it real?' I say no, it's a TV show. It's not meant to be real, but it's meant to feel authentic. We focus on the story, making it feel as authentic as possible. And then I address every detail I can—cause if someone's helmet is on backwards, I'm out of it now. You had me, but the helmet's backwards, you lost me. You have to balance your time, but you don't want to pull a vet, service member out of it."
Off-screen, veteran participation serves another important role—that of healing, of therapy. Eric Bourquin now serves as a consultant for The Long Road Home, but the project didn't immediately interest him. This 1st Cavalry Division vet lived this particular story, after all. Why go through it all again?
"Eric was reluctant to get involved—the material is traumatic, harrowing, and certain difficult to relive," Alanne admits. "But he appreciated our desire to make it as authentic as possible, so I asked for an interview. He said 'I don't know, let's do lunch…' Then we had lunch. Next, it was, 'OK, I''ll do it, but I can't promise my wife will do an interview.' Then I went to their house and spent a day with them. Eric took me to Ft. Hood to see how they trained, and it started the journey for Eric to become an advisor with his friend Aaron [Fowler, Bourquin's fellow vet of the 1st]."
The two vets worked with the prop teams about everything from how the Kevlar looked to how radios were configured, Alanne says. They also helped with actors' bootcamp and worked constantly on set to help the actors understand the psychological burden of war.
"I can't say enough about the selflessness to constantly reopen the wounds of that day so we can share that story with the world," Alanne says.
"When you share your story, it becomes more real and more people can experience it," Bourquin replies. "And that's healing, because it becomes a shared experience."
Going forward, those in attendance all shared a similar goal—to see this trend not only continue but to see it expand beyond vets largely acting as tech advisors and research resources. Grey, for instance, started appearing on screen in SEAL Team. That's both a newer opportunity for veterans and it can lead to increased technical detail since, when the time comes for a character to clear a room, for instance, Grey can do it quickly and correctly while star David Boreanaz can follow with the other actors to then handle the drama. "They can focus on really portraying the emotions and playing to the camera, and I can sell the technique," Grey says. "Everyone can specialize—it's movie magic."
Alanne even notes military veterans should be looked to as a resource for TV and film projects beyond this specific genre. After all, time in the military places a person in many unique situations—active battles, imminent horror, dealing with loss or injuries, working as a highly efficient team, etc.—that seem applicable within more frequent project premises.
"Vets have had experiences that just a small fraction of people have had—I'm always struck by stories of what the act of killing is like and how it changes you, or what the consequences of war are," the showrunner says. "During night shoots talking with Eric, we'd discover we both loved horror, and we'd talk about aliens and various sci-fi. It's clear [veterans] can offer so much more. They have experience others haven't, and it's our obligations to give them more opportunities."
Listing image by NatGeo