Interview: Dale Dye Talks Platoon, Tropic Thunder and What War Movies Get Wrong

Interview: Dale Dye Talks Platoon, Tropic Thunder and What War Movies Get Wrong

May 24, 2011

Platoon is a bold, indelible look at the emotional toll war exacts on soldiers. Obviously a huge portion of that credit goes to writer-director Oliver Stone and the amazing cast he assembled to help him deal with his own personal experiences fighting in Vietnam, but there is another individual without whom Platoon simply wouldn't not have been possible: Dale Dye.

Most people will recognize Dye as a "that guy" character actor, showing up all over the place as the go-to high ranking military official. (I best recognize him as Col. Sink from Band of Brothers.) And while he's appeared in front of the camera in everything from Under Siege to Knight and Day, Dye got his start as Oliver Stone's technical advisor on Platoon, where he used his 20+ years of military experience to make sure the movie's version of Vietnam was as close to the real thing as possible. He put all of the actors through a multi-week training camp, ambushing them at night, keeping them on their toes, giving them as close to a combat experience as possible so they'd be in the right emotional state when it came time to filming.

That's just one of the things Dye brought to the Platoon table. To learn more, I'd highly recommend picking up a copy of the new, 25th Anniversary Platoon Blu-ray and giving the retired U.S. Marine Captain's solo commentary track a listen. It's a fascinating and thorough recollection of what he and Stone wanted to do with the movie and what they went through to make it happen.

In the mean time, here's our chat with Dale Dye about what made him want to get into the film business, the burden of making an accurate war movie and what he's up to next. Coming to the project, what was your approach? Did you and Oliver Stone do your own thing or did you go through a reference catalog of war movies and decide we don't want to do this, this and this?

Dale Dye: Oliver and I first met when I was desperately attempting to get my foot in the door on films as a military advisor and I wasn't having much luck. Then I saw this little blurb in Daily Variety that said an heretofore unknown writer-director named Oliver Stone was going to make a Vietnam film about his own experiences as a combat infantryman, I said, "There's my shot! I've got to get in there."

I'm a multi-tour Vietnam guy.  I know that war, I know the effect of combat on people, I know what it's like to be in a line infantry outfit. So when I finally did arrange a meeting with Oliver I went into my best two-minute drill. He didn't say much, but I did. I said, Look, here's my feeling of what's wrong with war movies. It's not so much the technical aspects, we can get that right – the right weapons, the right uniforms, the right gear worn correctly – what I felt was missing was that extraordinary interpersonal relationship, that psychological and emotional bond that infantrymen have. I said I thought the reason for that was because [those movies] are clueless about them. It's the antithesis of how an actor lives his life.

So my view was to train them in a very grueling and regimented situation where, simply because they were fully immersed in it, they would have to come to those emotional and psychological insights. If we can get them there, we will get performances that no one has ever seen in a military film. And Oliver absolutely got that. He said, "Yep, you're right," or words to that effect. And at that point we knew we were kindred spirits, that it was our goal to provide the actors with that sort of emotional baggage they could bring to their performances.

That's what our approach was. We were very specific about it.

What was your motivation to desperately want to get your foot in the door in the first place? Was it that you were annoyed by war movies or just a simple case of, "Oh, I'm retired now, this is something I could probably do..."

[Laughs] I think we've got to go with the first one. Door number one, Peter. I'd always been a movie fan and specifically a fan of war movies because it was my life for twenty-some years. The common denominator there was that they pissed me off. Annoyed is too kind a word. The reason was not because of the technical gaffs – the wrong weapon in the wrong period, gear worn silly. Those things angered me, but it was something much more than that. It was this lack of understanding, of the real, emotional impact of combat. The relationship between people, how those things form. The black humor that allows you to cope with it.

You weren't seeing those things. Or if you were seeing them, they were feeble attempts at getting them. And so I said, "This has to be fixed! I can't stand it!" And when you're ignorant, you can do a lot of things that people tell you you can't do. And so I said, "I'm going to fix this crap."

I came out to L.A. and embarked on a mission and like any good marine I just put a bayonet in my teeth and went hey-diddle-diddle right up the middle. And as I said earlier, I wasn't doing very well trying to convince people I had a better idea. Hollywood is a very tough nut to crack and there was an opinion in those days that anybody who has spent his life in the military was clearly a cretin and was some time of knuckle-dragging nose picker who doesn't have a creative bone in his body. I was fighting against that prejudice.

Platoon was able to show them that might not be the case.

In those early times did you have aspirations to act as well? Or was that just a side effect?

No, no. [Laughs] I was caught in the shrapnel fan there. Oliver had seen me training troops, had seen me lecturing and demonstrating. I think he just saw that and thought I was a natural performer. Throughout my military career I've always been a believer in what General Patton said, which was, among other things, that the best leaders are the best actors. You've got to play a role so convincingly, even if it isn't really your personality or isn't really what you believe, to have an influence on people.

I had been a practitioner of that sort of thing and I think it just made me a natural, on-camera actor sort of guy.

Did you have the foresight when you started production on Platoon that you would be shaping and influencing people who had no experience with Vietnam, or people like me who weren't even alive at the time, and how they perceived it? Was that a burden of responsibility you felt at the time or was it only later that you measured the impact Platoon would have?

No, that came later. I think Oliver and I had tacitly agreed that we would like to make a film that gave audiences who were not in Vietnam a look at what it was like for a basic Army line infantry outfit. All the warts, all the problems, all the disparities, all the emotional upheavals. We wanted to give people an insight into that. But it was on a relatively low-key basis. We had no idea it was going to have the impact on society that it did, and when it did we both kind of looked at each other in shock.

The film hit at a time in America, a good ten years after the official end of the war in Vietnam, in which I think Americans, regardless of which side of the fence they were on, for or against war, anti or pro Viet Nam, wanted to get past that divisiveness. They wanted to deal with, and you'll excuse my language, that turd in a punch bowl. They wanted to look into it and try and figure out why ten years later it was still troubling. Platoon sort of filled that niche.

What happened was, and although I don't think we intended this, it melted a huge amount of ice between the community of Vietnam vets in America and society in general. We had veterans coming out of the woodwork saying to their wives, their families and their children, "Look, I haven't wanted to talk about this, I haven't even been able to talk to about this, but I think you should come see this movie Platoon with me and maybe you'll get a little insight as to what it was like." And that was something that was really, really gratifying for both Oliver and I-- that it had that sort of impact.

Since it did have that kind of a profound impact and you guys were so honest and open about what it was like to serve in the war and the relationships it formed and the emotions it involved, does a movie like Tropic Thunder piss you off? To see people spoofing Platoon?

No, not at all. In fact, we worked on that film.

Oh you did?

Yeah. Ben Stiller came to me years before it went into production and he said, "I've got this idea about actors being trained in the field, in reality, like what you do. I'd like to make a comedy about this." And I love comedy! It's one of my favorite genres. I love to laugh and I don't mind laughing at myself. I think we need that experience; we need to find the humor even in the most pathetic situations. So, no, it doesn't upset me. It is what it intends to be. A huge farce, a huge send up.

Now if there had been an intent to try and say, "This is the way it is," it probably would have upset me. But there wasn't and it didn't, so I just laugh at the whole thing. It's nice to see Nick Nolte playing somebody like me. No, didn't upset me at all. I got a big kick out of it and I'm glad we were able to work on it.

What would you say is Platoon's lasting legacy 20+ years later?

I think it's that Platoon had such insights as to what war does to human beings. In particular, a nasty, divisive war like what Viet Nam was. And because it has those insights it continues to be a favorite for our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that's the reason. They see commonalities there. They see similar experiences in what those characters felt and did to what they're feeling and doing in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.

It has sort of become the lingua franca in the veteran's community. It doesn't make any difference which war, it has something in there for everyone who has, as we say, seen the elephant and heard the owl. I think that is its lasting legacy.

What projects do you have down the line?

I've come to be a writer-director in addition to a military consultant, and so I've got a new World War II film that I wrote about the 82nd Airborne's fight for the La Fiere Bridge on D-day. I wrote it, I'm going to direct it and we'll probably be shooting this summer.

Does that have a title?

Yep, it's called No Better Place to Die.

Very cool, I can't wait to see you back in the WWII arena. One of my favorite things to do is, and I do this every year, find someone who hasn't seen Band of Brothers and make them watch it straight through.

[Laughs] That's another one that has a lasting legacy. Band of Brothers and The Pacific-- every year a slew of veterans get those box sets as gifts for Christmas and that just delights me.

Categories: Features
Tags: Platoon, Dale Dye
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