How to make a war movie for a broader audience

Published: Thursday, Aug. 16 2012 3:25 p.m. MDT

Dave Nibley plays the role of "Jones" in "Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed."

Go Films

When director Ryan Little and producer Adam Abel finished “Saints and Soldiers” in 2003, the film originally received an R rating.

That was a problem for two content-conscious filmmakers hoping to create a film that parents and teenagers could be comfortable with.

So the duo made some adjustments and had to “go the rounds” with the Motion Picture Association of America, but eventually secured a PG-13 rating.

Obtaining a PG-13 rating for “Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed,” however, was not a problem.

“Because of that experience, we had that mindset going in,” Abel said. “This time it sailed through.”

The “mindset,” Abel explained, was a concentrated effort to make a film that balances the horror of war and maintains broad audience appeal, especially for families. Their film is less about the graphic realities of war and more about "moments of humanity."

“It’s a tricky balance,” Little said. “We want to make sure there’s enough action, character development and drama, so that you can have that great roller coaster ride, but we also downplayed the elements of gore and things like that to get into that rating zone.”

"Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed," which stars Jasen Wade, Corbin Allred, David Nibley and Lincoln Hoppe, premieres in theaters Friday, Aug. 17.

The World War II movie focuses on the mission of a U.S. Army elite unit, the 517th, a parachute regimental combat team that jumped into enemy territory in Southern France on Aug. 15, 1944. Their mission, Operation: Dragoon, was to support and protect the Allied troops marching to Berlin. Those that survived the jump into the fog fell under immediate attack. The story is based on true events and characters, including Harland “Bud” Curtis, a member of the 1st Battalion communications section.

The movie was shot in Northern Utah in 15 days. As an independent, low-budget film, Little and Abel will be the first to say that “Airborne Creed” is no “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers,” epic productions that are jam-packed with Hollywood’s expensive, state-of-the-art special effects.

But they also wanted to create a WWII movie that is authentic, compelling and accurate in nature, yet still maintains sensitivity to their target audience.

Amidst the exploding bombs, machine gun fire and bloody makeup, Little says they followed the same recipe that worked in the first “Saints and Soldiers," which won several best picture awards at film festivals around the country.

“The reality of war is pretty graphic and hard-core. As we did our research, we heard some pretty horrific war stories, and we’d say, ‘Yeah, that won’t go in our movie,’” Little said laughing. “At the same time, there are a lot of emotional stories that are touching, the moments of humanity in war. Those are the ones we gravitate toward, where someone in a really difficult situation makes the right choice.

“War is more gory than we portray it, but we’re not trying to make a giant visual spectacle with lots of violence. We are going more for the humanity hidden in the depths of war, the human story, the relationships between the characters.”

It was important to Little and Abel that “Airborne Creed” not be an hour and a half of soldiers in green uniforms and helmets, running through forest. They sought to place the characters into a variety of locations and circumstances. They focused on making it easy to identify the three main American soldiers, such as giving Allred’s character a Mohawk hairdo, or Nibley’s character a necklace with a religious cross, so the audience could relate and connect with them. The director and producer also offered quick glimpses into the soldiers' civilian lives before the war. Wade’s character, based on the experiences of Curtis, often flashes back to time he spent with his girlfriend back home.

Perhaps the most mesmerizing aspect of the characters is how they react to the intense circumstances of war.

“I’m fascinated with how does a person maintain who they are when in a difficult situation. How do you maintain a good attitude, a sense of humor, or a desire to help others, when your life is in danger and you could be killed at any moment? How do you hold yourself together?” Little said. “I think those are things that Adam and I find fascinating.”

Little and Abel took the artistic liberty to include a young woman, a member of the French resistance, in the plot to appeal to the female demographic.

“Usually it (the plot) is about ‘We got to protect this castle’ or ‘We have to take this location,’ and that’s all the movie is about, and you don’t get to know the characters,” Little said. “We wanted to hit all demographics. If the audience doesn’t like the characters, it doesn’t matter how many explosions there are, they’re not going to love the movie.”

Little and Abel are both married with children. They wanted their kids to be able to see the film and appreciate it.

“We are sensitive to the things that we entertain them with,” Abel said.

Avoiding profanity was priority in the film, although members of the 517th often used a mild expression that Little said didn’t seem right to alter.

“We felt there might be a lot of veterans that would love for their grandkids to see this film,” Little said. “I think it’s great when different generations can have an experience together and equally enjoy that experience. We wanted to create an experience where a bond is made.”

Hoyt Kelley was a member of the 517th and was interviewed by Little and Abel for the film. The 89-year-old veteran from Logan, Utah, was a staff sergeant over training in military intelligence in the 1st Battalion of the 517th who led night patrols. While some parts of the movie were fictionalized and “cleaned up,” Kelley, who screened “Airborne Creed” twice, endorsed it by saying it was very realistic.

“I’m not much on war movies, to be honest. They deviated from the story a little, but all in all, I thought they did a pretty good job. It’s certainly the best Utah movie I’ve seen,” Kelley said. “It’s a great family picture.”

Wade, who played Levi Savage in “17 Miracles,” didn’t think the film was so family-friendly.

“Not sure I would let my 8-year-old daughter watch this film yet. Maybe next year or the year after,” Wade wrote in an email. “It still has a necessary level of violence that is crucial to the storyline, that may not be suitable for all family members. War is hell. If you don't show the hell then you have simply sanitized history and left out a dimension of storytelling, doing a disservice to the men and women who sacrificed so much. There has to be honesty in the filmmaking process, but you also have control what you focus on, and how much you focus on it. Some films focus mainly on the hell, and others focus on the heroics. My hope is that our film did the latter.”

Wade gave Little and Abel an ‘A’ grade for how they told the story and developed the characters, especially in their effort to portray the Germans as humane and dignified soldiers.

“What sets ‘Saints and Soldiers’ apart from other war films is that we don't just blow things up. We bring heart to a very heroic piece of world history,” Wade said. “If the budget allowed, I am sure we would have had more action, but what set the first ‘Saints’ movie apart was the heart of the film, and the audiences loved it. ‘Airborne Creed,’ I feel, has the same amount of heart and just a little more action.”

Despite all their work, Little and Abel know they will have critics, and that's just fine.

“Someone will be upset about something; no movie goes unscathed,” Little said. “We accept that.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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