In the second article in the series, One Room With A View goes 12 Rounds with James D. Dever, the master of on-screen warfare. An expert on all things military, contemporary and historical, Sergeant Major USMC (Ret.) Dever is a stickler for realism and authenticity, and the person you want guiding your cinematic firefight. Roger that, Sergeant Major; you’re cleared hot, fire for effect, 12 Rounds incoming…
1. What led you to becoming a military consultant for film? What’s your background?
I joined the United States Marine Corps in 1973 and retired in 1998 as a sergeant major of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. What got me interested in being in the movie business was back in 1986 when I met Clint Eastwood. I worked on Heartbreak Ridge with him while I was in the Marine Corps. The Colonel told me to work with Clint because I was a [gunnery sergeant] at the time, and Clint was playing a [gunnery sergeant], so I spent the whole time, almost every day [with him] when he was here at Camp Pendleton. I said, ‘What can I do when I retire, when I meet my goals in the Marine Corps?’ I met them, and then I got out. Working on that movie in Talega, that was on Camp Pendleton, I said, ‘This is something I’d like to do.’ Working with Clint was awesome; it was fun. All the Marines in the movie are real, except for the key actors. I had to get about 30 [Marines] every day for the 1st Recon Battalion, and every day, [Clint] was great with the Marines, and he was funny. It was a great experience.
2. How do you like to work with actors and directors? Can you describe your process before and during shooting?
First thing, I read the script, write down my script notes and pass it on to the producer about what’s not right. I go through the script and I break it down, all the dialogue, what [the characters] would be doing. Once that’s completed and I’ve passed that on, I then start working with the art department, the prop master, wardrobe, and the 1st[Assistant Director], so that we all work together to make a good product, and then they’ll let me know when I start working with the actors. Once I’ve started working with the actors, then they’ll let me know about the boot camp. Boot camp depends on what [the producers and director] want, whether it’s ‘at the end of every day, they go home,’ or like on Wind Talkers. They gave me seven days, and I took them to the US Marine Corps Kaneohe Base [in Hawaii]. I had my own barracks. They reported on a Sunday; I gave them haircuts, took away their cell phones, and started drilling, training, and teaching them how to be Marines for seven days. For Battle: Los Angeles, I had them for three weeks.
I’ve just finished American Sniper with Clint Eastwood, and I had all the actors for a week in Morocco. It’s fantastic; I go through the processes with them – weapons handling, how to wear the uniform, and how to wear the equipment. The actors are like sponges; they’re trying to get all the information, and it’s great working with the actors and directors I’ve worked with. They listen up, and they want to get everything right. It makes the experience with me and my guys, Quay Terry, Tom Minder and Matt Morgan, who are my military advisers that help me out, fantastic. Every day in boot camp or even on set, [the actors] ask a lot of questions, ‘What do I do here? How do I move?’, and I’ll let them know. I keep an eye on them – we all do, to make sure that they’re holding the weapons correctly, the gear is on right and they’re ready for the scene.
3. For you, what do you consider to be the most important aspect of portrayals of military work to maintain on screen?
The key thing for me when I’m seeing military work on film is, I want to make sure I did my job, when I look at an actor, that he looks his part and acts his part. I’ve seen movies when you see actors, you don’t believe that they’re playing that part. My key is making sure that they’ve absorbed everything [from boot camp] and they believe that, whatever service they’re in, they are that person. It’s making the actors believable, so that [the audiences] believe in them. Like when they have their 782 gear, that’s their vest and helmet, or if they’re in a period piece, their cartridge belt, [it’s important] that they don’t look uncomfortable with the gear, that they look like they’ve been trained, lived in it, been through hell. You feel it in them by the way they respond; that’s the key, that they feel comfortable being that character. It makes it believable.
Working with [the wardrobe department], they’re fantastic. The costume designers are making sure that all the wardrobe [the actors] are wearing is correct for that period. They’re awesome. They get the right gear for the period, from cartridge belts to the vests that we wear now, making sure the weapons are correct. Like on American Sniper, Mike Sexton had everything correct for the Navy SEALs, from the vests to their weapons. That’s the key also, that people watch the film and see realism instead of just a movie with an actor doing his job. I finished [American Sniper] about a week and a half ago, and the experience, working again with Clint Eastwood, was awesome. Bradley Cooper is outstanding, who plays Chris Kyle. It was really great. This is my fourth movie with Clint Eastwood. I did Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Everybody did an outstanding, 100% job for [American Sniper], the art department, all the props, wardrobe. What with Chris Kyle being killed last year, we want to make sure it’s all 100% correct.
4. How would you say your service has helped you when working on film sets and with actors?
It’s really been helped out by my 25 years in the Marine Corps. I was lucky, I worked with all the services in the United States. I worked with the Air Force, the Navy, the Army, and I got to see the higher echelon, and in that way I can help out with the art department. It’s the same on a film set – it’s like a military operation. You’ve got your director who’s in charge, you’ve got everybody who falls underneath, all trying to get the product done and correctly. With my experience, it helps out when I can go to the art department. When I was working on Letters from Iwo Jima, I’ve got all the diagrams of all the Japanese entrenchments on Iwo Jima, and I worked with the props department to make sure we had all the right equipment for each individual. It’s very unique; my experience with the military really helped me out with working with people, and working on a film set.
5. What film would you say is the most accurate compared to your experiences in the military? Do you have a particular on-screen battle sequence that stands out for you?
The films I’ve done, when talking about the battle sequences, like in Wind Talkers with the big landing at Saipan when you see all the Marines and the Japanese in their trenches, that’s accurate. Battle: Los Angeles, though we’re fighting aliens, Aaron Eckhart and all the actors as the Marines are very accurate in the way they moved and fired. It was the same thing on Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags Of Our Fathers when we hit the beaches; those are really accurate. Even when I worked on The Last Samurai with Ed Zwick, getting the Japanese into those formations from 1876, are accurate for that time period in the way that they move, and the weapons they use. One of my favourite movies [that] I think is very accurate, an old movie but I think is fantastic, is Zulu. [The Battle of] Rorke’s Drift, the way they filmed that was done very well, I love it. It’s one of my favourite movies; I watch it all the time. I look at the accuracy of the weapons, the colour sergeant, the lieutenants; they did a really great job with that movie. You felt you were there and it looks real and that’s what to me is a good movie.
6. How do you approach films that are set in a historical context?
For period pieces like The Last Samurai, I have to do a lot of reading and a lot of research, even for modern day [films]. I have a library; I bought books on Civil War tactics, and learned the drill of that time period. I learned how they would do the drill and how they would carry the weapons. I would then go, ‘OK, these are the commands,’ and that’s what you see in the movie, all direct from the books. [I do] a lot of research, a lot of reading, and a lot of training with the equipment that I will be using. Before, in pre-production, I got to see all the equipment, put it on, make sure that it’s the right way, practise the weapon handling, practise the drill with it, and that way when I have the boot camp, as I did with The Last Samurai which was 2 weeks with 500 Japanese, I made sure that everything I had was accurate for that time period.
I’d work with the wardrobe department, the art department, and the stunt coordinator because his men move from Point A to Point B to be killed, but they also need to know how to carry and wear the equipment and their gear, and how to fire the weapons of that time period. All the [on-screen performers] would train in the boot camp, whether they are in the background, [principal] actors, or stuntmen. When I work with directors, I show them the right way, the wrong way, and the director’s way, because not everything is going to go the way it’s supposed to be. The director has his vision, but we make sure that in his vision that it’s going to be correct also.
7. Can you describe your process for a boot camp?
The first day, I give everyone an orientation of what the period is that we’re going to work in, after reading the script. Everything [in the boot camp] is for what we are using in the script. We get them up at 05:30 in the morning, and I do that for every boot camp, then we do PT [physical training]. I give them exercises, we go for a three-mile run, we get back, we shower, I march them to chow [food] so now they’re learning drill, we eat. After we eat, we have classes on the equipment and the weapons that we’ll be using. Then we go to the range, we fire the weapons, we have forced marches, by which I mean we’ll go on nine-mile forced marches, carrying packs, come back, and eat lunch. Everything is marched from Point A to Point B so they learn discipline. The thing is that drill instills discipline for formations and how to act. I always do drill on all the boot camps, so [the actors] learn discipline, how to hold themselves up, and the way they act. Every day is the same: PT at 05:30 in the morning, I put them to bed out in the field or in the barracks at 22:00, and then get them up at 05:30 again. It’s a lot of work because we have to give a lot of classes on the equipment [and] how to put the gear on. You see it from the beginning that they’re sloppy, but by the last day or two, I put the actors in charge, playing their part. Like for Battle: Los Angeles, Aaron Eckhart played a staff sergeant. I made sure that he acted like a platoon sergeant, so I got him to call the formation in before we marched to chow or marched to the range. He’d be in charge. He’d learn from the instructors how we move people and how we taught them to make sure they’re believable in their parts in the movie.
Battle: Los Angeles had a lot of action and a lot of fire and manoeuvre, which means I’m covering for you while you’re moving or we’ve moving back, so to do that, we had to get them on the range, and a large field and we had to practise-practise-practise whose job it is to cover, whose job it is to move back, when you have to load magazines, who’s going to cover who. So there’s a lot of stuff happening around – remember, we use blanks in movies and they’re dangerous. We have to have a lot of safety classes, how to fire the weapons. The weapons are real, it is firing with blanks, but we have to make sure everything is safe, and make sure they know how to clear jams in their weapons. We teach that to them in boot camp so if they have that in the scene, it will look real when they’re trying to clear their own weapon instead of raising their hand and saying ‘I have a problem,’ so all that is taught during the boot camp is enhanced [on screen]. We put a lot of stress on them so that they can be moving in their scenes in a real way and people will see that when they watch the movie. If they have a jam, I want them to deal with it. We teach them how to deal with malfunctions in every weapon that they’ll use, and we want to see them [clear the stoppages], but everything is safe too. Everyone is doing it correctly, but in a safe manner too, because when we’re on set, blanks are very dangerous.
8. What do you find films get incorrect most of the time when portraying the military world?
A lot of the times I find that it’s uniforms, not in the old period ones, but in the modern day. A lot of those movies that have been done, sometimes they don’t have a military adviser because they think they don’t need one. They say, ‘well, wardrobe will take care of it,’ and that’s where you get your problems. The way they wear the berets, the [United States] Army wears berets, the Brits wear berets – and the real military know how to wear them – and what’s annoying is to see them on set, not wearing them correctly, and there’s a lot of movies out there where they think the beret is worn correctly. When I’m working on a movie, I make sure the berets are worn correctly; they’re watered down, wet and moulded. To me, if you watch some of the movies with berets, they look like they’re working at a pizza joint! That gets to me when I see that. I watched one movie where the berets were all wrong and they didn’t have any rank or unit insignia. I checked that they had no military adviser, they just had wardrobe. [Wardrobe] doesn’t know what’s going on; they’re great and they ask a million questions, but if they don’t have somebody, then they just do their best. That’s where a military adviser is very important, because they’d be asked, ‘How does this work? How do I put the beret on?’ When you see things that aren’t correct, the way they move, the way they’re portrayed in a battle, it jumps out at you when you see things like that.
9. Which actors and directors have you most enjoyed working with/are most impressed by?
There are so many. I’ve worked with Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage. Aaron Eckhart was awesome when I did Battle: Los Angeles. Bradley Cooper is an amazing actor and great to work with. I worked on Person of Interest with Sarah Shahi. She is awesome and I taught her all the weapons for the TV show. I worked with Jason Beghe on American Dreams, and now he’s on Chicago P.D. Actors are great; I’ve not had any problem working with any actors. I enjoy working with them. The directors that have impressed me… obviously working with Clint Eastwood. John Woo was awesome, what a nice person. Clint is awesome to work with. On his sets, it’s awesome. I just got done working with Gareth Edwards on Godzilla. He is a great guy, awesome to work with, and I hope in the future I get to work with him again. He was such a gentleman on the set and with everything else, he’s really awesome. Working with Ed Zwick on The Last Samurai was enjoyable. I’ve been lucky working with Steven Soderbergh – he’s a great director to work with. Working with Jonathan Liebesman on Battle: Los Angeles, he’s another young director. I worked with Sam Mendes on Jarhead, and the way he works is from the ‘old school’ with [stage work]; he likes to rehearse like theatre. He’s awesome to work with.
10. Is there a period of military history that you would most like to see on-screen today?
Yes, they only did it in the ’50s and the ’60s, but it’s films about the Korean War. If you notice, they don’t touch that one. World War II, Vietnam, modern day [have all been done]. The Korean War, I would hope they would make movies about that one [again]. They did a lot of them like Pork Chop Hill, one of my favourite movies, with Gregory Peck in it; it’s fantastic how they did that one. Retreat, Hell!, that was filmed in the ’50s too. It’s an interesting story, the Korean War, which has yet to be shown [in current cinema]. I know there have been scripts around, but nothing [has been made] yet. One of these days I hope! It would be difficult; you’ve got the Marines, and the Army – the Marines went to the Chosin Reservoir, fighting their way back. There’s a lot of winter scenes in that one. There’s a lot of history there for everyone. I was lucky in the Marine Corps. I worked with the [British] Royal Marines on a NATO [naval exercise]; they were awesome. That was where I got my first “woolly pully”; I traded my poncho liner for one from them. I got to work with the New Zealand SAS in my military life. It was great. They’re great guys. I loved working with the Brits, the Australians and the Kiwis.
11. For people who want to get into your line of current work, what advice would you give them?
You have to have heart. By that I mean, I love my job, I love what I do. I want everything correct and I really strive for that. [You need an] understanding of different periods; there’s a lot of research. You don’t just turn up on the set and sit down in a chair. There’s a lot of stuff that you have to do and learn. Just because you know your service, you have to know the other services too, and foreign services too. If I do a movie with the British Royal Marines, I have to read a lot of information: how they wear their gear, the way they act. You have to know a big spectrum of your job. It’s not just telling somebody, ‘This is how to do a hand salute’. You need to know how to work with people and understand their jobs also. I like history. I do a lot of reading of other people’s histories; I love different countries’ military histories. That’s where the key is. If you’re going to do period pieces, you have to love what you do. My first duty station was in Okinawa. I learnt about the Japanese, and that helped me out working on Wind Talkers and Letters From Iwo Jima, how the Japanese were in World War II versus modern day, because they don’t teach that in their schools. Read as much as you can and absorb it, and you have to have passion for what you do.
12. What is the most challenging aspect in your line of work?
The biggest hurdle to overcome in my work is making sure that you tell everyone the right thing, and then they want to change things. You have to understand that we’re making a movie and it’s not a documentary, so you have to learn to go with the changes, because a director might not want people doing this but it might not really happen like that [in reality]. That’s why I mentioned the right way, the wrong way, and the director’s way. But, when you do it the director’s way, you make everything look real, like it’s supposed to be done that way. You just have to get over that hurdle of, ‘No! It’s wrong!’ – but it’s the way it fits on camera, you have to learn that also. A lot of stuff you do, you think ‘that’s not going to work,’ and then you look on the monitor and you say, ‘oh yeah, it works perfect!’ – because the directors have their vision, and then you look at it, and you have to get over it.