Dale Dye

Dale Dye Feature Image

Retired Marine Captain Dale Dye has been working in Hollywood for almost twenty years. The bounty of his tireless effort is an industry wide change toward a new and strikingly realistic approach to making movies about war. Nicknamed Captain Stanislovsky, Dye talks to Chris Neumer about dealing with studio executives, pampered actors and the importance of teamwork that is usually developed knee deep in mud.

by Chris Neumer

Cognitive dissonance.

I’ve never heard the term before Dye uses it in our conversation, nor can I quite discern its meaning before Dye launches into its explanation. He has quite a fondness for the theory of cognitive dissonance. He uses the expression no less than three times in under a minute while explaining what it was that motivated him to enter the Hollywood scene in 1984.

“Cognitive dissonance simply means that you are presented with something that goes contrary to what you believe or know to be true,” Dye informs me while sitting behind his desk in the office of his company, Warriors, Inc. It’s a Dye expansion on the age-old adage, ‘suspension of disbelief,’ with which I am familiar.

“We are a media-saturated society,” Dye states. “The television is on in the average American home for ten hours a day. We subscribe to more magazines and newspapers than we can possibly read. The truth is that we are getting the plain, unvarnished look at our world in much greater quantities that we ever did before.” On its own, this means relatively little. When applied to the motion picture industry, however, this phenomenon has a striking effect. “What this means is that we inherently know what things look like and how things happen,” Dye says. “When you’re making a movie [today], it’s [that] much more difficult to get people to suspend their disbelief.”

Cognitive dissonance.

“Writers, producers, directors and actors no longer have the latitude to just go out and do what they think looks cool,” Dye smiles, shaking his head slightly as he remembers previous examples of Hollywood’s infatuation with ‘cool.’ Police and members of the military cocking and pointing their pistols sideways, for example. “It will negatively affect their presentation and the storytelling if the [directors] don’t make a nod at getting it right,” Dye says.

Achieving the desired level of military realism isn’t a simple task though. Even bringing Dye and his Warriors onto a picture doesn’t ensure a film’s necessary authenticity. The director has to really buy into the whole affair too, Dye says diplomatically. “I worked with Paul Verhoeven on Starship Troopers,” he recounts slowly. Dye trails off and there is silence.

Filling the void, I inquire whether it was difficult to train actors to fight against tennis balls on sticks. Dye grimaces and ignores the question for the time being. “Ah…” he starts. “There are some sequences in Starship Troopers that I cringe when I see.” He does not elaborate on this thought. Changing directions, Dye says, “[Robert] Heinlein’s book is one of the books I’ve carried around in my rucksack for years. Dispatches, Catch-22 and Starship Troopers. I chased that film like a dog because I wanted to work on it because I thought we were going after Heinlein’s vision; the image of the 25th century military.” Dye raises an eyebrow and locks eyes with me. “Well, we weren’t. Verhoeven had a much different agenda and vision than that of Heinlein’s novel.” He takes a deep breath and states summarily, “So I trained those troops hard for three weeks before we went into filming and from the moment we got out of training, everything went right in the dumper.”

Situations like the aforementioned are rare for Dye. Besides Starship Troopers, the only other disappointment Dye can remember working on was Dead Presidents. “Was that the film where the Vietnam vets turn into bank robbers at the end?” I question. Dye shoots me a look. That is, in fact the movie he was referring to and nothing more needs to be said about it.

Frankly, Dye’s filmography reads like a listing of some of the best movies of the last two decades. Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, The Last of the Mohicans, Wag the Dog, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Forrest Gump and JFK, among others.

Dye’s approach to creating the military authenticity his productions desire is unique: he runs a boot camp for all the actors involved in the project prior to the commencement of principal photography. “The idea came from the United States Marine Corps,” Dye says. “The thing is that military experience is so alien to the average actor that there is no way he can understand it unless he experiences it.” Dye shifts his weight in his chair and says, “What you see from most actors who haven’t experienced military life is a repetition of clichés. You’ll get an interpretation of the last bad acting job he saw.

If you’re looking for an example of this, look no further than Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pearl Harbor. Dye looks a bit baffled when the movie comes up in conversation. “I had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor, thank you!” he proclaims quickly, then jokes that his absence from Bruckheimer’s film is actually noted on his resumé. “I read the script before they started and I said, ‘You can’t be serious. What the hell does this have to do with Pearl Harbor?”

Returning to the topic of his boot camps, Dye jumps into the methodology of actors… as he has come to see it. “Almost all actors grow up and mature in a world where it’s about ‘me.’” Dye states. “Me, me, me. How do I get more lines? How do I get more face time? The sun rises and sets on their ass.” This is the polar opposite to the methodology of soldiers. “In the military, it’s about being part of the team,” Dye declares. “It’s about doing what needs to be done for the good of the nation and the good of the group. Some actors get it. They get the bonding experience, they get the baggage they need for that role. Some of the thousands that I’ve trained don’t.” He shrugs, as if to say that it’s the actor’s loss and it reflects poorly upon them on set.

“If you’re really good enough, you can probably convince me that you’re going to go along with the program and that you’re getting something out of it,” Dye tells me, “but the proof is in the pudding, because I don’t just train them and leave. I’m there on set all the time.” Dye chuckles, “If I see a kid upstaging another actor or hamming for the camera when he’s really designed to be the background, I know he doesn’t get it. Soldiers wouldn’t behave that way. The only reason we’re even noticing him is because he’s an idiot.”

Fifteen years ago, Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals sans blood would have been passed off as fine,” Dye says, touching on cognitive dissonance yet again. “That’s the way it was. Nowadays with the profusion of cable television and The History Channel, folks know that it’s not true.” He pauses for a beat and continues, “Folks know how brutal and bloody and gory and gritty and grimy the Civil War really was. They know these things, even if they don’t give a damn about them.”

Though this in-your-face reality might send worried mothers into a tizzy, this is an enormous step in the right direction in Dye’s eyes. You have to remember, he tells me, “when I retired [from the military] in 1984, Hollywood had the most ludicrous image of professional soldiers.” It’s what inspired him to get involved in the film industry in the first place. He sighs and says, “All the soldiers were dumb. All officers were self-serving promotion seekers with no basic intelligence.” A snort of contempt, then: “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

“I’d always been a movie fan and especially a fan of military movies, for obvious reasons,” Dye states. “But what really disappointed me was how the military people were portrayed. I began to look at this situation and ask, ‘What does this portrayal add?’” He shrugs. “Frankly the films weren’t good and I got upset.” The slightest trace of a smile crosses his face and he says, “Being a marine, when I get upset, it’s my wont to fix bayonets and go after it, to find out what the scoop is.”

So, retired from the Marines and his extensive battlefield experience (including three years in Vietnam during the height of the war), and having spent a brief stint of time working at Soldier of Fortune magazine (“training anti-Sandinista forces in Central America”), Dye moved to Los Angeles, with nothing more in mind than finding out who was responsible for the “outlandish portrayals of the American military on television and in film.”

Dye shakes his head. “At the time, Apocalypse Now was being celebrated as a great Vietnam film. The point is that while it might be a great film, it has nothing to do with the actual experience of the soldiers in Vietnam. The same holds true with The Deer Hunter or the Rambo films.” He sighs again and finishes his thought, “But they purport to be that and that upsets me.”

Knowing very little about the behind-the-scenes life of Hollywood, Dye was in for quite a surprise. “I didn’t know where to go,” he admits readily, “so I began to talk to people; writers, directors, producers, everybody.” Really, in an effort to get to the bottom of the matter, Dye talked to whoever would actually talk with him.

“What I found out was that Hollywood had a really arrogant attitude,” Dye says and grins about his naiveté back then. “Shocking, huh? It was to me, then.” Another grin. “They weren’t going to listen to the advice of their military consultants if it got in the way of their own preconceived notions. The attitude I got was, ‘Look kid, we’ve made movies for a lot of years and made a pot of money without you.’ They’d get these [former military men], give them some money, sit them in a chair, let them go to sleep and wake them up when they wanted to know what side the rivets went on.”

Dye’s tenacity finally paid off when he heard that writer/director Oliver Stone was working to make a movie about his own Vietnam experiences tentatively titled, Platoon. “I didn’t know anything about Oliver except that he was a combat veteran,” Dye says. “I figured if anybody could understand what I was getting at, Oliver could. I called him at home one Sunday morning, apologized for bothering him and said, ‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but if what I read is true, that you’re making a film about Vietnam, you need me.’” Dye grins and says, “Any other director would probably told me to forget the phone number and never call again, but Oliver being Oliver sort of liked my left-handed, direct approach.” So the two former Vietnam veterans scheduled a meeting.

“What I told Oliver that I think sold him on the idea of working with me was, ‘There is no way the young actors that you intend to cast for this film have any clue what our experiences were like in Vietnam. They can read every book that’s published and see every movie that’s been released and it won’t get them anywhere near to understanding what we went through.” Dye takes a deep breath and continues. “What I want to do is immerse them, full immersion, 24/7, in the jungle with no civilian contact. They will live with me and or die depending on what I tell them for three weeks.’ He looked at that and said, ‘I don’t know if we can do that.’” Dye flashes a wise grin. “And I said, ‘Oh yeah, we can.’”

And Dye did just that, forcing Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger and company into the jungles, to dig holes, carry around 75-pound packs and live off the land in order for them to experience what life as a enlisted soldier in Vietnam was truly like.

The experience also set in motion the wheels of one of the most productive and impacting careers a technical advisor has ever had in Hollywood. Which was exactly as Dale Dye was wont to do.

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