Randall Wallace Interview

'Braveheart' writer tackles the first battle of Vietnam in his ambitious war film starring Mel Gibson

'Braveheart' writer tackles the first battle of Vietnam in his ambitious war film starring Mel Gibson

Randall Wallace has a degree in religion, a black belt in karate and a penchant for penning rousingly patriotic war movies.

Originally a novelist by trade, in the early 1990s he wrote a screenplay about his most famous ancestor, William Wallace, a 13th Century Scot who led his countrymen in a fight for independence against the English. When that script landed in the hands of some wannabe-director named Mel Gibson, the 20th Century Wallace found himself on the fast track to Hollywood.

"Braveheart" won three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Wallace was nominated for his screenplay, and since then he's brought two more famous and influential wars to the screen. He wrote the original draft (and the novelization) of last year's "Pearl Harbor," and this week comes his most ambitious project as both writer and director -- "We Were Soldiers."

A harrowing, heroic, explicit account of the first battle of the Vietnam War, the film has re-teamed Wallace and Gibson, who plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a career officer who always swore to be the first man to set foot on a battlefield and the last one to leave. Wallace based his screenplay on a book that the real Moore wrote with Joseph L. Galloway, a UPI photographer who captured in pictures the bloody battle of Ia Drang Valley on November 14 and 15, 1965.

A series of personal accounts from the soldiers and their wives, the book inspired Wallace to portray not only the combat, but the home front as well, where the dreaded "we regret to inform you" telegrams were delivered by a cab to Lt. Col. Moore's wife. She took it upon herself to break the bad news to young wives in her husband's unit because the Army had woefully under-prepared for the terrible losses this battle, and the war to come, would bring.

Promoting the film in San Francisco recently, Wallace said such human elements are what he strives for when writing a war story. But our conversation began on the topic of the film's many imaginative visual elements, as the genial college professor type in his mid-50s gestures though the conversation as if mapping out his strategy on the table between us with his hands.

Q: The first thing I noticed about the film was that the 1954 prologue (featuring a French-Vietnamese battle in the same location) was shot like a World War I film. Was this a deliberate way to help set it apart from what was to follow?

A: That's exactly right.

Q: The low camera angles, all the smoke, low shots of soldiers' legs rushing across the frame as if they'd just come out of a trench...

A: We wanted it to be a subliminal effect that set (this scene) apart from the more savage battle (at the center of the film). That's a whole different type of battlefield experience when we got into Vietnam.

Q: When you move forward into 1965, the film took on a more modern war movie feel. But there were a lot of fresh ideas there too. The great overhead shot of the choppers as the soldiers disembark from them, the pilot's point-of-view during anti-aircraft fire as the choppers came in at night. That was a great shot. Stuff like that really took you into the battle. Were these ideas you came up with as you were writing, or while you were storyboarding, or...?

A: It was both. It was all. The interesting thing about being the writer and the director is that you can have a dialogue between those two guys without getting ego involved. [Laughs quietly.] I write in a real visual way. I see the movie, the story unfolding, and I write down what I see. I'm almost feeling my way through it. It's like the story is pulling me forward. That's the process for me. I'm with those characters, for example the helicopter pilot, and thinking "what must it be like?"

Q: I'd literally never seen a lot of the imagery you used in this film -- and that's unusual for a war picture. What was your inspiration for imagery?

A: Some of it is, of course, informed or inspired by battlefield footage. You see what they were going through. In the distance is this mouth of hell, and why would anyone fly into that? It gets everyone sort of understanding it's not necessarily a physical description as much as it is an internal description of what it must be like. Then you conspire with everyone around, the whole team is on the same page and everybody is imagining the same shots and they all bring their talents to it. The things that we all did together were things that everybody said, "I've never heard of this done. I've never attempted it. But we're gonna do it!"

Like that overhead shot. I sat down with Dean Semler -- I think of Dean as the Michelangelo of cinematographers, he physically gets in there himself -- and we drew key moments. That overhead shot came out of that drawing (session). I need to convey how everyone gets off and runs in one direction. That was crucial to what happened on the battlefield. So I said, "Dean, this is kind of weird, but we need to see it from up here" [leveling his hand high above the table]. And he went, "Oh, fantastic! That will be fantastic!" All of a sudden we're working off each other. He knew what I was thinking and he would say [excitedly], "I'll put a camera here, and here, and here, and here!"

(Other ideas came when) I had gone to ranger school before I even had the money together to make the movie. I was just committed to do it, so I thought I'd make that commitment, to stir the pot, thinking, when Mel hears I've been to ranger school, he's gonna want to go.

Q: You did it to get the karma rolling.

A: Exactly! Get the karma rolling! I had to take a physical test to go, and I qualified. There was a ranger instructor at UCLA who brought two pairs of combat boots to my office. I went, "I'm only gonna be there two weeks. Two pairs?" And he said, "You're gonna need 'em." I realized as I was strapping these boots on that you wear a lot of different shoes for different things, but these boots are made for killing men. It never had occurred to me before. I started to think, the boots are real significant and tangible. (Later) I started talking to Dean about that and he loved it. He was the one who saw that shot (in the early part of the film) of Moore's boots when he's praying with his little girl, with her bare feet beside him.

Q: Another image I'd never seen before: The night time front line scene in which a commander whispers "I need illumination!" and seconds later a mortar flash shows the shocking silhouettes of dozens of Vietnamese soldiers walking straight through their location.

A: In the only preview (test screening) we had, when that happened everybody jumped out of their seats, and I thought, "Oo-hoo! That one works!"

Q: I also liked the fact that anyone could get shot at any time. It was pretty obvious to me that Chris Klein was gonna get waxed. You got the young wife and the bracelet with his baby daughter's name on it. But his death felt like an unscripted moment. It was done without any fanfare. He got shot and he fell down. How much thought did you put into avoiding battlefield clichés?

A: I knew in the case of his character that we'd have a sense of foreboding. Just the insert of seeing that bracelet -- film-savvy people will know I'm not showing that bracelet for no reason. But I didn't want to kill him in an overly theatrical way. I wanted this whole movie to represent not any given soldier, but in some sense every soldier in every war -- not just the Vietnam War.

I wrote a letter, actually, to all the men of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, to explain to them why I wasn't necessarily going to portray what each individual had done. I needed the story to represent everyone, and in order to do that, I had to pick certain individuals who were part of this narrative thread that really got down to the promise of "I will leave no man behind. Dead or alive we all come together." That and "Tell my wife I love her." Those were the two major tenets to me of making this story and doing it right. That meant everybody had to be in a kind of danger that wouldn't draw a circle around any given character that said he is going to be favored above all others or that his death is going to be more important than anyone else's.

Q: There were a few things that I found too manipulative -- the montage of crying wives through the screen doors, for example.

A: Oh, you didn't like that?

Q: I loved the scene up to that point -- the stack of telegrams waiting on Mrs. Moore porch really bowled me over. But when she said, "We'll do them one at a time," I thought you were going to cut back to the battle as they walked down the street and she put the telegrams in her purse. But it went on.

A: I thought the use of the home front was crucial to show that while what Moore did on the battlefield was extraordinary leadership, what his wife did was extraordinary too. I mean, those telegrams -- saying we'll do one at a time, she knew any one of those telegrams could have been her own. (As for the screen door montage) I really wanted to show all the different wives -- that they were of different races, that some had children -- to not escape from the fact of how awful it would be to be 23 years old and have somebody walk up and say "Your husband is dead." So I thought the home front was really necessary -- also to give us some relief!

Q: And I appreciated that. I thought the points that you chose to put such relief in were perfectly timed. So, moving on, which did you find more satisfying in the writing stage? The liberties taken fictionalizing "Pearl Harbor" or the comparative historical accuracy of "We Were Soldiers"?

A: Well, "Pearl Harbor" was the only film I ever worked on in which I was not the sole writer involved. I was the sole writer involved as long as I was involved. But once I heard from Michael (Bay, the director) that he wanted some other writers to come up with some comedic things and things like that -- that was the end of my involvement.

Q: So you were the source material, the source script, then it had a few script doctors.

A: Yeah, it had doctors when it wasn't ill in my opinion. But let me be thoughtful about this -- it is cowardly and unfair to say whatever you liked is what I wrote and whatever you don't like is what someone else screwed up. That's not ethical and I'm not trying to say that. Michael and Jerry (Bruckheimer, "Pearl Harbor's" producer) make a different kind of movie and take a different kind of approach. "We Were Soldiers" is my film. Not only my film, but a film by all the guys that made this together. It was a different approach to filmmaking. I didn't want anyone to be able to say with this film that I had bent the facts to suit my own views. I wanted to say, these are the inescapable facts. These men experienced this -- and beyond what they experienced, here's how they felt about it.

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