INT. APARTMENT – DAY
March, 2011. I was retired. I was unemployed. The last Sabot Fighter episode I’d published was back in August, 2010. I had one thing going: I had optioned a new screenplay, OP Winchester, in January, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Rewrites where happening, but all too quickly. I felt stifled. Frustrated. I needed to create.
Then a discovery: a cache of old Hi-8 video tapes. I hadn’t messed with my old Sony DCR TRV-110 Hi-8 camera in years.
Sony DCR TRV-110
In 2003, the heat in Kuwait and Iraq rendered the unit inoperable. I wasn’t able to capture my Iraqi war experience, but I had footage from my time stationed in Germany, including a combat deployment to Kosovo in late, 1999.
Against all hope, I tried playing the tapes in the Sony. It worked! Suddenly I had a lot of rich military footage, but what to do with it? Cutting it together without a context is kind of… lame.
Then, I remembered the unusable Painted Rocks video. Now, I hadn’t considered the Hi-8 footage when I filmed Painted Rocks, but I did wax melancholy about my Army past that day, especially after I actually discovered boulders still painted with the crests from units I served in.
It all started to gel. March to Painted Rocks suddenly crystallized into more than just my journey that day. It became a Soldier’s journey. I sat down at the PC and got hot.
Burning the midnight oil on "March to Painted Rocks Part I"
There was just one problem.
When I filmed Painted Rocks and waxed eloquent about military service past, I discussed the Army units I’d come to NTC with after 9/11. The Hi-8 video I had was primarily pre-2000, with a little tank gunnery training at Fort Hood, between 2001-2002. The Hi-8 video didn’t match the era I was talking about in the Painted Rocks video, 2002-2005.
I decided to worry about that later.
"Backdraft" (OST) by Hans Zimmer
One of my favorite pieces of film music is Fighting 17th from the Backdraft original soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. If you want hero music, Hans Zimmer is the go-to guy. His sound is epic. He has his critics and his clones, but he’s aces to me. I liked this track so much, that I played it over my tank’s intercom system for my crew, as we moved through Baghdad, that first eerie night of combat. I don’t think they heard it over their adrenalin pumping hearts. I knew I had to have this track over the powerful images of M-1 tanks thundering down the tank trail. I laid the track down and dropped in the Hi-8 footage.
M1A1 Abrams en route to the railhead. Vilseck, GE. 1999.
It all flowed. The decisions came easy. Use this. Don’t use that. Logging and capturing the clips in Premiere helped my editing process. I began formulating the plan in my mind’s eye. There was no script. I was pulling it out of my ass, so to speak, letting the music influence some decisions, and the quality of the footage influence others.
The Animatrix: The Album
Next, the Kosovo sequence. I’d done some musing over a possible biopic for The TSF Channel to establish my outdoor street cred (which probably weighed in on MTPR). I’d found a piece of music from The Animatrix soundtrack, Who Am I?, by Peace Orchestra (subsequently used as title track in MTPR Part II). So, the CD was fresh in my mind.
If you don’t know anything about the Serbian/Kosovo thing in the ’90s, basically, it was a religious war between Christian Serbs and Muslim Kosovars. I felt that a trippy, eerie, religious theme, with a Eastern bent would work well over the footage, and there happened to be another track on The Animatrix CD that fit the bill, Ren 2 by Photek.
Serbian Orthodox Cross
The mysterious transition video, between the Germany and Kosovo footage, was the inside of an Orthodox church steeple. Part of our mission in Kosovo was to protect Serbian churches. Most of the Byzantine-style church architecture was topped by a Serbian Orthodox cross, a symbol also on the Serb national flag. Kosovar insurgents resented it after the Serb massacres, and felt they had to destroy it. They were going around blowing up all the churches in town.
Church under guard. Stanisor, Kosovo. 2000.
We lived in a combat outpost in Stanisor, which included the bones of a new church under construction. The shot was the inside of the steeple dome. I didn’t think it was that big deal and kind of lame as video transitions go, but I’ve actually been asked about it.
We had an opportunity to conduct MEDEVAC training with an actual helicopter crew. We split the platoon into two squads and each squad took turns running through the drill. Once each litter team had loaded the casualty into the bird, they boarded for a quick ride in the Blackhawk. It was a great day to have a video camera.
UH-60 Blackhawk lands for MEDEVAC training. Kosovo, 2000.
Segue to Fort Hood, Texas. Most of the Hi-8 footage after 2000 was tank training, including a great deal of live fire action at the tank gunnery range.
For tank crews there’s no greater challenge than Tank Table VIII, tank crew qualification. It’s a ten-event live-fire “exam.” Events are split, normally six day engagements and four night, depending on the time of year, how long the days and nights actually are. Each tank company must push all fourteen tanks through the qualification range within a 24-hour period.
Each event is worth 100 points, 1000 points for a perfect score. Each crew must engage single and multiple, stationary and moving targets, from their stationary (defensive engagement) or moving (offensive engagement) tank. Some engagements require a weapons system swap between targets, like say switching from a tank target to a troop target. That would mean switching from main gun to machine gun for the respective targets.
Each event is timed. Targets are only presented for a maximum of 50-55 seconds. Some events, like the one shown in March to Painted Rocks Part 1, have four targets, three tanks and a set of troops. Crews are evaluated for crew duties. Each crew’s intercom is monitored in the control tower by TCEs (Tank Crew Evaluators). Points are docked if there are safety violations or crew errors detected by the TCEs.
It’s a lot of shit. And it’s awesome!
M1A2 SEP Firing at Sugarloaf Range. Ft Hood, TX. 2002.
The gunnery sequence was challenging. I’d never made subtitles before, a decision I felt necessary because the ambient noise in the tank turret. I want the audience to see how violent and audacious you need to be to fight as an armor crewman. Being a tanker is inherently dangerous. You see how the breech of the main cannon jumps violently when fired. The turret is deafening. I want people to know what it takes to be a modern man-at-arms, to understand why veterans are the way they are, so their words of compassion are more than just lip service.
"Things changed, for all of us."
I ended it with a sentimental statement.
THE SABOT FIGHTER: “Of course, Iraq hadn’t started yet. Life was simple… Things changed, for all of us.”
TSF’s shadow continues to march across the sand. The roaring WIND continues to howl…
Once the Fort Hood sequence was done, so was I. I’d sampled all my Hi-8 footage. The film was already pushing 17-minutes, my longest show to date, back then. I wondered if YouTube would even accept it, being so long. And then there was the problem of not having any Iraq war footage to continue. I wrapped.
YouTube immediately blocked the soundtrack and instead suggested audio replacement with one of their lame, licensed tracks.
Uh, no. There was a painstakingly edited soundtrack with voice over, sound effects, and music I felt pulled the right emotional strings for the viewer. This wasn’t some kind of home movie made by a non-professional. Was I gonna loop a Beyonce track for 17-minutes while it shows me talking to the audience directly? Hell no!
I deleted MTPR from YouTube, loaded it on Vimeo under “private,” put a link to it on TSF with the password, and tried to spread the word as best as I could. As of today, it’s only received 62 views on Vimeo.
Disappointed again and angry with the results of my efforts, I shelved the project. It would be lost forever under copyright violation even though I paid for the CDs the music came from.
Do I have to charge people when they sit in my car and hear the music coming from my dashboard? How many DJs pay proceeds to the record labels after a night’s set? They’re getting paid to play records. I’m not getting a dime. I’m sharing the soundtrack of my life, man.
(Read Part III: The Journey Home)
(Read Part I: A Filmmaker’s Journey)