Recently I sat down with Doug Gritzmacher (Waiting for Superman) and Michael DeChant (Live Free or Die Hard) to talk about their recent documentary: Soldiers of Paint. Here we have a film that depicts the events of D-Day but moved to Oklahoma and using paintballs instead of bullets. I have to admit at first I was a little skeptical, but when I discovered that the game involves 4,000 participants and features tanks, airplanes and spying I was more than a little intrigued!
Read on to see what the guys had to say:
Hello there, thank you for taking the time out to do this interview with me today. I hope you are both well?
MD: I’m doing great thanks! Thanks for doing the interview with us!
MD: After the success of our short doc. Bone Mixers (this was our joint thesis project for film school) Doug and I had decided that we wanted to make a feature doc. together but only if we came up with a truly unique idea. That idea came about back in 2007 when I happened to be playing paintball at a friend’s bachelor party in Maryland. I’m not a big paintball player and didn’t know much about the sport other than finding it fun – and a touch painful… At the field that day I was talking to a teenage referee who worked there. He asked me if I was going to go to “D-Day” and I had no idea what he was talking about. When he told me it was 5,000 paintball players re-staging the battle of Normandy in Oklahoma using paintballs I was instantly intrigued. I had a look at the website and was completely blown away by what I saw: the scope, the intensity, the tanks! The fact that we hadn’t heard of this event before and that someone hadn’t made a movie about it yet convinced us that we might finally have found our idea. The next step was to head out to Oklahoma to see it first hand…and well, the rest is history.
DG: As filmmakers we first look for subject matter that provides a rich mix of engaging characters, dramatic story, and natural humour. We found all those elements and more in the “Oklahoma D-Day” event. Paintball just happens to be what brings all those elements together, but it also allowed us an opportunity to break the documentary mould. We wanted to make a documentary that had action, suspense and drama like you might find in a narrative action-adventure film and the paintball battle at “Oklahoma D-Day” had all that, too.
Having gone through the battle multiple times now ourselves, we can safely say it is one of the most intense experiences we’ve had. I am not a paintball player and have no interest in ever playing, but I was attracted to making a film about this game because of the chance to experience what it was like to go off one of those Allied landing crafts with thousands of rounds of ammunition aimed your way as well as the chance to capture that on film ala the opening scene in “Saving Private Ryan”. Unlike that film, in which everything was staged, with Oklahoma D-Day it is a true adventure, a real-time battle, which makes it the closest approximate to the real thing. To capture that excitement for you, the viewer, we embedded 11 cameramen in various units within the battle with two cameramen in the command centres. Each of our characters experienced very personal storylines of their own throughout the battle and our cameras were there to capture it all, which allowed us to create a moving, emotional, and riveting documentary.
What was the atmosphere like during the shoot? Was it easy to navigate a filming crew through the battle?
DG: One word: nerve-wracking! Both for myself, as the point man directing our camera operators in the field, and for our camera operators themselves, as they were in the thick of the battle. Summer conditions in rural northeastern Oklahoma can be brutal. This was great for us for purposes of the story and seeing how our characters dealt with and overcame the heat and rocky and buggy terrain, but also presented a challenge for us to shoot in. We made sure all our camera operators were outfitted with adequate clothing and shoes as well as Camelbacks for hydration. As one of the German characters says in the film, you would not survive out there without one. Our associate producer and production manager Carey Murphy made packable lunches for everyone in our crew. For communication we had two players on the German side help us set up our radio communication system (which required securing an FCC license!). Carey and a radio operator communicated with our battle embedded cameramen while I directed our crew from a walkie from my position in the German command center, where I was shooting.
We learned a lot of important lessons in storytelling with this film
– Doug Gritzmacher
We did not go without our share of close calls. Shortly into the game several cameraman reported that their batteries were dying quickly. Carey solved the problem. I never asked her how, just glad she did! We also had some walkies go down but we had trust in our cameramen to function as their own directors so they were able to continue by relying their own filmmaking instincts. We used rain jackets and clear filters for camera protection. Fortunately, all our cameras survived without so much as a scratch!
MD: Another interesting part of filming the battle is that we intentionally did not identify our cameramen as “Media” or “Photographer”. There are a lot of photographers/media there at the event who wore bright orange vests that designate themselves as non-combatants so as to not get shot. We made a decision early on that we wanted to get our cameras right into the thick of the battle action – so the audience could get as close to the full experience as possible. To do that and to not to draw unwanted attention on our characters, we chose to not to have our cameramen wear the vests. So they blended in really well – and in a lot of cases they got shot a lot because the enemy thought they were legitimate combatants. Bad for our cameramen – good for us! (Everyone was ok – just a few paintball welts that healed up in a couple days and some great stories about a super intense and challenging filming experience.)
MD: From the first day we set foot on the campground at Oklahoma D-Day we were greeted like we were already part of the community. The event owner, Dewayne, was excited to show us around the facility and gave us a private tour of the battlefield on his WWII era Willy’s Jeep (that was way cool). When we told people we wanted to make a movie about their event they were really excited. Justifiably, they wanted to make sure that we didn’t make fun of them and to take what they do seriously. We assured them that was our intention. There was even some suspicion on the opposing teams – or armies – that we were actually spies posing as filmmakers (sounds unbelievable but if you seen the movie you’ll understand – these guys take winning seriously and they aren’t above spying on each other). We literally had to sign a confidentiality agreement for both the Allies and the Germans for them to trust us with filming sensitive strategy meetings.
DG: As we found, paintball players are very passionate about their sport and they were a fan of anything that helps promote it and increase its exposure. Additionally, both sides go to great lengths to one up each other year. Some of those lengths are so extreme and amusing (such as spying on each other with fake identities) it would be criminal to not be able to hear the backstory and how they came to be, so our film gave them a chance to tell these stories.
Was there a challenge in balancing the footage of the game with historical and personal accounts like that of Dewayne Convirs?
MD: We knew that in order to create a documentary on par with some of the films that inspire us we needed to tell the human side of the story. We wanted to share with the audience the story of who these people are and why they go to the effort of putting on and competing in this epic event every year. But we also knew we had some incredible footage from directly inside the battle. Tying these two elements together in a cohesive way actually presented us with much more of a challenge than we originally thought. In our early rough cuts we had interviews and back-story weaved in with battle scenes. But some of our trusted reviewers said that it was really hard for them to keep up with what was going on in the battle and the battle scenes distracted them from getting to know the characters better. We ended up determining that we needed to open with a short hook of some intense action to lead us into the back-story. Then halfway through the movie we drop the audience in the start of the battle and it is game-on for the duration. When we finally got to that point (4 rough cuts in) it was really well received and it seemed so natural. We were like “why didn’t we think of this in the first place?” But that’s the trial and error nature of editing a feature doc.
DG: Once we entered post-production, this became probably the most significant challenge we had to overcome. In our first fine cut of the film we had the battle intercut with backstory scenes. We were pretty happy with that … until we started showing it to friends. I can’t stress enough how important it is to test your cut with fresh eyes—even if it’s your friends and family. We sent out the cut with a questionnaire and noticed in the feedback and lot of confusion with understanding the story. We then experimented with putting all of the backstory up front in the film and letting that build up to the onslaught of the battle. We sent that cut out to a new round of friends and the feedback was much better! That shuffle changed the entire dynamic of the film. The backstory elements became much more meaningful and the battle then became a pay-off to all the backstory built up. It meant the audience was then invested in the stakes of the characters, which is first and foremost what you strive for as a storyteller. We learned a lot of important lessons in storytelling with this film and thanks to first testing our various cuts we were able to learn them as we went along rather than after the release and harbouring regrets.
I would say that Soldiers of Paint is effectively an action movie crossed with a documentary, did your collective past work on the sets of documentaries such as Please Remove Your Shoes and Waiting for Superman help inform choices that you made? And the same goes for the films which you have been involved in including Live Free or Die Hard, Transformers and Open Cam?
MD: We agree – and it was a goal of ours to do just that when we set out to make the movie.
Throughout our careers Doug and I have worn a lot of hats in the production process (directing, producing, shooting, editing, etc.) so I think all of that experience really helped us with making Soldiers of Paint because to save money we had to a majority of the work on the film ourselves. That said we also were fortunate to find some really talented and eager contributors for specific roles on the film (editors, motion graphics, music supervision, audio post) and it was with because of our network of friends within the industry that we were able to fill these roles and usually at discounted rates because they were excited to be working with us on a feature film project.
DG: Your description of the film being an action movie crossed with a doc warms my heart! We wanted to break the documentary mould a bit with making this film and show that a documentary could also be an action film. My experience working on other filmmakers’ projects absolutely informs my decisions with my own projects. I went to film school, but there is only so much you can learn about the craft there. Most of what I do and know today I learned while working on the job, such as on the films you mentioned.
Were there any particular films or documentaries outside of those which you have worked on that you looked to for inspiration?
MD: We’re both big fans of The King of Kong: Fist Full of Quarters, Murderball, and Surfwise. I was also inspired by the Iraq war doc. Restrepo.
I also think Saving Private Ryan was a big inspiration for us in making this movie. Fortunately our movie doesn’t document actual war but some say that this paintball war is as about as close as you can come to actual combat. We wanted to see if we could emulate some of the jaw dropping action scenes from that classic war movie. We’re really proud of the intensity of the battle scenes in Soldiers of Paint and hopefully Mr. Spielberg sees our movie someday and agrees!
DG: In making Soldiers of Paint, we draw inspiration from character-driven documentaries such as King of Kong and Murderball. Like those films, we made our film first about people. In Soldiers of Paint, paintball serves as the element that brings these engaging folks together while providing a dramatic, action-packed backdrop. Some of the best reviews we have received are from non-paintball players and women who were drawn to the film’s characters and light-hearted moments.
Do you find that your range of experiences including technical work, directing and producing inform each other when making a film such as this, or are the different disciplines distinctly separate?
MD: I think when you talk about independent film – especially documentaries – there’s typically a lot of cross over in responsibilities and generally it is dictated by the bottom line. As I mentioned above, Doug and I wore a lot of hats while working on this project and it worked out well for us. But that’s not to say it works that way for all filmmakers. We do both have technical backgrounds and we are both producers and directors and we feel comfortable with jumping between the different disciplines. For us to be in control of technical details, logistics and content/story decisions gave us the freedom to create the movie exactly how we wanted it to be.
DG: For me they are all intertwined. It’s impossible for me to shoot something without having the larger story in the back of my mind. Thinking about the story and what’s important helps inform my decisions as a technician.
I see Soldiers of Paint as a true American tale
– Michael DeChant
So how has the film been received so far?
MD: We have been thrilled with the reviews we’ve received so far. We wanted to tell the story correctly and with authenticity for the players of Oklahoma D-Day. They placed a lot of trust in us to tell their story to the world and we have been told time and time again from the D-Day community (including the event owner Dewayne Convirs) that we did the job better than they could’ve imagined. That’s a huge relief. Even more we set out to tell an entertaining story to people who may not have any interest in paintball. We ourselves weren’t paintball players – we were looking for an interesting story to tell for a feature doc – one that hadn’t yet been told…something dramatic, entertaining, and unbelievable – yet true. We’ve had several reviewers point out that they had zero interest in watching a movie about paintball but took a chance on Soldiers of Paint and ended up loving it. As a filmmaker I feel proud that we took such a challenging and niche subject matter and created a film that has entertained such a wide range of people.
DG: Very well! We have gotten reviews from all kinds of places—many blogs, DVD review sites, and from paintball industry insiders. All of them have given the film a thumbs up. The response from casual movie-watchers has also been outstanding—the average score on Amazon is 4.5 stars out of 5, on iTunes it is 5 stars out of 5, and Netflix it is 3.5 stars. Funny enough, since the film’s release we have gotten several messages from non-paintball players and wives whose husbands dragged them to see the film, on how surprised they were at how much they enjoyed the film.
MD: I see Soldiers of Paint as a true American tale. The paintball battle is indeed epic and entertaining but to me this event and the people who make it happen each June represent some of the best qualities in what it means to be American. Through his blood, sweat, and tears the event owner, Dewayne Convirs, has defied the odds against him to build this ultimate destination event – where men, women, and children of all races and nationalities convene for a week every year in rural “fly over” America. Yes, this community is united by their love of paintball and competition to win but what’s more is that they are equally united in their desire to have fun and to honour those who have sacrificed for their freedom.
DG: When I go to the movies I want to come away with two things: that I was emotionally engaged and had fun in the process. I personally don’t play paintball and have no interest in shooting a gun of any kind, yet I made this movie because the subject matter gave me a chance to make those two things happen for viewers of my own movie.
Emotionally speaking, we were inspired by such films as Murderball and King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. The latter film is about an average joe who decided to try and get the all time high score in Donkey Kong. On the surface you would say, oh that’s just a film for video game fanatics, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, it’s the story of a man pursuing a dream, or a claim to fame, to find something that makes his life, in his eyes, meaningful. That’s something we can all relate to. We found a similar dynamic with Oklahoma D-Day. Yes, it involves paintball, but paintball is just the element that allows us to show larger, more universal themes that we can all relate to. Our goal was to make a film that appealed to paintball and non-paintball players alike.
As for having fun, I think it’s pretty hard to watch this film and not feel at least a little rush of adrenaline when those troops go running off the boats on Omaha and Utah beaches. To get footage for the opening scene, we had cameramen embedded on the landing craft, including myself. I “landed” on “Omaha Beach” with those troops under a rain of paintball fire. It was scary, but incredibly thrilling, and I like to think what I captured on film captures some of that feeling.
So what’s next for you two, can we expect to see anything new from you soon?
MD: As filmmakers we’re always looking for that next great idea, but for now our focus is on promoting Soldiers of Paint to a larger audience.
DG: As we have learned throughout the making of this film, filmmaking is multi-step process. The final step of which is marketing and promotion, which is what we are heavily engaged with right now. In between that effort, I am focused on my other businesses, which include fine art photography and video production.
Thanks again to the guys for doing this interview with me! I’ll leave you with the trailer for Soldiers of Paint: