MEMOIRS OF A DROP OUT MOVIE DIRECTOR
July 08, 2012
SEVEN DAYS WITH THE GREEN BERETS.
After becoming one of the highest paid TV film directors in New York City, if someone would had told me that one day I would hang up my 35mm Arriflex, give up my 5 room apartment on the Upper East Side with a pool table in the living room, sell my 911 Porsche and drop out to the Canadian wilderness with a married woman from Montreal who drove a 1966 VW van, I would have said they were crazy.
The greatest coincidence in my life is that I was born on September 11, a date significant only to me until 9/11, 2001. On that unforgettable morning my birthdate became indelibly burned into the minds and hearts not only of New Yorkers, but the entire world,
The sight of those planes crashing into the World Trade Towers became the rude awakening that forced me to question the path my life had taken and the strange coincidences that brought me to where I was now.
Fifteen years before the twin towers existed,I was the cliched scared, green kid from the boonies down south who had come to the Big Apple to find the American Dream.
The excitement was overwhelming.Getting a stiff neck looking up at the skyscrapers, crushed in the morning rush on the "A" Train, crying at Van Gogh's "starring night "at the museum of Modern Art,the crowds, noise, traffic ,smells of food from all over the world,Broadway, taxis, the millions of people were more exciting than I ever imagined. In my wildest dreams I never though a place could be so thrilling. I moved through it all in a naive state of exhilaration.
The first lesson I learned was that the quickest way to increase your salary was to keep changing jobs which I did often. In a short period of time I worked for a boutique ad agency on 5th avenue,four graphic design studios and a high fashion agency.
My first major break into the big time came when I was hired by the 10th largest advertising agency on Madison Avenue.
When your art portfolio included samples from a place on Mad Ave., you'd made it.
The only hitch was the account I was being hired for-the United States Army. I was always afraid of the Army and had done everything I could to stay out. Especially when kids my age were being drafted to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam. The Agency had just acquired the account and with my background in graphic design and Illustration the creative director thought I would be perfect.
...TO BE CONT!
ENTRY 2-JULY 20
I was aware of teenagers escaping to Canada to avoid the draft or burning their draft cards. I watched the unforgettable scene of carnage every night on TV with the daily list of the dead scrolling up the screen. The reality terrified me.I was living in an imaginary world of advertising where all of life's problems were solved in a 30 second commercial.
Mt wife and I decided to have a kid to keep me out of the army, using the excuse that it would interrupt my career. In reality, I was a coward and deathly afraid of being under the control of some redneck, psychotic, drill sergeant. Living in close quarters with all those weird men right out OF "DELIVERANCE" wasn't very appealing either. Neither was dying in some filthy ditch in the jungle. I showed up at the Lexington Avenue draft board and waved the pregnancy note from our doctor. The woman behind the induction desk didn't even read it. She just shouted across the noisy room that i was deferred and could go. Free! Just like that.
Now I was in charge of all the advertising for the United States Army. If that isn't poetic justice....
The new look I gave the Army was an overnight success, drastically turning the enlisted numbers around. I chose the most famous photographers in New York and used every trick I'd learned about fashion and design to make the Army so chic it looked like Harper's Bazaar.I streamlined the image of everything from dog-faced soldiers in basic training to operating surgeons in a Mash Units. They all look super heroes. My enlistee posters, using all the top models were on display from Times Square to Sunset Blvd.
So when President Kennedy gave the Special Forces, Green Berets, their official status, who did they choose to convince every boy in the United States to put down their basketballs, pick up their M1 rifles and join this elite fighting corps to go kill or be killed in some God-forsaken rice paddy? Me.
I had become the fair-haired boy of the Army and the Agency, a Madison Avenue paragon of patriotism. I never once stopped to asked myself what was I doing. The rush of success obsessed me to the extent that nothing else mattered. I had sold my soul to the devil. Faust had nothing on me.
The two million dollar babies as the Green Berets were called (that's what it cost to train one), were no longer to be known as advisors. Up until now all they could do officially was suggest strategy to the South Vietnamese troops. No fighting. But JFK, with the toss of a green beret, had erased all that. This "creme de la creme of the American soldier became legitimate, full fledged, fighting men overnight and it was my job to let the world know...
...TO BE CONT!
ENTRY 3 JULY 24, 2012
One bright sunny morning I found myself hurrying down the ramp at New York’s Idlewild Airport in my new safari jacket from Hunting World and seven-pocket hiking pants from Cabela’s to board a Delta jet for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne and the Green Berets, when I was stopped by two sinister-looking men who, thinking they had captured a Castro rebel, threw me against the wall and frisked me. Not finding any weapons, they begrudgingly let me board.
I had convinced the Army to stage a mock war for the shoot. My mind was filled with childhood fantasies of playing soldier as Major Bubba Clark from Army Public Relations, a sweaty, fat man, greeted me at Fort Bragg Airport with bad news. When asked why he couldn’t get the tanks I had ordered, Clark admitted that all the tanks were in Miami facing Cuba – something about a Cuban missile crisis and nuclear war with Russia.
I had hired one of New York’s top fashion photographers who arrived the next day. Major Clark introduced me and my camera crew to his stars, the A-Team of the Green Berets. Each paratrooper spoke at least two languages, one of them Vietnamese, and was a specialist in arms, medicine, low-level infiltration, skydiving, electronics and communications.
The men looked at me as if I was from another planet. They were concerned with their buddies being killed in the jungles of Vietnam, not some punk kid from New York flashing the latest Polaroid camera.
This was going to be tougher then I imagined. But I knew what happens to people once they see beautiful images of themselves. Egos take over. I was determined to transform this bunch into a cross between John Wayne and Yves Saint Laurent. The heroic photographs I took of them worked like a charm. Suddenly I belonged.-
TO BE CONT...
ENTRY (4) SATURDAY JULY 28
The first change came in the form of clothing. If I was going to play Green Beret I should dress like one. Holding a pair of polished combat boots, a good-looking kid approached me in the barracks, placed them beside my tasseled loafers saying he thought they would be more comfortable. He smiled self-consciously and left. After returning from the mess hall, I found an army field jacket folded on my bunk. I was one of the bunch.
The next morning I could feel the excitement. The men dressed and filed out silently. They got into jeeps and headed for the location. The mock war was to begin with the bombing and full-scale attack of a bridge.
When everyone was in position, Major Clark and I checked that each crease was perfect and every button, polished. This was War: Madison Avenue Style.
Finally I gave the thumbs-up to the Major, who whistled through his fingers. One of the soldiers lit a smoke bomb and tossed it towards the bridge. A thick trail of cobalt smoke arced into the air and landed in the middle of the bridge with a loud explosion. Then all hell broke loose.
Armed killers in combat gear with weapons drawn appeared from every direction. For a fraction of a second it seemed real. The sky was streaked with colored smoke bombs all exploding on cue. I was in the jungle with these trained assassins, as close as I would ever come to being in actual combat.
Suddenly, fully-armed, black-rubber-suited scuba divers emerged from the river and wired the struts of the bridge with plastic explosives. These guys weren’t fooling. No smiles, no jokes. No games or photo ops here. This was War, and if it weren’t now, it would be soon – in Nam.
The mock battle went on all morning, with occasional pauses to straighten some medals or dust off a green beret that had fallen in a mud puddle. A tough-looking soldier stared at his wet beret and started crying. That wouldn’t look good on film.
I watched mesmerized. It was as if I was ten years old at the movies on Saturday watching John Wayne fight the Japanese in “Back to Bataan.”
Suddenly I felt the power. I was the commander of the troops, the Five-Star General who could move my toy soldiers anywhere I wanted. It was a game and I controlled it.
A smoke bomb suddenly landed five feet in front of me. Oblivious to reality I reached down to toss it back into the action. It was like putting my hand in a flame. I screamed. Everyone stopped and came to my rescue. The War was over, and I was the only casualty.
That night I lay in my bunk listening to the men talk about how they loved combat and how Americans had, all through history, glorified their war heroes – Washington, Grant, Roosevelt, Patton, Eisenhower. As I listened to them brag about the greatest country in the world, for a moment I felt proud that it was my responsibility to capture their image on film.
When you start believing your own bullshit, then you’re really in trouble.
TO BE CONT…
ENTRY -5-JULY 30, 2012
I learned about super heroes from Marvel comic books I used to read in my mother’s grocery store in Portsmouth, Virginia and from after-school radio heroes like Superman, The Green Hornet, Batman, Tom Mix, and Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy. I was projecting the radio programs of my youth into my present life and it affected everyone the same way it did me. That’s the mark of a good story. Touch the universal nerve and everyone feels it. Underneath we all want the same thing. No matter what flag you fly, we all want to be heroes, loved and adored, worshipped. By the time I got through with these guys they’d think they could fly. That’s exactly what we did next.
It was still dark the following morning as we drove in the open jeep towards the airfield. The icy wind made it hard to breath. Bubba, the nervous major sitting next to the driver, was sweating even thought it was freezing.
“It’s against Army regulations for a civilian to board an Army transport plane especially in training,” he yelled over the wind.
“It’s a federal offense.”
Still no answer.
We pulled onto the runway just as dawn was breaking. A group of silhouetted figures was milling around a large Caribou Transport - twenty-four Green Berets dressed in bright orange thermal jump suits with white helmets. When I saw the oxygen masks hanging from their necks, I began to worry. How high were we flying to need oxygen? This was supposed to be low infiltration. I was dressed in a peacoat and cotton pants - not combat fatigues for high altitude. This time when the heavyset major put his two cents in about me breaking the law by getting on the plane I listened with one ear. Maybe he was right. But before I could take that thought any further a sea of hands lifted me out of the jeep and into the middle of the men on the ground.
Someone slapped a parachute on my back. Someone else buckled the straps. Then the young guy who gave me the boots leaned nose to nose and held up a metal ring that was attached to the front of my chute.
“ If something goes wrong, count ten and pull this guy.”
The reality of what he said took a moment to sink in. Then my knees turned to water.
“What do you mean if something goes wrong?” I stammered.
“If that doesn’t work,” he held up a second ring that was hooked to the other side of the chute, “pull this.”
“What if that doesn’t work?” I asked, not believing what we were talking about.
“Start praying,” he answered and moved off into the crowd with what looked like a smirk.
The men moved me towards the gaping door at the rear of the giant transport. I heard a voice inside my head screaming. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. I really didn’t plan on putting myself in harm’s way. My bandaged hand started to hurt. The closer the plane got the more frightened I got. I’m no hero. If these crazy nuts want to jump out of a plane let ‘em. Not me. It’s not my war. It’s only a movie. Make-believe. An illusion. A person could get killed jumping out of a plane 8,000 feet in the air. What was I trying to prove? I had to open my big mouth and
ask for it. It’s my own fault.
To be cont…