“We wanted to stay away from making a political statement,” Irwin Winkler, the producer-director of “Home of the Brave,” a film about veterans returning from the war in Iraq, said of his film during a recent Dallas interview, “and concentrate on the plight of the soldiers, and their story when they come home.” And Brian Presley, who plays one of the vets, added, “I thought that was one thing that was so beautiful about the piece, that everyone kept the politics [out]. Whether you believe in the war or are against the war, we all believe in the people fighting the war. This is their story, and it lets you in about what these men and women face. The response has been pretty overwhelming from vets.”
Winkler added, “One guy said [after a screening] that he’d been back from Iraq for a couple of months, and in all that time he hadn’t been able to explain to his family how he felt, and this film did it for him. He wanted his family to see it so they could see what he was going through because he couldn’t express it himself.”
“Home of the Brave” begins with a sequence showing a small group of soldiers in Iraq under attack before following the survivors back to Spokane, where they face a variety of problems reintegrating into society. The desert scenes, shot in Morocco, were done over a week at the very start of filming and were particularly demanding.
“Every scene in the desert was laid out to a T,” Presley noted. “Everybody knew what we were doing, so that when we showed up to shoot, it was just routine.”
“To me as a director,” Winkler said, “I had to lay it out very carefully, because we didn’t have a lot of money and a lot of time. In all the years that I’ve directed and produced movies, I’d never done a war movie, so it was a wholly new experience for me. And the actors had to train for all this stuff. We had a mini-boot camp. One of the actors, the fellow who plays the sergeant, was an Iraq veteran, and was our technical advisor. But as far as the physical act of shooting the film, I had to lay it our very carefully. When you’re dealing with all those explosives, everything really has to be in the right place at the right time. I’d never done that before.
“Interestingly, the work I’d done on ‘De-Lovely,’ which was the film I’d done previous to this, which was dancing and music, I found was a great deal of help to me, because when you shoot a dance sequence you really have to lay out every step. And the same thing in the battle scenes.”
But it wasn’t just his own past films that influenced Winkler. “Of course, I am a movie freak,” he continued. “Films like ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Platoon’ have all had an effect on me. And for the battle scenes in Iraq I basically used ‘The Battle of Algiers’ for my realistic approach.”
The stateside portion of the script was, Winkler explained, a composite based on interviews with veterans of the war. “We took a kind of cross-section of all the stories of all the stories we had heard. The script really encompassed all of those stories,” he said, adding, “We tried to get cooperation from the Pentagon, and they turned us down.” But here too Winkler acknowledged the influence of earlier movies, including Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home”—although he was pointedly reluctant to cite William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” despite the thematic resemblance, simply because he thinks it one of the best films ever made.
Once the script had been completed, casting began, with Samuel L. Jackson signing on first to play an army doctor who returns home to face family problems and develops a drinking problem. Jennifer Biel jumped at the part of a soldier struggling with a prosthetic hand after another actress backed out. And Presley was chosen for the part of a young soldier who comes back to find his job gone and his prospects bleak.
Presley got the job the old-fashioned way—by auditioning for it, as he put it, “after getting over the fact of coming into Irwin’s office with ‘Raging Bull’ De Niro posters staring you in the eye, and ‘GoodFellas’ and all his other classics.
“But Irwin and I had about three or four months to work out the character together and do a lot of homework. I talked to a lot of different soldiers, and a lot of them are not programmed to express their feelings. They’re programmed to keep it in and fight, but they’re human, they have human emotions, and we all have a boiling point. There’s two wars—there’s the war that they fight in Iraq, and then there’s the war that they fight for the rest of their lives. I met a lot of guys in this process who said that they are my character. In particular, the scene where my character goes back to the gun store to get his job back, we were on a break that day, and a guy came up to me and said, ‘I am your character.’ He actually worked at that gun store—he was a Marine, out for a year and a half, and he said there’s not a day that goes by that he didn’t want to go back in and get back over there. There’s a camaraderie, a brotherhood. And he said you can’t understand it unless you were in it, and that it’s your calling. I’ve always had a great respect for soldiers, but being able to hear their stories was really powerful.”
One of Presley’s comrades in “Home of the Brave” is played by Curtis Jackson, better known as rapper 50 Cent. When his name was first brought up, Winkler admitted, “I didn’t know who that was! I just did a movie about Cole Porter—what do I know about 50 Cent?” But he was persuaded to take a meeting with him in a New York hotel, he said, “and I was amazed at how many people came over for his autograph. And when we talked, he was so accessible and such a nice guy, and I expressed to him that we didn’t have any money, and he said, that’s okay.”
Jackson’s fame followed him to Morocco, where, Winkler said, “all the kids knew who he was.” Presley recalled a time “when we were all in the back of a humvee, and about fifty kids just surrounded the humvee, and they’re all singing ‘Candy Shop,’ which is one of his songs!”
Winkler admitted that the studio would have liked to list Jackson as “Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson” in the advertising for “Home of the Brave,” but Jackson refused. “‘You hired me as an actor,’” Winkler recalled him saying. “‘If you hire me as a musician, you have to pay me.’”