Talent On Tap – 75th Anniversary of D-Day in 14 Stories

The anniversary of D-Day is fast approaching and the events surrounding the beaches of Normandy should be on all our minds. As a country, there is never enough thank-you’s and appreciation we can offer that compares to the sacrifice of that day. Some of the men fighting the Germans were only as young as 16 yrs. old and barely 100lbs. Bravery was tested to its limits and courage was worn like a badge of honour. The men that died that day were First Nations, Jewish, African American, Canadian and many other Americans. They did so out of duty and because it was the right thing to do. They didn’t do it for the metals or the parades and most survivors lived with years of guilt and undiagnosed PTSD. We can never forget their sacrifice and we can never allow their heroic actions to be in vein.

 

Two very gifted Documentary filmmakers Elliot Halpern and producing partner Elizabeth Trojian have created the film D-Day in 14 Stories to be able to commemorate the 75th anniversary and celebrate the heroic soldiers and living veterans with vivid accounts of this historic event. Using stunning VFX and testimony from living veterans and some that have sadly passed since the films completion, the documentary provides a birds-eye view of the bravery, the violence, the sadness and the fears. Never have I seen a documentary filled with untold stories, facts and details of D-Day like I have seen in this film. It airs on The History Channel on June 1st at 9 pm.

 

I had the very rare privilege of speaking with them both from Toronto. They were very candid and humble as they described the incredible journey and research that went into the making of the film.   

 

“Given the importance of this event and film, it must have been quite an undertaking.”

“Because of the responsibility we had and the subject and sheer scale of what happened it definitely had its challenges but it was very important to us to be able to tell the war stories and in particular the 14 stories and we never forget the sacrifice and what they did for us. It was a huge challenge but one that we welcomed because we had to deliver massive battle scenes at an iconic location with the challenges of a documentary budget.”

 

“Were a lot of the effects made with green screen technology?”

“Not so much green screen as much as on location painting things out. It’s a new advanced technology and we did do a few green effects on the beach but mostly it was our genius VFX team that brought it to life. Red Lab in Toronto did an amazing job on it. We went in and we were shooting in Normandy and we shot plates on the actual beaches, so when you see that beach you’re actually seeing the beach in Normandy.  It was magic to see it all come together because on one hand it was very deep and personal but the other had that scale; how do we deliver both.”

 

“What was it about this film that made you want to get involved?”

“It was through conversations with Chorus and History Canada. They had a big anniversary coming up and the thing that really drove it home for us is that there’s been lots of movies about D-Day, scripted and unscripted. Number 2, they wanted something very different for the 75th anniversary that was different from everything they’d done before. When you think about all the work that’s been done in terms of dealing with the big picture of the war and when they weren’t at war and the generals, the politicians and preparations.  For the 75th anniversary we thought it very appropriate to confine our narrative to first person stories from individuals that were there on that day. These heroes are now in their mid to late 90’s and this may be the last major anniversary to hear from the individuals that had actually experienced it. That became our whole focus, to find the men that were there.”

 

“Did you have to narrow down the list of veterans or were they the only ones willing to talk on camera?”

“Everyone that we found were pretty open, it really depended on their health. I believe we’d located all of the Veteran’s but the ones that were in the film had the stories that we could tell and worked together with the best recollection. We found 18 veterans and ended up with 14 stories. We really restricted ourselves because there were so many men that were there on D-Day and D-Day 2 but our goal was to talk to the men and women involved on D-Day 1. That was the great challenge.”

 

“How much work went into pre-production and researching all the veterans?”

“We had very strong development support from Chorus that allowed us to do that. We’re very grateful to the fact that they trusted us and gave us all the video that we need to block out a story like this and identify who we wanted to talk to. By the time we were green-lit for production we’d already done quite a bit of that work.”

“Did you do some extensive travelling around the globe for footage?”

“It was really important to us is that we wanted to tell a very precise view of this day. Not just allies but the French resistance and the German perspective. It was a challenge to locate them but it turned out great and we really wanted to give the viewer a niche eye perspective of what it was like on both sides of the dial on that.”

 

“Was it more difficult to track down the German soldiers for their accounts of D-Day?”

“It was equally challenging. I think the most challenging was finding men that had really clear recollections of that day and were able to speak on camera. I would say it was more difficult.”

 

“Having watched the documentary, the veterans that were recounting the events were very articulate. Had they rehearsed before the interview?”

“It’s never rehearsed. We had 2 directors on the project, Robin Bicknell and Jamie Kastner. Robin did the interviews and she is an amazingly talented director and an incredible interviewer. She is very passionate about the Second World War and about personal stories. She has an incredible ability to connect with people that it appears that the answers were scripted but it’s through the conversations that they had come up with them.”     

 

“For all the men it was very difficult to tell those stories and they were reliving them; it’s not something we should take for granted. The deep emotional connection they have to that day is something they can never forget and it’s always a little raw for them. You also have to remember that the term PTSD didn’t exist in their day and it’s important to acknowledge that’s it’s very painful for all of them to have to relive these memories. They haven’t really talked about it before in such great detail. Sometimes it’s the first time they’ve talked about the events and the way that you speak to them and get them to recollect in a way that they don’t normally want to. We’re all very grateful for their generosity and for them having gone through that. They believe it’s important for people to know.”

“I agree that it’s so important to hear these stories so we don’t repeat history.”

“Another thing that’s really important to us in making the film and telling the stories is that we wanted to be able to express the diversity of people that were there that day. It’s very typical for people to assume by watching films like Saving Private Ryan that there was only one type of men there. To think that there were no African Americans, Jewish, First Nations and no women. These are the stories we really wanted to highlight.  We were incredibly blessed to be able to find the veterans to tell those stories.”

 

“There was an African American that had a hard time convincing others that he was there. It must feel terrible to not be recognized for his sacrifice.”

“It’s really quite wonderful that we were able to interview him and include him in film because sadly he passed away since the interview. That’s one of the great blessings we have talking to those veterans and getting their stories before they’re lost to history.”

 

“How long did it take to make this documentary?”

“We started developing it in Nov. of 2017 and delivered it very recently.”

 

“How many screenings has the film had?”

“We haven’t had any public screenings yet. The broadcast on The History Channel at 9 pm on June 1st will be the first chance the public will have to see it.”

 

“Given the age of the veterans, you must be fighting time to interview them before they get sick and their health deteriorates and it’s too late?”

“There were two interviews that we had lost that we had lined up and their health had turned bad. Your health is so precarious when you’re in your 90’s or 100. I believe Charlie had turned 100 when he passed.”

 

“What is your biggest takeaway from being involved in this film?”

“For me, it was the number of diverse people that were there as well as the youth. Some of the men that were there that day were some of the youngest. They were children as young as 16 and 17. When you have kids it becomes a real wake up call. They were so young and must have been scared. At the same time though, they had to be brave enough to do that at such a tender age. It’s incredible and such a gift to be able to hear these stories and to be able to share them.”

 

“There was testimony from one of the veterans that said he was only 106 lbs. when he joined and everyone called him Peewee. I can’t imagine what that might be like.”

“It is quite shocking how young some of these men were. I think what’s most surprising to me is how many soldiers never reached the beach. The number of men that drowned was shocking. I never thought about it before. They have all this equipment on and are under fire when their boat hits a sandbar and they think they’re in shallow water so they’d step out to the deep and drown from the weight of their backpacks. The sheer bravery, it’s so amazing what they did, the challenges, the water, the bullets, they had mines. They had so much keeping them out and yet they still went through all that and took out a toolbox of machine guns. They were all told going in that 25 percent won’t be coming back. Knowing that and still doing your duty is unbelievable and talked about. We watch these fantasy shows like Game of Thrones but in the real world is where you’ll find real bravery. Real life is always more powerful.”

 

“Will the film be circulated at the festivals or will it only appear on The History Channel?”

“We hope it will get into some festivals but currently we were working hard toward the finish line in order to have it done by the 75th anniversary. We’d really love to see it in some festivals and have a life beyond broadcast.”

 

“Where did you find most of your actors?”

“Most of them came from southern Ontario. Our casting director is very good at matching younger actors with an aged lookalike.”

 

“Did you do the majority of the filming in Ontario?”

“Yes, all of it was shot in Ontario.”

 

“How did you go about finding all the stock footage?”

“We have a really great archiver that spends part time combing libraries, the national libraries and archives. Lots of it was the first time ever seen footage and some of it was from their own personal collection. We were really searching for footage that would help us tell our story and then integrating it.  One of the challenges was transitioning from VFX to the archived footage without creating a bump for the viewer. Red Lab did an incredible job.”

 

An incredible documentary. Please show gratitude for our veterans and their sacrifices to our country and watch this film on June 1st. on The History Channel.

 

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