Captain Dale Dye, Military Advisor on ‘The Pacific’ – An Interview
Retired Marine Corps captain Dale Dye is well known in Hollywood these days, having served as an advisor on such projects as Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Twenty-five years ago he couldn’t even get arrested in Hollywood—well, maybe he came close to that in his zeal to get filmmakers to give more accurate portrayals of the military and combat. As he tells it, he got to know a number of movie-lot security guards rather well.
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Captain Dye survived 31 major combat operations, from Vietnam to Beirut. His decorations include three Purple Hearts. Among the latest projects to which he’s lent his expertise is The Pacific, the long-awaited 10-part HBO miniseries that debuts March 14. On March 6, he spoke with ArmchairGeneral in an exclusive interview.
ArmchairGeneral: Let’s start with an obvious question: How did you first get involved in advising movie and television productions?
Dale Dye: When I retired from the Marine Corps after my last combat tour—Beirut, 1982 – 83, I guess I wasn’t prepared to retire. I didn’t know what I could do with myself, I felt kind of lost. So I did what all good Marines would do—I got a case of beer. I got a yellow tablet, drew a line down the center, and wrote Assets on one side of that line and Liabilities on the other. Then I started drinking beer. The next morning I had a long line of liabilities and a short one of assets. So what was I going to do?
I realized I was a movie fan. I’d seen about every military movie ever made and the common denominator among them was they pissed me off.
They certainly didn’t represent the military I knew or combat as I knew it. I wondered why.
Throughout history our military men and women haven’t had great representation in popular media, but I believed the American public was interested in what was right and what was wrong. We live in a media-saturated culture—I read somewhere the average home has a TV on 14 hours a day—so even if you’ve never been in combat you’ve seen enough images from battlefields to know how things should and shouldn’t look.
One reason the military wasn’t getting good representation is that most actors don’t have a military background. If you don’t know what that military culture is like, no matter how good an actor you are, you can’t represent it fairly. I felt we needed to immerse those people in that culture.
ACG: How did you think you could convince Hollywood of that?
DD: When you’re ignorant, you don’t know what you can’t do. I got a plane ticket and came to LA. I went onto studio lots and started accosting people. I’d grab somebody who was wearing a suit and say, "Do you make movies? Here’s what you’re doing wrong." I got to know the security people really well. (Laughs.)
Finally, I got a little job on a science fiction film through a friend I’d known in Vietnam, and I learned how movies are made. Then I began to really get ideas. I formed a company, Warriors, Inc., but I still wasn’t getting anywhere. I was still hearing, "We’ve been making movies for 50 years. Why do we need you?"
In the Daily Variety trade paper in 1985, I saw a short blurb that said a heretofore little-known director named Oliver Stone was going to make a movie based on his experiences in Vietnam. I thought this is a guy who will understand.
I arranged a meeting and went into a two-minute drill explaining my theories. He said, "Yeah, you’re right. You’ve got it. " He let me take his actors into the jungles of the Philippines for two weeks and really immerse them.
The film, Platoon, won 4 awards including Best Picture, and I wasn’t getting thrown off lots anymore. Oliver was kind enough to publicly acknowledge my contributions.
ACG: Give us some examples of the sort of things you’ve helped with on productions, the sort of advice and direction you give.
DD: I go into it very, very early, usually with the writers to keep them from making mistakes as they go. It’s easier to get it right on the page than after you get out on the stage. I do the research, work with different department heads to get everything right, like uniforms or what the crater would be like from a 105mm howitzer round. Then, once actors have been cast, I begin building a unit around actors to train them.
ACG: To prepare the lead actors and a number of the extras for The Pacific, you put them through a boot camp that James Badge Dale, who plays PFC Robert Leckie, described as "nine days of being pushed emotionally, physically and spiritually." What sort of things did you demand of them?
DD: I am very tough, physically, psychologically and mentally. I’ve spent 30 years raising other people’s children. I believe the way to train is from the inside out. I want to pull out your throbbing heart and show it to you. I want you to stop looking at things as a civilian and start looking at them the way a professional military guy thinks. In the professional military I look out for you, you look out for me. We worry about something larger than ourselves—the survival of the unit.
To give actors an understanding of that, I have to pull out all the civilian crapola. I wear their ass out through PT (physical training), digging their own holes, sleeping two hours a day. They get two meals a day—unless they piss me off. I wear them out. When they get to the point they are blank slates, then I can begin to work on their bodies. The time allotted for that varies. I want weeks, I usually get days.
ACG: Do you ever run into ego problems?
DD: Sure, but I know when they’re lying, when they’re being a weenie. I tell them you are going to hit walls, and breaking through those walls will change your life. There are no cell phones, they have no contact outside our world, so they quickly understand they better listen to me.
There are two kinds of tears in this training. I don’t tolerate one kind, when someone’s crying poor ass. The kind I do tolerate is when someone breaks through that wall, his perspective changes. Sometimes he breaks into tears of pride, and at that point I become Uncle Captain. I take him aside, put an arm around him and talk to him about what he’s accomplished and how it will change him.
I’ve got a great staff at Warriors, Inc., that works with me. Most were former Marines. They serve as my sergeants, my platoon commanders. Mike Stokey has been with me for 40 years; we were together as young men in Vietnam. I can split my company up and all of my guys can do what I do and do it just as successfully. I organized my company like a Marine rifle company. It drives the IRS crazy.
ACG: You also worked on Band of Brothers. What did you do differently between preparing actors to depict Airborne soldiers in Europe and Marines in the Pacific?
DD: War in the ETO and war in the PTO were as different as night and day. Marines approach things a little differently than Airborne. Band of Brothers was easy in that I had one just company to work with, and I had two weeks. I took them to a parachute school where they got ground school for parachute ops. They lived in a barracks, ate in a mess hall, carried very light weapons, and used conventional open warfare maneuver tactics.
The Pacific War was a naval campaign; everything was sea-based. There are different attitudes on the part of Marines than on the part of WWII Airborne. For the Marines, it’s about attacking enemy strongpoints, crossing beaches. I had to teach them how to land in Higgins boats and Amtraks. I really wanted to make sure this one was done right; I had a dog in that hunt (The Pacific) because the 1st Marine Division was my old division.
But the core spirit of how I train a warrior was the same. The core spirit of a warrior during the Peloponnesian Wars was the same as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Giving an insight into that spirit never changes.
ACG: You mentioned your company, Warriors, Inc. It provides consulting services to film productions, but movies and television aren’t the only things it consults on, is it?
DD: It’s odd. This has grown like Topsy. We consulted on all of the Medal of Honor computer games. We’ve done music videos. We publish books. We have a documentary and reality task force now that does research and is on the sets. We have an 1,100-volume library that includes training manuals going back to the Spanish American War. We offer a leadership and team-building course to industry. It’s become bigger than I ever imagined.
ACG: You recently wrote on your blog that reactions from screenings of The Pacific indicate it is attracting a large number of female fans. Is that a new demographic for you, considering the nature of projects you consult on?
DD: Yeah, it is. We’ve worked on some films—not chick flicks, but flicks that chicks dig: Starship Troopers, Alexander, Last of the Mohicans. Usually, though, the films that women have liked aren’t straight-ahead war films. The cool thing in The Pacific is that we don’t just show the men in combat. We follow them to Australia and show these kids trying desperately to live while they are there because they know they may die soon. We get to look at wartime romances, which were very quick but very passionate, like the romance between John Basilone and Lena Mae Riggi in the film.
ACG: You’ve also written several books, the latest of which is a thriller called Laos File. You want to tell us a little about that book before we wrap things up?
DD: It involves an old, salty Marine Warrant Officer (Gunner), Shake Davis, who’s about to retire. He’s drafted into a task force to go to Vietnam to work on normalization after the war. He discovers what may have happened to 250 MIA, and the chase to find what happened is the key to the story. Gunner Shake Davis has proven so popular people have been beating on me to write a sequel, so I’m working on that now.
ACG: Thanks for your time, Captain Dye. Anything you’d like to say in closing?
DD: We’re losing our WWII vets at a rate of 1,000 a day. I want this story told—Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, we’re all on the same page on this—I want this story told and told right before those gents shuffle off to their final rewards, so they won’t be forgotten. I have a story I want to direct called No Better Place to Die. It’s the story of the 82nd Airborne at La Fiere Bridge. If they hadn’t held, the beachheads might have been lost.
When I finish that I want to go to HBO and say give me 10 episodes of Korea, 10 episodes in Vietnam. If I’m still alive and able, maybe I’ll do an Iraq or Afghanistan 10-parter. At that time, I’ll have done what I want to do.
For more about The Pacific miniseries, read HistoryNet‘s interview with Bruce C. McKenna, screenwriter and co-executive producer, and Gene Santoro’s review HBO’s The Pacific – About as Real as Hell on the Screen can Get.
Gerald D. Swick edited Historic Photos of World War II: Pearl Harbor to Japan (Turner Publishing Co., 2008). He is senior Web editor for ArmchairGeneral.com, HistoryNet.com, and GreatHistory.com.