Historically, some of the best war films ever made have been British. That kind of ended when Hollywood stepped up and dominated the film and entertainment market (after all they did have the budgets to do so). This history of WWII is mainly seen through the eyes of the U.S.A. and their involvement.
Sadly, this has slightly put a bent on history and has been further reinforced by the computer games generation. Furthermore, Hollywood has also been responsible for some rewrites of history when churning out films, U-571 comes to mind. The fictitious plot attracted substantial criticism since, in reality, it was British personnel from HMS Bulldog who first captured a naval Enigma machine (from U-110 in the North Atlantic in May 1941), months before the U.S. had even entered the war. The anger over the inaccuracies even reached the British Parliament, where Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that the film was an “affront” to British sailors.
And more recently Brad Pitt’s Fury. Should have been a great film but really did leave everyone disappointed, the ending was a real failure and the lack of reality in the Tiger v Shermans was laughable. Many people have said that they have watched it once and wouldn’t bother again. Don’t think it is going to go down as an epic. As someone pointed out, it should have gone straight to DVD and sold in supermarkets.
However, having said that, the U.S. has produced some game-changing films and productions. I don’t need to point them out but I will mention Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. These two productions alone changed how WWII history is viewed. It actually saved our WWII history. Put it back on the map and spawned a whole new industry. Take the re-enactment scene – how many Ranger reenactors did you see before Saving Private Ryan was made or how many 101st airborne reenactors? Not that many, but now you trip over them. That’s the impact that a good Hollywood production can have.
Now it gets interesting. As for years the Brits have been moaning ‘why doesn’t someone make a film on the British achievements during the war”. Or you often hear “anyone would think the Yanks turned up and won the war for us”. Of course, the Brits have every right to moan as they were in the war a long time before the Americans and were on their own for many years whilst taking on Hitler on so many fronts, the land, sea and air battles.
Well, the Brits can stop moaning now as right here, is a British film that is in pre-production about an iconic fight that took place on early D-Day. In fact, the British were the first to land and into combat on D-Day. If Major Howard and his men hadn’t have achieved their crazy objective, then D-Day would have had a different outcome. To those who study history will know the story of Pegasus Bridge. And for those who don’t, then read on as we have hooked up with director of the film Pegasus Bridge the Movie. If the British don’t get behind this film then they best stop complaining about Hollywood leading the way – this is a chance to put the record straight…so we had a chat with the writer and director of the film, Lance Neilsen
If social media is anything to go by – you have been very busy. Tell us all about your new film project – Pegasus Bridge.
Lance – It’s a feature film drama, a true story, about a group of young men who were assigned a really important mission as part of the invasion of France in World War 2. It involved capturing two bridges which would stop the Germans from counter attacking the eastern flank of the invasion. Once they captured them they had to hold them until reinforcements arrived from the sea.
It sounds exciting! What are the challenges with telling such a story?
Lance – God there’s so many we could be here all day. Getting everything accurate is really important and I don’t just mean the period detail as in the right uniforms and badges and so on, I also mean making sure the right person fired this weapon at this objective and the right man blew up this tank or that truck. These things are really important to get correct, not just because you want it to be accurate but also because you want to honour the memories of those actually fought those individual actions.
Can I ask you, what drew you to the subject, how did it start?
Lance – My interest in World War 2 stemmed very much from three movies I saw when I was a child ‘The Longest Day, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare’ The first of these was very much a historical epic covering the first 24 hours of D-Day in broad sweeping strokes, the latter were more like comic books but still great classic movies. The events at Pegasus Bridge are covered in ‘The Longest Day’ in a 15 minute section in this film and this is where my interest in this operation started. I am also of course a writer and a film maker and I knew one day I would make a film set in World War 2 and it was back around probably in the 90s some time when I first thought about it, those thoughts took on a solid reality when I visited the bridge in 2011. It was there and then I decided I wanted to make the film and started more in depth research immediately.
How did you go about writing the script?
Lance – Once I had digested everything I could on the subject and made lots of notes I wrote the first draft for it in 12 days. That might sound flippant, it’s not. My process for a script based on factual events is to prepare a great deal before I work on the dialogue, so before I will write a single line I will have identified all my characters, all their scenes and what was going to happen in those scenes. So having done all that work once I went to write it, the first draft came into place very fast. That draft is normally the bones of the script, then I will go over it again and again and again and make changes and run it by my historical advisor and incorporate all the changes I can that he will suggest. I also had a few key relatives of some of our characters give me input as well, which was the icing on the cake so to speak.
So including all the time you did in preparation how long did it take?
Lance – Hmmmmmmmmm. Once I got really serious about it, probably about 6 months.
Pegasus Bridge was built in Normandy, France, and the bridge was then transferred to the museum, so are you going to be filming in France?
Yes, we are filming in both the UK and France, but we actually have to build the bridge as a replica set somewhere else because the area around it has changed so much. Also the replacement bridge is much larger than the original and the canal has been widened so it’s very, very different to how it was in 1944.
Have the recent attacks in France had any impact on your willingness to film in France?
Not in the least, if anything it makes me even more determined to film there and show the French like in 1944, we’re their friends and will always be there for them as people. I know our countries have a history of rivalry but France has always been a very proud nation. The French authorities have been extremely helpful with the film.
What do you see the British characters fighting for in the film?
As with most people in World War 2, it was of course to free the civilised world of an evil regime that was hell bent on destroying a large portion of the human race although I would say that is over simplifying things it still boils down to the same thing. The destruction of Hitler and the Nazi Regime. The French of course in their own way are fighting too, resisting a foreign power occupying their country anyway they can.
I noticed you have the support of several of the veterans and relatives of the men who were actually there. Was that important to you?
Lance – Not only was it important, it was vital. I would have felt extremely uncomfortable proceeding with the project where they were not at least consulted but we gave a very early draft, I think draft three of the script to three of them fairly early on and the response was very positive but they were also very good and helping me with a few little things here and there which added detail and realism to the script. One thing that people must remember though is that this is a movie, it’s not a documentary. We can’t show every heroic act or every person who was there in the detail that it deserves and my hope is that it will peak interest in the subject and bring to life an overview of what happened. We’re filming those veterans we can find and getting interviews with them, because most of them are in their nineties now!
I did notice from the films website that the cast is very large, much larger than your last film ‘The Journey’ – That must also present challenges?
Lance – Yes indeed. Actually the reason the cast is so big is because I refused to fictionalise any characters and have one person called ‘Private Smith’ who would represent several different people who were really there. Because we are going to have actors playing people who are named, based on real people my thinking on this was ‘How can we have some real names and some fictional names – that doesn’t seem right? Either everyone has to be based on a real person or we have to use fake names for everyone. We went with the latter and ended up with a really huge cast as a result. My producers weren’t too happy with me because this really eats into the films budget but I think time will prove this was the right decision. There won’t be any room for Ego on the set at all though. We will all have to knuckle down and understand this is more than just another movie for a great many people.
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What other challenges do you expect to face?
Lance – A good director will know that 50% of film making is all about the planning and preparation, so the more of that we do, the less we will have to worry about on the day and the better team you have the less you will have to worry about. With that said this film has huge challenges. For one thing we’re very weather dependent and that is something we cannot do anything about. 80% of the film is set outside and with only 20% set inside that doesn’t give us much weather cover (Editor’s note – when the weather is bad the schedule is moved so filming can take place inside) We also have some huge sets to construct and a large number of period vehicles on this film so those things of course can come with their own problems. Vehicles can break down, sets can blow over or get flooded, especially when next to water, which ours will be. There’s lots of things that might go wrong that you can never predict but that is the nature of film making.
I expect that is what also makes it fun?
Lance – Erm, yes. I heard that somewhere.
How will you go about casting such a large number of actors?
I work with a Casting Director, Sharon Sorrentino, who has worked in the industry for a number of years. I’ll be bringing in some of my regular actor collaborators on board for some parts and the rest will be done through an audition process, though there will be some people who will offered a part straight up but those will be actors of international standing.
Any ideas on who you’re leading men might be?
Lance – I know who I want but our casting budget isn’t finalised yet so we won’t know how much money we have to play with until well into next year. We’re pushing for that aspect of the budget to be as high as possible because I don’t want the film to just appeal to people who are already interested in the subject I want it to appeal to people who know nothing about the subject at all and a high profile lead cast will help us to achieve that. Also this is how you get new people interested in history and then this interest filters down to places like the museums which constantly need an audience to keep the history alive.
But these actors would be people that I would have heard of?
Lance – I would certainly hope so. Even though our two leading characters are very much the anchors of the piece this is an ensemble cast, actually now I think about it we actually have five leads. Of course even if someone wants to do the film there is no guarantee by the time we are ready to sign them they will still be available for our shooting dates. That is the problem with the best actors, they tend not to be available because they’re always working. Even getting dates to work for my favourite actor Jason Flemyng is a nightmare, because everyone always wants to work with Jason not only because he is such a lovely bloke, but also such a giving and good actor.
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I remember Jason from ‘The Journey’ he was great.
Lance – He is great in everything he does and extremely natural. He should be playing the lead in more feature films because he would really blow people away. I plan on casting him as the lead in something else in future but I am glad to be able to give some new talented actors their break as well. Danny Webb who is also in the film, is always working. They might not be two of the biggest British names in the business but they’re as good as any other actor on the planet.
I saw you had cast a few people early, I spotted a couple of new faces. How did they get on the Production?
Lance – Yes we did this so we could get some people involved early on for test shoots that we wanted to do on our first recce to France, so I thought ‘Let’s look at who I know who physically fits the part and looks right from people we’re going to audition anyway, because we can cast a couple of them in the movie for sure’ So I called a meeting for about 28 actor friends of mine and from that we picked two – Mike Beckingham and Jake Francis, both very talented and really nice guys. I remember Peter Jackson saying when he was casting Lord of the Rings, that he wanted to cast people that were ‘nice people’ because he was going to be with them for two years of his life. Our shoot is ten weeks long and when you’re on it that will seem like a life time. You want people who will add to the creative energy on set because you become a family. This will be at the forefront of my mind when casting. Still, it’s not easy.
I see your also working with a number of Living History Groups on the film. How did you go about getting them involved?
Lance – I already was familiar with the re-enactment scene as I have a number of friends who are involved with various groups. I attended a couple of shows with a friend of mine who said ‘you should speak to these guys they’re really helpful and these guys will go the extra mile for you…’ and so on. That was how ‘Summer of 44’ and ‘Kompanie 1’ became involved. Since then we have spoken to a couple more (Grossdeutchland Aufklarung) and we’re also working with another group of really great guys from France (Tommy & Caux). All these guys have been tremendously helpful and will add a great deal of production value on screen. One of the biggest scenes in the film is when Rommel is visiting the 21st Panzer division. On that day I will take all the Germans and vehicles I can get my hands on!
We noticed that on your website there are a number of German and French characters. Will the film tell you all sides of the story?
Lance – While the meat of the script is devoted to the British characters I would say that about 20% of the screen time is given to the French Civilians and key resistance figures who were part of the story and another 20% to those German characters who were either at the bridge or trying to fight their way to it. You can expect all these scenes to be spoken in their own language as well.
Will this be the biggest budget you have ever worked with?
Lance – It will be for me yes. I’ve also done a huge amount of work that has been unpaid to finally get myself into the position to do this film. But bigger budget just means bigger problems. I am also trying to do ten times over what our budget should really allow. So the reality is much the same as ‘The Journey’, for that our budget was miniscule but we still just about pulled it off. At the first production meeting with my Heads of Department I told them the benchmark standard for this film was ‘A Bridge Too Far’ and we should aim for nothing less.
Is ‘A Bridge Too Far’ your favourite film war movie?
Yes it is. I like so many things about it and there’s no CGI in the film at all It has a very Epic quality but at the same time you often feel like you’re on the frontline of the battle when you watch it. Attenborough was always very good at getting great depth in every shot. There’s always detail in the background that makes the environment on screen so rich and believable. I want to try and do the same here where the budget allows.
You’ve been very open with your followers on Social Media. I noticed you already have three video diaries up already. It’s rare that a film production communicates with its audience so early on was that a conscious decision on your part or did it just happen?
Lance – It was totally intentional. We give our Social Media team as much information as possible and that filters down to facebook and twitter. The more support we get for the film, the better – it means the films backers are happy and might increase our budget, which of course I won’t say no to. This is an ‘indy’ British Film, that means that the support of our fan base to spread good word and mouth about the film is absolutely vital and the earlier it starts the better. It’s also been really helpful in a number of other ways too – a great many relatives came forward and got in touch with us as a result of this which has been great and we’ve also had some really great offers of help which is going to increase the production value of the film (But please no more offers of help from Military or Historical advisors please, we have all we need) It is extremely unusual for a production like this to be so open about what is going on behind the scenes but we know there is a huge interest in this subject matter and it is the best way for us to give people an insight into the passion we have for seeing this project through to its completion. It’s going to be a long journey but we will get there.
Questions by May Pesh and Jack Beckett.