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Open the Footlocker

A screenwriter's reflections on "Memorial Day," starring James Cromwell and Jonathan Bennett.
  1. The Launch

    Just a quick note to say that this writer is absolutely blown away by the response to the movie in just the first four days.

    First, we had a Twins promotion on Memorial Day itself at  Target Field in Minneapolis. The two WWII planes in the film (a P-51 Mustang and one of only six airworthy P-38 Lightnings left in the world) flew over the field as actor Reed Sigmund ("Gorski") finished the National Anthem. The trailer played on the Jumbotron. War re-enactors assisted in the flag-raising. Executive Producer Jeff Traxler parked an authentic WWII half track on Target Plaza. And actors led the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th-inning stretch.

    Since then, the movie has consistently been in the Top 80 best-selling DVDs and Blu-rays on Amazon. It's selling out at Wal-marts. People are renting it at Redbox. Positive reviews are flowing into Facebook, Amazon, IMDb and iTunes.

  2. Report from the G.I. Film Festival
    At first, it feels like kind of an odd juxtaposition to be walking down a red carpet at the foot of the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. But that's how the G.I. Film Festival rolls. And if you think about it, why not? The relationship between film and the military is arguably one of the industry's strongest and longest-standing.

    Except that the GIFF, now in its fifth year, doesn't exist to further tout the big Hollywood military blockbusters. Its purpose is to shine a spotlight on independent fare that portrays the military in more intimate and non-conventional ways. (Like "Memorial Day" itself, the festival isn't pro-war or anti-war; it's pro-empathy.)

    We were fortunate enough to play last Saturday night as part of a special GIFF event honoring military spouses. The evening included an awards ceremony honoring the Lifetime TV series "Army Wives" and was attended by lead actors Sally Pressman and Brian McNamara. And we played after a cleverly conceived and well-executed 6-minute short film called "High Card Trumps," directed by Geoffrey Quan.

    The organizers of the festival couldn't have been nicer, and it must be said that after a dozen screenings, the film has never looked or sounded better than it did at the GIFF. While the theater itself was chilled to about 55 degrees, the audience reception was pleasantly warm, especially after the show as we hob-nobbed with media members and fellow filmmakers.

    After the screening, director Sam Fischer invited me, executive producer Jeff Traxler, producer Craig Christiansen and editor Bill Rammer up on stage for a brief Q&A, where I was once again surprised that one of the most frequent questions we get involves how we accomplished a certain scene involving a prosthetic body part. The line of the night went to Jeff Traxler, who quipped that "we were done with that actor, anyway, so we thought we might as well shoot him."

    When we returned home, we were thrilled to find out that the GIFF has awarded us "Best Narrative Feature" of 2012--our second such award if you include the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Thank you, D.C., and thank you, GIFF!

  3. Report from the Austin Screening
    Gotta love it when your director and one of your star actors help set up the "step and repeat."
    Okay, we're not talking about the Austin of South by Southwest fame. We're talking Austin, Minnesota--birthplace of three legends: John Madden, my wife, and Spam.

    Wednesday, May 9, was a special screening set up by "superfan" Kathy Green, a woman who simply loved the movie so much that she decided to set up her own event to share the film and benefit the wonderful organization Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. Sam Fischer, John Cromwell ("Lt. Bud Vogel"), Sean Dooley ("Sgt. O'Hara"), Craig Christensen and I were honored to be there to watch the film with 200 other southern MN folks, many of them in uniform.

    Each screening crowd has reacted somewhat differently to the film, and what was surprising about the Austin audience was how much they seemed to get the movie's subtle attempts at humor (most appreciated by the screenwriter). As we signed posters after the show, I was asked by a grateful vet where I got the idea to give SSgt. Kyle Vogel an issue with migraines, as he was plagued by the same issue after Vietnam. Although it was a somewhat random decision in the service of giving a hero an Achilles heel, the truth is that migraines are a significant issue and marker for other health problems among returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The most memorable moment for me was getting the privilege of meeting a rare, real-life Rosie the Riveter--a woman who worked as a machinist in World War II. It once again hit me that these amazing people are out there, unnoticed ... at the supermarket, the gas station. People who in one way or another served in what WWII historian John Keegan aptly called "the largest event in human history." For the most part, my GenX tribe knows nothing of the sort. And although I hope we never do, we should honor and appreciate the people who endured that experience before they disappear from view.

    Say what you will about small American towns; one thing I feel each and every time we visit one is that the thread of history is a bit longer, connections to the past stronger. Thank you, Kathy. And thank you, Austin.

  4. Report from the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival
    Memorial Day's true theatrical debut last Saturday was memorable on many levels, a few of which I'll recount here.

    First, there was the comment made by a friend of mine as we headed from the venerable Nicollet Island Inn over to St. Anthony Main, where all MSPIFF films are shown: "Is that line for your movie?" I looked over to see the entire tunnel leading to the theater (which resembles a sort of ground-level skyway) filled with people. Yes, this was a home crowd, but it was still an amazing sight. (Apparently, Memorial Day was the first of 200 MSPIFF features to sell out.)

    Given the "friends and family" aspect, the crowd began the production a bit rowdier than most, as each crew member's respective faction clapped and whooped when that person's name appeared in the opening credits. But then a silence descended for the rest of the film. I've been to half a dozen screenings now, and this is always a nervous moment. Are people quiet because they're engaged or not engaged in the material? Our military audiences have tended to be more emotive during the film. Other audiences have been more subdued until the end. You just never know.

    When it was over, I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing what sounded like a sincere and authentic burst of sustained applause. One never knows in these situations if people are just being nice, but I know you can't completely fake enthusiasm (or tears, for that matter, and I did hear some sniffles along the way).

    Afterwards, director Sam Fischer invited every cast and crew member present to join him for an audience Q&A. I was asked if I have a military background, which opened the door for me to tell one of my favorite stories: While filming in the Kasota limestone quarry, a former Special Forces soldier (now a top-level Army public affairs executive) told me how much he enjoyed the script and asked me if I had any military background ... to which I smiled and responded, "Sir, I'm holding a latte." (Actually, it was an iced espresso with Half and Half, but oh well.)

    The most original question we've ever received came from a teenager who asked one of the actors, "So how did it feel to die on camera?" That led to a rather interesting discussion of the use of prosthetic body parts in film ... and gave me quite an education on that front.

    Upon looking on Amazon.com for any new reviews inspired by the showing, I spotted this:

    "My husband, a Vietnam Vet, cried during the movie. He is still silent about those days, but the movie affected him deeply. I recommend [Memorial Day] highly for its ability to draw you in and keep you. You meet and bond with the characters and see the conflict in their lives about generations of wars, and at the end you are still thinking about how war affects those you know and love."

    Many thanks to that viewer, and I hope this movie might one day open the door for her husband to open that proverbial footlocker. That's what this is all about. 

  5. Why "Memorial Day" Is Worth Your Time: Reason #5
    After the most recent screening of "Memorial Day," a reporter asked me a question that threw me for a loop: "Why did you decide to give [James Cromwell's character] memory issues?" The reason that rose to the surface was this: While I was writing the screenplay, I was also conducting an oral history project with my then-94-year-old grandmother, who had dementia.

    The condition wasn't too severe at the time. In fact, she was still living independently in the house in Roseville, Minnesota, that I had been visiting since I was a kid. She was in remarkable physical shape, and in her lucid moments, she was sharp as a proverbial tack. But those moments were fleeting, and I soon realized that the process of trying to mine memories from someone who is losing them as you speak is both profound and ironic. I wished I'd started sooner.

    Early in the process, I realized that my grandmother's memory loss wasn't random; it was hierarchical, like a distillation process. She couldn't remember what she'd had for breakfast, but she could tell you the moments from childhood and young adulthood that mattered most, like giving birth to my mother and her twin sister when the doctors told her that she was going to have "a big boy" (a story that came up in almost every session, both because it was important and because she didn't remember telling it to me already).

    Even if her stories were short on detail, I could see the pictures as my grandmother spoke. I could see her mother giving food to homeless wanderers who would knock on their front door during the Great Depression. I could see her ice skating in Cherokee Park, where it was routine for flirtatious boys to skate up from behind and slyly take girls by the arm. I could feel the "wait until your father gets home" aura of tense family dinners. I could see her walking to school over the High Bridge in St. Paul, a rigorous routine that today would cure childhood obesity. I could see my grandpa courting her by buying a used car and stitching old suit jackets over the seats. And finally, there was the story that came up so often, I decided I had to put it in the film: the moment my grandmother's Catholic faith was tested by a priest who told her to "keep walking" to her proper parish when she tried to give Confession at a church that was much closer to home.

    My grandmother passed away almost a year ago, and she never got to see the movie. The artifacts of her life are now spread throughout the family, like so many footlocker souvenirs (I now re-possess a Waterford Crystal candy dish that I bought her when I lived in Ireland as a college student). I realize that she taught me much without even trying, like how to live a good life and how to be grateful for it. But mostly, she taught me that stories are the one thing that lives forever. If you tell them.