Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Filmmaker Focus: Dale Kutzera of "Military Intelligence and You!"

Dale Kutzera has worked as a screenwriter for the past six years, first writing several unproduced feature scripts, then co-creating and producing the VH-1 series “Strange Frequency” and later on staff at the CBS series “Without a Trace.” A native of Washington State, he grew up in Tacoma and later attended the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written about film production for such magazines as “American Cinematographer,” “Cinefex,” and “Cinefantastique,” and served as researcher for Rosebud, author David Thompson’s biography of Orson Welles. He is a past recipient of the Carl Sautter Screenwriting Award, the Environmental Media Award (for “Without A Trace”), and was a participant in the prestigious Warner Brothers Writers Workshop.

"Military Intelligence and You!" uses a great deal of World War II military training film footage. How did you discover and then decide to use this footage?

About four years ago, I was developing an idea for a documentary, and part of the process was searching film archives. At the National Archives outside Washington DC I literally picked up the wrong tape in their viewing center and started watching a WWII training film caled "Rear Gunner" starring Burgess Meredith and Ronald Reagan. The idea struck me that there must be other dramatized training films, made with high production values, and that they would all be in the public domain. So that resource percolated in my brain and then later after Iraq started, I began kicking around an idea of making a film by repurposing these old movies.

The WWII parallels to modern politics may seem obvious as presented in the film, but how is today's situation different from that of sixty years ago? What kind of research did you do?

I believe all writers are at their hearts observers, and what I was observing with Iraq was very disturbing to me. You may recall all the jingoism and "my way or the highway" mentality of the lead-in to Iraq...renaming "French Fries" as "Freedom Fries" for instance when the French would not fall lock-step in with the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld game plan. The comparisons with WWII are stark and, again in my opinion, quite sobering. America was truly united after Pearl Harbor (setting aside, of course, the race prejudice of the era). Men and women enlisted, corporate America got on board and started making tanks instead of cars; average citizens conserved; and even Hollywood mobilized as stars gave up lucrative careers and the industry made films that supported the cause. Compare that to now when there is no shared burden of the draft, but the National Guard is used; when the President encourages people not to sacrifice, but to shop; when corporate America makes huge profits from the war; and when Hollywood is more critical than supportive of the effort.

Period production design is never easy, but "Military Intelligence and You!" looks great.

At one point I was going to work with a terrific production designer from the show I wrote for 'Without A Trace," but our schedules didn't line up. Then we worked briefly with another designer, who ultimately left as we were so far along the "vision" had already been set. So, the task of production design, like so many other jobs on a such a small film, fell to me. The inspiration came from two sources: the old training films themselves, and "Dr. Strangelove." We were cutting between old and new footage, so the overall "feel" of the new material needed to match the old. Takes were longer back in the day, so you may notice the use of longer takes in the new footage. There were also a lot of "push-ins" and "pull-outs" used back then which I mimicked in the new material.

The look of the film was also partially determined by our small budget. I had considered renting any one of the ornate houses available for shooting in Los Angeles, but that would have been expensive, and also required a "circus" of actor trailers, etc. Then I considered renting a standing set, which are also available in Los Angeles and turning, for example, a courtroom set into Central Command, but such sets were often small, and I wanted a sense of space. So that led to the notion of a "black box" set akin to what "Strangelove" did. Fortunately we found a terrific soundstage, Showbiz Studios, that was already painted black. We just had to paint the floor! The bulk of our sets came from Universal Props, and our great radio station equipment was from History for Hire. On a side note, we rented our "hero" costumes, but those for extras I purchased off Ebay...and resold after we wrapped to make a small profit!

I'm glad you like the look of the film, and much of that credit is due to cinematographer Mark Parry. We shot all the Central Command scenes in five days, which is like 8 to 9 script pages a day. That's a lot! But Mark rolled with our limitations, set up a general lighting design, and augmented it with things like a "beauty" light that made the lovely Lt. Monica Tasty glow just a bit hotter than everyone else in the scene. I'd also say the fact we were going to desaturate the color from our high-def shots and add grain and dirt helped to blend the new with the old, and gave use the license to be a bit less finicky in our design.

What's next?

Some well-deserved R & R for starters! Then a combination of finding a home for this film, and going back to the blank page. I have other scripts I'd love to sell or set up, but have gained so much inspiration from the Austin Conference that I may just put on the body-armor again, find the financing, and make another one myself. Thanks to you and everyone at the Festival for a much-needed jump-start, and I hope everyone can come see the film this Wednesday!

Military Intelligence and You! plays tonight (Wednesday) at 9:30 p.m. at the Landmark Dobie Theater

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