The Man Who Brought War to Hollywood



What did you say?

I told him my theory about why war movies sucked, and gave him my view on how to make a good one. He liked what I said and hired me. By the way, I still have that matchbook from the bar on Sunset.

What was your first order of business on Platoon?

I took 33 actors into the mountains of Central Luzon in the Philippines for three weeks, completely cut off from the outside world. The day I brought them back to civilization was the first day of filming. They were ready. They looked and performed just like the soldiers in Vietnam.

Were you the first to train actors in this way?

Yes, and it changed the methodology of war movies. Training had been provided, but there wasn't full immersion in it. Until Platoon, an actor wasn't going to submit himself to such indignities. Since then, a lot of people have copied my approach.

What makes yours unique?

I'll absolutely physically abuse you to the point where you're so tired you're cross-eyed. Then your ego goes away. That way, I can talk to your heart.

Do actors complain about your approach?

Absolutely. But so do the kids who climb off the bus at Parris Island who aren't actors. They whine, piss, moan, and complain that they're being mistreated. Nowadays, actors seem to come in to my program acknowledging, He's gonna nail my butt. He's gonna unscrew my head and pour all the crapola out and then put the right stuff in. And that's precisely what I do.

On Platoon, was it obvious during the production that you were making a different kind of war picture?

I knew we were on to something, and that I was working with a powerful, visionary film director. And because of the nature of the story, I knew that there were going to be detractors.

Did you disagree with Oliver Stone about certain story aspects?

Yes—and there were a few places where I succeeded at getting him to change things. In the original script, the G.I.'s of Bravo Company completely destroy a village with the civilians inside. I told Oliver, "You know damn well we wouldn't do that. You didn't do it when you were a soldier in Vietnam, and neither did I. So how about if those G.I.'s carry the civilians out? Relocate them. That's what we would have done." He agreed, and that scenario is the one that's in the picture.

Toward the end of Platoon, there's this bizarre scene where an American tank has a Nazi flag flying above it. U.S. soldiers also have German Shepherds on leashes, an image reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Why would American soldiers in Vietnam have a Nazi flag above the tank?

For the same reason that soldiers had flags with the skull-and-cross bones image on it. We carried state flags as well.

Did you see that when you were there?

Sure. But all that didn't mean that much to us at 19. We were young, rebellious kids. We weren't making political statements. We were making a military statement: We're Stormtroopers, we'll tear your ass apart. We also put horrible graffiti on our helmets and flak jackets.

And why the German Shepherds?

They were scout dogs. We used them all the time.

You trained Charlie Sheen for his role as Chris, the young solider in Platoon, so you worked closely with him. Why do you think Sheen can't stay out of trouble?

That's a very personal question. I'd rather discuss it with Charlie than with you. I'll say this: when I had him under my guidance and tutelage he gave it all he had. There's a big heart beating inside his ribcage.

You've had a recurring role on the HBO series Entourage, which is about a young movie star making it in Hollywood. Does that series really capture the movie business?

The hubris, arrogance, and ego fixations are accurately displayed. My favorite character is Johnny Drama, played by Kevin Dillion. He's great in the role of the struggling actor trying to make a comeback after one big success in a series. I run into guys just like him all the time out here.

Why have movies about the Iraq war performed so poorly at the box office?

Those films are too much too soon. It took Hollywood almost a decade to really take an unblinking look at Vietnam. We're a media-saturated society, bombarded with images from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's not a smart move to ask people to pay $10 to go see all that brutality again, especially when they may well have someone who's related to them fighting over there.

The Iraq war pictures have also had political agendas as well. Why can't filmmakers avoid that?

Hubris. That's really what causes filmmakers to make political statements in what are essentially entertainment vehicles. I'm not a fan of that approach. Shine a light on war and its consequences—fine. But don't make political comments. Americans gets plenty of that, thank you. They want something else from Hollywood.

Explain the political set-up in Hollywood to people who don't work here.

Well, if you were to create a Hollywood political spectrum, the writers, directors, producers, and actors would all be on the far left. On the right, for the most part, are the below-the-line folks—the blue-collar guys. This reflects our country. People think big business is completely conservative, but that's not true. The conservatives can be found down in middle management. They're stoking the furnace. It's the same out here in the movie business.

Why are so many of those writers, directors, producers, and actors you mention on the left?

They come from the arts and a humanitarian educational background. Very few have any military service—or any public service whatsoever. They deal in fantasyland. That's what we do here—tell stories and create images.

Where are you on that spectrum?

I'm a conservative, but I'm certainly not a neoconservative. Nor am I a reactionary. I believe this country was founded on certain timeless principles, and that we shouldn't be second-guessing the Founding Fathers.

Have those views ever impacted your employment in Hollywood?

Yes. Early in my career, the sentiment against me seemed to be, Ah, this is that right-wing wacko. He doesn't have a brain. He's a Marine. He's clearly from the South. He's toothless, probably can't read, and all he knows how to do is pull a trigger. But now, 20 years later, after 50 films, I've sort of overcome that.

When you were fighting in Vietnam, could you have imagined that you would be advising and acting on some of the most elaborate films and TV productions of all time?

I didn't think I'd live through Vietnam.

So what kind of perspective do you have today?

I've been all over this world three or four times, and nowhere else but in America could a farm guy like me, from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, educate himself and realize the great privileges that I have. Now, that may sound cornball, but it's the plain fact of the matter.

Presented by

John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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