The Making Of
Producer/Director Tom Putnam talks about filming in the Aleutians, recreating the past and why he's glad he got talked out of exploring the whole island of Attu.
What led you to make this film?
This is my first documentary. My partners Michael Harbour, Jeff Malmberg and I were researching a different project on World War II, and we ran across the story of the Battle of Attu. We couldn't believe that America had been invaded by Japan during the war, that nearly 4,000 people had died, and none of us had ever heard about it.
We began researching the battle further, and my producer Matt Radecki and I ended up attending an Aleutian Islands Veterans reunion in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We set up our camera in one of the hotel rooms and began interviewing the veterans. Each one told us such amazing stories. They were all so excited that after 60 years someone was finally interested in telling the world what happened to them and the amazing sacrifices they made to help protect America from invasion. Their passion to let people know about the battle became our passion.
And then, toward the end of the reunion, we met the person who would become the focus of our documentary, Bill Jones. Five minutes into his interview, Bill was telling us what it was like to burn a man alive with a flamethrower. He was crying. I could barely speak. Our producer and director of photography, Matt Radecki, was slack-jawed. And we knew that, somehow, we had to get Bill back to that island. Not only was Bill at many of the key moments in the 19-day battle, he's also a man who is still fighting this battle in his heart and his mind. We hoped that taking him back to Attu would help Bill to put some of his demons to rest.
What was it like filming on Attu?
Attu Island is one of the most remote places on earth and the furthest west of all the islands in the Aleutian chain. It's nearly 1,200 miles from the nearest hospital, 800 miles from the nearest commercial airport, and it's been closed to civilian traffic since the war. The only way to get there is on a Coast Guard transport plane that drops off supplies every two weeks to the 22-person outpost on the island.
Many of the places we filmed hadn't seen people since the war. Attu is like a 30-square-mile museum to World War II. It's never been cleaned up, and everywhere you turned, there were remnants of the battle. We came across gravesites, an undocumented plane crash, Japanese artillery positions with live rounds still in the chamber and an unexploded 500-pound bomb. We were constantly falling into holes, rolling down hills and getting nails through our boots. Our producer, Matt Radecki, injured his leg when his vehicle rolled over. And our director of photography, Alex Vendler, fractured his tailbone after sliding 50 feet down a rocky, grass-covered hillside. But the two veterans we took with us didn't get a scratch.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
During the three years we spent trying to go to Attu, I kept in contact with many of the veterans we interviewed—particularly Bill Jones and his friend, Andy Petrus. (Bill and Andy are the only two Americans from their 50-person platoon who survived the battle.) By the time I called and asked them to travel with us to the island, Bill and Andy had come to know me pretty well, and trusted that we wanted to tell their story in an honest and accurate way.
When we met up with Bill and Andy at the airport in Anchorage on our way to Attu, they both said, "You can ask us anything and take us anywhere," which was great. In the three weeks we traveled and filmed them, they never refused to answer a question.
Did making this film alter your perceptions of what it's like to serve in the military during war? If so, how?
Like many Americans, I grew up thinking of World War II as "the good war," but in making this film, I was surprised to find out that the Americans sent to Attu were completely unprepared. They had been given no cold weather training, and were sent to the battle directly from the Mojave Desert, where they were training for North African combat. They arrived on the island without extra socks, waterproof boots or even heavy coats in many cases. Most men were also given only three days' worth of rations. Unfortunately, the battle went on for 19 days, during which there were two blizzards, and nearly half of the American casualties were due to trenchfoot and frostbite.
We spent just two weeks on the island to film. We went there in the summer, we had a warm place to stay, wet-weather gear and a meal whenever we wanted it. And we barely survived. I don't know how anyone made it out of there alive 60 years ago.
When you hear these men talk about being sent into battle without proper training and equipment to fight a suicidal enemy out to destroy our way of life, and who they didn't understand, it echoes many of the same things you hear about the wars we're in today. And it makes you realize that, unfortunately, history really does repeat itself.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?
The theatrical and home video version of RED WHITE BLACK & BLUE is about 30 minutes longer than what we're showing on Independent Lens. The home video version has a sequence at the veterans’ reunion in Tennessee and much more about the harrowing journey north for the men back in 1943. It also has many more scenes with Bill and Andy, including a very funny scene with Andy working out in the station's gym. The longer version focuses more on the personal stories and relationship between the two men, and in many ways it's a very different but equally interesting film.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
There's a scene in the film where Bill goes to a place called Engineer Hill, where on the last day of the battle the remaining 1,000 Japanese soldiers overran the American medical camp and bayoneted and killed all the wounded. The only Americans to survive were in a tent that the Japanese didn't enter. Bill Jones was one of those survivors.
We went back to the spot where this terrible event happened, and where many of Bill's buddies died, and on the spot where it happened there now stands a 22-foot-tall titanium monument to the Japanese who were killed... but nothing for the Americans.
In many ways, this monument became a lightning rod for Bill and a symbol of all the memories and emotions he wants to be at peace with but can't. That scene at the monument is what makes me, and most viewers, realize that this isn't just a story about something that happened 60 years ago—it's a story about things that are still happening today and that are important for us to address while a few of the men who survived this battle are still with us.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
In addition to the perils found on the island itself, we were very nervous about taking two men in their 80s to a place that was five days away from the nearest hospital. In fact, at the time we made the film, Bill had just come out of the hospital (he has emphysema), and after a few hours filming he'd have to go to his room and spend the rest of the day recovering.
From a filmmaker’s perspective, one interesting challenge was how to "bring to life" events that took place more than 60 years ago. While researching the story, we came across a number of still photographs taken by Army and Navy cameramen during the battle. As we traveled around the island, we would map out the exact locations of the photos and match the lenses the original cameramen used. Because the island is almost identical to how it appeared in 1943, we were able to create a number of sequences where the images slowly dissolve from the battlefield 60 years ago to the same location today.
Imagine a valley covered with hundreds of bodies, and then those bodies slowly disappear into the tundra, leaving the hills and foxholes, all of which are still there today. And then Bill and Andy walk out into this tableau and begin telling the story of what happened there. Attu is a place where the veil between the past and present is very thin, and I think those images really help get us into Bill's head so we can see the island through his eyes.
We tried a number of other unusual techniques to tell the story as well. Since we could only take two veterans with us to the island, we decided to place other taped interviews with veterans on a small monitor and place them in areas that the soldiers would describe on the video. You'll see an abandoned building sitting in a wide grassy field. We move in closer, and there in the hallway, sitting on top of some rotten wood in the knee-deep water, one of the veterans appears on a monitor to tell us about watching buildings blow away in the island's terrible williwaws (the Aleut name for hurricane). The result gives these other men a presence on the island, and a unique way of telling their stories that I haven't seen before.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
We premiered the film at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, and we showed it to Bill and Andy, our two leads, the night before the screening. Candidly, we were very worried about what they would think—we didn't want to sugar-coat them or their stories, and they say a number of things in the film that many people will not agree with. But the two men loved the film.
The next day, we invited a group of about a dozen Attu Island veterans to come to the premiere. It was a very emotional experience—they all agreed that we had told the story the way it really happened to them.
One of our goals with the film was not to take one side or another. On the one hand, we wanted to share the amazing and very patriotic story of what these men did to protect the United States (the "Red White & Blue" portion of our title). But we also wanted to make sure people knew the way these men had been mistreated and ill-equipped by our government, and how we as a country had really let them down since the battle (which is the "Black & Blue" of our title). Likewise, there are things Bill says and does that are amazing and very likable, and other parts of him that many viewers will disagree with. I think that people have walked away from the film feeling like we've been careful to show them both sides of the story—and both sides of Bill—and then allowed them to make up their own minds as to how they feel.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
When you make films independently, you have the ability to tell the kinds of stories that appeal to you, and in a way that's unique. That's not a luxury you get very often when you're making a film that costs millions of dollars or has a studio behind it.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We had some different options available to us in getting the film out into the world. However public television, and Independent Lens in particular, was the one place we felt understood the movie, and were willing to take the time to help the film reach the people who would really appreciate it.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I had a few places I wanted to go on the island that the Coast Guard and the rest of the crew talked me out of. That's probably good, since those parts of Attu had unmarked minefields and other things that might have killed us if I'd gotten my way.