Dale Dye Will Make a Man Out of You
Published: November 13, 2005
By PETER DE JONGE
On a late September afternoon in Los Angeles, Dale Adam Dye, Captain, United States Marine Corps, retired, sits behind a desk in his modest North Hills bungalow and describes the rigorous process by which he takes a bunch "of weenie actors who think the sun rises and sets on their asinine selves" and turns them into fair facsimiles of grossly underappreciated fighting men.
Dan Winters for The New York Times
"I put them in total isolation," says Dye, taking a quick pull on his cigarette. "I make them live in a hole and keep them up all night. I create a world from which they can't escape, and if I'm really good, and I am, I take them so far out of their comfort zone, they believe it. Once I've done that, I can fire blank ammunition at them, and they've lost the concept that it's blank."
From the corner of the desk, there's a tinny telegraphlike ring tone, and Dye raises a hand to indicate he has to take it. George Zakk, a producer at One Race Productions, is calling about the latest Vin Diesel project, a movie about the ancient warrior Hannibal, which Diesel plans to star in and direct. If Hannibal gets the green light, Dye's company will have the lucrative assignment of training the Carthaginian general's troops, just as he did Westmoreland's and Alexander's for Oliver Stone and Eisenhower's for Steven Spielberg.
While Dye talks to Zakk, I take in the décor. From the Marine flag on the doorstep to the compendium of famous last words beside the toilet, the entire house is so filled with memento mori that the girlfriends of Dye's fiancée, Julia Rupkalvis, sent in pictures to "Queer Eye for the Straight Girl." More disconcerting is the juxtaposition of the actual and the cinematic. Hanging from the ceiling like Shaq's championship sneakers in a sports bar are the jungle boots Dye wore in Vietnam in 1967, but the photographs of the soldiers that cover the walls are from sets or locations and defaced with inscriptions. Zakk wants Dye's reaction to the latest script, and although Dye later concedes to me it hinges laughably on elephants - because elephants are all people recall about Hannibal - he likes to work. "I got a couple nitnoids," he tells Zakk, "but other than that, I think it's pretty damn shootable."
Since the Sunday morning in 1985 when Dye, having drunk the number out of an associate the night before, called Oliver Stone and told him that if what he read in Variety was true and Stone was in fact planning to shoot a movie about his experiences in Vietnam, then he desperately required Dye's services, Dye has established himself as Hollywood's top military adviser and hardest-working monger of virtual war. In 20 years, he has put his stamp on 33 movies, bringing grisly verisimilitude to films about Vietnam ("Platoon," "Casualties of War," "Born on the Fourth of July"), World War II ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Thin Red Line") and Iraq ("The Tiger and the Snow"). Partly, it's sweating the details, making sure the weaponry and combat styles are faithful to the period, but his specialty is conveying the timeless toll of combat in gaunt cheeks and hollow eyes and bringing grim authority to what he calls "the whole business of dying in war movies."
"I hate that funky chicken and screaming 'Mama!"' Dye says about two standard Hollywood battlefield curtain calls. "People don't do that. Seeing a guy get killed, it's like looking at a marionette as somebody cuts the strings. They literally collapse, and if you do that, it shows the vulnerability."
Dye's film success has enabled him to meet the payments on three alimonies and has given him the satisfaction of shoving a modicum of empathy for the common grunt down the gullet of the American civilian. But before he can do that, he has to own the minds of the cast, and that requires breaking them down and building them back up at his legendary boot camps. "Other people think all I have to do is teach you how to hold a weapon or wear your uniform," Dye says, rubbing out his cigarette. "Not in my book. Not at all. Because a performance comes from the heart, and the heart has to have a certain amount of understanding."
Dye, born in Cape Girardeau, Mo., in 1944, was the only child of a liquor salesman, and in lieu of child care, his father brought him along to the working-class taverns in and around St. Louis. As the kids rolled pool balls back and forth across the tables, their fathers, veterans of World War II and Korea, sat and drank, so the first war stories Dye heard were delivered from bar stools. One afternoon at Johnny Baskett's Bar in North St. Louis, Dye was mesmerized by untoppable tales of man-to-man fighting told by a marine who claimed to have fought in the South Pacific. That evening, Dye looked up Iwo Jima in an encyclopedia and was as good as gone.
In the fifth grade, Dye enrolled in St. Joseph's Military Academy in Chicago and then went to high school at Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Mo. When he was 13, his father committed suicide, and his mother's own difficulties required that he be shuttled among relatives, which explains the mistaken belief of his Vietnam buddies that he was an orphan and entered the Marines directly from a foster home. Dye had hoped to attend Annapolis, but after failing the entrance exam three times - "my math and science skills were weak, and my English skills were huge" - and having exhausted his family's meager funds getting through military academy, he enlisted in the Marines in January 1964.
At the end of 1965, after six months training in Okinawa as a mortarman, Dye was part of the first opposed combat landing in Vietnam. After his return to the States, he was serving as a troop handler at Camp Pendleton when, Dye says, "the military found out I had a literary bent and decided I would be a combat correspondent."
There is a studied casualness to Dye's reports of the change in his military specialty, as if it's little more than a technicality, and he is quick to point out that every marine is a rifleman and that correspondents are exposed to more enemy fire than the average infantryman. And in two more tours, during the bloody stretch from 1967 to 1970, Dye was wounded three times and earned a Bronze Star with a "V" for valor, among many other citations.
At the same time, he had crossed a line from which there is rarely any going back: from someone whose job is to engage and kill the enemy to someone whose job is to take pictures, make tapes and write stories of people who engage and kill the enemy. Either way, Dye saw more than his fair share of carnage, and it gave him enormous respect for the low-ranking infantrymen who suffered the brunt of it. "Dye's heart is with the grunts," says Bob Rea, who worked with Dye as a combat correspondent during the worst of Tet. "He feels like he owes something to those people. He is a grunt wannabe."
The change in perspective was reinforced by the different kind of soldier Dye fell in with. The combat correspondents included Gustav Hasford, a fast-talking high-school dropout from Alabama who eventually amassed a collection of 10,000 books, and Mike Stokey, who ambled through the war with a .45 rusted shut, a yo-yo and a paperback. Within months of getting out, Hasford started writing the acclaimed novel "Short-Timers," which Stanley Kubrick turned into "Full Metal Jacket." Stokey is the No. 2 man at Dye's company, Warriors Inc. Other correspondents, who called themselves Snuffies (after the comic strip character Snuffy Smith), included Gordon Fowler, the model for Cowboy in Hasford's novel and screenplay and now a painter who teaches and shows regularly throughout the Southwest, and Keith Crossley, a longtime Hollywood storyboard artist.
Dye, with his square jaw and piercing eyes straight off a recruitment poster, realized that he had more in common with these ambitious misfits and would-be artists than with career soldiers. His relationships with Rea, Crossley, Fowler and Stokey are the defining ones of the war for him, and in pictures from every Snuffie reunion, the older, grayer Dye - who Hasford nicknamed Daddy D.A. - stands in the center with his arms around the others. Although these men allude to Dye's appalling lack of modesty, bottomless need for attention and tendency to embellish stories that in no way need it, none will get off the phone without making it clear they think the world of Dye. "I always figure if I mess up and kill 10 people," Crossley says, "I'll call Dale, and we'll figure out what to do."
At the same time, they acknowledge that Dye is something of a mystery. "Even in his deepest, darkest moments," Fowler says, "he was vague about the details of his life. When something's bothering him, he'll call up at 3 in the morning, spend an hour and a half on the phone and never get around to telling you what it is." Amazingly, when I spoke to them, none of these comrades seemed aware that long before he had his daughter (now a teenager) with his third wife, he had three sons with his first, two of whom he has had no contact with since he abandoned them 35 years ago.
After about 1970, Dye's fellow Snuffies, having done their one required tour, got on with their lives. But to their bafflement, Dye, still in his mid-20's, stayed on for almost another 15 years, becoming an officer in 1976, after 12 years as an enlisted man. "I guess Dye just likes war," Rea says.
In fact, Dye was afraid to leave. "I had a terrible opinion of the people in whose name we were fighting, the American civilian," he says. "I wanted nothing to do with them, and for the next 10 years, an enormously self-destructive period for me of drinking, carousing and taking chances, I basically hid out in the Marines."
Dye claims the event that persuaded him to retire was the suicide attack in 1983 on the Marine base in Beirut, where he had been serving. But Crossley told me that the decision had as much to do with an incident around the same time at the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, when Dye was observed by a Reuters reporter putting a pistol to the head of an Arab bartender.
Whatever the exact reason, and with Dye, as even close friends point out, you are never sure if you're getting the truth or a more entertaining and self-inflating variant, Dye retired from the Marines in 1984 (after a brief stint training the contras in Central America). A quick review of his résumé wasn't encouraging. Where, he wondered, might he find a civilian application for his proven talent as an infantryman, his hands-on experience with mortars and his fluency in ambush and counterambush? And then, of course, the answer came to him. The man who grew up on war stories and had survived three bloody tours of Vietnam with his gift for exaggeration intact, would head to Hollywood and try to have some input on the biggest storytelling juggernaut of all.
While a previous generation of military advisers limited themselves to minutiae like making sure the medals lined up right, Dye would draw on his 20 years as a marine to help directors make more convincingly horrifying war movies. He would vet their scripts for telltale clichés, historical inaccuracies and jaw-dropping ridiculousness (like Rambo shooting a rocket-propelled grenade from a helicopter), and by means of rigorous boot camps, he would give clueless actors some body of experience from which to draw. "I gave myself a year," Dye says, "and if it didn't work, I'd become an I.B.M. clone."
It took him all of that time to get in front of Stone, but when he did, he closed the deal. Three weeks before shooting began, Dye and his cadre of assistants gathered the 33-man cast at their hotel in the Philippines - most, like Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker and Kevin Dillon, the age of actual recruits - and took them up into the hills around Luzon. Dillon now plays the aging hack brother on "Entourage," the HBO show in which Dye plays himself as the adviser brought in to train the main character, Vince, to be Aquaman. (One sign of Dye's beloved icon status is that he is given small roles in almost every movie he works on and pulls them off with élan.) Talking about the "Platoon" boot camp, Dillon recalls spending the first night in a three-foot-deep hole with Sheen and getting by on three anxious, often interrupted hours of sleep and two M.R.E.'s for the day. "Guys in 'Nam got three," Dillon says proudly.
Dye brought them back so burned out that Stone immediately shot the opening sequence. But having delivered the wet human clay, Dye didn't repair to the shade and wait to be called. He parked himself at Stone's shoulder and pestered him with suggestions and seemingly minor details.
"I was determined to have an influence," Dye says, and his former fellow Snuffies spot it in frame after frame. It's there in the big bandages the grunts carry in their helmets to plug a sucking chest wound, the hand signals they use as they move through the jungle, the way the dog tags around their necks are muted with tape and extras are inserted in a boot (because if you hit a tripwire or a mine, that's often all that's left). They read it in the false bravado of grunt graffiti scrawled on helmets and flak jackets, like "Kill Them All, Let God Sort Them Out," which Dye had compiled in a list and passed out to the cast. They smell Dye's handiwork when the naïve protagonist played by Sheen pulls the rank assignment of burning the contents of the latrines. And they smile at the choice of pot paraphernalia.
"Remember the gas mask those guys use when they're getting stoned?" Fowler says. "We invented that in our hooch, called it the 'grass mask."'
"Platoon" put Dye on the map, and when the cathartic binge of Vietnam movies ended, he slipped back in time and went to work on World War II as brought to you by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, serving as the military adviser on both "Saving Private Ryan" and their 10-hour cable spinoff, "Band of Brothers." He prepared Hanks and the rest of the cast with six days and nights of bivouacking in the woods.
"I remember standing in the pitch dark, having been up all day long and my feet having been wet the whole time," Hanks recalls, "and every 15 minutes for two hours calling Ed Burns and Adam Goldberg to get their report. Without Dye we would have had zero authenticity in regard to our roles. His work permeated every scene."
At the same time, "Ryan" revealed his limits. Dye couldn't rewrite the sacred rule of Hollywood war movies, which demands that every major character's death be honored with its own choreography. If Dye gets one "snipped marionette," he has to accept one "funky chicken" and one "screaming Mama," and the opening 20 minutes of "Ryan" contain all three. And if Hannibal goes forward, it's very unlikely that he will be able to nix the absurd money shot in the current script in which an elephant with an enormous sword attached to its trunk slices a soldier in two. In fact, there is little reason to believe that Dye's impact has made Hollywood war movies any more or less clichéd than they have always been.
No matter. By now, a Dye boot camp has become more than a way for an actor to prepare for certain role in a certain movie about a certain war. It's a Hollywood rite of passage, an actor's much less dangerous but no less cherished version of the veteran experience, a chance during a period called "stand down" to gather around the campfire and spend quality time with Daddy D.A.
Dye touts the toughness of the boot-camp ordeal, but not one weenie actor in 20 years has gotten hurt or reached an endurance threshold he couldn't fight through. Like a kid at an expensive sleep-away camp, everyone goes home feeling better about himself.
"It completely changed my life," Hanks says of his interaction with Dye on "Ryan." "I've never been the same." Hanks recalls the special privilege and pride he felt the night Dye took him into the woods alone and, using only a compass and a pair of coordinates on a map, he found a small pond.
And just as the Snuffies convene every couple of years, the casts of "Platoon," "Ryan" and other Dye productions hold their own reunions, sometimes meeting every year for a decade or more after a film wraps.
In the last half-dozen years, the attention lavished on Dye has lured other former leathernecks to Hollywood, and his most formidable rival is Jim Dever, a retired sergeant major in the Marines, whom Dye respectfully calls "the thorn in my side." The 50-year-old Dever parlayed his experience in more recent conflicts like Desert Storm to win the military adviser's gig on "Jarhead" and also edged Dye out for "Flags of Our Fathers," the film Clint Eastwood is just finishing about the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. That loss stung. For Dye, the lore of Iwo Jima started it all, and making the movie would have taken him back full circle to those afternoons with his father at Johnny Baskett's Bar in North St. Louis.
But Dever, with his ramrod posture and Forrest Gump fade, is not apt to be Dye's rival for long, since Dye, an upwardly mobile grunt wannabe, is already plotting his way out of the military-adviser ranks. On "Alexander," Dye received his first second-unit directing credit, and on Hannibal he will get his second, and his Vietnam script, "The Ville," has been optioned by Theory Films. Ultimately, like everyone else, Dye wants to direct, thinks he would be damned good at it, in fact, but he sees no advantage to putting it quite that nakedly. "Let's just say I've got some stories I'd like to see told," he says.