I love a good history movie. In fact, I am a history movie junkie. The best of such films cannot only tell us something about the past but perhaps even something about ourselves. I had these thoughts in mind when I recently interviewed Brian Falk, director of the brand new adventure drama Against the Sun. Produced by the American Film Company, the semi-independent motion picture is intimate and revealing. According to the movie’s website: “In one of the most harrowing true stories of World War II, three U.S. Navy airmen crash land their torpedo bomber in the South Pacific and find themselves on a tiny life raft, surrounded by open ocean. No food. No water. No hope of rescue. Against incredible odds, these three virtual strangers must survive storms, sharks, starvation—and each other—as they try to sail more than a thousand miles to safety.” In my interview questions, the director expounds upon some of the intricacies of bringing a story of this nature to life in an authentic and dramatic manner.
Perhaps you could start us off by telling us about the mission of the American Film Company?
The American Film Company was founded in 2008 by entrepreneur Joe Ricketts to make movies based on engaging true stories from American history. It’s a mission the company has taken very seriously from its first film, The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, to its latest, Against the Sun.
How did you first hear about the saga of Harold Dixon, Gene Aldrich, and Tony Pastula stranded at sea? What motivated you to produce this tale as a motion picture?
I received a draft of a script about the story from screenwriter Mark David Keegan. That script became the basis for Against the Sun. There’s an old nautical adage: “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” That idea—that we as humans are often at our best when things are at their worst—was something I was interested in exploring.
The casting choices for the three main characters were excellent. How did you come to choose the actors you did?
I first want to say that working with those three guys was one of the greatest joys of my professional life.
I met with Tom Felton first. His enthusiasm for the material was contagious, and although he’s famous for playing Draco Malfoy [in the Harry Potter films], Tom is actually the sweetest guy. He also agreed to do an audition tape with our casting agent so I could hear his American accent. When I saw that video I knew Tom was meant to be Tony Pastula.
I met a few “Dixons” but none were quite right. Then I heard that Garret Dillahunt was available and we rushed the script to him. I was a big Deadwood fan so picking him to play Dixon was a no brainer.
I met many “Aldrich” actors. It was Jake Abel’s audition that really sold me. Aldrich was from southeastern Missouri, which has a real accent. Jake was the only guy who really went for that in his audition, and that told me he was willing to take risks, which I knew all of the actors I chose would have to do. I could not be happier that I chose him, and that he chose this project.
In recent years, many historical films have been held to higher standards of authenticity. What measures did you take to ensure this in your film?
In the scripting phase, we sent drafts of my script to a consultant, Robert Cressman, an expert on the U.S. Navy and World War II, in order to make sure everything, from the characters’ period vernacular to the specifics of flying a torpedo bomber, was accurate. We also used many real WWII-era props, and handmade other props to the exact specifications, such as the Mae West life vests and rafts. Any time there was a question on set about authenticity of a particular prop or line of dialogue, my response was always “let’s double check.”
A great strength of the film is the cinematography. While one might imagine that an entire movie in raft would become monotonous, it is anything but. Would you care to elaborate on your filming techniques that sustained the drama and suspense of the movie?
It was always my goal to make the movie visually interesting, even given the limiting circumstances. Luckily, I’ve worked with Cinematographer Petr Cikhart for many years, so we speak the same language when it comes to shot selection, composition and sequencing. We started with very specific story boards, which we then translated into shot lists for each day. Our goal was always to keep a scene moving and not get stuck on a master shot.
|Brian Falk on set.|
While it wasn’t necessarily a goal to hit a PG, it was great to make a movie that can entertain the entire family—without buckets of blood or gratuitous sex scenes. A good story still works.
In many ways, I felt this film was reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat—a wartime survival story of high tension on the high seas. Even more will undoubtedly see a similarity between your film and a significant portion of Unbroken. How do you perceive your movie as distinctive from others?
Of course there will always be similarities between movies about people in small boats on the open ocean. And I, of course, watched Lifeboat again before making this movie, mostly to look at how a master like Hitchcock blocked his actors. It’s great. But it’s also film noir and Against the Sun is not. Unbroken has closer parallels, but luckily the movie business in not a zero sum game. If people like Unbroken they will probably like Against the Sun too, and vice versa.
What is the next project for you and/or the American Film Company? Do you find that there is a viable market for such historical films?
At the moment we’re hyper focused on the roll out of Against the Sun. And instead of waiting to see if the market is viable, we’re trying to create a market for this movie by digitally targeting specific groups of likely buyers. It’s a first for the film industry, and time will tell if it’s successful or not.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Brian Falk for taking the time to discuss his film with me. I also thank Alfred Levitt and Kurt Graver of the American Film Company for helping to facilitate this dialogue. Learn more about their movie productions here.
Check out the trailer for Against the Sun.