The Cast Thought They’d Struck Gold Until They Realized Spielberg Wanted Them to Go Full ‘Method’
by Tom Nicholson | The Telegraph | September 9, 2021
Damian Lewis takes aim in the award-winning series, Band of Brothers. CREDIT: Alamy
Damian Lewis shrieked into a pillow and sobbed. It was 8am. Thinking he’d nailed his final audition with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for Band of Brothers’ hero Major Dick Winters, the actor had gone out to celebrate and collapsed into bed at 5am. Now it turned out that Spielberg and Hanks wanted another chat – and he was in no shape to face them.
“The biggest meeting of my life, and I’ve blown it,” he wrote in a diary soon after (an excerpt of which he published on his website in 2018). “I’ve had three hours’ sleep and I’m still drunk. By midday, I’ve had three cold showers, five coffees and stubbed my toe a lot. I walk into the office sweating heavily and shaking.”
Fortunately, Spielberg had seen Lewis in Hamlet on Broadway, playing Laertes. The actor clung to this scrap until Spielberg and Hanks began to peel away. “Steven’s off to watch his kid play soccer,” Lewis later wrote. “I want to tell him it’s called ‘football’. Probably not the best time, though. Tom has to go to buy a Christmas tree with his daughter. They leave.”
With Lewis still uncertain about his fate, there was silence in the room – until Lucas Film producer Tony To asked: “So, ready for boot camp in March?”
“I leap up and kiss everyone,” Lewis wrote. “I’ve got the part! I’m Dick Winters. I’m in Band of Brothers.”
Band of Brothers turns 20 years old today. Despite the success, three years before, of Saving Private Ryan – Hanks’s and Spielberg’s other Americans-liberating-Europe epic – the story adapted from Stephen E Ambrose’s 1992 book of the same name gave them a broader canvas to work with, and an opportunity to explore the shattering experience of soldiers on the front line in 1944.
The series follows the paratroopers of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division through the Second World War, from their training in England to capturing Hitler’s ‘Eagle’s Nest’ headquarters on the German-Austrian border, via D-Day, Operation Market Garden, the liberation of the concentration camps and some of the most harrowing moments of the war.
As much as it’s about the closeness of a group of men who witness and perpetrate terrible things in the name of freedom, Band of Brothers is most often about the chaos, moral grey areas and emotional turmoil in which Easy Company find themselves. Rather than seeing the war as a coherent interplay of tactics seen from a bird’s-eye perspective, it’s a hardscrabble quest to survive hour-to-hour, in which chance plays as great a role as training.
“You find that the biggest concern is that you don’t look at war as a geopolitical endeavor,” Spielberg reflected in 2010. “You look at war as something that is putting your best friend in jeopardy. You are responsible for the person in front of you and the person behind you, and the person to the left of you and the person to the right of you.”
The production began with Hanks and lead writer Erik Jendresen compiling a 275-page series ‘bible’. Jendresen went to Hershey, Pennsylvania, to meet the real Capt Winters on his chicken farm, and pore over the cache of letters and journals which Easy Company veterans had sent to their former leader. The two struck up a deep friendship; Jendresen would give the eulogy at Winters’s funeral in 2011.
“It was an amazing and really profound relationship,” Jendresen told the Band of Brothers podcast, Dead Eyes, last year. “Over the course of about four to six months, I immersed myself in the story of Easy Company, poring through it, working with Winters on a daily basis.”
The attention to detail that ran through Band of Brothers came, he added, from the veterans of Easy Company themselves. This extended to ensuring that every character in the series was a real person who had actually been present. The actors took it further, occasionally having themselves removed from scenes after double-checking with the veterans as to whether they were there or not.
“Paratroopers, as a whole, can’t stand exaggeration,” Jendresen said. “If somebody says there was three feet of snow at Bastogne [a Belgian town laid siege by German forces in December 1944], they’ll say, ‘No, there wasn’t. It was, like, 18 inches.’”
Four months after that hungover meeting, Lewis was in the middle of a gigantic production, its $120 million (£86 million) price tag making it (then) the most expensive television programme ever made. Band of Brothers was full of big numbers. The main set, which was remodelled to stand in for 11 European locations, sprawled over 12 acres. It needed 2,000 military uniforms, 1,200 authentic vintage costumes for civilians, 10,000 extras, 500 speaking roles, up to 14,000 rounds of ammunition fired a day, and more than 150,000 kilograms of paper used to turn a hangar at Hatfield aerodrome in Hertfordshire into a snow-covered forest near Bastogne in southern Belgium.
Even compared to Saving Private Ryan, the operation was huge. The set was five times bigger than anything used for that film. By the time they wrapped the third episode, ‘Carentan’, Band of Brothers had used more pyrotechnics than the whole of Saving Private Ryan. Given that the first episode is mostly set in rural Wiltshire, that’s a lot of ammo.
There were 700 genuine period guns too, bulked out with 400 rubber stand-ins. A home video shows Hanks – almost unrecognizable under a bandana and the beard he’d grown for filming Cast Away – lobbing an MG42 machine gun at Spielberg during a visit to the prop store, and the director screaming slightly as he tries to stop a Second World War relic crunching into the concrete.
That Spielberg and Hanks brought Band of Brothers to the UK – and put some of that gigantic budget into the British film industry – was down to persistent lobbying by then-prime minister Tony Blair. He met Spielberg and made personal overtures. It worked, and Blair’s eldest son Euan received a work placement on the Band of Brothers set into the bargain. In a presumably unrelated turn of events, Spielberg received an honorary knighthood from the Queen in January 2001.
As it turned out, Lewis needn’t have panicked when he was summoned for that last, deeply hungover meeting. “Everyone in this had the role pretty much as soon as they walked through the door,” Hanks said later. A whole generation of British leading men turned up in Band of Brothers: Andrew Scott, James McAvoy and Tom Hardy were unceremoniously killed; Dominic Cooper, Stephen Graham and Michael Fassbender made it through to VE Day in varying states of health.
For the actors, it started with a boot camp. Ron Livingston, who played Capt Lewis Nixon, was tasked with making a video diary of this, and it now stands as a wobbly, handheld testament to its intensity. The actors arrive in a grey holding camp somewhere in Hampshire. The mood is goofy and snickering, until a drill sergeant arrives and barks that they are no longer known by their “civilian name”; at boot camp, they are their counterparts in Easy Company, and it is 1942. There are no phones, no contemporary books and no excuses.
Lewis’s diary records that he found the Method approach “exhilarating”. Others disagreed. “We are so f—-d,” says the actor Rick Gomez to Livingston’s camera, grimacing. They went on to spend 10 days in period combat uniform, including boots that, Livingston said, “felt like they were made out of corrugated tin”. Every 18-hour day started at 6am with a five-mile run; every night was portioned into two hours of sleep then an hour on guard duty.
In between, there were firearms drills, tactical maneuvers, orienteering training and mock fire-fights. Livingston’s video feels like a demo tape of Band of Brothers proper: in character, the cast bark at each other not to waste their sub-machine guns’ ammunition, running around in fatigues over rubble somewhere in the countryside wearing haunted looks.
At the center of everything was a silver-moustached Vietnam veteran. Capt Dale Dye’s reputation preceded him. After leaving the army, he had become an adviser to film and TV productions needing a stern, steely insight into how an army is run. Dye went on to play Col Robert Sink in the series, and his leadership was built on time-honored ideals of order, exactitude and shouting a lot.
“Capt Dye,” Gomez said at the time, “can tear you down, make you realize what you need to do, and then bring you right back up within a sentence.” But it wasn’t much fun. Richard Speight Jr, who played Sgt ‘Skip’ Muck, recalled taking stock in a barracks room that smelled “like feet”, and “lying in bed thinking, ‘I’m never gonna make these 10 days’.”
“Some guys, the first night at boot camp, cried themselves to sleep,” remembered Scott Grimes, who played Technical Sergeant Donald Malarkey.
The production took a physical toll. David Schwimmer twisted a knee on field maneuvers, then Neal McDonough took an M-1 rifle butt to the mouth during an exercise, bursting his lip. Still in his fatigues, he was spirited away to a hospital for two stitches in the middle of the night, where for extra secrecy he was checked in under ‘Buck Compton’, his character’s name. After refusing pain relief – this was 1942, and Buck Compton wouldn’t have had pain relief – he was back at camp in time for the morning run.
As boot camp wore on, Easy Company started to gel – partly through mutual exhaustion and resentment, and partly a genuine desire not to let each other down. “I was there for them, and they were there for me,” Grimes would recall.
The moment that Livingston knew it was working was when he was tasked with ensuring a newly arrived actor could strip down a rifle in a single evening, ready for inspection the next morning. He drilled the newbie again and again and again, in a barracks bathroom, until he was perfect. The next morning, however, the new actor was all fingers and thumbs.
As a punishment, Livingston was ordered to hold a plank position until the rifle was fully dismantled. “Next thing you know,” Livingston recalled, “we had pretty much the whole platoon volunteering to be down there with me.”
Once filming started, that closeness made things harder for anyone outside of Easy Company. Andrew Scott remembered the atmosphere being “awful”. Dominic Cooper had a small part in the first episode, and found the intensity of it all so overwhelming he nearly quit acting altogether.
“It was all to do with my own insecurities,” he told The Guardian later. “It was camaraderie, competition and masculinity at its highest level. I just wasn’t ready for it.”
Stephen McCole, who played Winters’s unpopular successor, ‘Moose’ Heyliger, told the Dead Eyes podcast that he found himself “getting ghosted left right and centre”. He added: “Not just on screen, but when we were sitting around waiting, having cups of tea, anything like that – people were just riding me, treating me like s–t. I thought, ‘F–k these guys. I f—–g cannot stand this job. I want it to end.’”
For years, McCole even turned down invitations to reunions, but eventually relented. On the way to Normandy for the meeting, he spoke to Philip Barantini, who had played Sgt ‘Skinny’ Sisk, and eventually got to the bottom of it.
Barantini explained: “We were all taken aside and [told], ‘Nobody talk to this guy. Treat him like s–t, because I want him to feel that, and I want you to feel that. I want him to feel that he’s not part of the group.’” McCole, who had been silently fuming for the best part of two decades, was aggrieved all over again.
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