“There are two lines I would change.”
by Paul Tanter | RadioTimes | December 10, 2021
Twenty years on from Band of Brothers landing on our screens, Erik Jendresen talks to Paul Tanter about the legacy of the ground-breaking miniseries.
Few TV series are justly acclaimed as a masterpiece. Even fewer retain that accolade 20 years later. HBO’s Band of Brothers’ recent 20th anniversary reminds us that it is still one of the crowning achievements of televisual storytelling.
The miniseries portrayed the real stories of the soldiers of Easy Company, part of the 101st Airborne Regiment that parachuted into France on D-Day and spent the war fighting not only for their lives but to liberate Europe and defeat the horrors of the Third Reich. It cost a then record-breaking $125 million dollars for just 10 episodes, ushering in an era of prestige TV that is now taken for granted amongst giant streamers with deep pockets.
The anniversary naturally resulted in renewed interest for the show, with an HBO podcast diving into each episode, but Band of Brothers has consistently remained a favorite amongst audiences, critics and historians, enjoying a 9.4 rating on IMDb. Now entering its third decade but with its quality undiminished, it stands as what producer Tom Hanks called “a social document”, more important now than ever as the surviving members of Easy Company have dwindled to just one survivor.
Household names and fresh from the success of Saving Private Ryan, series creators Hanks and Steven Spielberg were the recognizable faces of the project, but of equal importance was Erik Jendresen. As lead writer and supervising producer, he was their first recruit for the project and spent months interviewing the surviving members of Easy Company, poring through documents and writing the detailed series bible that would inform the structure of every episode, in addition to writing the first middle and final episodes of the series.
“The first thing that struck me was what a remarkably contained and comprehensive tale this was,” recalls Erik. “It’s not that often that you are presented with a story of one group of men who went from the very beginning, the nascent days of World War Two, all the way to the Eagle’s Nest. That this one company began training as paratroopers – which was something that was experimental at the time, and ended drinking champagne at Hitler’s lair was a remarkable storytelling opportunity – not only to tell the story of these men, but in doing so to capture the width, breadth and scope of European Theatre in World War Two.”
The key to Erik gaining real insight into the experiences of Easy Company was immersing himself in their stories and gaining their trust, starting at the top. He spent months interviewing their leader, Major Richard Winters, starting with a meeting in the Major’s home office where Erik was determined to make a good impression. “At the beginning he didn’t really trust ‘Hollywood’,” remembers Erik of the Major. “And he watched me very carefully in that first meeting. One of the key moments was when I noticed his Corcoran jump boots and I said, ‘May I?’, and he said ‘Sure’. I picked them up and I felt his eyes on me, as he watched me look for the shrapnel hole that I knew was there. He was aware that I’d done my homework and I was taking this very seriously. Paratroopers don’t suffer fools or exaggerations. They’re a no-nonsense generation of men.”
Satisfied that Erik was the man for the job, Winters handed over four thick binders of memories and information, each four inches thick. He’d amassed them years ago, “Because he knew that someday somebody like me was going to walk through his door,” says Erik. With such trust from the men whose stories they were telling; Erik and the “Band of Writers” – John Orloff, E. Max Frye, Graham Yost, Bruce McKenna, Eric Bork, and Tom Hanks himself — were determined to live up to Winters’ standards of excellence. “We all took it upon ourselves; the responsibility of doing this right. Winters had this insight that the best way to get through war itself was not griping, but by excelling in every single thing he did.” This approach soon formed the basis of a bond between the two men. “He realized fairly early on that that’s where my heart was. We’re not going to leave something until it’s right.”
It wasn’t just Dick and the men of Easy Company putting their trust in the production. Band of Brothers set a record at the time for the most expensive television miniseries ever made with a budget of $125 million for 10 hours of television. Unusually for a TV Network, HBO left the producers alone. “I think if any of us had stopped to think about it, we would have realized it was so unusual. The fact that they gave us complete creative control. HBO head Chris Albrecht had this philosophy that you assemble the right creative team, and you leave them alone because they’re professional storytellers that know what they’re doing. In the course of crafting 10 hours of screenplay, we received not one single note from HBO.” And was the astronomical budget daunting? “Realizing the scale of the thing, it was astonishing,” he laughs. “We all knew that we were being handed more money than really had ever been allocated to a television drama before.”
Saving Private Ryan had balanced Hollywood spectacle with portraying the stark realities of war. Even with blockbuster money available to make Band of Brothers, Erik neither wanted nor needed to fictionalize the story. He explains, “There was a singular focus on getting it right. We’re gonna let it all just breathe and let these characters speak for themselves and emerge as they will. We’re just going to tell the truth. We’re not going to manipulate or bend the facts for the requisites of a drama. We’ll be true to the experience of these men and their awareness.” What does he mean exactly by their awareness? “Often in cinematic adaptations of events in World War Two, it almost feels as though some of these soldiers are aware that they’re the greatest generation.” He says. “But they weren’t aware. So, it was really about serving the authenticity of who they were and what they did.”
When writing the several-hundred page series bible, Erik found himself going down rabbit holes. “You get granular; you discover in the truth of an event elements that are nearly impossible for any creative person to invent,” he says. Mark Twain famously said “Truth is stranger than fiction” and Erik is keen to highlight the rest of the quote; “‘…because fiction owes an obligation to truth.’ Truth owes no obligation. And invariably, you discover stuff that, in some cases stories so fantastical that if you told it, even though it was accurate, nobody would believe it.” One obvious example is the scene where Sgt Speirs sprints across the battlefield under and then runs back to his men, confounding the Germans that someone would make such a dash. Erik agrees, “The Germans just couldn’t really believe what they were seeing. Because it was so absurd. I think that the shock value froze their trigger fingers. So, there was no need ultimately such moments in any way. It was our extraordinary responsibility to serve the stories of these men and to get the hell out of the way of the truth.”
Asked what his abiding memory from the shoot is and he’s split between two. “The first time I actually saw dailies (footage). I was flabbergasted by the way it looked. It was from episode three, a shot of the Graves Registration guys in this mist. And it was astonishing to me to see the quality of what we were getting on film.” And his absolute favorite? We’ll get to that…
Tom Hanks referred to Band of Brothers as a “social document”. When the series was made many members of Easy Company were still alive and able to share their experiences after a lifetime of stoic silence. Erik says. “Those veterans of World War Two, almost to a man and woman returned home and didn’t speak of their experience to their families or anybody, principally because they had no frame of reference. How do you describe that kind of stuff to Aunt May? So, they fell silent. They dealt with their own demons in the various forms of PTSD that many of them were dealing with on a daily or nightly basis. Now they were able finally to turn to their families and say, okay, you’ve seen that now, let me explain the part I played. And it happened across the country. It was amazing. In the winter of their lives, it provided so many thousands of these men an opportunity to talk about it, and to unburden themselves. And I don’t think there’s anything more gratifying than having taken part in creating a story that was that cathartic for so many people who deserved it.”
In addition to the profound impact on World War Two veterans, Band of Brothers stands as a historical account. Always finding new audiences, the 20th anniversary saw a resurgence of interest in the show and its popularity among younger people spike. Erik’s pride is clear. “A whole new generation has come to this thing. That’s fascinating to me. I think part of the reason is that this is a story of children of the Depression who had strength of character, a moral compass that was magnetically set on true north, and leaders who embodied the idea of ‘follow me’ – follow my example, and we’ll get through this. Those are strengths of character we’re sadly lacking these days. So, maybe there’s an aspirational aspect of this story; that’s what it is to be a man – to be a real human being – and to have strength of character.”
The scale and budget of Band of Brothers’ production broke ground in television, the effects of which are still felt now. “There was certainly a new golden age of television that shortly followed,” says Erik. “Band of Brothers broke new ground and helped pave the way for studios take greater risks, to reap greater rewards.” It paid off for HBO, winning dozens of awards including six Emmys. Of greater reward to Erik was his friendship with Winters. “It was one of the most extraordinary friendships of my life. Really.” This friendship and respect culminated in his favorite moment from being involved with the series; the Major making Erik an honorary member of Easy Company. “When Winters pinned a pair of jump wings on the lapel of my dinner jacket. That’s probably the finest memory I have in the whole thing. It was moving. It’s hard for me to put into words, and I’ve spent my life putting things into words. It’s a source of a lot of personal pride.” ”Their friendship was later endorsed further following Winters’ death in 2011, when his widow, Ethel ,asked Erik to deliver a eulogy at Major Winters’ memorial service.
With social attitudes changing and the current trend for remakes, reboots and networks utilizing existing IP, could Band of Brothers be made now? Erik pauses. “The vicissitudes of Hollywood and the tastes and the concerns and the fears of the people who make those decisions in Hollywood change on an almost weekly basis,” he says. “Right now, we’re in the grip of a spasm of reactive response politicized with labels such as ‘cancel culture’ and ‘wokeness’ and political correctness. And this is such an incredible paroxysm of fear and concern. Plus, it’s also fueled by the past five years of tremendous divisiveness, anger and outrage. It seems as though it’s become quite the fashion to identify yourself through your anger. It’s as though people are almost looking for things to be upset by. And that’s a very difficult time to punch through when you’re a storyteller, because in simply telling the truth you can be accused of being insensitive to social issues or any number of groups of people. But I really do believe that the silver lining to these trying times is that inclusivity has become so vitally important.
“The pendulum has swung way, way far in one direction, but I think when it finally settles, it will have been reset. And diversity and inclusiveness are going to be more than the norm rather than the exception. And that’s something that we can all celebrate.” I ask if there’s anything he could change if he could revisit it. “There were two moments, one in episode five and one in episode 10. There are two lines of dialogue that, had I been there on the shooting day, I would have changed. And I won’t share with you what they are!”
Watching Band of Brothers now is an opportunity to see numerous A-list actors before they hit the big time. Pre-fame and fresh faced actors appearing include Damien Lewis, Stephen Graham, Michael Fassbender, Colin Hanks, Simon Pegg, Marc Warren and James McAvoy, with David Schwimmer and Donnie Wahlberg being the only recognizable names at the time. Was casting unknowns important? “It was really just casting the best talent. The audition process was grueling. Physical resemblance was important, but second to the chops and the dynamics that you showed up with in the room. Anybody who got cast in the show proved themselves in their auditions, and then subsequently obviously in their work.” Erik sees parallels with the casting and Winters’ attitude to the production. “Just as Winters’ concern was never about him, it was about getting the men’s story right. In the same way it doesn’t make a lot of sense to draw focus on just one or two because they happen to be recognizable stars. I think there was something refreshingly brilliant about casting for talent rather than face recognition.”
Rule-breaking, big budget TV is now commonplace thanks to monied streamers. But Band of Brothers occupies a unique place in history with nothing, Erik thinks, comparable. “I don’t think I would compare anything to it. Because it stands alone as such an unusual piece.” So does anything live up to it? “Certainly, there’s been some exquisite storytelling on TV. I mean in the last 20 years we’ve been living through this new golden age in which absolutely compelling and profound storytelling can happen on a small screen. And it didn’t used to be that way. We didn’t use to have as storytellers the luxury of time to fully investigate and plumb the depths of what motivates a character and what makes somebody feel something. And I think that having that luxury and having the wherewithal and the resources to do that on television now has been a game changer for the entire industry, and certainly for writers who are writing for the right reasons.”
While the series had a huge effect on audiences and the industry, it seems that the legacy for Erik is far more personal…
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