Even if you don’t know who Captain Dale Dye, USMC (Ret.) is — and you darned well ought to know who he is — you’ve seen the actors he’s trained and the movies and TV projects he’s held to his particular high standards.
When you see an interview or a DVD bonus feature in which the pretty young star of a war movie has complained about their pre-shoot boot camp and how without that boot camp, they never would have been able to get into character, to properly do justice to our men and women in uniform, odds are that that boot camp was run by Captain Dye.
Military advisor on films ranging from “Platoon” to “Saving Private Ryan” to “Band of Brothers” to “Tropic Thunder,” Dye has become the go-to veteran for directors ranging from Steven Spielberg to Oliver Stone to Brian DePalma. He doesn’t just know his stuff on an intellectual level. He lived it, earning multiple Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam.
His most recent gig was on HBO’s “The Pacific,” where he put the stars, including James Badge Dale, John Seda and Joe Mazzello, through the paces necessary to do justice to the First Marine Division and their campaign through the Pacific front.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what, exactly, Dale Dye does on a movie, click through. He’s a mighty impressive man…
HitFix: So I was just talking to one of the stars and he told me that you love to make actors cry…
Dale Dye: [Loud laughter.] I like makin’ ’em cry for the right reasons. I don’t like it when they cry because I’ve kicked their ass. I like it when they cry because they get an insight, because something we’ve done in their training has moved them emotionally. If I can get there, I’m happy when they cry. Other than that? There will be none of that crap.
HitFix: What’s the difference between kicking their ass and kicking their ass in the direction of an insight?
DD: OK. Very few people, particular actors, who live a relatively pampered existence, a relatively self-centered existence, really get the business of service to something larger than yourself. They rarely get the business of how much you can come to love and rely on — and I use that word advisedly — love and rely on another human being until they’re in extremis, until they’ve been pushed out way beyond their comfort zone. So that’s the first thing I do is push them out way out beyond their comfort zone. I mean, I physically wear their ass out, because what I want is a blank slate. I want ’em thinking only about the next five minutes and how am I gonna stay alive for the next five minutes and say out of that old white-haired bastard’s way. I want ’em in that position. No getting them to that position is a tough, hard deal and sometimes there’s a little crying and whining going on in that period. That I don’t like. But as I progress and as leadership, on my part, becomes more “Dutch uncle,” more “father-son,” and less “cruel taskmaster and slave/plebian,” then there are moments when they’ll hit a wall — “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. My mind won’t let me. My body won’t let me do this.” — at that moment, maybe I can get an arm around them, maybe I can walk them off, maybe I can explain to them the strength and the power that has to be built into a guy who goes through what those guys in the Pacific went through. And sometimes, at that moment, I’ll get some tears. And those are good tears. Those tears I like, because what’s happened is he’s learned something and he’ll never ever forget it.
HitFix: How long can it take to get there?
DD: Different strokes for different folks. I’ve spent most of my life raising other people’s children and so I tend to know where your emotional buttons are pretty quickly and I’ll go right for ’em. I say that with no shame whatsoever. I will go right for your emotional buttons. But it depends. Some performers want to throw up a bigger wall than other performers do and it’s hard to break through. Those kinda guys will try to convince me that they’re really with it, they’re really learning, they’re really trying to understand this. And I know it’s bullshit. I know from experience that it’s bullshit. Those guys always take longer. It takes longer for me to get under that facade. With others who come in, Jon Seda’s a classic example, there are others who come in so open-minded, so anxious to do this, so filled with the right motivations — Why I want to do this, other than that I’m going to become a famous actor and make a lot of money — when they come in with that sort of thing, it’s instantaneous. [Snaps his fingers.] I’ve got ’em. They’re learning and absorbing viscerally from a very, very early point in the training. It just depends. It depends on how defensive the guy wants to be.
HitFix: If you’re working with a guy who’s a really good actor, how do you gauge sincerity?
DD: Experience. Experience. And I have trained the Oscar calibre actors. I’ve trained Tom Hanks. I’ve trained Tom Cruise. I’ve trained some really, really good ones. They’re not that good. I know. I know. It’s from my experience. You can do your damnedest. You can do your Oscar-level performance. And if it’s bullshit, I’ll know it’s bullshit, because I have a plus-four bullshit factor and it’s always on.
HitFix: I understand that on “The Pacific,” you had to take your normal 21-day boot camp and cut it to 10 days. Is it possible to get the same impact in half the time?
DD: Well, you extend your day. Sleep gets much shorter, what little they get. You up the intensity. You up the ante. You make each event a lesson. By that, I mean not just a lesson in “pull this handle, push this button, pull this trigger” — that’s stuff that has to be done and it has to be done over and over and over again until the weapon or the equipment becomes just like an extension of the guy’s body — but when you’re pressed and the time becomes compressed, then you’ve got to take every opportunity during the time that you’re dealing with all of these technical things to teach the psychological things, to teach the emotional things. It is harder on us teachers than it is on the students, because we’ve got the find those moments when we can teach things that we’d normally have a whole class period for. We don’t have a whole class period, but we can’t give it up. We can’t give it up or we wouldn’t be as effective as we are. So we have to take whatever was in that class period and find a place for it to go with another piece of training. That’s how you do it. You just scramble your ass off.
HitFix: Bottom line it for me: How much cushier, how much less is this than what a regular grunt would go through?
DD: It is just as intense. It is just as much a learning experience. It’s minus only in the time factor. We eliminate the frills. We eliminate the dress uniform stuff. We eliminate the show-shining and the maintenance. We eliminate the some of the close-order drill marking around and military courtesies and that sort of thing. And we are working with such an isolated group in isolation that we can do a lot of things that regular basic training guys at Fort Jackson or Camp Pendleton or San Diego or Parris Island can’t do, because they’ve got thousands to worry about. We’ve only got these 35 or these 50 or however many we’ve got in the field. So in terms of intensity, in terms of tempo, in terms of effectiveness, it is the same. In terms of scope, in terms of time commitment, it is much shorter.
HitFix: Since you became the industry’s go-to man for acting boot camp, you’ve also become an in-demand actor on your own.
DD: I seem to be. I don’t know what the hell that’s about.
HitFix: Having become more of an actor yourself, do you understand actors better now?
DD: Sure. Look, I come by that less honestly than you’d think. I did 22 years of active service and I’ve always been a believer in what Patton said. General George Patton said, in one of his times of waxing eloquent, he said the best leaders are the best actors. Any you know? He’s right. Over my career, I had to play so many different roles and I had to play them damn convincingly or I have in trouble. So I like to think that the professional military, or at least my career in the professional military, was the best acting school in the world. Certainly I learned my lessons in combat. I was open-minded enough to examine and understand what was happening in my mind and in my heart and in my guts in combat and I took those lessons to heart. I learned them and I tried to vocalize them, to get a handle on what they meant, rather than just let them sit inside. So it’s relatively easy for me when a director says, “You know, you’re really sad here and I want you to show some pain and some loss.” I can reach back and touch some baggage that’s all about that and fix that in my mind and in my peripheral vision. It’s a relatively easy thing. Now how effective it is? I don’t know. I keep getting hired, so I couldn’t suck that badly.
HitFix: Do you enjoy it?
DD: Yeah, I do. It’s fun. I think I had to spend so much of my life dealing with life and death, with really serious stuff, that when I have an opportunity to play-act and can actually communicate something that’s interesting, that’s insightful, I enjoy it. Yeah.
HitFix: Do you watch your performances?
DD: I try not to. I guess I’m better now. Early on, I watched some of my performances and they had a lot in common with a jet engine. You know what a jet engine does? It sucks and blows. So, yeah. So I got out of the habit of watching myself. Now I’m a little bit easier to take. Now I can watch it and see what I did. There are moments… I remember a moment in “Platoon,” which was really my acting debut. I was watching the casualties be hauled out at the end of the final battle. I had just gone away. I was back in Vietnam. I was watching my men be hauled out and so on and so forth. Unbeknownst to me, Oliver Stone just nudged Bob Richardson, the DP, and he just switched the camera over to me. Well, I just stood there watching. I was not there, on-set in the Philippines. I was back in Vietnam. Oliver saw and turned the camera on me. I think that was an insight. I didn’t know it and didn’t even know it until I saw the finished cut.
HitFix: It’s right there in the movie?
DD: Oh yes. And I said, “I get it.” Now I’m directing myself and so it’s relatively easy to go from to directing actors.
HitFix: You’re 65 now. Are you softening up at all over the years?
DD: Not a bit. At least according to the kids, I’m not. They still say, “That white-haired bastard can still run circles around me.” I’m getting age-y, but I have a really terrific staff of young, hard-charging NCOs and they do it my way. They get it. They know what I’m doing and they keep me honest.
HitFix: How big is Team Dale Dye?
DD: It’s Team Warriors Incorporated, actually. It’s about 10 people. It’s a motion picture production company essentially, but I’ve organized it like a riffle company. I’m the commanding officer and I have an executive officer and a company gunnery sergeant and an adjutant and three platoon sergeants. It’s like that and it’s about 10 people.
HitFix: All of them former active Marines?
HitFix: How do you find the right people?
DD: Well, they come to me. We’ve gotten so high profile with “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” and “Platoon” and this one. I get 20 or 30 a month, active duty guys who want to get out and come and work for me. The work is spotty, so I can’t keep a big staff around, but I’ve got a stand-by file of guys who I can reach out and get when I need specialties.
HitFix: Have you seen “The Pacific” yet?
DD: Yep. I’m very proud of it. We raised the bar significantly with “Band of Brothers,” but we really pushed that bastard up with this one. It’s magic. And the great thing is that it’s about my outfit. I’m a First Marine Division guy. I’m really delighted with it. I’m delighted with what the veterans think of it. They’re just raving about it. That’s an Academy Award to me. Interestingly, I’m finding — and you wouldn’t expect this — I’m finding chicks dig it. There’s a reason for that. It’s the great love story between John Basilone and Lena Riggi. It’s that great tail chase that’s going on in Melbourne, the absolute desperation of these guys who are so young they’re barely out of puberty. Here they are knowing that if they don’t live life to the fullest right now, they’re liable to be dead in a couple weeks. And I get that. I’ve been there. And I love that we got that in the series.
“The Pacific” premieres on HBO on Sunday, March 14.