WE WENT TO WAR, the new documentary from veteran filmmaker Michael Grigsby and producer Rebekah Tolley, looks at the lives of three veterans of the Vietnam war some 40 years after they returned to their hometown in Texas. Michael sadly passed away in March this year, so we spoke to the co-author of the film, Rebekah, about what it was like working with him and how difficult it was to pull the project off. By way of including Michael, we’ve taken some of his previously written statements where they fitted with our questions.
GM: What inspired Michael and yourself to make WE WENT TO WAR?
MG: WE WENT TO WAR is the joint vision of myself and my co-author Rebekah Tolley. It marks another stage in my journey to try and understand the effects of war – and particularly the Vietnam war – and those caught up in it. Although I have made many films in the past 40 or so years, I find myself almost unwittingly being drawn back to this subject, with films both in Vietnam and America (I WAS A SOLDIER, THOI NOI, THE SEARCH). It’s too easy for us to ignore and forget the long term physical and mental impact of war – any war – on veterans and civilians. Filmmakers forget too!
It was only when Rebekah asked to watch I WAS A SOLDIER and questioned me closely regarding what may have happened to Dennis, David and Lamar, and why I hadn’t thought of returning to their stories in the intervening years, that I began to ask myself some long overdue questions. What indeed had happened to them? What had been their emotional journey since returning home? What were the parallels between their experiences and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?
The idea of making a new film felt both timely and necessary. We had to do it! This feeling was reinforced by the enthusiastic response of the families when we returned to Texas. It was also a humbling experience as they entrusted us with their feelings about a war which continues to haunt them some forty years later. Thus their journeys shaped and informed our poetic narrative. As always, the style of the film had to reflect their lifestyles – their small town America – the Texas landscape; these elements demanded space – space in which people could express themselves in a reflective way whilst the visual and aural space gave us the time to feel; a space to counterpoint the frenetic formats of many cinema and television productions, in which there is rarely time to think, let alone question. Finally, underlying the entire film is a question posed by one of the film’s veterans: “Don’t we ever learn?” Perhaps WE WENT TO WAR will help us see and feel just a little more clearly. We hope so.
…we both believed that a follow up film might have the potential to be a broader, deeper comment on the veterans of ‘any’ war…
RT: The idea for WE WENT TO WAR came about one Sunday afternoon in London, when I was sitting with Mike in his apartment discussing another project that we were already developing. In recent months, I’d been slowly getting through Mike’s back catalogue of films and on this particular day was keen to see ‘the film about veterans coming home, I WAS A SOLDIER, which Mike had made back in his earlier days at Granada Television in 1970. I was mesmerized by it. Its style and pace were remarkable, offering a much more cinematic sensibility than most TV documentaries I could remember as a child growing up in the 70s.
What really struck me however were the film’s protagonists – David, Dennis and Lamar – three achingly handsome young men, who had survived all that the war could throw at them; men who had returned to family and friends and to a world that looked all but like a place called home, but which now felt almost as alien as the place they’d just returned from. Words were hard to find. Understanding for what they had been through was even harder to come by. I found myself moved to tears by their sense of disconnect from all that was once familiar and it made me think about a friend of mine who had returned from the Falklands, in a decade further on from Vietnam; a friend so mentally broken by his experiences in war, and who also returned to a world in which even the safety of the familiar was no solace from memories which would continue to torture his mind, long after the crisis in the South Atlantic had ended. I asked Mike why he had never thought to revisit these men – the parallels with those returning today were striking in the extreme. We looked at each other and in that moment it seemed obvious and more importantly, it felt right. As Mike put it, we just had to do it!
Meeting the original film’s main subjects and their families was extraordinary. Their response to Mike and to being remembered after forty years was both profoundly moving and humbling – a lot of laughter and tears! Meeting them, their families and subsequently the Iraq veterans, and those from WW2, Korea and Vietnam who so graciously gave of their time in participating in the project, was no less an honour. I hope they feel we have given them, and by proxy those soldiers from all conflicts who are so rarely given a voice, at least one small platform from which to be heard.
GM: Sequels within the documentary genre are a relative rarity. Was there any initial apprehension or reluctance on Michael’s part about returning to a subject he had already looked at many years earlier?
RT: Michael’s very first response to me when I put forth the idea of returning to these characters was “I never do follow ups!”, which he later laughingly said was “a ridiculous thing to say!” We then discussed the idea at length. Michael completely recognised all the parallels with veterans returning today, but further than that, we also both believed that a follow up film might have the potential to be a broader, deeper comment on veterans of ‘any’ war.
GM: How easy was it tracking down the whereabouts of David, Dennis and Lamar?
RT: Michael had had some contact in previous years with Dennis’ brother Jim, so getting to Dennis was fairly straightforward. It took me a few months to track down both David and Lamar. Lamar was the most difficult of the three to find, principally because I was looking for someone by the name of Lamar Wyatt. I eventually worked out that ‘Lamar’ was probably his middle name, which proved to be the case, and by a very slow process of elimination I eventually found ‘James Lamar Wyatt’, who as it turned out had sadly died in 2002.
GM: How did David and Dennis (and Lamar’s family) respond to the idea of a follow-up film? Did they need to be convinced?
RT: No, not at all. I think the overriding sense was that I don’t think any of them could quite believe that they had been remembered after almost 40 years. Both Dennis and David were a little apprehensive I’m sure, but they didn’t actually hesitate in saying Yes. Although Michael and I already knew that Lamar had passed away in 2002, it was actually whilst we were in Menard (with development funding from the Irish Film Board we went to Texas in January 2009), with David Johnson, that his wife, the lovely Dorothy, put us in touch with Lamar’s cousins Linda and Deborah, who we then subsequently met a few hours away at Linda’s home near San Antonio. Deborah then contacted Barbara and Michelle to set up a meeting with Michael and I. Lamar’s wife and daughter were incredibly welcoming and readily talked about the life that Lamar had had beyond the filming of I WAS A SOLDIER in 1970, which of course was hugely sad to discover and I think upset Michael greatly.
GM: How did Michael find going back to Texas? Did he make any observations about what had changed, and what hadn’t, since he made I WAS A SOLDIER?
RT: The experience for Michael going back was an emotional one; meeting with David and Dennis (individually) created moments filled with laughter and tears on both sides. David told me (as an aside) that “that crazy English guy coming here forty years ago was the best therapy I could have had, because no-one had asked me, before or since, ‘How do you feel?'”. I think that was a real testament to Michael, not only as a filmmaker but also as a human being, in that although he not been in contact with the men in forty years, they had essentially remembered the experience of making I WAS A SOLDIER itself as a positive one. The trust that he had built with these men was still in evidence after four decades and remained throughout the making of WE WENT TO WAR.
Michael couldn’t believe how little the landscape had changed since he had last been there. The men themselves were little changed too in personalities, although David seemed far more ebullient and outgoing than the former shell-shocked version of himself from 1970. His emotions however, as we see in the film, are always near to the surface and any reminder or remembrance of the war would always bring him to the brink of tears.
GM: The visual aspect of the film is very strong – the quiet beauty of the countryside is almost a character in itself. Did Michael feel this was an important part of the story?
RT: We both did. That landscape, first seen in I WAS A SOLDIER, was as important a symbol in WE WENT TO WAR – it set the context of these men’s lives; the ever present backdrop of normality, set against the quiet fury of minds exposed to war; the everyday, the mundane, where little is actually happening. This is also emphasised in the scene where we see Dennis driving around a block in his town (Brady), both in 1970 and in the present day, where everything and yet nothing has changed.
GM: The way the government treated the veterans down the years is one of the film’s key themes. Was that concern shared by everyone you talked to?
RT: Without exception, it was a running theme with everyone we talked to, including the voices you hear in the latter part of the film. After the crew had completed the shoot, Michael and I went on to make additional audio recordings with Dennis and David, and also veterans, both male and female, from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, and they are all saying the same thing: “What are we doing this to each other for? And if governments want to go to war, let them go and fight it out amongst themselves.” Just like Harry Patch, ‘the last fighting Tommy’, who said, “Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?” (from an interview in the Sunday Times, 7 November 2004). In that sense, ultimately WE WENT TO WAR is absolutely the story of the Universal soldier.
…Ultimately, people are always eloquent, when you give them the space to be so…
GM: The other key theme is how the legacy of war is passed down through generations and across communities. Was that something you or Michael felt strongly about?
RT: Absolutely. Actually, the very fact that Lamar had died, was of course tragic (and on a personal level I think Michael would have loved to have seen him again after so long, and myself also for the first time of course), but what it meant was that we were going to be telling Lamar’s story through his family, which then of course became as much about ‘their’ story and what they had been through after Lamar’s return from Vietnam, and after Michael had left in 1970. The ripple effects can be devastating and indeed have been for not only Lamar’s wife and daughter, but also his grandchildren.
This also led us to consider female veterans, who we never hear about, and what it is to be a soldier and a mother. I think those are extremely important discussions that are as vital to bring to the table as much as the very fact of soldiers returning home and what that means for them as individuals and for us in society as supposed ‘agents for change’. And so we hoped that although a small part of the overall film, that it would be one of the things that might indeed spark wider debate.
GM: How close was the finished film to the one originally envisioned? Were you surprised by the end product?
RT: We never set out with a predetermined agenda regarding how the film would end up, because the whole process was an organic one, the only way it can be when you are dealing with real people and real lives if you aren’t manipulating the situation. People may say a lot, or they may say very little – they might struggle to find words and say nothing at all – but it’s acknowledging this beforehand, giving people the space and the time, and more importantly, the respect, to ensure they don’t feel rushed or pressurised into being anything other than themselves. Ultimately, people are always eloquent, when you give them the space to be so.
Michael always said that making a film was like following a highway from A all the way through to Z and that we would follow the road, and then occasionally we might turn off to the right and then the left and explore the minutiae, the nuances of everyday life, but then we would always get back on the highway, but follow it in that manner all the way down to the end, which is ultimately exactly how we made WE WENT TO WAR.
GM: Are there any particular moments in the film that you or Michael were especially proud of?
RT: We genuinely loved all parts of the film. The crew did an amazing job on the shoot. Jonas Mortensen, our incredible cinematographer and David Lindsay our brilliant sound recordist, along with our wonderful production assistant, Donal Foreman, all worked supremely long hours every day, during the worst drought Texas had experienced in over 50 years! It was truly exhausting, but cast and crew gave it their all, without doubt I think literally because we all collectively believed so much in the project, and wanted to it to be the best it could be. Michael and I also had such an amazingly positive experience working with our editor, Emer Reynolds, in Ireland. Every day was a relaxed, creative three-way discussion, bouncing ideas around, threading pieces together slowly… it was a space where everyone was free to have their say and everyone’s point of view was respected.
I think what Michael and I both were, and I am most proud of, was the fact that the film became like a community project; that so many individuals and businesses from the towns of Menard and Brady and Mason, Texas joined in to help us out, as they all wanted to get behind what we were doing for David, Dennis and Lamar’s family. Also, we had the incredible good fortune to re-engage with the original singer-songwriters who had penned the central music track for I WAS A SOLDIER – who just happened to be Gallagher & Lyle. Although both having had incredibly successful careers in music, they took very little persuading to rejoin the journey of the original film and re-recorded and created new lyrics for the original song, which then went into the film after a scene which centres around cowboys cattle roping. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I first heard it, because you completely recognise those young singers in the older ones of today. It was another perfect circle within a circle; one of so many in our film.
Finally, we took the film back to Texas and showed it to David, Dennis, Barbara and Michelle, along with their families and friends in a tiny restored 1920s art deco Odeon cinema in Mason, Texas (the last premiere the theatre had seen was OLD YELLER in 1957!). After the screening, Michael and I dedicated the film to the three men, and hoped they now felt that after forty years, they were finally getting their Hero’s Homecoming, the one denied to them after the horrors of Vietnam.