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Randall Wallace: The Man Behind Pearl Harbor

Interview with Randall Wallace: The Man Behind Pearl Harbor
Written by: John Chadwell, Editor, Pearl Harbor Movie Fan Site

Randall Wallace is not only the man behind the "Pearl Harbor" movie, he’s the same man who was behind "Braveheart"—having written both the best seller book and the script. He’s also the man behind "The Man Behind the Iron Mask" as the writer, producer and director. First and foremost, Randall is a dramatist, always in search of the broader story, the essence of the tale, as it were. Though he’s been accused of distorting Scottish, English and French history, no one can argue that he doesn’t tell compelling stories that make people think. Who but the Scots cared about William Wallace before "Braveheart"? How many young people had even heard of Alexandre Dumas until Wallace presented them with Leonardo DiCaprio in the dual role of King Louis XIV and his twin brother? When I sat down with Randall at his Sherman Oaks, Calif. office recently to talk about his work on the upcoming "Pearl Harbor" he commented that to most 15 to 20 year olds, "Pearl Harbor" is ancient history. He commented that if seeing the movie "Pearl Harbor"; causes them to seek out information about who the participants were—rather than his fictional characters—and what actually took place more than 50 years ago, then he has accomplished his role as the dramatist.

What is the story behind the development of the script for Pearl Harbor?

RW: I ran into Michael Bay at a Directors’ Guild dinner. That was after I had written, produced and directed "The Man in the Iron Mask," but he mainly knew me from "Braveheart." Well, I introduced myself and told him that I enjoyed his work and he told me he enjoyed my work. We got to laughing and talking and we said it would be nice to work together. He seemed to mean it. But you run into a lot of people in Hollywood like that. Then we went our separate ways.

A couple of days later, I got a phone call from my agent saying that Disney was interested in doing a movie with Michael Bay and they had an idea and wanted to know if I would be interested in pursuing it. I said I was in the middle of putting my own movie together, but it was an attractive group of talent to have a chance to work with, so I said I was open to the idea. My agent had a meeting with Todd [Garner at Disney] who said he wanted to do Pearl Harbor.

I went over and met with Todd and he told me the story of how he had been to Pearl Harbor and had visited the Arizona memorial and how it had an emotional affect on him. I always like that, when someone who’s connected to the emotional element of something, who understands a kind of reverence for something. He had been moved by Pearl Harbor and what had happened there. He wanted to do a story about Pearl Harbor. Michael liked the idea and asked if I’d be interested in pursuing it.

Todd laid out the idea that there are two brothers who are sailors at Pearl Harbor and are on the same ship. They both somehow fall in love with the same woman. One of the brothers lives and one of them dies. That is what he gave me. My response was that’s the seed of a story, but it’s not a story. I said, let me figure out how I want to tell the story of Pearl Harbor and I’ll come back and tell them what my take would be. If they liked my take —Jerry Bruckheimer was going to be involved, too—and if they wanted to do what I wanted to do, it would be great. If they didn’t, then no harm no foul.

I came back and told Jerry and Michael that this story comes at you like the "Titanic": Here’s a great catastrophe, which everyone knows about. You’re not going to change that. In "Titanic" the ship’s not going to suddenly be saved. In Pearl Harbor the Japanese aren’t going to suddenly lose their way or get shot down or we’re not going to win the battle. We know what that historical event is. It sounds like the studio is biting on this because of how big "Titanic" was—a historical event, lots of explosions, so let’s just concoct a couple of lovers and wonder which one of them is going to live and which one is going to die.

I said, If that’s basically the drill, then I’m not terribly interested because it just seems too much by the numbers. But when I look at the story, my emotions get stirred up and I get fascinated by certain elements. The first being that America was isolationistic. It’s such a surprise for somebody who grew up in the post-war era to realize that before Pearl Harbor, America didn’t want any part of the war. The other is that of America’s response to Pearl Harbor. The event itself is one thing and it’s fairly straightforward. We were there; we weren’t expecting an attack; the Japanese attacked us, achieved total surprise, and killed a whole lot of people. But what makes that important was America’s response.

That’s where I, as an American, get stirred up, that we went from being an isolationistic country to having lines of young men all over America responding. I told them about a William Faulkner story about two boys from Mississippi who sit out front of a farmhouse of a man who is hard of hearing and keeps his radio turned up real loud. One night they hear an announcement about some place called Pearl Harbor and they go home. The older brother can’t sleep all night and in the morning he says to his little brother he’s got to go. The little brother asks where. And he says to a place called Pearl Harbor, and a place called Japan. The little brother asks why. The older brother says," I ain’t going to have nobody treat the United States that way."

That was a pure-American response and I wanted to do something like that. I didn’t want to go all the way to Hiroshima, but I had read about Doolittle’s raid and I realized that it was the symbol of America’s response to being attacked. It was Roosevelt’s courage. It was a military risk for America, yet its military significance was secondary to its internal response significance of leadership, courage and inspiration.

I thought that was the framework that the story should take. The story should begin in America’s isolationism and end with America’s coming back from the ashes. I said it was like Doctor Zhivago, where you have the Russian revolution, but you’re not fascinated by the historical context. You’re not trying to tell the history. You’re fascinated by the human dimensions of courage and sacrifice and pain and how this historical event affects a human life. What makes an event interesting is telling it through the context of people. The lives of these lovers in Doctor Zhivago is like the railroad track of the story that moves through the landscape of this historical context. That’s the way I would want to tell a story and here are my characters. I told them about these characters that were created from my own history and feelings about these two brothers and the woman who they both love and how that story unfolds. I told them the beats of how I would do the love story. They loved it and said let’s go with that.

JC: From the draft of the script that I read, it sounds like it’s pretty much all in there. Since they’ve started production have you been involved at all?

RW: No. A couple of months before filming began, Michael wanted some changes to the dialogue and, in my view, to the characters, because what people say is who they are. We really didn’t see eye-to-eye. I didn’t want the dialogue to be contemporary. I didn’t want Doolittle swearing. I wouldn’t agree with that. That’s an example of one of the things we did not come to terms with. So he brought in some other people and asked if I would stay and work along with those writers or look at what they had done, then alter it back and make it mine. I said it was totally his call if he wanted to bring in another writer or writers, but I can’t work that way. I’ve got another movie to work on.

JC: Have you seen any of the dailies?

RW: No.

JC: I’d be interested on your take because I don’t know if they just changed a bit of dialogue or major scenes.

RW: I don’t know either. I want to say in all honesty there’s always a kind of struggle that goes on about the vision of a piece. The studio has its point of view. The producers do. The writer certainly does and the director does. The director really has to internalize it. My feeling is that you can make the argument that what you write, to some degree or other, that’s personal. It’s very healthy to be able to argue with the director. Like when I was writing and directing "The Man in the Iron Mask," it was still very helpful to talk with the actors, the studio head, the producing partner and everybody else about their opinion. Ultimately, you’ve got to call it as you understand it, and it’s Michael’s call. There’s a point that you should get out of the way. But that doesn’t mean you tell him you agree when you don’t.

JC: What was the relationship like between you and Michael as you were writing the script? I’ve heard you worked closely together.

RW: We had a great time. It was certainly challenging working with Michael and Jerry.

JC: Did they come up with scenes and ideas?


RW: They were certainly coming up with ideas. The entire spine of the story, in my view, was mine. But it’s a collaborative relationship in which someone will come up with something from their perspective. An example would be there were two pilots who fought their way into the air. I wrote that [scene] more like it actually happened: that two pilots had known about some planes at a remote airfield and they went there in their old car and got into the air and fought the Japanese. I wrote it like that.

Because of production values or visual values or action values, Michael wanted to see those guys actually have to struggle to get into the air. He wanted them to take off under fire in an action sequence. He felt that this would be a lot more visually exciting and I’m sure he’s correct.

But it wasn’t even remotely a writing collaboration. He would go in and add detail to an action sequence. Jerry, on the other hand, would sort of arbitrate the arguments between us and would suggest other things. He suggested the dyslexia aspect of one of the characters. They were always pushing for more stuff.

JC: You mean more action?

RW: More action. More complexity. More justification. In some ways they wanted to make it more and more defined to the audience. Like why are these guys friends? The fact that they were boys together, sitting in a makeshift plane and dreaming of flying together and that the family of one adopted the other when his father died made it totally real and understandable to me. I came up with a lot more complexity and nuance than they came up with. But Jerry really likes to make things clear and spelled out to everybody and said what if one of them is dyslexic? What if one of them had a personal problem the other one helped him overcome? We’d wrestle that way. Out of that we would come up with something. I’d go write and show it to them. We went through a lot of drafts that way. That’s a great part of the process.

JC: I understood that Michael Bay contributed writing to the script.

RW: That’s absolutely false. Michael really contributed from the perspective that a director should contribute in developing the script. He worked out action sequences in the way he wanted to do things. I’d be happy to show you the original if you want me to.

JC: I’ll take your word for it. Did you write the entire first draft and take it to them or work with them scene by scene?

RW: I wrote the entire draft and didn’t show it to anybody. In eight weeks I wrote it from start to finish. This is not in any sense a co-written script.

JC: Was there a conscious effort to write to women by including the nurses?

RW: One of our arguments was that Michael wanted to tone down the strength of the women and build up the men. He wanted to double what the men did. For example, instead of them just jumping in planes and flying up and taking on the Japanese, two fighters against hundreds of fighters. I thought that was significant and realistic courage. He wanted them to get into flight while being strafed and do zigzags and fly around the tower and have guys in the tower shoot down planes. That’s the sort of thing he wanted to amp up. What the men did. But the women in the hospital were taking charge under difficult circumstances. In my opinion women will love seeing women being strong and in charge.

JC: It would show they played an important part.

RW: That’s the other thing. Those nurses were every bit as courageous as the guys. They had never been under fire either.

JC: Did you have to fight to keep the nurses in?

RW: Yes. I wrote the scenes. I created the character. I wrote what she did. Certainly we had our arguments about the nuances of what makes a woman attractive and what makes a person fall in love. I wrote her my way. However he filmed her I can’t tell you.

JC: I recognized the one incident in the script depicting the men trapped under water inside the ship, where one helps others out and he drowns. Did you get that from one of the vets?

RW: I knew that guys had been trapped and wrote the drowning scene. I can’t tell you who came up with the idea. Certainly guys were trapped and guys drowned. We condensed it. It’s a massive story.

JC: Were you going for more of the feel rather than specific examples of what they went through?

RW: You’ve got to be impressionistic rather than have exact details. Michael had come across the scene of a guy pushing the others out, a big guy, So he said let’s use that. He’d jot that in and I’d make it work.

JC: You’ve walked away from the project, but your name is still going to be on the film. Do you have a concern about how people, veterans in particular, are going to perceive this? That you didn’t get it right?

RW: Sure. But anybody can criticize any movie. I certainly don’t mean to leave Michael taking the blame. It’s a funny thing, though. Like Phil Jackson said the other night, the good coach is the one who doesn’t take too much claim and doesn’t take too much blame. In success, everybody will try to take "claim" for everything and distance themselves from anything that’s criticized.

"Braveheart" got a lot of criticism from English historians who said historical details were inaccurate. "The Man in the Iron Mask" was criticized in France from deviating from Alexander Dumas, when his story was also fiction. My answer has always been that I’m a dramatist and I’m trying to get at the essence of the truth and being impressionistic in trying to capture the courage of people.

The difficulty about Pearl Harbor is that I’m the writer, not the director. In many ways Michael and I didn’t see eye-to-eye. But in other ways we did. My feeling about this is that Rafe and Danny and Evelyn and the nature of their love and the way the story is framed—that is my story. That love story and the way it happens is mine. Now there’s all sorts of aspects of the execution of that story, which will be in Michael’s hands. Not Michael, nor Jerry, the people at the studio, nor I created Pearl Harbor. It will be portrayed in a certain way, and the light in which that is being viewed again has a lot to do with the director making the choice about how people will talk, what they say, what they do.

I’m the one who made the choice to concoct the story so fighter pilots would fly in this group [Doolittle]. I interviewed some pilots and they said they were trained on single and multi-engines. They said it was plausible that it could have happened that way, but of course it did not happen that way. But you connect the story emotionally. The story of the raid is not the heart of this tale. The heart of the tale is much broader and more thematic. It’s about Americans rising to an occasion and about the sacrifices of these people.

I would always argue for the broader truth and I would also say that the great thing about a drama is that it stimulates people to read the actual history. Films create more awareness and more interest. While dramas will create fictional awareness, they stimulate people to know about an event and to read about it later. To some members of the audience, Pearl Harbor is ancient history. But by seeing this movie they may become interested in it and start to read actual accounts and find out exactly who Franklin Roosevelt was, who Jimmy Doolittle was, exactly what happened. I don’t feel that we do a disservice and certainly the idea is to honor the people and not take advantage of them by using their stories.

Nobody sets out saying they want to distort the story. I certainly understand the feelings of the families of those who fought and feel that they want to get the exact details of their ancestor’s lives or what happened to them. That is an honest and fair desire. The only thing we can ask them to do is to look at the final product and judge us fairly. It’s a question dear to my heart. I think that’s important for people to remember. I don’t think the audience will leave the theater with a bad view of Jimmy Doolittle or of any of the Americans who fought. And I think that anybody who was at Pearl Harbor or part of Doolittle’s raid will be honored more by America and the world because this film comes out rather than they would have been without the film.

JC: Can we jump forward 50 years and talk about your next project?

RW: My movie is based on the book "We Were Soldiers Once and Young." The title of the movie will be something else like "The Lost Patrol." It is an incredible book. Probably the greatest book on infantry combat ever written. It is a collection of personal experiences of the soldiers who fought [in Vietnam]. It is a story about incredible leadership and the men who went and fought knowing that they would probably never get out alive. Everyone of them went into battle because their leader would never have left them and they wouldn’t leave him. In the end, they did not fight for the flag, the ideas of patriotism, mom and apple pie. They fought and died for each other. That’s a story America needs to know about Vietnam. It’s never been told in that way.

I bought the movie rights to the book from the authors who are both absolute heroes. General Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway who is the only journalist in the actual battle. He flew into the battle when it was raging and ended up with a rifle in his hands, shooting and killing the enemy.

I’ve been to the Vietnam wall with survivors of the battle on the 30th anniversary of their fight. I’ve been to Ranger training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I crawled through the mud and got my butt severely kicked and I’m going to ask a lot of the actors who play these roles to go through the training.

JC: What stage are you at with it?

RW: We’re currently casting.

JC: So you already have a deal?

RW: I’ve got an arrangement with Joe Roth [formerly with Disney and now has his own production company, Revolution Studios].

JC: Having served three tours, I’ll certainly be looking forward to seeing this film. Thank you.

**Since interviewing Randall Wallace, Revolution is out of the picture and Mel Gibson has teamed up once again with him (having directed and starred in Braveheart) to produce and star in the film, which is rumored to be released as "We Were Soldiers Once" rather than "The Lost Patrol." **


John Chadwell is a "screenwriter on the verge." After his days at USC Cinema School, he served with the Navy’s elite Combat Camera Group for four years, producing news stories and documentaries. He served three tours in Vietnam and saw action in Grenada. Since leaving the Navy, he has written a number of screenplays with one being produced (Midnight Movie Massacre) and two optioned. At this time, he is the co-writer on two sci fi projects (Astral Agent and Offline) with legendary screenwriter Ron Shusett (who penned the soon-to-go-into production Minority Report, Total Recall and Alien). John also wrote a six-hour miniseries, "Black Jack,’ a docudrama on the life and times of General John J. Pershing, as well as a dramatic-thriller "Last Sunrise," which are being shopped around town by his manager at Tony Ridio of Creative Enterprises Management.

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