September 10, 2008

Semper Filmmaking

Wounded Marines Train to Enter Film Industry

By Mel Cowan

James Egan, center, in class with Cpl. (Ret.) Eric Cohen, left.
For service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the transition from combat to civilian life can be both physically and emotionally daunting. To aid in this transition, SCA screenwriting instructor James Egan has brought his extensive background in documentary filmmaking to the Wounded Marine Careers Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing injured veterans with the skills and job placement assistance to find jobs in the entertainment industry.

Egan, who is also CEO of Wild at Heart Films, had a personal stake in the success of these novice filmmakers. "I come from a family with a number of veterans, and I was unhappy with the way we treated our Vietnam vets," Egan said. "I thought this was a chance for me to make a difference."

The students, who ranged in age from 18 to 30, and in rank from private to captain, took classes in screenwriting, cinematography and editing, becoming proficient with digital video and Final Cut Pro. Egan's class was the only one where all of the students were together at the same time. "In my class they watched films, learning about perspective, structure, characters; the fundamentals of storytelling," said Egan. "Then we'd talk about the films they wanted to make, and how they could come from their personal experiences."

Egan acknowledged that some of the Marines initially had doubts about the program. "When the students first came into the room, I felt like I could see this dark, whirling cloud of anger, fear, and pain obscuring and filtering everything that came to them and came back from them," said Egan.

WMCF student LCpl. (Ret.) Joshua James Frey on set.
"But when they realized that I respected every thought or feeling they had, that created a really safe environment for them to express anything they felt," said Egan. "Once they had that sense of trust, this process gave them a chance to safely act things out that they perhaps had trouble dealing with on their own."

Retired gunnery sergeant and newly published memoirist (Once A Marine) Nick Popaditch spoke about taking Egan's class. "He probably had the toughest teaching job there. He was dealing with 19 guys who were pulling triggers not too long before, and now he was telling them to try creative writing," said Popaditch.

"Some of the Marines had trouble staying focused in class, but he'd just say 'Stay in the room,' which is a great tactic for dealing with a Marine. No one wants to be the one who's holding others back," said Popaditch. "I think he really reached through to all the soldiers. There were no failures, and some just incredible successes."

The challenges faced by the veterans to work in this project were greater than what an average film school student has to deal with: during the program, each student was still an active duty Marine, and many of them were in some kind of intensive therapy for injuries ranging from severe post-traumatic stress disorder to lost limbs.

"Sometimes we had students who were in so much pain that they couldn’t attend class," said Egan. "But we did whatever we had to do, whether it was spending time with them in their hospital room, or on the phone, to keep them up to speed."

WMCF vets in production.
Egan pointed out that it was the Marines' training that made the 10-week course's accelerated schedule viable. "What these students brought to the table is military discipline, which is vital on a film set. You're moving quickly and you need to be able to depend on people to do their job," said Egan. "These men know how to work with their team members to make the greater goal happen."

Concrete results have been shown: on July 28, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) inducted the 19 graduates of the program into three entertainment industry locals, and of the nine medically retired Marine graduates, five are working on either a full-time or freelance basis. Of the 10 active duty Marines, six have received job offers to begin work in post-production immediately upon their retirement from the armed forces.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and production professor Mark Harris, a curriculum adviser for the program, emphasized the importance of creating job opportunities for the Marines. "A huge number of veterans are returning home with grave disabilities. We owe them better care and concern than our government has shown them so far, and a shot at a viable future."

"I was amazed to watch the students learn a new language that gave them access to feelings that they previously didn't have an outlet for," said Egan. "Once they became lit up by their vision, there was no stopping them."

To learn more about the program or to contribute, visit the Wounded Marine Careers Foundation Web site. (