Behind the scenes of Miracle at St. Anna with Billy Budd

By: Steve Mathie
Staff Writer

September 26, 2008

Billy Budd was always in trouble as a kid, always the one who got caught. The youngest of 4 brothers, Billy left high school at 16 as all kids do in England, and joined the Royal Marines two weeks later to prove to his eldest brother that he could make it. 28 years later Budd finds himself on the set of Spike Lee’s World War II thriller Miracle at St. Anna as the senior military advisor.

I got the privilege to talk with this seasoned military veteran and knowledgeable film professional two days before the United States release of the movie, and hear what it’s like to be on the set recreating the Second World War.

For Budd, it means being in charge of more than 40 young men each night in the barracks. It means teaching actors how to take a hit. It means directing hundreds of extras on how to handle all the WWII weapons, including the Thompson submachine gun. It also means working side-by-side with critically acclaimed director Spike Lee, an experience that Budd feels very fortunate to have had.

“Spike is absolutely unbelievable on the set,” says Budd. “He is so eager to keep the energy alive and never comes out of it, he wants to keep it going all day. I don’t think he ever left the set, if there was a setup for a scene he was helping move the equipment. I have worked with the best directors in the business and have to say that Spike blew me away. He taught me so much.”

This isn’t the first major production that Budd has contributed to. In 1997 he was a stand in for Tom Sizemore on Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

He also worked alongside Capt. Dale Dye on the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers as an assistant military advisor, and it was last year on the set of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian that Budd got the call to get to Florence and meet Spike Lee.

“Spike and I met for about an hour and a half and he hired me, and I am so thankful for that,” says Budd.

So after finishing up training soldiers on location for The Chronicles of Narnia, Budd started on Miracle at St. Anna, where he put Spike Lee’s cast through a two week boot camp.

“The idea of boot camp is to inject the DNA of what a soldier is into the actors mind, not just have them put on a uniform, hold a weapon and shout,” says Budd.

Budd spent time installing into the young men the idea of what it was like to be a soldier in 1943, and what they might have been thinking at the time. To make sure this became a reality, about 50 of Budd’s men, including the main cast, were crammed into small living quarters with no showers for two weeks.

While Budd praises the efforts of the cast and their toughness and cooperation, there was one part that he described as difficult.

“Telling any young man today they can’t have their mobile phone is quite a tough one,” says Budd.

The actors know they are there on their own merit, and all received a letter from Budd prior to filming that outlined his expectations of them, and to expect the worst of the boot camp.

The first day of boot camp familiarized each actor with the weapons and how to handle them. By the end of the first day they all had fired the weapon. Budd points out that just because there are blanks in the weapon doesn’t make it safe to fire at any time.

“It’s a blank but it’s a Hollywood blank. If you have an extra that’s on the ground ten feet away you can’t just shoot or they could get hurt.”

Each morning began with physical training at sunrise, patrol tactics and stunt training. Before embarking on the training the Germans and Americans were gathered in an auditorium and separated, because German tactics and American tactics were very different. Separating the units also fueled the team spirit that would be represented on the screen.

The cast has something to be proud of when a 15 year military veteran who fought in the Falklands War and had three tours in Northern Ireland praises them for their efforts turning from an actor into a soldier.

“All these guys stepped up to the plate and did a great job. These men lost blood, sweat and tears daily and gave me their undivided attention. They all wanted to do such a great job for Spike and it reflects in the battles sequences,” says Budd.

Speaking of Spike, Budd can’t talk enough about the guy, pointing out that he had every war film ever made available for screening, did endless amounts of research to make sure that everything was done authentically, and most important was Lee’s emphasis on filming the scenes on location where the actual events occurred 65 years ago.

“That guy (Spike) has so much attention to detail its unbelievable. He does a whole day of scouting and that is arduous work, then we get back to the hotel and he’ll literally start at page one and go through the whole script again,” says Budd.

Filming scenes where the actual battles took place was quite heavy on the heart according to Budd, pointing out that Lee’s historical knowledge led to a great level of respect on set.

“Spike was determined to recreate the event, and was so respectable to the local people and the village while filming,” says Budd. “We were filming on location at the actual Serchio River where the 92nd Infantry Division suffered heavy losses breaking through the Gothic Line, and to shoot it where it actually happened was important.

When we shot the massacre scene at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, on the very ground where this atrocity occurred - I’ll tell you, there was not a dry eye in the house at the end of that day.”

One thing that Budd’s interview with reveals is the respectful nature of Spike Lee and the people behind the scenes like Budd who make it their number one priority to pay homage to the men who fought for their country, especially the ones that didn’t come back.

Budd’s duties also included flying to Munich and Berlin to cast actual special ability German men to play soldiers to add to its authenticity.

Budd gives great praise to Lee for his firmness and fairness, which opened up Budd’s responsibilities.

“Spike and I were on the same page, he gave me so much freedom to break the script down and change certain items with the dialogue that it made it so much easier for me,” says Budd. “My respect for him doubled from day one of shooting when instead of directing from the comfort of the river bank, he was right there the whole time in his waders in the middle of the freezing cold Serchio River.”

It appears that Budd and Lee developed a relationship on the set that is a unique blend of imagination, creativity and authenticity – essential for films that represent historic events.

Budd’s path to the film industry was for the most part an accident, but since being a regular on the British drama Soldier Soldier in the early 90s, Budd has committed a large part of his life to film.

“When I first got into film I was absolutely amazed by how a production works, it’s just like a strategic military maneuver,” says Budd. “I fell in love with the behind the camera, the creation of it all and putting it together.”

No surprise from this humble guy who has been a major contributor to the film industry. You might not see Billy Budd when you see Miracle at St. Anna, but without people like him who bring it all together from pre-production to post production, there would likely be some reality missing from these noble war films.

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