A Conversation with
Jonathan Mostow
feature by
Cynthia Fuchs and Mike Ward, 21 April 2000

Jonathan Mostow is a careful guy. He spent years researching his Navy-sanctioned WWII submarine film, U-571, and now he's spending a few weeks promoting it, hoping to make clear his own ideas about the film. Despite its splashy big-action veneer, for example, he sees it as a way to display and remember historical circumstances, recover the rightful glory for those WWII heroes who may be forgotten. He has many stories to tell, emerging from his research as well as the filmmaking process, and he talks in paragraphs, divergent and fascinating, in their way, as if he might overwhelm you with information. He's plainly happy with his two major projects -- 1997's Breakdown with Kurt Russell and the new one, starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, and T.C. Carson. The new movie fictionalizes several events between 1941 and 1944, focusing on a U.S. crew who boards a German U-boat disguised as Germans, in order to capture a coding device called the Enigma. When their own boat is blown up, the Americans must pilot the enemy sub through hostile waters, enabling several dive-dive-dive climaxes.  

Mike Ward and I talked with Mostow one afternoon in Washington DC.

Mike Ward: What spurred your interest in this subject matter?

Jonathan Mostow: I was down at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco and there was a sign that said, "World War II submarine tours, $2." And I thought, I've never been on a submarine, I've always wanted to, and I had two bucks. I was absolutely captivated... You could see the pressure hull on these submarines was just [a few inches] thick, so it's easy to just go a little bit too deep and it just crushes... My concept of submarines had come mostly from either those old World War II movies you see late night on TV or Hunt for Red October or Crimson Tide, these modern three-foot-thick titanium-hull monstrosities that seem impervious to the elements. Whereas here, you're going into war and, as much as you were fighting the enemy, probably your biggest enemy was the sea, which was always threatening to come in and get you.

Cynthia Fuchs: That danger is clear in the scene where they first dive in the old U.S. S-boat, and water comes in from everywhere.

JM: The great thing about World War II is that a lot of guys kept diaries, because they knew they were doing something extraordinary and wanted to remember. So I was reading about these S-boats, which was about twenty-five percent of our fleet in the beginning of the war, these World War I vintage submarines. The shaft seals on the periscopes were so decayed that the captain usually had to wear a raincoat when he was looking through the periscope. The pipes were always rusting out so they always had guys just tapping with a little hammer on the pipes just to make sure of the structural integrity and sure enough, every so often the pipe would go right through the rusted out metal and they would just patch up the pipe and hope it held until they could get back to port and fix it.

MW: Why change the story so that the British getting the machine in '41 becomes the Americans in '42. Do you anticipate a row about that?

JM: When we started the movie last year, a couple of the British tabloids... printed a story that we were depicting the British incident in 1941, which was the raiding of the U-110, and we were essentially Americanizing the story. And people over there got upset... But, subsequent to the [British incident], there were two more occasions when Allied forces went onto U-boats and stole the Enigma. One was the British in 1942, and one was the Americans in 1944. And none of those incidents by themselves would have made for a good movie... So, I found a British war hero, [Lt. Commander David Balme, who] led the expedition over to the U-110 in 1941. I'd read him being quoted in the paper saying that he was upset about this whole situation... We brought him to the set, we showed him everything we were doing, we showed him the script, and when I had the director's cut of the movie, I showed it to him, and he loved it. In fact what he said was [adopts British accent], "But I don't remember the real war being quite so noisy."

But he loved the movie because he understood what it was. It's a fictional story that uses elements of history. And no one has made a movie about this, except some TV documentaries. It's a piece of history that'll disappear in forgotten footnotes of time... And we say right from the beginning this is a fictional sea tale, in the old Hollywood tradition. Sometimes, the best way to get the truth in something is through fiction, not through fact. Had I found a real-life incident that would have made for a great two-hour movie, I would have done that. Some of these incidents are spectacularly fascinating, but don't necessarily deliver a three-act dramatic structure with continuity of protagonists, etc. I'm a student of history and I wouldn't want to be part of something that subverts the record, so I feel like I'm bringing a lot of attention to the historical record both in and around the movie.

MW: How do you present the German perspective, as you introduce the German crew at the beginning of the film, happy to have torpedoed an Allied boat?

JM: These aren't clichéd Nazi villains. These are submariners who are fighting for the other side. You know, Das Boot, in terms of the technical authenticity of the submarining, is a very accurate movie. But there's one huge falsehood in that movie, the depiction of these submariners as apologists for fighting for Hitler, as jolly good sailors minding their own business [until], all the sudden, Hitler comes to power and they're stuck fighting under the Nazi flag. Well, it's completely untrue. The submariners were the most gung-ho Nazis of all. They were all volunteers: they were quite young. There was a huge propaganda effort inside of Germany to get people to volunteer for submarines: the pay was doubled, there was great prestige with it... And what they weren't, of course, telling the submariners were that you went submarining, chances were three out of four that you never came back alive. But I'd spoken to Allied officers who captured some of the guys at sea, and asked, how are they? I always got the same answer: they were real Nazis. They were right out of the movies: blue-eyed, blond hair, completely arrogant.

CF: The German captain captured by the U.S. crew becomes almost Terminatoresque: he just keeps coming back with more deviousness.

JM: But he's just doing his job, really. I actually had some stuff in the original screenplay where it was a little bit more, you know, Glenn Close rising out of the bathroom with a dagger, but then I thought that was too silly. He waits for his opportunity, seizes it. And again, I'm not making a docudrama. You want that, go to the History Channel. But this is... you know, it's a movie.

MW: Can you talk about the idea in the film -- as shown in the relationship between Lieutenant Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) and the chief (Harvey Keitel) -- that the mission is always paramount and the skipper must always be right? I'm wondering whether you're a little bit concerned that that sort of political positioning in the movie might have a friction with a cynicism that audiences might have, about military hierarchy and intelligence and that kind of thing.

JM: It's interesting, because we've tested it a number of times, and there's a couple of surprises. One is that women love the movie; it tested like a women's picture with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey: I don't really understand why because I see this as a kind of a guy picture. The other surprise is that people come out of the movie feeling patriotic. There is a general cynicism in our society about anything related to the government or military, and I think that's why people are responding so strongly to this movie, because it harkens back to -- if you can say there is such a thing as a good war -- a good war, when there was clearly good versus evil. There was a homicidal maniac named Adolf Hitler who was well on his way to destroying the world as we knew it. And there was not the guilt or moral ambiguity that go along with Vietnam, Grenada, or even the Gulf War, for that matter.

And [at test screenings], one of the favorite characters is Harvey Keitel's: audiences love the idea of this guy who has more seniority and experience than anybody in the boat, but his course in life is not to be an officer or ever lead men. He will execute any order he's given, but he doesn't want to be in that position of actually making the decisions. And on submarines, they had to live in these close quarters and very interesting relationships developed, because it's like living inside a crowded elevator with a bunch of people. None of these guys had any military bearing. Ninety percent of the time was fine, you're just on patrol, but ten percent of the time, there were these really sticky, tense situations, and all the sudden, the title that you had mattered greatly. In the case of the McConaughey character, his problem is that he's got seniority with the men, but he doesn't have the wherewithal to separate himself and make those decisions. So, will people be cynical about these sorts of relationships? I think it's actually the opposite. I think people will realize that the values that seem to be afloat in this movie are appealing.

CF: There seems to be at least a small wrench in this camaraderie in T.C. Carson's cook, the only black character in the crew.

JM: Unfortunately a two-hour movie is not enough time; I wish it was a miniseries because I could go explore that interesting character [and his situation.] The submarine service in a sense was the most racially progressive of all the forms of the military. Every submarine had cooks and mess stewards and they were always black and/or Filipino. Everybody on a submarine is a volunteer, even in wartime, in every Navy in the world, because you cannot afford to have anybody in a submarine that doesn't want to be there. The other thing that happens in submarines is, everybody has to know how to do everybody else's job, because if some disaster happens, if there's an engine fire, you can't call in for replacements. So a guy like Carson's character would have trained in everything, in every department. He'd be like everybody else. He'd have his Dolphin, which signifies that he's been qualified in all areas... So who are these African-American and Filipino men, young men, that volunteered to go into dangerous duty to basically cook and clean up after people, and maintain the living quarters? It's fascinating. They were very patriotic guys.

CF: But clearly, there's racism, and this character says that he's "invisible" to whites.

JM: Sure, it's not like the submarine service was completely different than other parts of the military. But it was definitely an all-for-one, one-for-all approach and once you were on that submarine, you were one of the men, and the submariners that I've spoken to have said that in their experience, there was quite an absence of racism. I've read other stories about black army units, they always got the crappy assignments, doing the most dangerous things... often sacrificed as guinea pigs. So in that sense, the Navy was different. And again, if you imagine living at sea for sixty days where you're sharing living quarters and everything, you come to know people [well]. The problem with racism is always ignorance. People don't know each other, look at the color of somebody's skin, and make a judgment about them, but once they get to know the person, that usually goes away.

MW: How did you prepare your actors for showing what it was like to live in those close quarters?

JM: I felt that their performances would be enhanced if they actually understood what it is they were acting about. Most actors usually get in trouble when they don't understand what they're doing, and so I made the actors go through a month-long submarine school, and a retired three-star admiral who specifically designed a curriculum for us. It was a World War II submarine school, and I made them sit through two weeks of incredibly boring classroom instruction about buoyancy and propulsion systems and torpedo firing. I think individually they were all pretty bored but nobody wanted to admit it.

MW: They were probably just glad they didn't have to go through that Spielberg boot camp.

JM: I did do a little bit of that, but nothing like that. And then we took them on our sets, which were completely authentic, and they had to be able to operate a submarine. In fact, the Navy, which is quite infatuated with this movie, invited me -- as a thank you -- to go on a nuclear submarine last week, and bring a couple of the actors. And we got about ten miles offshore and then they let us basically take over the boat and control it, and we knew what we were doing. Even though it was a nuclear submarine, the principles were unchanged. We basically got to dive the boat, and steer it, we could dive and go up. We were surprised that we understood as much as we did, because we were pretty much Hollywood filmmakers.

CF: What do you think of the current nostalgia for WWII, with Private Ryan, Tom Brokaw's book [The Greatest Generation], and your film: why do you think that is?

JM: I think that filmmakers have always been interested in World War II movies. I mean, if you are thirty years old or older, if you were a baby boomer, basically, you grew up in the shadow of that war. In my house growing up, in the basement like very other kid in the block, we had the army surplus World War II tents and canteens; if you went camping, you used the whole thing. And in my parents' generation, everybody was involved in the war. I had uncles who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I had an uncle who was a tailgunner, who -- you had to fly fifty missions, and then you got sent home. On his fiftieth mission, he was shot down and killed over North Africa. So I came from a family where there was a Purple Heart up in my father's closet the government had given my family after my uncle died. So, I think it's entered the consciousness. And then, the scope of World War II is so huge it's inherently cinematic, as horrible as that sounds to say. But never before, and hopefully never again, will we ever see something on a scale where there's millions of troops, and hundreds of planes and tanks and artillery as far as the eye can see.

MW: It seems that part of what you're saying is that we've recovered from Vietnam or that we've moved on from that.

JM: I think we've digested it. I think it takes time. Whenever a tragedy happens to you or your family, it takes time to recover from that and then be able to gain perspective. Until recently, looking back at our country's involvement in war you sort of stopped. Vietnam was this giant obstacle that prevented you from looking back any further because it cast a shadow over everything. And now, it's about perspective. As we've got to the end of the millennium, now we're looking back over time, certainly over the last century. We're saying, "Okay, boy, that World War II really stands out as an amazing achievement for our country and a time, one of the few times in this century that the whole country got together and did something." And the only other time the country's got together in that sense is probably when we put a man on the moon, [with a] collective sense of achievement. WWII is so powerful thematically and sociologically, and politically -- every dimension of it is completely extraordinary. So, I think we'll continue to see movies about World War II until somebody makes the big stinker flop that makes all the studios go, "Can't make a World War II movie," and then we'll wait another twenty years. That's the way Hollywood always goes.

Click here to read KJ Doughton's review.



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