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Interview: James Bradley

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Recently I had a chance to sit down with James Bradley. If you have not heard of him, he has written a New York Times Best Seller that has recently been adapted into a motion picture. Flags of Our Fathers is a story about the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima and became the subjects of a very famous photograph. James’ father was one of the flag raisers, and he tells how the film Flags of Our Fathers only emphasizes his father’s sentiment that the real heroes of Iwo Jima were left on the island.

Brian Gibson, FilmSchoolRejects.com: Good Morning James.

James Bradley: Good Morning Brian.

FSR: First off James, I just wanted to say I have a couple of friends who are marines and they wanted me to tell you how much they appreciated your book Flags of Our Fathers.

JB: Thank You

FSR: One of those marines, my friend Tim Maffo, wanted to know what is it like for you to have a father who is considered to be such a hero and an inspiration to others?

JB: That was the whole point of my book, to say that my dad always said he wasn’t a hero. No matter how I feel about that, my hands were not on that pole on February 23 1945. I tracked my father’s statements over many years and he said the same thing when he was 22 as he did when he was 62.

What he said was “I just did what I thought anyone else would do.” So if that inspired those marines, then that certainly inspires me. It was not heroism, because my father says there wasn’t any [heroes], other than the guys who didn’t come back. My father always instructed us that the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who did not come back.

FSR: Usually the translation of a novel to a film does not work very well, coming from the man who wrote the book and has a very intimate knowledge of the subject, how well do you think your work has fared?

JB: I know it is commonly said by people that “I liked the book better,” but I don’t understand that sentiment. It is almost as if I was to have a portrait done of your mother, and then to have you say that you like your own mother better than the portrait. It’s a different medium.

FSR: I love my mother.

JB: If Mr. Eastwood is going to be totally accurate to the book; he has to do a 20 hour movie. Which I’m sure he would be happy to do, but the American public wouldn’t watch a 20 hour movie. What I look for as the author, and what I suggest people look for in a translation of book to movie, is emotional accuracy. Is it emotionally accurate, and is the emotional takeaway similar? I’d say Clint Eastwood did a one-hundred percent great job.

FSR: How well do you think that Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. did with writing your work into a screenplay?

: I read it once, and I cried. I read it a second time, and I cried. I thought it was and is brilliant.

FSR: I would have to agree, James, it was a great film. What was it like to see men like your father, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes portrayed on the screen?

JB: In the book, I called them ‘boys’ and ‘kids.’ The marines that I interviewed in the 70’s said “son let me tell you, I felt like a man when I hit the beach.” I dedicated Flags of Our Fathers to mothers, and I don’t think mothers usually think of their boys at 17 or 18 as men. I saw boys up on that screen and I was very proud to see them, more so for the three who died on Iwo Jima.

Six boys raised the flag on Iwo Jima. Three of those boys are portrayed in the movie as going on a bond tour, but three of those flag-raisers were buried on Iwo Jima along with 6824 American boys. It was particularly gratifying to see their lives brought back.

FSR: What do you think of the choices of Ryan Phillippe and Thomas McCarthy for playing the roles of your father and yourself?

JB: Well, I’m the last one you should ask that. I’m very happy, but I don’t think that I’m a good judge of it. The casting was very good, but then again I’m so close to the subject.

When I look at the movie and see what Mr. Eastwood did and see what Ryan, Jesse, Adam, and everybody did, it’s just brilliant. I went to a shoot out in Chicago, and they shot a train that is probably in the movie for 45 seconds. That train came into Union Station, and was from a museum in Indiana and had not moved for over 40 years. That attention to detail is all because of Mr. Clint Eastwood. I could tell you a story about Clint Eastwood but you probably wouldn’t want to hear it.

FSR: Actually, I would love to hear it.

JB: I went to Iceland where they shot the Iwo Jima scene, and I went into a shed that was holding the 1945 rifles the extras were using. When you think of the extras, they are just running with the rifles. They wouldn’t even use these rifles, but they would clean them. Cleaning and disassembling these rifles, going through this laborious process.

I asked “Why are you getting 1945 rifles to work perfectly, when they are going to be used by extras?” They told me that Mr. Eastwood wanted every extra to have the exact feeling. I’m just so proud that he brought those six boys back to life.

FSR: Another one of your novels, Flyboys, has been optioned by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and HBO. What can you tell me about that?

JB: They are working on a ten part series called “The Pacific.” It is based on four books, and Flyboys is one of them.

FSR: Most of our readers are a bit on the younger side, mostly in their 20’s. Is there anything that you’d like to tell our readers either about the book or the film?

JB: It is a timeless movie. Everybody should see it; it’s for all ages. If you go to the movie and you don’t think I’m right about that, then send me a letter.

In talking with James, I was left with even more admiration for the film which I saw last month. His passion and knowledge of the subject have pushed me to read the novel. Furthermore, I am highly anticipating the HBO mini-series also inspired by his writing. Thank you James, and make sure you all go out and see the film.

Brian Gibson is the Associate Editor of Film School Rejects.

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