HBO Film Memorializes Fallen Troops22 May, 2009 By: John Latchem
The recent lifting of the moratorium on photographing military dead has rekindled a national discussion over the appropriate level of exposure such images deserve in a time of war.
While the debate rages, most people remain generally unaware of the somber process by which those killed on duty are returned to the United States to eventually be laid to rest. With Taking Chance, writer-director-producer Ross Katz lifts that veil in hopes of personalizing America’s fallen warriors for a populace desensitized to war by the 24-hour news cycle.
“You turn on CNN and see that a roadside bomb went off, and you know it’s horrible, but you have a certain detachment about it,” Katz said. “I think first and foremost, I’m trying to individualize a ‘casualty.’ I thought if I could personalize one, it would begin the process of getting to know the other 4,000.”
Taking Chance, released on DVD May 12 from HBO Home Entertainment at $19.97, tells the story of the return home of 19-year-old Marine Chance Phelps through the eyes of Lt. Col. Mike Strobl, who escorted Phelps’ body home after he was killed in Iraq in 2004. Katz said the film earned HBO’s highest ratings for a TV movie in five years when it first aired Feb. 21.
Strobl, played by Kevin Bacon, was serving as a strategic analyst when he came across a casualty report that listed Phelps, who was from Strobl’s hometown in Colorado. The Desert Storm veteran volunteered to escort the body to Phelps’ parents in Wyoming and documented the experience in a journal that became widely circulated on the Internet.
“Brad Krevoy and Lori Keith Douglas, two wonderful producers, sent it to me to see if I wanted to join them in producing the movie,” Katz said. “I told them I was not going to do an Iraq War movie. I sat on the journal for three weeks.”
Once convinced to finally read Strobl’s account, Katz’s attitude changed.
“I was so moved by Mike Strobl’s journal that it quickly went from being something I didn’t want to do to something I was obsessed with,” Katz said. “Not only did I want to write the screenplay, but I begged HBO to let me direct it.”
Though Taking Chance was Katz’s directorial debut, he said his years as a hands-on producer helped him take the next step.
“You’re never quite prepared,” Katz said. “But everyone in the cast and crew became emotionally involved in the film and made a personal investment in getting it right. It was the most extraordinary experience of my life.”
Katz spent eight months preparing the script, bringing on Strobl as a co-writer. He conducted heavy research at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where all American military bodies are taken to be prepared for their final return home. When returned to their families, the bodies are safeguarded by military escorts who follow a strict discipline to ensure that dignity and respect for the fallen are constantly maintained.
“I wanted people to know this process,” Katz said. “It’s an extraordinary process, a quiet process, that happens all the time.”
Katz said he also received enormous support from the Phelps family.
“I wanted this to be a testament to Chance and ensure he would never be forgotten,” Katz said.
Katz said the DVD should give viewers a more complete picture of Strobl, Chance and the Phelps family. Extras include a deleted scene, a brief behind-the-scenes program, and two featurettes about the real Chance Phelps, including a section about the real Mike Strobl.
“Once you watch the film, there are questions you want to ask,” Katz said. “A lot of that is covered in the bonus features. You just want to put good extra stuff on the DVD so people can feel a sense of closure. It makes a big difference. And seeing the real people involved is very moving.”