When Oscar-winning producer Ross Katz first heard of U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Michael Strobl’s narrative, “Taking Chance,” he knew it was a story he wanted to tell.
“Taking Chance” was Strobl’s description of how deeply he was touched by the care and professionalism of the staff at Dover Air Force Base’s Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. That feeling was heightened by the response of people he encountered during a cross-country trip to return the remains of Pfc. Chance Phelps to his family in Wyoming.
Phelps was killed in April 2004 during an insurgent attack near Ramadi.
“This was something very close to my heart,” Katz said during an interview from Los Angeles. “I’m a civilian, and up until this project, I had never known a single soldier, other than my grandfather. I felt a sense of shame, that how could I live in this country and not know of anyone in the military.”
Strobl’s story was the genesis of an HBO Films production, also titled “Taking Chance,” an 85-minute television movie, co-written by Strobl and Katz, airing on HBO at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21. The film also was screened at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
Like a silent ballet
The film, which stars Kevin Bacon as Strobl, was produced with Department of Defense cooperation. From the beginning, Katz wanted to present the reality of how much care goes into preparing the remains of American service members for return to their families. It includes details rarely discussed in the media, including military escort duty and the work done at the Carson mortuary.
Early in pre-production, Katz was given a familiarization tour of the Dover facility, and military officials assigned him a Marine Corps liaison, Master Sgt. Victor Szalankiewicz, and a mortuary specialist, William D. “Zig” Zwicharowski, to help ensure authenticity.
A Marine veteran and licensed mortician, Zwic-harowski at first had huge concerns about how the port mortuary’s work, which he defines as a “sacred mission,” would be portrayed.
The Carson mortuary prides itself on using the utmost in care and dignity in handling each set of remains, regardless of rank, he said.
“I guess I had a fear that if only one of a member’s family was insulted, or the perspective was not honorable, I would feel I failed,” Zwicharowski said.
But that turned out not to be the case. Zwicharowski immediately saw Katz would keep his promise to honor not only the sacrifices made by those who have died in the nation’s service, but those of the mortuary’s 30-person staff as well.
“I’ll never forget the day of my tour,” Katz said. “It was one of the most horrific and inspiring moments of my life. Horrific because of the nature of grief and loss, but inspiring because all of these people are volunteers and no one has any idea what it takes for them to bring someone’s loved one home.
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“It was almost like a silent ballet,” Katz said of what he witnessed. “Every step they took was so elegant, so caring, loving and selfless.
“I don’t even think I understood heroism until I walked into the Dover port mortuary.”
Real movie making
Although “Taking Chance” re-enacts the arrival of Phelps’ remains in the United States and how they are treated at the mortuary, none of those scenes were filmed at Dover Air Force Base. To avoid interrupting work at Dover, the film crew instead traveled to McGuire AFB, N.J., where the Air Force allowed the use of a C-17 and off-duty military personnel for scenes where the transfer case holding Phelps’ body is taken from the plane in a driving rainstorm and carried in a slow, dignified cadence to a waiting hearse.
Bergen Community College, in Paramus, N.J., stood in for the Dover mortuary during filming in mid-2007, with modifications to recreate the examination and processing areas, as well as the mortuary’s wall of remembrance. The attention to detail was such that when Zwicharowski spotted an error on the reproduction wall, the art department immediately fixed it.
As part of his technical consulting duties, Zwicharowski looked through pages of the script scheduled for shooting each day.
“I’d read a little bit ahead and if there was anything I saw I didn’t agree with, I would make recommendations for changes,” he said. Katz and the producers reacted favorably to most of his suggestions, but in a bit of Hollywood drama, Zwicharowski found it was far easier to change what an actor did than what he or she said. Dialogue is almost sacrosanct on a film set, he realized.
A major rule he also learned was that a crewmember must never, ever interrupt the director. Zwicharowski broke that maxim during a scene where actors, playing airmen at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, are handling bags of ice used to keep a body cool.
“I stopped the director, and everyone hushed,” Zwicharowski said.
Ross looked at him and said, “Yes?”
The actors were too business-like, too perfunctory in handling the ice, Zwicharowski told Katz. They needed to move with greater reverence, as they do at the mortuary.
The director agreed, and reshot the scene.
“It may not be seen by the average person, but Ross said, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to know,’” Zwicharowski said. Other errors, such as when Bacon saluted indoors without his headgear, also were corrected, he said.
‘A little more important’
For Bacon, his role in “Taking Chance” was far removed from prior portrayals of Marine officers in “A Few Good Men,” and “Frost/Nixon.”
Page 3 of 3 - “Once in a while, you do a little something where you feel as though there’s a little bit more weight to it,” he said. “You know what I mean, and certainly this story and the story of Chance … the story of Mike and the story of service people who make this kind of sacrifice lends a certain importance to the story.
“So, when you come home from the work in the course of shooting, there’s something slightly different from doing just a regular movie. It just feels a little more important.”
Bacon said Zwicharowski and the other technical advisors were “incredibly helpful” in getting the details just right.
“You know, there’s just a lot of really specific stuff, things that have to be done and in a certain way, that we want to stay true to, and we want to be authentic with,” he said.
Bacon plays Strobl as a conflicted soul, a battle-tested warrior who spends his days processing manpower reports at Quantico and going home to his family at night, instead of leading Marines in battle.
He also shows Strobl as a little confused about the attitude the public shows toward the fallen Chance Phelps, as if he were not completely aware of the reverence Americans hold for their fighting men and women.
“That’s what really moved me to write [Taking Chance] is the way people reacted as I traveled across the country, and to include starting in Dover,” Strobl said.
That so many showed such compassion helped Stobl prepare for the final part of escort duty, meeting Phelps’ family in Wyoming.
“It really helped that people went out of their way to make things easier and I’ve talked to other escorts that have, other Marines who have done escort duty.
“They say they’ve had very much the same experiences,” he said.
Zwicharowski expressed a hope that people who see “Taking Chance” reach an appreciation for the sensitive way in which those at the Dover mortuary do their work.
“I hope it conveys the fact that everyone, from place of death to place of burial knows and appreciates the fact that these heroes gave their lives for our country and our way of life,” he said.
“Taking Chance” premieres on HBO at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21. A trailer for the film may be seen at www.hbo.com/films/takingchance/.
Email Jeff Brown at email@example.com