“Military expertise is the most reliable of all” says veteran war film advisor, David James. The experience gleaned from years on-set has given him a sense for what works and what doesn’t – something which isn’t always easy to determine in military fiction.
The “best military history novels” is a genre that many veterans enjoy. The books usually focus on the battles and campaigns of World War I, II, and Vietnam.
Picture: Cinemax/Columbia Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures/Paul Biddiss/Richard Trant) Military consultants with military experience use their knowledge to assist advise on film and television productions.
‘I had no intention of working in the film business – I simply kind of stumbled into it after offering director George Clooney advise when working as an extra on his film The Monuments Men in 2014,’ Paul Biddiss tells Metro.co.uk about his second job as a military advisor in the film industry.
Prior to that, he spent 27 years in the British Army as a paratrooper and worked as a private investigator and bodyguard.
He’s worked on films like Fury starring Brad Pitt, War And Peace, Jason Bourne, Strike Back, and 1917 since that tragic day.
Military consultants are called in to provide training, direction, and assistance for the production crew in pertinent situations, just as they are for any other specialty component of film and television production.
On several sets, real-life veterans who have pursued second careers in the film business have been sought out for information and guidance on how to make their movies as realistic as possible.
Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Richard Trant, who served for 27 years in the 16th/5th Lancers and the Queen’s Royal Lancers before his present post as MD at Services To Film, adds, “You know what’s right because you’ve seen it.”
Fury was the first picture for which Services To Film offered military advice (Picture: Columbia Pictures)
Services To Film is a veteran-owned company that offers extras and consultants with military histories for film and television projects, as well as collaborating with ScreenSkills and the National Film and Television School on programs to put veterans in technical roles in the industry.
Trant’s consulting credits include shows like The Crown, Downton Abbey, Military Wives, and Belgravia.
‘I think a veteran has an eye for detail, which is sort of drummed into them during their basic training, but equally all through their service, about what looks right – both in terms of the physical look, but also how to actually behave when you are in a contact battle,’ he continues to Metro.co.uk about why the ‘authenticity’ veterans bring makes them good on-set advisors.
‘The batch of veterans that we have coming through the firm right now, a lot of them have considerable military and operational experience from the first Gulf War, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq,’ he says. They know how it feels.’
Downton Abbey has enlisted the assistance of military consultants in order to achieve the highest level of accuracy (Picture: Carnival Films)
After 27 years in the British Army, Paul Biddiss stumbled into a film career practically by mistake (Picture: Paul Biddiss)
‘You have to be able to convey to an actor the thoughts and sentiments of a soldier as he approaches death,’ Biddiss adds bluntly. ‘It’s about a lot more than learning how a gun works,’ says the author.
‘We also know what we’re looking for, so we can assist departments obtain the correct equipment without them having to spend hours or days on Google without completely knowing what they’re searching for!’ he adds, highlighting the practical, time-saving benefits former military forces veterans provide.
According to Trant, a military consultant’s job varies depending on the assignment, but it might involve offering instruction on weapons handling, marching, and language, as well as’more complicated abilities like functioning as formed assault squads in challenging terrain.’ Meanwhile, research for a previous time project ‘became a reference document for the props, costume, and set-making teams.’
Different connections between directors, producers, and their advisers may affect how much impact they have on a narrative or script, and Trant calls the ‘conversation’ between them all’very, really crucial.’
Before joining Services To Film, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Trant was on an operation in 2003. (Picture: Richard Trant)
‘I believe veterans can connect to a wide range of individuals, so they realize that the concepts behind developing or delivering a production must come first, even though offering kind and compelling advice is quite useful,’ he says.
Biddiss was in the writers’ room for Sky One’s action series Strike Back, ‘working to make the narrative genuine and build mission sequences from scratch.’
He says, ‘When I receive the screenplay, I assist the costumes and props teams on military outfits and equipment,’ stating that he is ‘preferably brought on to a project as early as feasible.’ Then I teach the actors and supporting artists how to wield firearms authentically and safely, for example. I conduct bootcamps to prepare the actors, stunt performers, and extras for all military parts of the screenplay.’
One of the key assets of military advisers with service and operational experience is arguably best shown in the way they assist in the realistic and sensitive depiction of combat situations in films.
Military advisers were employed in the writers’ room for the Sky TV show Strike Back (Picture: Cinemax)
‘Whatever struggle you’re attempting to convey must be carefully understood and linked to,’ Trant adds. ‘In terms of the audience, so many of them have no idea what it’s all about.’ And if you want to give anything historically accurate a sympathetic, realistic, and genuine feel, it has to be conveyed compassionately, realistically, and authentically, whether it’s World War I or World War II, or even a scenario from the Napoleonic period.’
For the first time, Services to Film provided military advice rather than just extras, and the organization enlisted the help of Armoured Corps veterans to man the tanks and crew the weapon systems, as well as two ‘young 90-somethings’ from the 13th/18th Hussars who served during and shortly after D-Day.
‘They had extensive knowledge of how the Sherman tank was deployed, both as an individual vehicle and as units, squadrons, and the like,’ he continues.
Despite the strain, Biddiss was able to draw on a familial connection to World War I for his work on Sam Mendes’ 1917, which he is ‘hugely proud’ of.
Bidiss is pleased with his contribution to Sam Mendes’ 1917 film. (Photo courtesy of Dreamwork Pictures)
‘During the advance to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, one of my distant ancestors perished. Everyone would have been staring at me if one of the extras had made a mistake.’
Working on The Crown’s season two episode portraying the Suez Crisis, in which his late father was part as a young paratrooper, gave him a ‘buzz.’
‘It was exciting to think I was orchestrating history that my own father had been a part of, but I always put pressure on myself to get as much detail straight as possible.’
Trant emphasizes viewers putting themselves in the shoes of those on screen and ‘thinking how they would respond’ when asked what they hope audiences take away from seeing war films.
‘In my opinion, and having seen all sorts, ages, and types of people serving in difficult circumstances, the generations change but the spirit stays the same; people will do extraordinary things for their mates and team when it’s their turn, no matter who they are,’ he says, adding that military service is ‘an experience few have had the opportunity to have.’
‘You’ll never get everything 100 percent right,’ Biddiss admits, ‘but you try your best and hope that viewers comprehend the hardships of battle and military life.’
The Suez Crisis as depicted by the Crown (Picture: Netflix)
‘In 1917, Sam Mendes said that he was creating the picture for a mass audience and that he did not want it to be superfluous in order to appease a few nitpickers – and I agree. Military experts are there to assist in the delicate production of entertainment, but this is not a documentary.’
Trant concedes that ensuring the realism of a production’s depiction of historical wars may be ‘very tough.’
‘A little inaccuracy may ruin a scenario, so this is the issue that producers and military consultants confront.’ It’s crucial to get the representation of fighting scenes and the concealed emotional burden on family back home just correct. These elements are often used to assess the quality of a production. As a member of the veteran community, I believe we, too, demand such accuracy.’
Other hurdles to accuracy, according to Biddiss, might arise from more practical concerns, such as when and how much time a military adviser can spend on set.
‘The most difficult task is when a production hires you to train the actors on the day of the shoot but lacks the funds to bring you in a few days ahead of time to prepare an actor or keep you on site for the days when military sequences are being shot.’ It’s really aggravating when they get the specifics so incorrect while shooting since no military counsel is there.’
Military Wives was a contemporary film in need of guidance. (Image courtesy of Ingenious Media)
‘Sometimes producers don’t realize the benefit of an adviser – we can save them money by avoiding reshoots, but I don’t receive a call until it’s too late to help put things right,’ he explains.
Trant praises Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks, as well as Fury, for ‘hitting the right notes’ when it comes to the greatest representation of combat on film.
He’s also pleased of Services To Film’s work on Military Wives, a film on the real-life Military Wives Choirs network, which has cropped up in recent years as a pastime and source of support for service members’ partners and loved ones, especially while their family members are away on deployment.
‘Very vivid, visceral portrayals of the other side of the coin that these endeavors provoke,’ he says of the film’s poignant death notification and burial sequences.
The last sequence of Blackadder Goes Forth has received a lot of attention (Picture: )
See also: The Crown
Biddiss mentions Blackadder Goes Forth as “a really effective representation of men preparing to go over the top,” in addition to 1917 and 1985 TV parachute drama Contact as works that have successfully shown combat.
‘It was a comedy, but that final moment nailed it,’ says the actor.
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