15 Fascinating Facts About Saving Private Ryan

Paramount Home Entertainment
Paramount Home Entertainment

It was up to eight men to save the life of one. Here are 15 things you may not have known about Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning World War II drama Saving Private Ryan, which arrived in theaters 20 years ago today.

1. THE MOVIE CAME TOGETHER IN A SINGLE DAY.

Saving Private Ryan was the only movie that Steven Spielberg directed up to that point in his career that he hadn’t developed on his own. Screenwriter Robert Rodat’s script was actually sent to Spielberg by his agent. In a stroke of luck, the script had also been sent to actor Tom Hanks, who also wanted to make the movie. Both Spielberg and Hanks, who had never worked with each other at that point (and would go on to work together again in Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, and Bridge of Spies, as well as the miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific), called each other up when they found out they were reading the same script and decided to collaborate on the movie all in the same day.

2. STEVEN SPIELBERG WAS INSPIRED TO DIRECT THE MOVIE BECAUSE OF HIS FATHER.

Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan as a tribute to his father, Arnold Spielberg, who served in the U.S. Army and Signal Corps, and fought in Burma during World War II as a radio operator in a B-25 squad. Arnold also helped a young Steven to direct his first movies as a teenager, both of which involved plots that took place during World War II. Escape to Nowhere was a 40-minute behind enemy lines movie that a young Spielberg shot with his friends, while Fighter Squad was shot at the Sky Harbor Airport hangar in Phoenix, Arizona, which conveniently housed grounded former WWII fighter planes that the young Spielberg and his friends used, but didn’t fly.

3. IT’S PARTLY BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Matt Damon stars in 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998)
Paramount Home Entertainment

Contrary to popular belief, Saving Private Ryan is not based on the Sullivan brothers, a group of five brothers who were all killed in action while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II on the USS Juneau. The movie is actually based on the Niland brothers, four siblings who all served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Three brothers—Robert, Preston, and Edward—were supposedly killed in action, which caused their remaining brother, Fritz (whom the titular Private Ryan was based on), to be shipped back to America so that the Niland family wouldn’t lose all of their sons. Edward, who was originally thought dead, was actually found alive after escaping a Japanese prison camp in Burma, making two surviving brothers out of the four who fought in the war.

4. THE ACTORS ACTUALLY WENT THROUGH BOOT CAMP.

To get an idea of what WWII soldiers actually went through, the main squad of actors portraying the lead soldiers participated in a 10-day boot camp led by the film’s military advisor, retired former USMC Captain Dale Dye. Dye led the actors on an intensive field combat situation, leading the group on marches, living in tents, and eating MREs. They also received tactical training that included learning how to clean, assemble, and fire period-appropriate weapons. Dye can be seen as a War Department Colonel who gives General George Marshall the Ryan brother death notifications toward the beginning of the movie.

5. ROBIN WILLIAMS HELPED MATT DAMON GET THE PART OF PRIVATE RYAN.

Williams introduced Damon to Steven Spielberg in Boston during rehearsals for the movie Good Will Hunting. The director was also in town around the same time shooting Amistad, and Williams brought Damon along to say hi to Spielberg, whom Williams had previously worked with on Hook. Two weeks later, Spielberg contacted Damon about the part of Private Ryan.

6. TOM SIZEMORE WAS NEARLY FIRED.

Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Paramount Home Entertainment

The actor, who plays Sergeant Horvath, was heavily addicted to heroin prior to filming Saving Private Ryan in 1997. In order to keep the movie in line, and to force Sizemore to kick the habit, Spielberg swore to Sizemore that if the actor tested positive for drugs on-set—even on the last day of shooting—“he would fire me on the spot and shoot all 58 days that I'd worked over again with someone else.”

7. GARTH BROOKS NEARLY PLAYED PRIVATE JACKSON.

Frank Darabont was hired to do uncredited rewrites on Saving Private Ryan, and created the role of the Bible-quoting sniper, Private Jackson, to be played by country singer Garth Brooks. Brooks dropped out of the movie after Spielberg came onboard and cast Tom Hanks in the lead role. Apparently Brooks didn’t want to play second fiddle to Hanks, but Spielberg offered him a chance to play another role of his choosing. Instead of a specific role, Brooks allegedly said he wanted to play the “bad guy,” but in Saving Private Ryan there is no real bad guy other than the entire Wehrmacht, so Spielberg ultimately decided to drop Brooks from the movie. 

8. THE LOOK OF THE MOVIE CAME FROM REAL LIFE PHOTOGRAPHY.

Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski modeled the look of the film on actual newsreel footage from the era, and converted the modern lenses of the film’s shooting cameras to make them capture images more like cameras from the 1940s. They also modeled the look of the D-Day sequence on the bleached-out, grainy look of the D-Day photography shot by famed photojournalist Robert Capa.

9. OMAHA BEACH WAS ACTUALLY IN IRELAND.

Because the actual beaches in Normandy where Allied forces invaded France had strict filming restrictions, the opening D-Day scene needed to be shot elsewhere. Spielberg wanted an almost exact replica of the Omaha Beach landscape for the movie, including similar sand and a bluff similar to the one where German forces were stationed. A near match was found in Ireland at Ballinesker Beach, Curracloe Strand in Wexford. Over 2500 Irish Reserve Army troops were recruited to portray the Allied forces storming the beach.

10. THE D-DAY SEQUENCE COST A WHOLE LOT OF MONEY.

The D-Day scene alone cost $12 million because of the logistical difficulties and the realistic scope needed to complete the sequence. The entire budget of the movie was only $70 million. Spielberg didn’t storyboard any of the D-Day sequence.  

11. SPIELBERG HAD A BUSY YEAR BEFORE AND DURING FILMING.

The director conducted the pre-production on Saving Private Ryan and the sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park at the same time in 1996, and was originally supposed to direct the films back to back. But a rewrite by screenwriter David Franzoni on Amistad, another project he was developing around the same time, turned out to be so successful that Spielberg decided to direct that movie in between the two other movies. Amistad was directed after a four-week break that ended The Lost World and a six-week prep time before Saving Private Ryan.

12. THE BOMBED OUT FRENCH CITY WAS ACTUALLY A SET BUILT OUTSIDE OF LONDON.

Because the logistics of shooting a completely destroyed French city would be impossible, the fictional bombed out city of Ramelle was created entirely at the Hatfield Aerodrome, a now-closed WWII air base located about 30 miles outside of London. The entire half-demolished city set took four months to build. To add more believability to the area, tons of rubble was purchased from nearby construction sites and added to the set. 

13. NEARLY ALL OF THE UNIFORMS WERE CUSTOM MADE.

Costume designer Joanna Johnston wanted to originally use period uniforms for the primary soldiers, but found that authentic WWII-era uniforms were too costly to buy and maintain. So 3500 custom-made military uniforms were created to outfit all of the actors portraying soldiers throughout the entire film. For the D-Day sequence alone, 2000 weapons were created, 500 of which could shoot blanks while the remaining 1500 were rubber replicas.

14. THE MEANING OF “FUBAR” IS NSFW.

The meaning of the phrase the soldiers utter to each other throughout the movie as a form of camaraderie is never explained. FUBAR is actually military slang for “F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition.”

15. FOR MANY VETERANS, THE MOVIE WAS TOO PAINFUL TO WATCH.

The film’s battle scenes were so realistic to veterans in the audience that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set up a nationwide toll-free hotline for veterans and their family members to call if they felt unsettled by the war depicted onscreen.

Josh Trank Wouldn't Mind Erasing Fantastic Four From Film History

Ben Rothstein, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Ben Rothstein, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

It’s not every day that you hear a director talking about wanting to completely erase one of their projects from film history. But when the topic of the 2015 box office bomb Fantastic Four comes up, director Josh Trank isn't mincing words. The director tweeted that he would “gladly” donate to a GoFundMe page to have his failed adaptation erased from the cinematic history books.

It's no secret that Fantastic Four is a sore subject for Trank. The production was plagued with rumors that there was a bit of friction on set, particularly between the director and star Miles Teller. Even once the film had wrapped, reports about the troubled production plagued Trank, and eventually led to him parting ways with Disney, for whom he was supposedly developing a standalone Boba Fett movie. (It didn't help that Fantastic Four tanked at the box office and even won a Razzie for Worst Picture).

The topic of starting a GoFundMe page for the film started after Trank responded to fans rallying for a page to get the rat at the end of Martin Scorsese's The Departed digitally erased. When asked if he would support a page to get rid of Fantastic Four, Trank seemed to oblige (though he has since deleted the tweet).


It’s no secret the previous Fantastic Four movies have had little success, but now that Disney and Fox are joining forces, the series could be entering into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe now these superheroes will finally get the movie they deserve.

Hollywood's Brief Love Affair With Young Einstein Star Yahoo Serious

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The theater owners and exhibitors attending the ShoWest convention in February 1989 had a lot to look forward to. In an attempt to stir their interest in upcoming studio releases, major distributors were showing off stars and footage: Paramount led with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Columbia had Ghostbusters II. But it was Warner Bros. that caused the biggest stir.

In addition to Lethal Weapon 2, the studio had Tim Burton’s Batman, a straight-faced adaptation of the comic, and Michael Keaton—who slipped into a screening of some early footage—was no longer being derided as a poor casting choice. Then, in the midst of all this star power, the studio brought out a 35-year-old actor-writer-director with a shock of orange hair and an Australian accent.

The man had never appeared in a feature film before, much less starred in one, but Warner was gambling that his forthcoming comedy about a Tasmanian Albert Einstein who invents rock music and runs into Thomas Edison would be a hit. It had already become the sixth highest-grossing film in Australia's history, besting both E.T. and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

The man’s real name was Greg Pead, but Warner Bros. introduced him as Yahoo Serious, Hollywood’s next big comedy attraction.

 

To understand Warner’s appetite for an unproven commodity like Yahoo Serious, it helps to recall the peculiar preoccupation American popular culture had with Australians in the 1980s. Energizer had created a hit ad campaign with Mark “Jacko” Jackson, a pro football player who aggressively promoted their batteries in a series of ads; meanwhile, Paul Hogan parlayed his fish-out-of-water comedy, Crocodile Dundee, into the second highest-grossing film of 1986. (Serious would later bristle at comparisons to Hogan, whom he referred to as a “marketing guy” who sold cigarettes on Australian television.)

Born in Cardiff, Australia on July 27, 1953, Serious grew up in rural bush country and mounted car tires at a garage in order to pay his way through the National Art School. When he was expelled for illustrating the school's facade with satirical jokes that the faculty didn’t find particularly funny, Serious moved on to direct Coaltown, a documentary about the coal mining industry, and pursued painting.

Serious would later recall that the desire for a larger audience led him away from art and into feature filmmaking. ''It hit me like a ton of bricks one day,” Serious told The New York Times in 1989. “I remember having a cup of coffee and I went, 'Well, look, there is a giant canvas in every little town everywhere around the world. And on this giant canvas there are 24 frames of image on that screen every second and it's the most wonderful living art form.'” It was around this same time, in 1980, that Serious changed his name.

To get a feel for the language of film, Serious sat through repeated viewings of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove; he aspired to have the kind of total autonomy over his movies that directors like Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed.

In 1983, Serious was traveling along the Amazon River when he spotted someone wearing a T-shirt depicting Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. The image is now pervasive, appearing on posters and other merchandise, but it seemed unique to the performer, who was struck by the idea that Einstein was once young and never took himself too seriously. And the concept for Young Einstein was born.

 

Serious's idea, which transplanted Einstein to Tasmania and imagined encounters with Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, and the atomic bomb, took years to assemble. He borrowed camera equipment and sold his car to help finance the film; he shot an eight-minute trailer that convinced investors he was capable of making a feature. His mother even cooked meals for the crew on set.

In order to maintain creative control, Serious gave up profit participation in Young Einstein, which he starred in, co-produced, co-wrote, and directed. When the film was released in Australia in 1988, it made an impressive $1.6 million at the box office and drew the attention of Warner Bros., which likely had visions of a Crocodile Dundee-esque hit. American press had a field day with Serious, who appeared on the cover of TIME and was given airtime on MTV.

Critics and audiences weren’t quite as enamored. The Orlando Sentinel suggested that "Tedious Oddball" would be a more appropriate name for the film's creator. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Young Einstein is a one-joke movie, and I didn't laugh much the first time." In the U.S., Young Einstein grossed just over $11 million, a fairly weak showing for a summer comedy. It was bested in its opening weekend by both Ron Howard’s Parenthood and the Sylvester Stallone action-grunter Lock Up.

 

Although American distributors quickly cooled on Serious, Australia's enthusiasm for the filmmaker didn’t dampen. When Serious released 1993’s Reckless Kelly, a fictionalized account of outlaw Ned Kelly, it made $5.4 million in Australia—three times as much as Young Einstein. Serious took a seven-year sabbatical, then returned with 2000’s Mr. Accident, a slapstick comedy about an injury-prone man who tries to thwart a scheme to inject nicotine into eggs. Meeting a tepid critical and financial reception, it would be his third and (likely) final film.

At roughly the same time Mr. Accident was released, Serious took issue with upstart search engine Yahoo!, alleging the site was piggybacking on his popularity. He filed a lawsuit, which was quickly dropped when he failed to prove the URL had damaged him in any way.

Yahoo Serious attends an event
Paul McConnell, Getty Images

The amused headlines stemming from that incident were the last examples of Serious capturing attention in America. Having completed just three films, no other projects have come to fruition; Serious launched a website detailing some of his background and to air some of his Yahoo!-related grievances.

Now 65, Serious currently serves as founding director of the Kokoda Track Foundation, an Australian aid organization dedicated to improving the living conditions of Papua New Guineans. The board’s website lists him as Yahoo Serious, which is the name he claims that all of his family and friends have called him since he changed it in 1980.

“You can choose every aspect of your life,” Serious once said. “Why not your name?”

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