Movies & TV / Columns

Director Darroch Greer Talks The Millionaires’ Unit, GI Film Festival, More

May 20, 2015 | Posted by Steve Gustafson

The GI Film Festival returns to DC May 18 through the 24th and continues its dedicated mission to share the military experience in and out of the arena of war. The festival is the first in the nation to exclusively celebrate the successes and sacrifices of the service member through the medium of film.

This unique and prestigious festival presents films from new and established international and domestic filmmakers that honor the heroic stories of the American Armed Forces and the worldwide struggle for freedom and liberty. Some of the films screened are voted on by fans while others are screened for the first time. All will in some way express the courage and selflessness of our fighting men and women and the value of their work.

Among those works that will be screened is The Millionaires’ Unit-U.S. Naval Aviators in the First World War. Seven years in the making and filmed on three continents, The Millionaires’ Unit tells the story of a group of Yale college students who took the initiative to learn to fly in 1916 in preparation for America’s entry into the Great War. Narrated by Academy Award nominated actor Bruce Dern (great nephew of one of the Unit aviators), it’s a story of service and sacrifice told through the fliers’ own words and dazzling air-to-air photography of WW1-era planes. The documentary is a tribute to America’s coming-of-age 100 years ago, to the birth of naval aviation, and to a time when some of America’s most privileged sons took it upon themselves to serve their country — some of them making the ultimate sacrifice. We offer the film in commemoration of the centennial of World War One, the event that brought America to the forefront of the world stage for the 20th century.

I was able to talk to director Darroch Greer about the film.

Steve Gustafson: Thank you again for taking some time to answer some questions about The Millionaires’ Unit-U.S. Naval Aviators in the First World War. This film was seven years in the making. Can you talk about how it all came to be, from book to filming?

Darroch Greer:In 2007, an old friend of mine from college, Ron King, called me up and asked how to make a documentary. He’d been in a bookstore and saw a photograph of his grandfather on the cover of a book about a group of World War One aviators. The book, The Millionaires’ Unit, came out in 2006, and the author, Marc Wortman, was giving a talk at the Yale Club in Manhattan, and Ron flew out for it. There he met several descendants of the First Yale Unit, which was a private militia organized by a group of Yale juniors in 1916 to learn to fly in preparation for America’s entry into the war. They were a bright, energetic and swaggering crew, most of them privileged sons from wealthy families, and their foresight and initiative eventually led to them becoming the founding squadron of the U.S. Naval Air Reserve. Because of who they were, their exploits learning to fly made news, the New York press dubbed them the ‘millionaire unit.’

Ron gave me a copy of the book, plus a history written of the Unit in 1925, and it’s a good story. All the dramatic elements are there: a diverse group of talented guys who don’t necessarily get along but are united by a common goal. There’s triumph and tragedy, and there’s romance, both with women and with the idea of being warriors in the new field of aviation. This was just 13 years after the Wright Brothers. Plus, the scale of WW1 was unprecedented, and it was a wholly new experience for the United States — still a young country. So, it’s a coming-of-age story, both for the young aviators and for our country.

Plus, several of Unit’s families were excited about the idea of a documentary, and they offered use of their private photo archives. Initially, it looked to me that we could tell an interesting story illustrated from some original and distinctive imagery. I didn’t know how many people would really be interested beyond the families, but we started a non-profit and formed a fund-raising team with two grandsons of Unit members. We started doing research, collecting photographs, and conducting interviews on film.

Steve Gustafson: That’s amazing. Especially hearing that it was just 13 years after the Wright Brothers. Wow. Watching the trailer, the scope of this project looks massive. What were some of the highlights of bringing it all to life on the big screen?

Darroch Greer: The film certainly grew in scope. Again, initially, I thought of it mostly as an archival piece, rather traditional, with photos and generic WW1 footage making the story come alive. But it was readily apparent that we had to do a good job representing the early fighter aircraft of the era. There had been a discouraging WW1 aviators feature where all the flying was done with computer generated effects to make the planes look faster and fiercer than they actually were. It was obviously a case of being afraid that had the planes been portrayed realistically it wouldn’t have been as exciting as The Fast and the Furious. I thought this was wrong. Fortunately, Ron and I had the opportunity to meet a gentlemen who built a pristine collection of WW1 single-seater fighters all with original engines. The planes are incredibly impressive — their simplicity and their sophistication, their delicacy and their strength. He was very generous with his time, and being around these planes, hearing their engines, seeing them fly was simply extraordinary. We immediately knew that we wanted our audience to understand what it took for aviators to fly these early aircraft. So, we had to find the specific planes to film, and we had to raise the money to rent sophisticated camera equipment, helicopters and planes from which to film, and pay everybody for their time. From what we could tell, there were only three Sopwith Camels in the world with original engines. Story-wise, the Sopwith Camel was very important to the fates of two of our characters. Ultimately, the Camel that could best meet our needs was in New Zealand, and it belonged to the film director Sir Peter Jackson. He has an amazing collection of exact replica WW1 planes, managed and flown by a remarkable man named Gene DeMarco. So, after studying WW1 and working on the film for some five years, we had raised enough money, and three of us went to New Zealand for ten days and had the time of our lives.

Steve Gustafson: That is seriously breathtaking to consider. With so much archival pictures and interviews, I imagine you had trouble editing it all down. Was there anything you wanted to include but couldn’t?

Darroch Greer: The toughest thing was honing the story. There were 29 members of the First Yale Unit, and we decided to focus on six of them, telling the story as much as possible through their words. We copied 400 pages of letters from the Sterling Library at Yale to make the story both personal and character-driven. So, you have to introduce each of those characters, sustain them so that the audience doesn’t forget about them, and bring each of their stories to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. However, those stories all have to be in the context of their lives at Yale, the context of the navy and naval aviation, and all of that has to be put into the context of America’s involvement in World War I, arriving late to the game. So you have to set all that up, keep it interesting and satisfying, and have it play out within the length of time of a movie. So, to answer your question, yes, there were things I hated to cut, but we wanted to fit the film into a PBS run time of two hours, and I think it is a very satisfying two hours.

Steve Gustafson: I bet! I can imagine the seven year journey to get The Millionaire Unit was a true learning experience. What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Darroch Greer: I learned some important and satisfying things about filmmaking to be sure, but the most exciting things I learned were about the history of World War One and the difficulties for men, women, institutions and bureaucracies to prepare for and fight in such an unprecedented calamity. The sheer ingenuity, hardihood and tenacity shown by these guys is incredibly inspiring. Our world is so complicated today, and I don’t often come across stories of everyone coming together and creating something important and significant out of whole cloth. I’m still inspired by what so many people did 100 years ago when the entire Western World was turned upside down.

 photo Unit_zpsdg9eogj5.jpg

Steve Gustafson: So true. So true. I believe this was your first time directing. How was that experience?

Darroch Greer: I’ve directed several documentaries for television, but the important difference here is that this is the first independent production I’ve made — co-diredted and produced with Ron — in which we made the decisions and made the film the way we wanted to — for better or worse! It was tremendously satisfying to dream big early on in the project, and then have the film turn out as full and as exciting as we imagined — which is why it took seven years; we ended up raising a million dollars. We got to shoot air-to-air riding in helicopters and small planes, we filmed over water in speedboats. I filmed in Europe for five weeks — on the North Sea, in England, France and Belgium. It’s a big ol’ film!

Steve Gustafson: It sounds like the behind-the-scenes story is just as exciting as what gets onscreen. When you have a story that has so much emotion behind it, like The Millionaire Unit, once it was completed, those involved in making it are usually changed in some way. Did anything change about you and your beliefs?

Darroch Greer: I have more respect for anyone who executes a huge task, whether that be making a film or influencing the course of human events in some small or large way, as our characters did. I learned how helpful it is to collaborate with a partner. I have a stronger belief in the value of tenacity and hard work. If anyone could have told me the effort would take eight years, I don’t know if I would have balked, but I suppose I learned the value of putting one foot in front of the other.

Steve Gustafson: Awesome. How important was getting this short film into the GI Film Festival?

Darroch Greer: It is very gratifying to be accepted by the GI Film Festival, both because of its association with the military and because of it’s location in the Washington, D.C., area. This is the historical heart of our country in so many ways. We spent a good amount of time trying to engage the Navy to help with our film, since the story is largely about the birth of naval aviation, but the Navy doesn’t have any provision with which to support a non-institutional project. The GI Film Festival is the next best thing to an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of our film as part of military history.

Steve Gustafson: Absolutely. What’s next for you?

Darroch Greer: We’re working to secure the broadcast of The Millionaires’ Unit, and I’ve written three more proposals for documentaries about World War One, the historical importance of which is not widely enough known or understood. I’m developing a documentary on our 31st president and in production on one about flying the Sopwith Camel. I’m currently serving as a writer on a historical project in Saudi Arabia, and I’m developing a idiosyncratic television show about American history with a web component.

Steve Gustafson: I’ll definitely be keeping in touch to see how these projects go! Thanks again for taking time to answer some questions.

Darroch Greer: Thanks for your interest, Steve!

The Millionaires’ Unit playing on Sunday, May 24 at the GI Film Festival at 3:00 PM.