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July 2007
RESCUE DAWN An Interview with Elton Brand

An Interview with Elton Brand

by Brad Balfour

July 3, 2007



For Los Angeles Clippers power forward Elton Brand, being heroic usually means fighting off the challenge of an opposing squad of towering basketball players like himself. In his role as NBA star, what matters is making sure his team wins.

But in becoming a first-time executive producer for the Werner Herzog-directed adventure feature "Rescue Dawn," the 6' 8" Brand learned about another standard of heroics. He knows now what it takes to gamble his money on a film that counts; "Rescue Dawn," unlike so much Hollywood fare, actually stands for something in telling the story about the late Dieter Dengler, the one soldier who escaped from a Vietnam War prison camp and survived to tell the tale. Dengler's story expressed the heroics of determination and endurance against all odds.

The 28-year-old Brand embraced that challenge of putting his money where his heart is. Not only that, but he learned about the travails a dedicated actor like Christian Bale would go through in order to lend authenticity to playing his role. Though Brand stands tall as an NBA All-Star, he knows not to rest on any laurels--that's why he's busy establishing this additional career path, one that could end up defining him beyond the sports world.

Wow, you’re tall!

EB: Well, it comes with the territory.

 Have you always had aspirations to get involved with films and other art forms even while playing basketball?

EB: Not at the beginning. I started off playing my basketball career with the Chicago Bulls. Then I moved to LA. So it kind of came to fruition when I moved to LA.

 Did you have an idea of the kind of stories you were interested in?

EB: I was into the character-driven type of movies. I didn’t want to do anything that I couldn’t take seriously. If I’m going to be in the industry, To be able to be taken seriously as a real producer, I want someone to see a compelling story,an interesting story.

 What was it about "Rescue Dawn" that pulled you into producing?

EB:  I saw that documentary, "Little Dieter Needs To Fly" and said, "Hey, this is an amazing story about kinship and friendship and not letting each other down. If I could be a part of that, I would love to." And then, Christian Bale was attached after "Batman Returns" so I’m looking at that. If I can be a part of this as a movie producer, I want to be a part of it.

What does "being a part of it" mean to you; were you always going to be a producer? How did you define yourself having not done this before? 

EB: I didn’t know much about the movie game at the time. So I said, "Okay, Werner Herzog was friends with Dieter Dengler. He wanted to tell the story in a full-length format. So if I have to put up some money, bring it through my production company [and support it financially], then I would want to do that." It took on legs of its own. But we were involved in other things like picking the sets where we shot, costume design, and the budgets of course. Everything.

How did you go from basketball to film; did you do research?

EB: First of all, I hadn’t seen any Werner Herzog movies before we signed on to do the production. So, I had to do some research, went to Netflix, got a few of his movies and said "Wow." I found out that people died on his set.

I did research on, first of all, Werner as a director. And I knew Christian Bale, of course, from "The Machinist" and "American Psycho" and he attached. I did a movie search on the movie gang and found out who the executive producers were and people like that. Then we produced the film from there.

What impressed you about Werner's films when you saw them?

EB: Just his art. It was very different. It wasn’t the typical one-shot, main shot. It was just very artsy. He had in one movie I was watching--and I don’t want to be politically incorrect--small people, like midgets. In the film, his view was very different.

If there was a camera looking in when the idea first came into your head to do this movie would it be like you’re sitting there and somebody walks up to you in a restaurant or in an office?

EB: Inside our office on Sunset. 9000 Sunset. I was looking for projects and a lot of projects were passing through the office. I have a name as a good person, as an NBA player. I do charity stuff and I didn’t want to put my name on some of the things that were passing through the office. There were a lot of [films with] sex and other things. I was holding off for right project to attach my name to and that’s when this came about. And I said, okay, I want to be a part of this.

You had your company prior to this project and you were already looking for projects?

EB: Yeah, my company is Gibraltar Entertainment. We had a company first. We were looking for our first project. That’s all we had. And this is my first movie.

What made you decide on this initiative and have your own production company?

EB: I live in the Hollywood Hills, and being in Hollywood, you get many opportunities in the entertainment field. A lot of them are bad ideas, bad investments. I wanted to do a production company. My partner, Steve Marlton and I, we wanted to do a production company. Do movies. That was a dream that came to fruition, especially with this project made it a lot easier.

You were getting this company going and then found this project? Is that how it happened?

EB: That’s how it happened. I actually write in my time off, [while I am] traveling. The stuff that I wrote, I had to do a few screenplays. Of course it wasn’t ready to come to production. We just had the business. We had a business plan. We had an office. I wasn’t going to stop until I found a project that I was comfortable with. My partner, he did something with Paris Hilton. Bottom’s up. He did something else.

 Throw her in jail?

EB: [Laughs] No, he didn’t put her in jail. He did another movie with her.

Did she put him in jail?

EB: No, he’s still out of jail. I’m joking [laughs]. So he did some other projects. My name is not attached to. I didn’t want to be a part of those. When I saw this... it’s very intense. Werner Herzog is an intense director. Known not just in America, he’s much bigger around the world. So I said, "I’m going to be a part of that."

Werner Herzog can be serious but he can be pretty funny as well. What was your experience in meeting him?

EB: I got the funny Werner. We went out to dinner and he was telling me about how he saw Wilt Chamberlain play. He’s so smooth. I was thinking, why didn’t they tell me? This is a great guy!  Then on set, he was tough. To the point of concise, he did a beautiful job. He knows what he wants. He knows how to get it. He did a great job. We went to dinner a few times, with his wife, they were just great people.

Q: Did you get involved with the casting at all?

EB: No, we hired a casting director. Christian Bale was attached, which, as you, had a great appeal to me as a producer. To have Christian attached to one of your films, he’s known as a great actor.

Q: If someone were attached that you really didn’t like, would you have any influence on getting this person unattached?

EB: I have to talk to the people because that’s their job. So I’d say, “Why do you want this person?” and I let you know why I don’t like this person. I don’t have any personal reservation. If he can act, he can act. If he can’t, then I wouldn’t want you.

Do you want to or can you?

EB: Act?  I've done some small things like "Arliss" and "The Cookout."

"The Cookout" with Queen Latifah?  Were you the security guard?

EB: I was the star [chuckles].

You were very well disguised.

EB: I had a small scene at the beginning. During the [scene at the] NBA draft, I was the commentator. So I did some small things, but I’d rather be behind the scenes.

Did you have any creative influence at all during the film or was it Werner running the show?

EB: Werner pretty much ran the show. I did have some creative like, with the editing. A few lines that I want taken out here and there, but he pretty much ran the show.

What did you base your decision on when you wanted lines taken out?

EB: Just as a moviegoer. [I would say things like] "This is kind of long, can we shorten this?"

And there weren’t a lot of lines.

EB: [Chuckles].

Did you feel that it was more authentic, those scenes of Vietnam that Vietnam vets would be able to relate to? 

EB: Yes, very authentic. Like the scene with Christian eating the maggots  and biting the snake.

Which he really did.

EB: Which he really did. The mudslides. It all was very authentic. We were in Thailand and were watching it on the TV portraying how tough it was. There were some violent scenes like dumping them in the water. Keeping his head down. Those torture scenes [were powerful].

He didn’t challenge you to try it out.

EB: A little bit, but I had breakfast that day, so I was good. Snakes too.

Werner has shot in the jungle before, so he actually had some pretty major experiences there. He had some pretty wild experiences.

EB: He was in the water with the camera. He lost weight. The cast lost weight from the role because they’re prisoners of war. And he lost weight. He lost 30 pounds with the guys. He’s very intense, very serious. I’m glad he was part of this thing.

Your first movie out of the gate; some people are already talking about this as possible Oscar stuff. What do you feel about that?

EB: That would be an amazing honor and a privilege. Even to be mentioned in that kind of breath with any film, not just your first film. It’s a great movie. The cast did a great job. Christian did a great job. Steve Zahn, he’s known as a comedic actor, did a great job as Duane. My favorite part is Jeremy Davies’ role. The guy’s an antagonist and he was just evil. I hated him. I didn’t like him.

What films did you watch while you were growing up that made you love film ?

EB: Growing up young, we didn’t have cable, so my mom would take me to the movies. My friends, we’d go to the movies, so it would be a special treat. I watched everything from "Rocky" to "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," until I got older, "Casablanca," "A Clockwork Orange." I just watched all types of film that took my mind to a different place and just enjoyed it. Something that I didn’t think about.

Your choice of this film was tremendous; so what you brought to this project other than money?

EB: Other than money at first, was the vision and to believe in the project. I’m sure if MGM, no disrespect to MGM, didn’t believe in the project, they would’ve skipped over us. They took it right away. When I saw "Little Dieter Needs To Fly," I said that could be a feature length. And I saw many scripts and many shorts before that. But I think the vision and hindsight, that’s what I brought to the table. Hey, let’s invest money, let’s do this, let’s get this done.

Are people from the NBA now saying, wow, I’ll give you my money?

EB: Yeah, definitely. [There are] guys trying to pool money together. They have scripts. They have friends that have scripts. But it’s a tough business. They see the glamour now, they see me doing a press junket now, but it was tough getting this movie done. My partner, Steve Marlton, Werner, we went through a lot getting this movie done. It’s not as easy as everyone thought.

Having come in with what you came in with, what do you get out of this that you can put into the next project?

EB: I’m a lot smarter now. I definitely understand what it takes to make a movie now, which I wasn’t sure about the first time through. I learned a lot.

Did you find some sort of visceral connection to your sports experience that you really could connect to this story--about that experience of endurance and perseverance and taking all the shit?

EB: Yeah, without a doubt. Competition. Friendship. Holding one accountable. They’re your friends. They’re your teammates. They’re your buddies. I won’t let you down. I got my head chopped off, but I tried. The teamwork, the camaraderie that the group of guys had. I can definitely relate to being a ball player in a ball team. Of course, playing basketball is miniscule, compared to being in a POW camp, but I see the similarities there.

Did you watch tapes to make yourself more aware to what was happening in Vietnam?

EB: I didn’t come across too much actual footage. Until a few years ago, I didn’t know about the covert missions and things like that. I’m thinking everything’s just straight and narrow. But just to find out about that. That’s another reason why I wanted to tell the story also.

Do you think it inform you about things that were going on today?

EB: Yeah, it’s very current to me. There’s some stuff that as an American citizen, I don’t know about, that could be going on, and is going on.

As a result of making this film, has it changed or sort of confirmed in a way the things you’re looking to do as further projects--what’s next?

EB: Right now, I’m just not rushing. My main thing is basketball. Trying to get the Clippers back into the playoffs and into a championship. If the right project comes across again, then I’ll attach my name. That’s what I want. If I’m going to enter into a venture, I want it to be known as something positive, something good. So it’s like, “Oh, Brand produced this one too. Ok, let’s check it out.”  I want it to be a good movie.

So you're known as “The Brand”. You couldn’t ask for a better name!

EB: No pun intended [laughs].

But there was no hoop in the movie.

EB: No basketball courts on set at all, but there were some in Bangkok that was actually nice where I worked out of. But not on set.




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