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Interview: Christian Bale

In Werner Herzog’s feature narrative adaptation of his documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale stars as Dieter Dengler, a German born U.S. fighter pilot who is shot down while bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the early stages of the Vietnam War. He survives a crash landing in the jungle, but is soon captured by enemy forces, and transported to a prisoner of war camp in Laos.

In Werner Herzog’s feature narrative adaptation of his documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale stars as Dieter Dengler, a German born U.S. fighter pilot who is shot down while bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the early stages of the Vietnam War. He survives a crash landing in the jungle, but is soon captured by enemy forces, and transported to a prisoner of war camp in Laos.

From his first day as a POW, Dieter begins planning what would eventually be his daring escape, first from the camp and then through the even more deadly uncharted jungles of Indochina. Through an unrelenting optimism, will to live, and ingenuity, Dieter became the only successful POW escapee in history.

Bale is arguable the best actor in his generation, taking on roles that are extremely challenging both dramatically and physically. He went down to a deathly 120-something pounds in The Machinist, and then up to a lethal 220 pounds of muscle for Batman Begins — all in the same year. The physical transformation in Resuce Dawn is not as dramatic, but once again, Bale fits perfectly into another memorable character.

I had the chance to talk to Bale while he was in New York promoting the release of Rescue Dawn.

Christian Bale

Question: In your opinion, how does Dieter differ from other war heroes or soldiers we’ve seen onscreen?
Christian Bale: Well obviously I haven’t seen every single war movie that’s been out there, but it seems to me that he’s a slightly less likely war hero. He’s a bit more gangly and dorky and little more sort of having a childlike approach to life. He’s certainly not your sort of clichéd tough-as-nails vet who can chew through walls. Dieter is somebody whose incredible talent is in retaining his humanity throughout these inhumane conditions. And in not really recognizing friend or foe, he doesn’t really recognize the line that is drawn between the enemies. And that is very disarming for many people, because he becomes very charming and he personalizes everything, everybody into a person, instead of just purely enemy. And this crazy optimism that he has, which I’m such could be infuriating in many cases, ends up being incredibly practical, and ends up being his method of survival.

Q: How does Herzog’s method stand out from other directors?
CB: I think his embracement of chaos, do you know what I mean? I think he likes that. Obviously he wants to mix it up, he’s not trying to discover the perfect way of doing a scene, he’s looking for just, ‘Hey do it however you feel,’ each and every time. He is somebody who is very physical in the way he directs a movie. He’s wrestling with so many different factors all at one time, and he likes to give himself a challenge, he never wants to make things easy on himself. He wants to make the tough choice.

Q: This was the first film for producers Elton Brand and Steve Marlton. What was it like working with them?
CB: We had quite a turnover of different people the first month in terms of crew. Someone was there for a week and then gone, and somebody else sort of stepped up and took over and took his place, and we had half the crew quite at one point and had to work through it. And also just in general, sort of troubles with the various Thai authorities and stuff, they’d suddenly change their minds on us and a couple of people were threatened with jail time and stuff like that while we were doing it, which is also just part of the course for a Herzog movie. And they no doubt saw great material in this, and it’s no doubt been a baptism by fire for them in learning about movies. There were a lot of obstacles to overcome and people who obviously didn’t have the movie’s best interest in heart. I wasn’t in touch with Elton, I was more in touch with Steve. It was very funny, upon leaving Thailand, I was actually leaving with Steve, they actually held him up – but we had this bloody armed escort leaving with us, armed with machine guns. And I was like, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ And after we go through passport control, low and behold, there’s a little guy in a suit running up to us and he’s got a bunch of guys with machine guns. And they’re stopping us from getting on the plane and demanding this that and the other, and money, and there were a lot of problems they had to deal with and negotiate and it was just part of working out there, I guess, and the different personalities involved. And so I actually ended up carrying the filmstock home because Steve got stopped.

Q: Was this the most physically demanding film you’ve done so far, being that this was not a completely controlled environment?
CB: There’s a lot of movies that aren’t completely controlled environments, this one I suppose a bit more than usual, being that we were actually out in the jungle. And as much with the… the monsoon season came, and there were certain sets we were on and we would return to it two weeks later and the place would be flooded, destroyed, changed completely, huts taken down, rivers over flown. So I guess in that respect it was the most physical.

Q: Dieter’s accent – I don’t think we’ve ever heard you do that same accent on film twice, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard your real accent on film – how does working on an accent help you get into character, and was there anything specifically on Dieter that worked?
CB: Finding the accent really does help you identify the character. But with Dieter, he actually had a very, very strong accent, and initially when I started off doing that, I decided that it wasn’t worth it because he wasn’t well known enough for people to know he had this… first of all he was from Black Forest which other Germans say is a rather odd accent, and then he had a rather odd accent for Black Forest. So it ended up in the way I was doing it sounding something like Elmer Fudd. And I just thought this is going to stand in the way of the movie, so I just adapted to it and reduced it and some of his mannerisms, some of his speech patterns that he had were quite normal.

Q: You managed to make him sound like someone who had grown up with a different language, sort of American, but…
CB: Right, someone who had definitely really made a sort of effort to become American, and really longed for that. But it was just slightly off.

Q: Is it difficult finding these accents?
CB: Not once you’ve found it, not once you’ve settled on it, then that’s fine, it’s just a matter of maintaining it, you can actually not sound like you’re practicing when you’re filming.

Q: Do you stay in accent when you’re not filming?
CB: I did, yeah. I did on that.

Q: If you had the chance to sit down and talk to Dieter, what would you ask him?
CB: I’d just want to hear his side of the story, the whole thing, you know? There’s a lot of artistic license taken here, and obviously, with the mission from Werner, he takes artistic license with documentaries. I think what would have been most enjoyable would be to have had him along for the ride, down in Thailand, to hear him make his comments. And to see if he still maintained that sort of outlook, you know? The optimism, or whether with age, it kind of changed.

Q: You have played characters with tremendous physical prowess in American Psycho and Batman. Dieter is very different in his body language. What influenced your choices in how Dieter moves?
CB: It was probably because I had a thorn stuck in my foot or something. Yeah, it’s another thing, the accent and then the body language dictates everything. I don’t actually kinda sort of try to do something, you just kind of try various things and one of them feels right. And it feels like the correct way of walking. And obviously from observing him from the documentary as well. Mostly the younger stuff, which there’s not much footage of. But all of that helps a great deal, and obviously your body language is going to change depending on what situations you are in.

Q: Did you do research for the role? About flying, combat, jungles, anything like that?
CB: Not really, no. You can see that all the detail about that was shown in that film at the beginning, the survival film. That was it. They weren’t given any other survival training. So I didn’t want to go in and feel like I had more knowledge than he did.

Q: Did it surprise you, the lack of training that soldiers were given before being sent into combat zones?
CB: Well, I’m not sure exactly how thorough that section was. I mean, we didn’t want to dwell forever on the opening part, so they might have been given somewhat more training. But what happens it, what look absolutely ridiculous in the safety movie ends up being things he actually uses.

Q: Did you have any contact with his son?
CB: Yes. I actually bumped into Rolf in a supermarket. He walked up and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you’re playing my dad.’ And I thought, ‘Who is this nut, what’s he on about?’ And so he explained himself and we got to know each other, and also I spoke with Dieter’s brother quite extensively.

MGM releases Rescue Dawn in theatres on July 4th.

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