We recently watched and reviewed Allegiance – a great film starring Shad “Bow Wow” Moss and Seth Gabel. Michael Connors, the writer and director of Allegiance, took some time out of his day to chat with us about the film, the process of getting this project off the ground, and what he’s working on now. You can read our interview below – and don’t forget to pre-order the film on Amazon here, to be released January 15, 2013. You can also visit the film’s official website for more details, including information on theatrical release locations and dates.
This story is so unique to the side many would choose to tell about the Iraq war and the process of deployment. What influenced you decide to tell this side of it?
Given my own military experience, I would say that wanted to definitely tell a personal story. That aspect of it, because I was never actually in Iraq or saw actual combat, to me, the most interesting way to get in a personal story was that process – which I had been through and seen a lot of first-hand with friends who were going over. So, I just felt like that would be the most interesting way for me to tell a personal story, and certainly on our budget, we didn’t have a budget to go with a big war movie.
Was it difficult to get funding for such an unorthodox military story – or did that make more people want to contribute?
It was initially [difficult], yeah. It was actually based on a short film that I made for my thesis film coming out of Columbia University in New York City. Then, I moved out to Los Angeles and got representation. [The short] did really well – and I tried to get a few military projects off the ground in 2007-2008. No one from the more traditional film funding really wanted anything to do with contemporary military stuff. So, I knew that if I was going to do any kind of military story I’d have to go and raise the money independently. I had a couple of friends who introduced me to some potential financiers – and some of them had military backgrounds, and they were interested in seeing the more realistic content about the military – as opposed to G.I. Joe or Transformers, where the military is treated more in a fantasy-like light.
I understand that many of the people working and involved with the film have military backgrounds. Was that intentional, did you seek them out, or was Allegiance just something they wanted to help with?
Well, I didn’t intentionally seek it out, but I think it was just natural because of some of my friends – and Sean Mullin, one of the producers – also came from military background. So a lot of the projects we did in film school and then afterwards dealt with the military, political, law enforcement side of the subject matter. So, just reaching out to my own network, it was going to be a natural thing that a lot of the people that I knew, though they weren’t necessarily career military, all had [some connection] – whether it be a family member or had served a couple years themselves.
What was the most difficult part of the entire process, whether writing or directing, or both?
I would say – just from the production side – the actual, physical getting the movie up and going [was the most difficult]. It was definitely a fast shoot – 22 days – and we shot it outside in New York. We tried… one of the things that I wanted to do was to make it, you know, sort of like a lot of independent films that are more drama-oriented, where it’s a couple people in a a room – or even some of the military-themed dramas [about soldiers] coming back, where it’s a lot of PTSD-type films [with] either soldiers just in a hospital or at home – …but I wanted to bring the genre element with chases and thrills. Trying to a make a film that had a big feel to it with a small budget was definitely a challenge. Certainly a lot of this had to take place outdoors and we had to find locations that were big enough. [We also had to] find places that we didn’t necessarily have to build, but we could just shoot on-location and it could have a sense of a military base – almost like a prison-escape thriller. We had to have a location that would fit that genre.
So were you able to film on any military bases?
Well we did not get permission from the military. The Pentagon actually has an official process for Hollywood and independent films who want to use military resources, but they have pretty strict control over the subject matter. I spoke at length actually with the Pentagon, with their people there. They tried at first to tell me it was not realistic – but then when I told them about my experiences and how everything was based on either something that I experienced or had [spoken to people about], then they sort of backtracked and said that the big criteria that they use to [determine if they’ll] support a movie is that it can be helpful for recruiting.
So, they tend to support movies that are more fantastical or support one specific point of view. Since [Allegiance wouldn’t help with recruiting], they actually would not let us use any active military installations. So, we found two bases outside of New York City – Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and Fort Totten in Queens. They were basically deactivated older bases that were now under the control of the New York City Parks Department, which is very friendly towards filming in NYC. It ended up being a great resource. They were far enough away from the city that they almost functioned as mini-studios for us – and were relatively cheap to rent – and still had a lot of military structures. We did build some things to make it more updated, and we brought in our own military vehicles – but, for the most part, we turned these old, deactivated bases into the bases you see in the movie.
Something I thought was interesting was that, unlike most stories and films, there really wasn’t a “bad guy” – so to speak. You could genuinely see and understand both sides to the story. How did you achieve that balance?
Certainly, I was going to be representing a U.S. Army unit – and having served in a number of different units – I didn’t feel that, if this was going to be a real story, there were going to be these over-the-top, evil people. Everybody’s struggling with the same predicament, they’re all going off to war. I didn’t necessarily want to jump right into the politics of that specific war, but if there’s really any antagonist, obviously it’s the war and the deployment – it has all these negative consequences. Regardless whether you support the war or are against the war, it’s still a pretty strong, disrupting force in those soldiers’ lives.
So, I thought it was interesting, if you have all these people with different opinions about [the war and their impending deployment], there’s where the interesting conflict comes into play. I think the most interesting military movies deal with a conflict within the unit. Even in [movies like] Saving Private Ryan, you have this little band of guys who are constantly fighting amongst each other – saying “What are we doing?” or “Is it right, is it wrong?”. I wanted to go back to that idea – as opposed to a more Hollywood military story where you see all these soldiers thinking the same, looking the same, acting the same. I think it’s much more interesting if the conflict arises out of what happens if they’re both right or both wrong.
Finally, what are you planning to work on next? Are you planning on sticking with the war film genre?
Right now, I’m actually getting ready to direct a crime thriller – with a bigger budget, which is nice – and it doesn’t deal with any military stuff. At film school, they always say to write what you know right out of the gate. That way, your first movie as you’re learning the craft, you can fall back on what you know best. I’m excited now to explore different stuff.