By TAD VEZNER, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Mankato, Minn. (AP) -- Brig. Gen. David Elicerio made the trip to Mankato to count a few helicopters and Humvees. But he wasn't going to mention whether he liked a new movie being filmed there, called "Souvenirs."
"I've been told I have no opinion of this movie," said Elicerio, who commanded 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard's Red Bull Infantry through their now-renowned 22-month deployment in Iraq, which lasted from September 2005 to July 2007. It was the longest stretch in Iraq for any U.S. unit since the war there began.
In fact, with regard to war movies in general: "I try not to watch 'em," Elicerio said. "I saw the real thing for 30 months. I don't need to see a movie."
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But somebody at the Pentagon got excited when they saw the script for "Souvenirs," the first movie to specifically highlight the actions of the Red Bulls in Iraq.
"When this script came through, people loved it. This is one of the best scripts we've seen in a long time," said Lt. Col. John Clearwater, an Army Airborne Ranger who works in the Department of the Army's Los Angeles liaison office, which consults with the movie industry on when Army equipment can be leased out.
The movie - directed by St. Paul resident Sam Fischer and starring Jonathan Bennett, James Cromwell and Cromwell's son John - is also the first, as far as local military officials can remember, to use Minnesota National Guard equipment.
The higher-ups in Washington are always grateful to get a script showing the reality and consequence of war, Clearwater said. "Everybody said that this script is the most accurate they've seen in a long time. The production team had an understanding of the challenge, the sacrifice people went through," he said.
The story centers around a boy from Minnesota who finds a footlocker filled with war souvenirs belonging to his grandfather, a World War II veteran succumbing to memory loss.
He picks three and gets his grandfather to explain them. Later, the boy grows up and serves as a Red Bulls squad leader in Iraq, and the lessons from his grandfather take on new meaning.
During Elicerio's recent visit to the film site, part of what the Guard said was an official trip to familiarize the media with the military, Minneapolis producer Craig Christiansen announced: "We will have a rather large explosion for you. It should be fun."
Rather than hobnob with actors or the director during shooting, Elicerio enjoyed chatting with the operator of the Mankato quarry where the scene was being filmed.
The two talked explosives.
"That the bore hole?" he asked, looking at a slab of stone.
"What do you use?"
"Nitroglycerine," the operator answered.
When the explosive charge went off minutes later in a scene where a Red Bulls patrol encounters a roadside bomb, Elicerio joked, "That was teeny tiny."
The roughly $1 million movie budget came out of Mankato.
That's where Jeff Traxler, who spent two years in the Army and 12 years in the Army Reserve, came up with the idea for the film. He convinced 18 friends and fellow hunters - all from Mankato, where the Red Bulls are based - to fund it.
About 14 months ago, Traxler, who runs a hunting preserve, put on his second annual Military Living History Day.
He wanted to document the event, which is a live re-enactment of military action stretching from the Civil War to modern-day conflicts, and he got Fischer, the St. Paul director, to come up and film it.
The two saw how many resources and connections they had at their disposal, and Fischer asked Traxler to come up with an idea and outline for a script, which he did.
Screenwriter Marc Conklin's script struck a nerve with some of the Mankato investors.
"Not all bang and boom, it had a good story with it," said Melissa Schaefer, who invested along with her husband, Joel, whose brother served in Vietnam.
"It got to me. I got teary-eyed when I read it," Joel Schaefer said.
Conklin, of St. Paul, said though he has little military background in his family, it helped that he sat in on interviews with about a dozen veterans.
The crew plans to shoot for 20 days this summer and several more in the fall and winter. Producer Christiansen noted he doesn't have a distributor yet, but with the production value and military support he's seen, "there's no reason we can't have this be a powerful selling film, here in Minnesota."
So far, there have been about a dozen technical changes to the script, but nothing affected the story.
One on-the-spot technical change Saturday involved the improvised explosive device sequence, in which soldiers were first supposed to shoot a projectile explosive at the roadside bomb to detonate it.
"You never want to blow up an IED like that," Elicerio said. The range and accuracy of the projectile were implausible. Plus, you wouldn't want to blow up an IED anyway. It's best to save them for evidence and study. "What we don't wanna do is teach someone a bad lesson."
The scene was changed (though the bomb was detonated) - all in all, typical tweaking for a movie.
"Definitely got the right color though," Elicerio said, glancing around the Mankato quarry. "As green as Minnesota is, I wasn't sure where they were gonna get the right thing."
Fischer, sporting a Minnesota National Guard recruitment T-shirt, ran up to Elicerio as he was leaving to get him to sign a few movie posters - and thank him.
And as Elicerio stepped on his Chinook helicopter, there was one last discrepancy: The two actors playing Iraqi insurgents posed by the helicopter for a few photographs, smiling alongside a crew member.
"That would definitely raise a few alarms over there," Olson said.
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)