Fans of classic war movies like A Bridge Too Far and the excellent series Band of Brothers will be as excited as I was to hear that a major project to create a show exploring the history of World War Two’s airborne troops has been launched. Paratrooper is writer/director Lance Nielsen’s passion project, he hopes that with the support of a crowdfunding campaign he can kick-start production of a TV show that will delve into the stories of fighting men from both sides – many of which have never been seen on screen before.
From the test footage featured in the project’s campaign trailer the project promises to be a historically accurate portrayal of stories and events from pivotal battles that anyone interested in the history of World War Two will enjoy. For those of us who love seeing the historically correct guns in war movies we can expect plenty of Brens, Stens, Lee-Enfields, K98ks, MP40s and MG42s.
Lance took some time to talk to me about Paratrooper and answer some of my questions about what is shaping up to be an exciting project.
TFB: Paratrooper is a massive project, you have some ambitious plans for a four season series exploring the role of airborne troops, what brought about the idea for a series following paratroops?
Lance Nielsen: This primarily comes from my own interest in Airborne forces, something that I have had as a child ever since I saw the epic film, The Longest Day. I started reading up on the subject at a very early age and of course after seeing A Bridge Too Far my interest in the subject just exploded. I had never heard of Operation Market Garden before I saw this film. So my interest grew from there, but beyond these two films, which of course were made a long time ago, very little has been made in the dramatic medium about British or indeed Commonwealth Airborne troops and the battles they were involved in. So this is a chance to tell many stories that have never been told before.
TFB: So with such an ambitious project what are your immediate aims for the crowdfunding campaign?
LN: Our primary goal right now is to make a first-rate pilot, to prove that I and my team are capable of making the entire series. We aim to use the pilot as a platform from which to secure either a commission from a major broadcaster for the series or to raise the finance privately to make the show. We can make it for less than most people would be able to because of all the contact and resources I have been putting in place over the last three years.
TFB: On the project’s Indiegogo page you mention the brilliant show Band of Brothers as an inspiration
LN: Yes, Band of Brothers is a benchmark in television drama, just an incredible show. An actor friend of mine who was in it actually stayed with me during filming (He didn’t like hotels) and used to tell me what he had done on set every day. BOB, of course, followed one Company through the war and the men within it. Our show is a little different.
TFB: You’re taking a different approach to the story telling
LN: Each episode tells the story through the perspective of one individual who is someone who is either serving in or connected to Airborne forces. Because most of the Commonwealth and British units only fought in certain battles, it would be too limiting to focus on one unit. This allows us to tell stories across a much wider range of key battles and those who fought or were affected by them and doesn’t limit us to just the military perspective. Although most of the episodes are told from the Allied soldiers perspective, we have one which is seen entirely through the eyes of a ten year old Dutch boy (The End of Innocence – The Arnhem episode) and another which is told from a young German fallschirmjäger perspective (The Other Side – Episode 5 which is set in Crete) However the episodes are not as disconnected from each other as they sound. Several characters appear in more than one episode providing a sense of emotional continuity.
Check out the crowdfunding campaign trailer for the project, featuring some impressive test footage:
TFB: You’ve chosen 7 different airborne operations to delve into in the hoped-for first season, how did you choose those battles?
LN: Several of them really choose themselves. The operations involving the raid on Bruneval Radar station, the battle in Sciliy to capture Primosole Bridge, the D-Day assault on the Merville gun battle are all cornerstones battles of Airborne history but aside from documentaries have never been told in the dramatic narrative before. We also cover Varsity, the Jump over the Rhine which was actually the biggest Airborne operation of the war but again another subject which has had very little ever made about it in the media. I think it will be great to bring these events to the public attention and give focus to the individual stories of heroism involved in each operation.
TFB: One thing I always love to see in good war movies is historically accurate vehicles, equipment and most importantly weapons. Little things like noticing actors are carrying the wrong sort of rifle can really spoil things. Is that something that you feel is important too?
LN: I cannot tell you how vital this is to get right. The core fans of this genre are people who know exactly what insignia people should be wearing and what camo schemes. And its important, because its shows your serious about the period and the little details are what set apart a lazy film from a well researched one. I know there will be debate over which camo pattern smock was right for the infantry of the 21st Panzer but the fact is that even made some of their own and stole whatever they could on top of the splinter pattern. People often complain that kit and equipment is too clean and there is often a fine line between getting right and not breaking things but in our pilot episode which is set in the run to and including D-Day, people have to remember everyone was issued with brand new kit only a couple of days before, so unless you landed in the swamp or a cowshed, for the first 24 hours you still looked pretty good, though of course, we have a makeup department which will dust people down.
I am sure one of the most controversial things in the; pilot will when Michael McGee charged a German tank head-on with a Bren gun which would have been suicide in anyone’s book. He shot the commander in the turret causing it to button up, killed a few more German infantry and then Tommy Kileen used a gammon bomb on it which caused the crew to flee the vehicle. First of all that sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood movie but I can promise you it actually happened and was witnessed by several veterans who survived the war. Secondly, we don’t know exactly what type of tank it was. We do know it wasn’t a Marder which had tried to attack the bridge in the early hours of the morning. We know the 21st Panzer Division on had both Stugg assault guns and Mark IV tanks but its impossible to say what McGee charged, in the pilot its going to have to be a Stugg, as getting a working Mark IV that can move is extremely hard and extremely cost prohibitive.
TFB: The initial pilot episode and much of the first season will follow British ops, will there be any American-centric episodes?
LN: Not in the first season. I wanted to really zero in on those who hadn’t even had their stories told before and the majority of films and shows on this subject have been from an American perspective. That’s not to say there aren’t more great stories out there to be told of the US involvement, far from it, the well is never-ending.
Our show is not just the British, we also get episodes about the Canadians and there’s two episodes from the civilian perspective, one set back at home and another from a family caught in the middle of battle. Again these stories are quite unique to have in a series of this type. I also want to do an episode about the Polish which will partly depend on the network in terms of episodes ordered for the season. The first season is ten episodes, although the pilot is in 2 parts.
TFB: From the list of operations, the vast majority are Allied but as you mentioned earlier you’re going to tackle the Invasion of Crete, arguably the German Fallschirmjager’s finest and bloodiest hour. What story are you hoping to tell there?
LN: How the German story comes about is we meet the young German Paratrooper/Fallschirmjager in an earlier episode where he is killed and a diary is retrieved. The diary is given to someone to translate and we come back to that in episode 5 and the diary is the soldier’s account of his mission to invade Crete. This episode is called ‘The Other Side.’ and I very deliberately wanted to show a story from the enemy who had the same role as our own Airborne forces. This also gives us a chance to introduce some Australian and New Zealand characters into the show, fighting on the island alongside the Cretans against the Germans. The Germans, of course, came close to defeat and many Cretans, even some of the women, took up arms against them, so it gives me a chance to explore that narrative and also the arrogance of the Germans who cannot understand why the civilians should fight so hard against them.
I think I need to add that although the young German character is in some ways a sympathetic portrayal, this episode pulls no punches in its showing the brutal treatment by the Germans against the civilian population of Crete. There was a famous incident where many Cretan men were executed by the Germans for fighting alongside the Allies, and it was filmed. We’re going to cover that in the story.
TFB: From the updates on your facebook page it seems you’ve already gathered a production team and started announcing casting, how soon do you think you will begin production if you reach your goals?
LN: We’ve already started pre-production. We’ve already raised enough money to film one the most complex action scenes so we know that’s going ahead straight away. As we keep going we will just keep adding more scenes. It’s easy, I know for people to look at our project and say to themselves ‘Well my five bucks / pound, isn’t going to make a difference…’ but what people forget with Crowd Funding is that actually the most important thing is the number of backers on a Project. If 500 people back your project, you’ll soon get another 500 and when you hit 1000, well then anyone whose been hesitating, puts their money in straight away.
TFB: So, how can people get involved and help with the project?
LN: The best way people can be involved right now is either by contributing directly towards the campaign or by spreading the word on Social Media. If they want to be directly involved in the actual production, in front of the camera people from the Living History Scene are providing our numbers while behind the camera on the production there are lots of ways people can help. We’re filming partly in Normandy, so any people based there who would like to assist even for a day or two should get in touch. We always welcome sponsors, be that free water, chocolate, beer anything useful for production as it’s nice to be able to give our background unit a beer or two at the end of a hard day’s work.
All my crew on this are working on it for a fraction of what they would charge, so we can bring in the pilot to a really high standard for a fraction of what it would normally cost. But they’re willing to do that because we all believe in making this show a reality and telling the stories of these incredible people who made in many cases, the ultimate sacrifice so that people like us can live the lives we enjoy today. It is a moral imperative upon those of us who have the ability to tell stories to ensure that their sacrifices are not forgotten and passed down from generation to generation. That is our motivation for making this show.