“‘Tropic Thunder’ opens with a major battle sequence, with soldiers running everywhere, helicopters crisscrossing, and tons of smoke; it feels as real as any Vietnam movie,” says production designer Mann.
Comedy is familiar territory for Stiller and Theroux, but the action elements were another matter, so the writing team consulted with famed military advisor Dale Dye to make sure the military action and jargon depicted in the film’s war sequences were accurate. Dye and his company, Warriors Inc., have lent their talents to dozens of films and television projects over the years, from “Band of Brothers” to “Saving Private Ryan,” and Stiller attributes their insight to making the first part of the story so strong and credible. Then to continue that authenticity throughout production, Warrior Inc.’s advisors Mark Ebenhoch and Mike Stokey were on set as technical advisors for the first few weeks of filming the Vietnam battle sequences.
“Ben had a mandate that the film’s opening scene be as real as possible, as if the actors had been through actual boot camp,” says Ebenhoch, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant. “We worked to get the actors up to speed with weapons handling, tactical moving – basically giving them the look of realistic soldiers. We then took them out for training with the weaponry – how to fire, hold their weapons, and reload.” According to Ebenhoch, his biggest surprise was how adeptly Jack Black took to working with the weapons. “Jack had to fire an M60 machine gun and took to it like a baby takes to milk. He became very proficient with the weapon, which holds several hundred rounds.” “We trained with some very powerful artillery,” Black recalls of his brief training. “And somehow I got stuck with the heaviest gun, an M60; they call it a ‘pig.’ People were saying that I was a natural, though it’s disturbing to think that I could be such an effective, steady killing machine. Apparently when the chips are down, the fellas want me in that foxhole.”
Dye also worked closely with costume designer Marlene Stewart to check all the military uniforms for authenticity, as well as with stunt coordinator Brad Martin and his team of stuntmen who portrayed the U.S. Army infantrymen, Viet Cong soldiers, and Tran’s guerilla army. “Mike and Mark made everything look better,” says Cornfeld. “So when the movie opens, you’re really into it like you’re watching a regular big-budget action film.” To capture the feeling of being in a grand war movie, aerial coordinator Alan Purwin was brought in. Purwin’s credits include some of the best-known war films of the last two decades, as well as “Die Hard,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” and “TRANSFORMERS,” among numerous others. He was responsible for bringing in and flying the Vietnam-era Huey military helicopters used during filming, as well as manning the aerial choppers used for air-to-air and air-to-ground filming.
Special effects coordinator Michael Meinardus and his team were responsible for all the practical effects such as bullet hits, fire and smoke, rocket explosions, squibs and the aforementioned napalm explosion in Vietnam’s Hot LZ. This explosion was created with a 450 foot-long row of explosive pots filled with 1100 gallons of a 90/10 gasoline/diesel mix that were arranged across a field lined with coconut palm trees. In one take and at the flick of a switch, 11 cameras captured the controlled explosion that created a mushroom cloud fireball reaching 350 feet in the air. The entire staggered explosion consisted of 12 separate explosions, the full run of which was completed in 1.25 seconds.
Summing it all up, producer Eric McLeod notes that “Ben wanted to make everything the best it could be, and he was one of the hardest working guys on set. He wanted everyone to understand that this was not only a comedy, but an action film as well. He didn’t want to compromise. Ben made everything important, and when you watch the film you’ll see how the littlest details ended up being important for the film.”