A Q&A with ”Band of Brothers” writer Bruce McKenna

This interview originally posted on September 20, 2001 at The-Trades.com

To all burgeoning writers reading this: Begging and pleading may in fact get you a gig with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Do not give up hope.

As one of seven writers on the Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg-produced “Band of Brothers,” Bruce C. McKenna has taken time out of his busy schedule to share with us his excitement for the upcoming 10-part miniseries on HBO, which debuts on September 9th. This miniseries almost marks his first produced script.

Originally from New Jersey, McKenna graduated from Wesleyan University and went after a graduate degree in Russian Intellectual History at Stanford University. He quickly dropped out to write on a freelance basis.

Since then, he has written articles on Russian anti-Semitism and European politics for many publications, including The New York Times, as well as has interviewed Benazir Bhutto for the National Review. In addition, he co-wrote “The Pena Files,” a true story on the world’s highest-paid investigator.

McKenna has written scripts for Universal, Paramount, Disney, and other film studios.

Chris Faile: How did you come to write on the “Band of Brother” miniseries?
Bruce McKenna: I came to write on the series by begging! I bullied my way into HBO’s offices, then Tom Hanks’ offices and saturated his people with passion for the project.

Chris Faile: How many writers worked on the series and how did you divvy up the writing chores?
Bruce McKenna: There were seven of us: Tom Hanks, Erik Bork (supervising producer), Graham Yost, myself, John Orloff, Max Frye, and Erik Jendresen (supervising producer). The heaviest lifting was done by the last five above: We called ourselves “The Band of Writers.” We all shared our scripts and research, so that as much as possible, the miniseries would have a seamless quality. We divvied up the writing according to the whims of Tony To (co-executive producer) and Tom Hanks.

Chris Faile: What kind of research did you do?
Bruce McKenna: We started with Ambrose’s book, naturally. In addition, Erik Jendresen wrote a huge series “Bible” which distilled Easy Company’s experiences down to a manageable level, and painted portraits of the main characters in the Company. Then all of us sought out the men themselves and interviewed them. I spent four days with the Company at a reunion in Denver, then hundreds of hours on the phone with them over the course of writing my scripts (I was hired to rewrite episodes four and eight). For episode six I interviewed Army medics and doctors about their experiences in general, and at Bastogne in particular.

Chris Faile: What makes you qualified to write a World War II story? 
Bruce McKenna: I’ve been a WW II buff since grammar school, then a history PHD candidate. Most of my scripts have been historical dramas, distilling the past into entertainment, basically.

Chris Faile: Any interviews that were especially intriguing?
Bruce McKenna: I think my most intriguing interview was with Private Earl McClung, who most of the Company considered their finest combat soldier (he was Easy’s scout and point man most of the time— so good he could literally smell the Germans). Earl told me, in the frankest terms, what it meant to an eighteen year old to have the constrictions of civilized behavior lifted…to be sanctioned to kill. He said it was thrilling, at first— a game at D-Day— a game in which he was convinced he could not be killed. And then, as his buddies began dying around him, he realized he could die.

It got deadly serious then, and he became even more efficient at killing. But even this passed as the War went on. By the time he got to Bastogne, Earl only shot when he felt he was in mortal danger. And by the end, he hardly shot at anyone. I thought that was pretty profound.

By the way, Earl had a son who was killed in Vietnam, also a paratrooper in the 101st.

Chris Faile: How different was this writing experience on this project than from others?
Bruce McKenna: This project was very different: far more intense. All of the writers poured their souls into it. Knowing that many of the men of Easy are still alive imparted a sense of responsibility to our efforts. We HAD to get it right. It raised the bar for all of us, from Tom Hanks on down.

Chris Faile: Do you feel you accurately captured the feel of that era?
Bruce McKenna: We did our best. I think we could have done a better job of exploring the men and the war when they were not in combat But then again, most of our characters are still alive, and we had to be diplomatic.

Chris Faile: What can we expect from the miniseries? Anything you want to point out to usr
Bruce McKenna: Episodes three, five, six, seven and nine are tremendous. It’s hard to bat a thousand on a series like this. The other episodes are damn good, but the ones above are the best.

Chris Faile: How much interaction did you have with Tom Hanks– any stories you can share? 
Bruce McKenna: Met with Hanks many, many times. Although we butted heads on a few creative issues, his passion and commitment were very important. He trusted us to do our best, and that is rare in Hollywood.

Chris Faile: What is your take on BBC bumping the miniseries to their second-tier channel BBC2, saying it was not “mainstream” enough?
Bruce McKenna: My take on the BBCr The English are pissed about the Yanks being over here and oversexed all over again. They’re angry we didn’t write them into the Series; they’re peeved we needed to save them in 1944 and that we sometimes have forgotten their contribution. “U-571” or whatever that movie was called was a travesty— making the English achievement an American one.

Chris Faile: What are your thoughts on the August 27th Wall Street Journal article?

Editor’s Note: Among other comments, a reviewer there wrote that “…when it comes to what these men fought and died for, there are big swaths of this extravaganza that play something like “Forrest Gump Gets His Gun” — showing up for the big moments, but not quite knowing why.”
Bruce McKenna: I thought that there were some valid points [in the article]. I think we could have done a better job of putting their epic journey in the broader context of the war, but I also think the reviewer was mean-spirited and on a “Get Hanks and Spielberg” kick. They’re easy guys to attack, and everyone scores points when they do so. But the truth is, we always envisioned the miniseries as a worm’s eye view of the war, something nobody’s done in a long time. And by the way? I think Schwimmer did a good job with a VERY difficult role.

All in all? The only reviewers I pay attention to are the men themselves. It’s what they think that matters the most to me. And all of them have been unanimous: the series reflects, with a high degree of accuracy, what it was like to be there.

Chris Faile: What are your thoughts on the forthcoming “Black Hawk Down,” helmed by Ridley Scott?
Bruce McKenna: Have only seen the trailer. I just hope they worked from a good script— It’s a very good story.

Chris Faile: What of the many books based on a real-life event are you most looking for to become a film?
Bruce McKenna: Too many to list here! (After some prodding) Ghost Soldiers would make for a great movie, definitely.

I’d actually like to see a movie about the lives of these men after they returned. I interviewed a few of the wives of Easy Company, and some of these women are as heroic as their husbands (particularly the husbands were badly wounded). The tough stoicism of these women is truly impressive.

Chris Faile: What projects are you currently working on?
Bruce McKenna: I’m presently working on “Explaining Hitler” for Universal Studios. Co-written with a fellow “Band of Brothers” writer/producer, Erik Jendresen, “Hitler” is the true story of the Munich Post’s lonely attempts to stop Hitler’s rise to power.

I’m also working on a script for Bruckheimer Films (Disney) about the early days of the Vietnam War and the young raw reporters who began to strip the lies away of our involvement in 1963.

After that, I’m writing a Russian Mafia script for Jon Voight and Paramount Pictures.

Chris Faile: Thanks so much for your time and candor, Bruce, as well as being kind enough to allow me to interview you and pepper you with several subsequent follow-up questions.
Bruce McKenna: Thank you for the opportunity! Hope you enjoy the Series!

Chris is always looking for feedback on his columns and interviews, as well as is happy to answer any questions. 

Recommended Resources on this Project

  • Yahoo! “Band of Brothers” Club: This is a quick-moving club that fosters talk of the upcoming miniseries, the book its based upon, and the people and actors who are a part of all this. A pretty enjoyable read that you can have delivered to your inbox.
  • HBO’s “Band of Brothers” Site: Although Noah Robischon of Entertainment Weekly recently likened the site to “viewing that vast war through a narrow field of a Sherman tank’s periscope,” this is an ambitious site that attempts to educate the viewer about WWII. The living memorial is also a nice touch, although it needs a great deal more content.
  • SirLinksALot “Band of Brothers” NewsTracker: One of the pre-eminent and most comprehensive entertainment news trackers on the Web, the site has just created a news tracker that links to mainstream publications’ stories on the miniseries.