WATM: Tell me about your family and your life growing up?
I was born in Danville, PA. in the Geisinger Hospital that my mother's father started. We lived on a farm outside Hazelton, PA. I have vivid memories from my first years there. The barn and particularly the hay loft, the fresh fruit that was picked daily in season, the creek where one of the workers killed a water moccasin one day. In first grade we moved to Minneapolis where my father got a job at a bank and I was introduced to a real winter. And the rink directly across the street in the park where I discovered ice hockey.
When I grew up there was no social media and absolutely no restrictions what you did with your free time when not in school. We had a black lab that left the house in the morning with us, went on his own way when he got bored with our activities which included exploration, sports, fishing etc. My dad hung a huge bell that could be heard
a half a mile away which was rung for lunch and dinner. The dog was always the first one back. Times have changed. We had enormous freedom and there was no temptation to bury our faces in smart phones. All activity was self-created.
I distinctly remember being fascinated the movies and got completely lost in them at the local cinema which is still there today. One of my favorites was Shane with Alan Ladd. Years later his son, Alvan Ladd, Jr. greenlit one of my films (Youngblood).
Markle with Flint Generals (IHL). Photo credit PM.
I continued hockey throughout high school and my senior year was asked to join the Olympic Hockey development program which ran through the summer. I played at Yale, had a tryout after my senior year with Boston, played minor league hockey and then three years with the US National team participating in two World tournaments.
Markle with the USA team. First row second from the right. Photo credit PM.
WATM: What is the most distinct memory of your mother and your father?
My parents were very social and community involved. My dad was one of the founders the youth hockey program in our area which started with one team and expanded in a few years into 500 participants. My mother worked throughout her life for hospitals concentrating on rehabilitation. Her interest in health care no doubt emanated from her father who was first assistant surgeon to Will and Charlie Mayo and at one point in his career became President of the American College of Surgeons. They were both extremely social and the vast majority of their best friends served in some way during WW2, many as Naval pilots. My dad was interested in everyone he met. He was the best listener I've known. That did not imply he didn't have a point of view. His advice was judicious and more than often accepted. My mother was a community organizer. That would include in her community as well as her hospital work. Her friends would call her in the morning for their marching orders for the day.
WATM: What values were stressed at home?
It was the traditional 'Golden Rule'. It's a timeless aphorism and sometimes hard to follow in a competitive world like film but being honest and empathetic wins out in the short and long run. My mother also told me that lying not only was reprehensible but far more difficult to keep track of than the truth. Both underscored that failure was the inevitable pathway to success. It all depends on how you react to it.
WATM: What influenced you to join the US Army, what was your experience and what lessons did you take away from your service?
I graduated from college at the height of the Vietnam conflict and joined the rest of my class in deciding what was the next move. A significant number of the class including myself applied for the Naval OCS (officer candidate school) in the language division which was in Monterey, Ca. The sample copy of the test which was based on a made-up language was circulated around the campus. I remember looking at it and getting the gist of the concept. Apparently, the other students there got the gist as not one of several hundred who took it missed a question. There was some sort of investigation by the Navy, but it was dropped. I did not attend OCS and assumed upon graduating I would be drafted. I was playing professional hockey when I was told to report to Fort Snelling where the Minnesota Army Reserve was located. I was with four other players at the end of a 200-person line when our names were called, and we were told to report to the front. We were all inducted into the Reserves and told that we would all get time off when playing for the US National hockey team including world tournaments. A month later I was in Stockholm.
Peter lining up for the action shot even before becoming a director. Photo credit PM.
I did basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in the middle of the summer. It was incredibly hot and humid. I made fast friends in my platoon and had a great drill sergeant. It was a lot like summer football camp but with longer hours. Up at 4am for a 5-mile run in army boots to lights out at 10pm. I was told that you had to learn how to stand in formation while asleep. Done. We had soldiers who gained 80 pounds (never had more than one meal a day) and others who lost 80 (never ran over 10 yards in their lives before). It was a very different mix from my fraternity in college where we had 4 Olympic Swimmers (including Don Schollander who won 5 gold medals and Calvin Hill who was All Pro in the NFL. As a footnote The President of the frat my sophomore year was Fred W. Smith, founder/CEO of FedEx and decorated US Marine in Vietnam, and for my senior year it was George W. Bush who also ended up in the Air Force Reserves.
The harassment was handed out pretty democratically until the PT contest. Parallel bars, low crawl, 100-yard man carry, the 6-minute mile in army boots, push ups etc. I scored the only perfect score in my company (200 men) and was given the weekend off. That would not have happened if my 98-pound roommate, Eddie Pragg, didn't let me use him for the man carry.
I have to underscore that my boot camp experience on every level was positive. It was tough but extremely well organized. The officers were exacting but fair. The staff was totally professional. It ran like clockwork at a time when so many were going through the turnstile each day. There are some correlations to making a film where it demands a unified front and an ability to make quick adjustments according to the situation at hand. I was just a grunt in the machine but there were numerous examples among the staff on every level as well as my fellow platoon mates that have stayed with me my entire life.
No one knew other than a small handful of reservists as to whether they would end up in Vietnam. I did not have to confront the prospect of being shipped out. I realized that I was uniquely privileged. I did OJT (on the job training) at Fort Ord in Chicago before ending back in Minneapolis for weekend duty once a month at Fort Snelling. Motor pool, clerical work, city public projects. No riots or disasters to contend with. We did summer camp at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and in addition to my normal duties and drills I was an editor of the camp newspaper distributed the last day. I decided to take a somewhat satirical angle on the experience and was surprised at the reception. There was laughter, soldiers reading bits out loud and fortunately no reprisals from the brass. I was encouraged to write by my freshman English professor in college and never took it seriously until listening to the reception of my version of 'The Onion' distributed around camp.
I would be remiss not to mention that it was my father who was the real soldier. He dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania to join the Navy. He got his pilot license at 17 and became one the youngest flight instructors in the armed forces during WW2. He was assigned to the USS Bataan, a light aircraft carrier, and fought in the last years in the Pacific through the surrender which he witnessed being docked next to the Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Because of his flight experience he was put in charge of the CIC (combat information center) directing planes when airborne, spotted bogies (enemy planes) and skunks (unidentified surface ships) basically directing aerial combat operations along with the brass. They were in the middle of the kamikaze blitz and had numerous close calls. He witnessed both the Bunker Hill and the Franklin take direct hits some less than 200 meters away with the loss of over 1000 sailors. During one Kamikaze attack a sister ship got hit and 19 soldiers were thrown overboard. Dad marked his ship's position using the DTR (dead reckoning system) and he convinced the brass to take 8 ships after dark for a search. They implemented a staggered zig zag course for six hours and miraculously found the sailors within 10 minutes of the search stop order. To be noted as well, his brother, Alvan, landed on Omaha Beach, fought 5 major battles in the Bulge as an artillery captain and was honored the Chevalier of the Legion of Honneur by the French. He attended the 70th Anniversary of Normandy.
WATM: What values have you carried over from the Army into directing and writing?
It's a tiresome analogy but it would be teamwork. I've been on series where one show had 4 stages in use at the same time. One devoted primarily to build sets designed for a particular episode, another three with sets for shooting a current episode, pickups from previous episodes and for the next one. Well over 100 people will be working to accomplish the same goal. Each department head is crucial to the mission (production; accounting; director and assistant directors; art; camera; casting; catering; construction; costume; lighting; grip; locations; makeup/hair; medic; post-production; property; publicity; research; script supervision; set dressing; sound; special effects; stand-ins; stunts; transportation; video playback; visual effects. The similarity to the chain of command in the military is obvious. Lots of departments. Lots of personnel. And all interdependent with one another. I guess the 'weakest link in the chain' is a prevalent dynamic in both film and the armed forces. I was shooting a film in Borneo (Bat 21) and the special effects department head had set a series of explosions along a path through the jungle Gene Hackman and Danny Glover would run by. This was primarily done using a nail-board which each nail represented an explosion. After going hot contacting the individual nails with metal (could be a screwdriver) set off the blast. The department head said that he was going to use a computer program instead of the old system, the 'eyeball approach'. I questioned whether it made sense to switch now but he said it was safer. I called action and Danny and Gene started running along a riverbank. An explosion (representing a bomb) goes off so close to them that they both instinctively duck and cover their faces but continue running. The second explosion is closer, and we get the same reaction for the talent. I look over at effects and he is white as a ghost. The shot was incredible, but we almost lost two actors. Back to the nail board. We never told Gene or Danny.
WATM: What is the most fulfilling project you have done and why?
I guess it's always the first one because you actually pulled off the impossible. It was a low budget comedy called The Personals where no one was paid. It got great reviews and a crazy learning experience. Bat 21 was up there for the subject matter, the location and working with Gene and Danny. Flight 93 was the first 9/11 film and it was done for A&E TV. It was nominated for and won a bunch of Emmys. It was also a challenge to write because the majority of the account took place on the plane. The 9/11 Commission report had just come out and had a great deal of information that I was able to incorporate into the film. We covered not only the drama on the plane but also the families as well as the air traffic controllers and military involvement on the ground.
WATM: What was your experience like in working with such talents as Gene Hackman, Danny Glover, Senator John McCain, Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Hopper, Daryl Hannah, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Cynthia Gibb, John Candy, Jerry Reed, Joe Pantoliano, Ed Lauter and the like?
After a tryout with the New York Islanders and being assigned to a farm team I made the abrupt decision to become a filmmaker. A good friend of my parents told me something that I never forgot - 'If you do something you love you increase the odds a hundred-fold that you will be happy and successful.' I gave it a shot. I ended up doing several military related projects including Bat 21 with Gene Hackman, Faith of my Fathers with Scott Glenn and Shawn Hatosy, Saving Jessica Lynch, Flight 93 and Nightbreaker with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
All were based on true stories. Bat 21 chronicled the rescue of a 52-year-old Air Force Colonel who was flying a mission to identify through electronic surveillance SAM missile sites that would be knocked out by fighter jets prior to a B52 carpet bombing. His plane was hit by a SAM and he ended up in enemy territory with no ground combat experience. He was guided to his rescue by a spotter plane that flew daily missions tracking him. Gene Hackman played the Colonel and Danny Glover the pilot. Both actors were terrific to work with. Gene prepped at night and arrived early in the day to walk the 'set' (only locations in our case). I don't think I ever did more than 3 takes with him in a scene. Danny is a natural and had great insights into his character. All day aerial shooting was done with him in the plane. It was 95 degrees, humid and our takes had to be limited to seconds in some cases. It was major hazard duty, but Danny embraced it. At times he had control of the stick and relied on our stunt pilot in the other seat to let him know when to bank away.
Faith of my Fathers was based on John's McCain's early days at Annapolis through his release from the Hanoi Hilton where he was imprisoned for 5 years. Shawn Hatosy was remarkable as he had to age 20 years over the course of the film in portraying John. Scott Glenn was perfect, giving an understated yet powerful performance as his father who was commander of all U.S forces in the Vietnam theater. McCain himself visited the set in New Orleans where we reconstructed an abandoned brewery into the prison. One day I watched him walk over to a cell by himself and enter. I joined him and asked him what he thought. His reply, 'it's identical. But you know at times I actually miss it.' Perplexed, I asked, 'miss what?' John replied, 'being there. I made some great friends. It was one of those shared experiences that forms you for the rest of your life.' That summed up John McCain for me.
Peter, Shawn Hatosy and Senator John McCain on the set of Faith of my Fathers. Photo credit Peter.
Saving Jessica Lynch was a jingoistic, short of the facts script when I received it. I did extensive research which included interviewing soldiers who were in Iraq and one we hired as an extra who was part of the actual rescue effort. The final product told the real story: A convoy consisting of essentially non-combat personnel (cooks and clerks) made a couple of bad decisions and ended up driving through a town inhabited by Fedayeen. The New York Times and other reputable news outlets broke stories that our film debunked. Lynch did not shoot back during the attack. Eleven American soldiers died. She was taken to a hospital and was on her back through her rescue. The Times wrote a retraction after the film aired praising the film for its authenticity.
Nightbreaker was a pet project of Martin Sheen. It chronicled the use of army soldiers as guinea pigs to determine the short- and long-term effects of being exposed to a nuclear blast. This was a story from the 50s when nuclear proliferation was at its apex. Emilio plays Martin role as a young man during the actual tests. It tracks the character in middle age trying to come to terms with his involvement. Both actors were terrific to work with and inhabited the pervasive guilt from being involved in the malignant endeavor. Joey Pantoliano played a Sergeant who was in charge of a platoon of guinea pig soldiers and brought the entire range of conflicted emotions to his part.
Flight 93 was the first film about 9/11. Obviously, there was a military component as soon as it was discovered that it was a coordinated terrorist attack. I remember someone seeing the film and mentioning that it must have been harrowing to make. I noted that our fuselage (the real interior of a 757) was flying at an altitude of one meter, zero knots and within a 15 second walk to craft services (snacks). The best we could do would imagine how we would have reacted in the situation. Would we have been that heroic? Would we be at the head of the conga line attacking the cockpit or hiding in the bathroom in the back? Maybe somewhere in the middle? The coordination between the military and the civilian air services was impressive even though three of the four targets were hit. The passengers on 93 had more time to gather information and communicate with ground control so enable them to coordinate an attack.
93 was an intense journey as are all films. Lots of moving parts, decisions, conflicts and compromises. But ultimately it is teamwork that wins out.
Youngblood was a passion project and a blast to make. It was about a young hockey player from the US trying out for an elite Canadian junior team. Rob Lowe, Pat Swayze and Cindy Gibb were the leads. Keanu Reeves played a goalie and it was his first job in a film. Goalies are characters because it's such an insane position and he was totally quirky in the audition. Rob was great to work with. He had no previous experience skating but progressed quickly enough for us to make it work. He had two doubles who filled in the action scenes who were both elite players.
Pat was a figure skater and quickly adjusted to hockey skates. Rob would agree with me that Pat was a force of nature. He'd be working on 10 other personal projects when not on the set. He composed the song 'She's like the Wind' in his hotel room using a portable mixing setup. We had two scrimmages a week during prep with crew and our hockey extras. Our extras were elite players (two went into the NHL a month after wrap and had huge careers). An executive from MGM came up to make sure I wasn't participating in the games for obvious reasons and was taken to the rink and just as he sat down, he saw me collide with another player. Pat who knew the exec was there skated over to me and said 'stay down. He'll have a heart attack.'
WATM: As a veteran, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood arena?
There are so many diverse stories that can be told. The multiple perspectives include what branch of service, when, the mission, the soldiers involved, fact or fiction etc. Like any project it depends on the strength of the narrative and its ability to attract the actors that help finance the project and the studio/production company to green light it. Personally, I think the number is infinite. All conflicts are different just like every individual is different.
WATM: What are you most proud of in life and your career?
First would be having a family which I did at an advanced age. I met my wife, Melinda, while casting a television film. I guess you could call it an acceptable version of the casting couch. That is to say I wasn't the only one in the room and it wasn't at the Peninsula Hotel. She was the best actress for the part, and I was immediately attracted to her by her performance and presence. We laughed and argued (about the role) in the room. I knew she was going to be a challenge, but it has made our lives infinitely interesting. And, of course, I'm a guy and like most of our species have not progressed that much from the stone age. We have two kids, Lily and Lucas. As moms and dads know, when children make an appearance, life as you knew it evaporates. But in a good and challenging way. When they got into their teens, I learned so much. Such as I was a horrible dresser and not to yell at basketball or soccer officials. We taught them both to ski and the progression of literally carrying them down the hill to not being able to ski any of their favorite double black runs with them is humbling. You realize that you can give them some direction but that they are on their own paths and need to fumble and fall and learn to pick themselves up again.
Per career I think it would be not willing to quit. To keep trying. I never had a film gross 100 million and did not play one game in the NHL, but I was rewarded in countless ways for my efforts. I have met so many wonderful, dedicated, talented people along the way which is one of the most valid ways to judge one's life. And I can say that my time spent in the Army was an integral part of the on-going journey.