The war movie genre is a packed roster of films, full of some of the greatest movies ever made. 1917, Come and See, and Saving Private Ryan are not only golden standard’s of the genre, but also cinema as a whole. Now, director and writer Michael Akkerman enters this expansive genre guns blazing, with his award-winning, immersive, character-driven war drama, Reveille.
Reveille follows a group of wounded German soldiers who, after a skirmish with some Americans, are dragged into a cave to survive an extensive bombing raid from above. Here they learn the harsh realities of war as unimaginable questions arise and their moral beliefs are tested.
MovieWeb recently sat down with filmmaker Michael Akkerman to discuss his award-winning feature film debut, and his love for the war genre.
Michael Akkerman’s Feature Film Debut
“It was insane, it was awesome, it was nerve-wracking, and extremely rewarding,” Akkerman expressed of his experience directing his first feature film. “I felt very privileged while I was doing it. It was a dream. It was one of those dream-come-true kind of moments that people talk about.” He continued:
“You have all these people who are making the thing that you thought of one night. So it was insanely rewarding. I loved every minute of it, even the hardships which I knew were gonna be there. It’s not great if it’s not hard, so it needs to be hard. And the fact that it was difficult when we went through it was great. So just, right off the bat, it was an amazing experience. And I feel very privileged to have gotten it.”
Obviously, being a first time director, there are numerous aspects of making a movie that you wouldn’t have known, at least not until you get hands-on with your first feature film. “What I learned is that preparation is key for every little thing involved. We thought we had prepared for everything when it came down to scheduling,” said Akkerman, “and how everything was gonna go. Every scene was planned and all this stuff, what we’re gonna shoot on these days, and everything with the costumes, all the props, and all that stuff was super planned out. We had these big itineraries of everything. However, any seasoned director knows that things never go according to plan. So you have to just be able to make decisions on the fly.”
Although Reveille is Akkerman’s first feature film, the director has been on productions before and worked on numerous short films during his time in film school. If “something goes wrong. It’s like, okay, yeah, but you just have to be prepared to make last second decisions about something. It’s like, this thing happened. We can’t shoot the scene today. Okay, we’ll figure that out later,” said Akkerman on adjusting his well-thought-out plans and schedules when something goes awry. “So the one thing I learned is that you just have to be prepared for the worst things to come at you, because it’s going to happen.”
Akkerman has worked on numerous sets as a crew member, but never as a director. He believes that as a director overseeing the whole operation, like a mentor, one has to have a positive mindset, or else you start to lose yourself and your crew in the process. “I’ve been crew before, but as someone who was the director, you have to project an image of positivity, if that makes sense,” explained Akkerman, who elaborated:
Even if things are going to hell, you’re the director, you’re the one that everyone is looking towards, you have to project this image that everything’s okay. You know, stay calm, be positive, otherwise the morale is gonna deteriorate, and it’s all gonna go down.
“I’ve seen that happen before with directors, and then they just freak out,” continued Akkerman. “And stuff like that, you can’t do. Even if it’s the craziest stuff, you have to be completely level-headed. Listen to everybody, treat everyone with respect, be kind, and good things will happen.”
Reveille’s Sensational Festival Run
44 awards is such a fantastic way to kick off a directing debut, and Reveille took home major ones from all over the world. “I knew it was a good project going into it,” said Akkerman on how it felt to take home all these awards on his first film. “I knew that this had roots, and that it could grow into something bigger.”
However, Akkerman never let his ego get the better of him, and continued to praise the work of others, who helped his dream come true. “I was just glad that everyone who worked on it was also getting recognized for their work,” stated Akkerman.
“Obviously you’re not going to win every award. And not everyone can get an award. But I was just hoping that everyone involved was satisfied with it, and that it meant something to them, that it was something they could put on their resume and all that. Obviously, I knew that this is something great, and we made something amazing, but I wanted them to take ownership of it as well. So, as cool as it is to have all these awards on your film, I think it’s even cooler for those people who are involved to have that on their resumes and such, if that makes sense.”
Akkerman’s Love for the War Genre
War history “has always been something that I have had a deep interest in,” Akkerman exclaimed on his love for war movies. “That also, just like filmmaking, started when I was a little kid. I think it’s probably from a lot of war movies I watched growing up […] I grew up in the time period of Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. All that stuff is around teenagers like me growing up. And it was just something that I always really was interested in. I always wanted to learn more, and I still want to learn more. So I’m always researching things like that.”
Getting paid for doing something surrounding our interests and hobbies is most people’s dream, right? Well, Akkerman is one of the few who made this dream a reality with his feature film debut. “When it comes to my interests, it’s filmmaking, art, and then history. So, it’s like all of these things, I combined,” stated Michael, who elaborated:
As someone who was really into film and war history, I’m a really hard critic when it comes to war films. Growing up, I’m like, “Yes, I want to make war films,” I have my own ideas and visions of what I want to do when it comes to war history and how I want to depict war, how I think war should be depicted in film.
Akkerman went on to talk about some of the issues in the war genre that force him to criticize other war movies. “War films are kind of cookie cutter, they’re kind of like sports films where there’s not a lot of development, not a lot of super-hard-to-ask questions in there. And I think that needs to be in there […] I have always wanted to go into war films. I still want to, I still have other ideas for future war film projects,” Akkerman happily exclaimed.
The Best War Movies
When asked about his favorite movies in the genre, the filmmaker stated that among his favorites was the 2005 German war movie, Downfall, which follows Adolf Hitler in his final days while hiding in a bunker in Berlin. After going on to mention the endless parodies of the movie where “they change the subtitles of what [Hitler’s] saying,” Akkerman praises the movie, not only for its amazing script and performances, but also for demonstrating some true historical accuracy:
“Not only is it historically accurate, but it has a unique approach when it comes to the subject, because it’s not just depicting this thing as one-sided. It’s very complex […] How these people think and the thought process of these people [is] what I think is the most important thing, when it comes to understanding events of the past […] You really need to understand what was going on at the time and how these people thought, which led to all this stuff.”
Akkerman then went on to list some of his other favorites, including Flags of our Fathers, The Pacific and Band of Brothers, before explaining how these movies inspired Reveille. “They absolutely have influenced me. And when it comes to my vision for war films and what I want to do, I grew up watching these things that definitely have the ambiguity within the storytelling and stuff like that which is in my film Reveille,” explained Akkerman. He continued:
“Not choosing a side, the moral dilemmas, and all that stuff comes from movies like Downfall, that comes from stuff like Band of Brothers and The Pacific [,,,] and the complete rawness and the lack of musical score, and the just complete bleakness of it all is very inspired by things like Generation Kill. So absolutely, I’ve had some heavy, heavy influences, growing up on what I feel my directing style should be for war films and all that. And I’m still inspired to this day.”
Reveille’s Historical Accuracy
As Akkerman mentioned before, he is a very harsh critic when it comes to war films and their historical accuracy. So when asked what measures he took to make Reveille as historically accurate as possible, Akkerman responded by saying,”Well I surrounded myself with very talented, knowledgeable people.” He went on to discuss his choice to incorporate the correct languages for the different sides of the war:
The German is all in German. There are a lot of things in it that have never been done correctly in war films. Some of the gear has never properly been done accurately in war films. And it was really hard to get that, it was like almost a year or so of work for all of us.
Akkerman then goes on to list a few more examples of the little details that the director paid attention to, to enhance the historical accuracy and immerse audiences deeper into the bleak World War II era. “One of the main German characters in the film, the German squad leader, the old man, has this tunic. It’s like a mustard color, and his helmet is a tan color,” said Akkerman.
“And that’s because he’s a veteran of the North African campaign, which was right before the Italian campaign, which is where the movie takes place. And so he had come from that campaign, and now he’s in Italy, which is a very accurate thing when you go to the Italian campaign, you see a lot of older guys with those tropical uniforms that they had in North Africa. And it had to be sun-diluted as well, because he was supposed to be wearing it a lot.”
“However, he’s also got pieces of his uniform and kit that are new,” continued Akkerman, “like his trousers are new, they’re wool instead of that tropical cotton material, because he would have been issued new ones, and that’s another realistic thing. You get this mishmash of different things that tell a story if you really know those details. So it was stuff like that, that on the surface to some might seem like a mistake, but it’s not a mistake. It’s purposefully done.”
Michael then continued to talk about some other tiny details that impacted the movie’s realism, like some more details regarding German uniforms. “There were the little details, like the ID booklets that each German character has, the little knick-knacks in their pockets, stuff that wasn’t even shown on camera.” Enhancing the authentic World War II experience, Michael Akkerman opted to use live rounds instead of blanks.
“The very big one was the live ammo, when we have shots of guys actually shooting guns, that is live ammo on camera. And I don’t believe that’s something that’s been done since the 1920s or so. But that was a thing, because blank ammo, when you shoot a gun, it doesn’t look like how an actual live round looks when a gun fires. So that was the main thing that we really wanted to do, to make the gunfire look real. So in order for it to look real, they had to be real. Under the safest conditions, obviously.”
What’s Next for Michael Akkerman
With Reveille being Michael’s first feature film, we concluded the interview by asking the director where his career will take him next, and what is down the pipeline. “Just around the corner, I’m going out to Ohio to film a documentary,” said Akkerman.
“It’s like a semidocumentary about combat photographers in the Pacific theater during World War Two. And that is a project from my friend Brian McCallion, who worked on Reveille. And there’s a number of other people who worked on Reveille, who are part of this as well. It’s his project, though, I am just part of it,” explained Akkerman.
“And then I’m also writing other things, mostly stuff involving Normandy, the Normandy campaign of World War Two, that is my main focus of what I want to do next in terms of a big project,” concluded Akkerman. The filmmaker is clearly focused on creating future classics in the war genre that are as historically accurate as they are emotionally and viscerally gripping. Reveille is a great start.
Buffalo 8 will be distributing Reveille on digital and on demand this Friday, August 4th.