When it came to re-creating the first Persian Gulf War, from the base camp in Saudi Arabia to the oil fields of Kuwait, “Jarhead” production designer Dennis Gassner was prepared.
“Research is the key to all of it,” says Gassner. “It’s really about exploring it and what works and what doesn’t work, and that’s part of the job and the journey that we wanted to go on. What emotionally is right for the piece?”
Director Sam Mendes shot the film in various locations in California and the salt flats of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula over a five-month period, which mirrored the length of time Anthony Swofford and his fellow Marines spent together in the desert. Gassner designed the Saudi Arabian base camp where much of the story takes place at Holtville Air Strip near El Centro, Calif. He also built the road between Kuwait City and Basrah, ominously called “The Highway of Death,” at this location.
“For me, the hardest part was re-creating the atrocity factors,” Gassner says. “When they come to the Highway of Death, what that feels like and looks like and how do you portray that? As an artist, it’s difficult to show war, so how do you show it in a way that is artistic and creates the emotion?”
But “Jarhead” is every bit as much about the down time between conflicts, and Mendes was determined to get the details right. That’s where retired Marine Sgt. Maj. James Dever came in. As military technical adviser, Dever and his associates provided details ranging from how the soldiers dug manholes to the way a real jarhead might spend his day.
Mendes’ desire to re-create the flat emptiness of the Middle Eastern desert posed a unique challenge to director of photography Roger Deakins, who also shot the Desert Storm drama “Courage Under Fire.” They could not avoid the mountains in the scenes filmed near El Centro, so they later had to be removed digitally. Things opened up for them when they moved to the salt flats and had a 270-degree endless horizon.
“The hardest thing technically and emotionally was creating the oil fires and the sense of being in this kind of hellish world,” says Deakins. “We watched a lot of footage, (including) some of Werner Herzog’s footage of the Kuwait oil fires (in the director’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Fires of Kuwait”). Just trying to re-create that on that scale was the biggest challenge.”
The production crew had to deal with some heavy wind and rainstorms while setting up the base camp, but by the time construction started in Mexico, it was dry and the weather was perfect.
“That’s part of the experience of making films that we all enjoy,” says Gassner. “You think and you plan and you live it 24 hours a day, and basically it’s like going to war. I got to have my Gulf War through the movie.”