You’re Ricky Schroder, and you’re taking a risk like never before.
You’re a Hollywood veteran, but you’ve undertaken a project with no distributor and the most uncertain of futures. You’re basically guaranteed to go over budget — with no revenue in place, what is your budget, anyway? — and even your family is deeply second-guessing your choices.
And then, the bullets start flying.
Making complete irony of his “Silver Spoons” childhood and tackling a reality far beyond the grit of “NYPD Blue,” Schroder took it purely upon himself to lead a nimble crew into the thick of war in Afghanistan — producing what would become “The Fighting Season,” a six-part docuseries that DirecTV’s Audience Network will premiere May 19 after acquiring the rights only three months ago.
“As far as the bullets,” Schroder says, with a remarkable level of perspective, “the thing is, you have to remember it’s not personal.”
Everything else about “The Fighting Season” very much is, addressing a preoccupation with the fight against terrorists that Schroder has had since 9/11.
“I wanted to experience what going to war was like,” he says. “I wanted to understand it in a way that I think you can only understand if you go there. And as an actor, you deal with the pretend a lot, and make-believe, and I had been an actor a very long time. … It got old, and I’m not saying I won’t do it again, but there was just something very different and exciting about the documentary, because it’s real.
“I also wanted to pay tribute to the people that have served in the War on Terror. I wanted to document what Afghanistan would look like after we’ve spent 13 years there and hundreds of billions of dollars. I wanted to have a record of what it was like when we left it, so whatever happens in the future … we know what we accomplished or what we failed at. So there were lots of reasons to go.”
An opening materialized in early 2014 through Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, a friend of Schroder’s who was returning to Afghanistan – somewhat dispiritedly, believing that Americans had lost interest in what was happening there. The initial plan was for a cameraman to accompany Schroder on a mission to scout characters and stories in order to document Afghanistan in a way that would make people pay attention.
“I basically did a rough, rough, rough budget,” Schroder says, “but there’s just certain variables you don’t know until you get into it, like buying life insurance and medical disability insurance for every cameraman. … So of course we went over budget, but what can you say?”
In March 2014, on the day of departure, Schroder’s original cameraman backed out, and Schroder continued alone — over the objections of his children and particularly his wife.
“I was not happy about it,” Andrea Schroder says. “I’m still not happy about it. Who wants their husband of 25 years running after bullets?”
Eventually, Ricky Schroder put together a team of five cameramen, with whom he shot footage totaling more than 650 hours, capturing moments from day-to-day life to ferocious firefights.
River Rainbow O’Mahoney Hagg, a Navy veteran who became a cinematographer and served as one of the cameramen, says Schroder would not shy away from peril.
“I had concerns, wondering what Ricky was gonna do when we got in a firefight,” Hagg says. “And he was a baller. He was a stud, he was holding shots, he was focusing.”
At one critical juncture, Hagg advised Schroder to hang back.
“I told him, ‘You don’t have to walk up here to do this. We need you alive to get this show sold, bud.’
“He said, ‘If they’re going, I’m going.’ ”
In July, Schroder returned safely home, and spent the rest of the year cataloging and organizing his material, while fruitlessly seeking distribution. Not until 2014 became 2015 did anyone take interest, when Schroder sent DirecTV chairman, president and CEO Michael White a trailer, unsolicited.
White watched, and that same day, he passed it to DirecTV development and production veep Bart Peters and senior veep of original content and production Chris Long.
“Once you’ve seen that sort of access, that tension Ricky has,” Peters says, “I just looked at Chris and said, ‘This is amazing.’”
Adds Long: “Put it this way: If it was a documentary that was just some footage and somebody voicing it over, we probably would not have been interested in it. When I see (Ricky) putting his life on the line for his country, that storyline really resonated with me as an individual. And I just felt this is a great story to tell. I was really surprised it wasn’t picked up sooner. I really was.”
Peters and Long quickly cut a deal quickly — really quickly. A verbal agreement was in place within two days. July was bandied about as a premiere date, only to quickly be moved up once it became obvious that having “The Fighting Season” on the air by Memorial Day weekend was paramount.
The six-episode structure (with back-to-back hours airing on premiere night) fell into place, and suddenly the editing needed rapid acceleration. Schroder has been supervising two editing teams sharing nearly ’round-the-clock duties, while Long and Peters have been hands-on.
“We have been in his barn, as he calls it, every week,” Peters says. “We have probably watched every cut with him 20 times, and been very involved with giving him notes in the process. It’s been very collaborative.”
With post-production near completion, all that was left is the marketing challenge, which circles back to the lieutenant general’s initial misgivings about American attitudes, more than a year ago. Does contemporary American culture want to see these stories?
The winter success of feature film “American Sniper” suggests the answer might be yes.
“People want to know what’s going on over there and want to know the truth,” ” says Long, emphasizing that the project doesn’t take a political stance.
It’s that last word, truth, that’s key for Schroder, the reason he undertook all those risks, professional and personal.
“It’s not necessarily how many eyeballs watch it,” Schroder says. “What’s success for me is that the soldiers go, ‘Wow, they got it right.’ … If that happens, I’m so over-the-moon happy.”