Wes Tooke Talks Roland Emmerich’s WW2 Film “Midway”
Wes Tooke has written for TV shows including USA Network’s drama Colony and Amazon’s comedy Jean-Claude Van Johnson. He’s also written a number of novels including Ballpark Blues, Lucky, and King Of Mound. This year, he wrote Midway, the World War 2 drama helmed by Roland Emmerich. He spoke to Creative Screenwriting about his writing process and the value of war films.
What makes Midway not just another war film?
To me, war films are an important genre – conflict is a terrible constant in human history. Obviously, some films about war are exploitive and some are telling their stories for a purpose. I hope that we fall into the latter group.
Why do we need a WW2 drama in 2019?
Every generation seems to face (at least) one great challenge. I believe that one of the reasons we continue to tell stories about the Greatest Generation is because of the way those men and women handled a war that touched almost literally every human life on earth. As we face our own challenges in 2019 – including attacks on our democratic institutions and a rise of nationalism that echoes the darkest days of the past – I hope that we can learn from their example.
Why was the Battle Of Midway so significant?
It’s arguably the greatest military comeback story in history. After Pearl Harbor, the US Pacific Fleet was on the run – outgunned and outmanned. But just six months later a small group of aviators ended up in exactly the right position at exactly the right moment and turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. It’s probable that America ultimately would have overwhelmed Japan with industrial might, but the outcome of Midway saved lives and shortened the war.
What are the main themes you’re exploring in Midway?
Courage, sacrifice, and redemption. I literally cannot imagine anything more insane than flying off a carrier at the beginning of the Second World War. Also, it was very important to us to tell the Japanese side of the story in a respectful way. There were kids from small towns in Japan who knew nothing about global politics and found themselves fighting a raging fuel fire with buckets pulled from a latrine. Showing their courage and sacrifice is what makes this a human story.
What do you want the audience to take away after viewing this film?
It’s very meaningful to all of us who worked on this project that the veteran community has responded so positively to the film. We continue to have men and women serving in combat zones, but their stories rarely make headlines – and our country has not done enough to support our soldiers and sailors when they return home.
Midway might feature propeller planes rather than the latest technology, but I hope that it accurately reflects the experience of those who have put their life on the line for their country.
How do you balance spectacle with story in a film like this?
In this era, the spectacle is what justifies a theatrical release for a movie like this, but it’s a dangerous balance. We didn’t want to glorify war or make it play like an action film with no real human stakes.
The obvious answer is that you need the audience to engage with the characters – and we had the advantage that these characters were all based on actual people. But we were also trying to tell the story of this battle in two hours, which required multiple storylines and dozens of speaking roles. So it was a constant challenge.
What research did you do during the development phase to authenticate the story?
I was fortunate that the American side of the story has been tackled by so many brilliant historians. There are dozens of excellent books plus numerous primary sources – including interviews with the pilots and a fascinating memoir by the key intelligence officer. I also benefitted from timing because on the Japanese side the scholarship has evolved significantly over the last forty years, but that new information only reached our market relatively recently.
In short, there was an incredible amount of information, and I wish we could have made a 20-episode miniseries about the battle. But the economics never would have worked.
Did you fictionalize or dramatize any aspects of the story for the screen?
We all thought that it was important to honor the real courage of these men by remaining as true to the story as possible. Every historical beat in the film actually happened – even the ones that seem written for Hollywood. In fact, I even used real pieces of dialog whenever possible (I’d estimate that 10% of the lines are historical quotes).
What elements of your personal life did you infuse into Midway?
My grandfather went to the Naval Academy and was in the same class as Darren Criss’s character. For that reason, I knew that the military was a relatively tiny institution between the two world wars. The opening stages of WW2 were therefore intensely personal – when a ship went down, you likely knew someone aboard. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in that tiny fraternity of sailors and aviators who were trying to hold the line until reinforcements could be trained.
How does your writing process work?
I treat every project differently. I approached Midway like a piece of narrative non-fiction. Once I figured out that there were three main storylines, I wrote out every single beat that we might want to tell in those narratives (about 250 on my first pass) and then began whittling them down and finding the points of overlap.
Were there any surprises during the writing phase?
There are always small surprises, but the spine remained the same. This was the unusual script where everyone wanted to make it after the first draft, but then it became an impossible challenge of making it for the right price. This film was an education for me in writing for a budget and figuring out a way to help the director maximize his resources.
Were there any sharp turns during your writing?
This project was the iterative process in action – I went through something north of fifty drafts. Sometimes you work on a project that pivots in one bright burst of inspiration, but this was the forty thousand-ton aircraft carrier that took a half-mile to turn ninety degrees.
What makes an average script awesome?
I have no idea. I’m not sure that anyone does, frankly.
Studios are constantly hiring excellent screenwriters to rewrite average scripts in the hopes of making them awesome, yet the batting average remains low. And I have friends who wrote a dozen solid scripts and couldn’t get arrested in this town until suddenly they sent out something new and it changed their lives.
So, on the one hand, it seems like alchemy, but there are also ways to increase your odds. You can make your craft impeccable, read widely, and live an interesting life. Personally, I wish that I had been better at hearing a good note earlier in my career. While you shouldn’t sell your vision down the river, there’s immense value in getting a thoughtful outside perspective. Really listening to feedback also prepares you for life as a professional screenwriter because this is a collaborative medium. If you want to stay on a project to the end, you can’t be afraid to revise, revise, revise.
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