Shawn Kelley was born in the suburbs of Chicago and has been a huge hockey fan since he was a kid. When he was younger, he would watch the Chicago Blackhawks games with his father, and he even got the chance to be a part of the team as a cheerleader for a few seasons.
This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Shawn Kelley, who made his directorial debut last year with the horror film RITUAL. His film, which stars Amy Forsyth, Michael McMillan, and John Ruegsegger, is currently the winner of the Shriekfest Blood Drive Horror Film Festival.
Shawn Kelley is a musician, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. He is best known for his work in the bands The White Buffalo and The Lexington.. Read more about how to interview someone and let us know what you think.
My Father’s Brothers is a sobering yet beautiful new film about one crucial day in American history that impacted the lives of 140 men. It is based on the real tale of an army airborne unit besieged in the jungle during the Vietnam War.
An army platoon is brutally assaulted on June 29, 1966, while waiting for reinforcements from their company. They are cornered and outnumbered 10-to-1 in the thick Vietnam jungle. Survivors recount their tale of tragedy, ingenuity, and courage 50 years later. As teens, some volunteered for the army. Others had to be drafted. Years later, several people returned to Vietnam in the hopes of finding closure and serenity. All of them have an unbreakable connection.
Shawn Kelley, whose father was one of these guys, discusses the film with us (now available on digital and DVD).
The term “hero” is often overused; nevertheless, these individuals, including your father, were unquestionably heroes.
Yes, I believe so. However, if you ask any of the veterans in this video whether they are heroes, they will tell you that they are not. “But my brothers are,” they’d reply, pointing to the remainder of the Airborne company.
What did you know about this incident before deciding to make a film about it?
Growing up, I was aware that my father had fought in a significant fight during his first tour of duty in Vietnam. I was aware that one of his guys had been awarded the Medal of Honor. But that was the extent of it. He never mentioned the conflict, and when pressed, he just spoke a few words. I didn’t start asking the proper questions until lately.
When I began interviewing him for the film, I discovered more about his military service than I had ever known before. But I was really taken aback when I began interviewing the other soldiers in the film. They really opened up to me, and I was surprised to learn of their experiences. Because I am his son, I believe my father only wanted to tell me so much because he wanted to shield me from the terrible facts. But why were the other veterans so forthcoming with me? I spent the night before my interview with them at a 173rd Airborne Reunion at Fort Benning getting to know them. It must have been because they were at a reunion and felt at ease with their brothers, now that I think about it. They trusted Jack Kelley’s son, therefore they trusted me.
Did you have a large number of resources at your disposal?
Isn’t it true that ignorance is bliss? It certainly applies to inexperienced filmmakers. I worked in advertising as a creative director, so I understood just enough about filmmaking to be hazardous. When a barrier arose, I had the attitude that I would sort things out on my own. A rags-to-riches mindset. Fortunately, I had some really brilliant filmmaking pals who poured their hearts and souls into this project. I had no idea filming was so difficult when I began, but I must say, it has been the most significant project I’ve ever worked on. It has been a privilege to bring these soldiers’ stories to life.
And did you discover anything new from your interviews or your research into the archives that you didn’t know before?
Absolutely. There were four platoons in the paratrooper company. Although some of the veterans I spoke with were from the same platoon, I was able to obtain various perspectives on the fight from men who were not only in the battalion that was assaulted at the time, but also from platoons that were attempting to rescue them. They were too spread out, and the forest was too dense. My father and I spent time at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, looking for relevant b-roll as well as military after-action reports. I wanted to make sure we got all the information after 50 years.
Were you working in the field?
I’m not sure whether you mean “in the field” as in “in the military” or “collecting research,” so I’ll answer both.
I wasn’t in the military; instead, I grew up in a military family. However, having grown up with a father who served in the army for 20 years, earning the silver star, bronze star (seven times), and purple heart, and serving with the 173rd Airborne, the Big Red One, the 82nd Airborne, and the Fifth Special Forces Group, I have a deep respect, admiration, and empathy for those who serve our country. And now that I’ve completed this project, my empathy and admiration for our soldiers has skyrocketed.
In terms of research, Yes, I not only conducted the interviews, but I also collaborated with my father and other veterans to ensure that the facts were as precise as possible. I also performed the majority of the topic research to assist bring this tale to life in a respectful and meaningful manner.
And how did your father come to be the guy he was? What impact did this incident have on him and others around him?
My father has always been a hard worker. He graduated from the Citadel and joined the army as a second lieutenant. Later, he volunteered to serve in Vietnam to get additional officer experience. He would tell you that on his second deployment, he did not volunteer. He served in the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., as well as the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (he carried the football). After 20 years as a lieutenant colonel and deputy commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group, he retired. He earned two master’s degrees in the army, one in management and the other in teaching. He went on to become a pastor after serving in the military. He is one of the most trustworthy and amusing guys I’ve ever met. He has been motivated to assist those in need for many years. His experiences in Vietnam molded him into the man he is today. He and his family are very fortunate. After their war experience, many veterans aren’t so lucky.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
After seeing this film, there are two things that jump out to me the most. First and first, as a nation, we must do everything necessary to prevent conflict if at all feasible. Our young soldiers are paying an exorbitant price. Second, we must do all possible to assist our veterans. They have made much more sacrifices than the general public would ever realize.
You work in the advertising and branding industry. When did you decide to make the transition from short films to feature films? When did you realize it was finally time?
It didn’t happen on purpose; it simply occurred. I purchased a new camera system and asked my father if I might film some of his Vietnam experiences in order to preserve some of his memories. He invited me to his Airborne unit’s reunion a few weeks after he agreed to do so, which happened to be the 50th anniversary of the fight on June 29, 1966. “This might be an amazing story…” I thought to myself. I borrowed some gear from a director buddy, packed my vehicle, and drove to Fort Benning for the reunion. Then everything changed in my life.
What school did you attend to master your trade? Schooling? Books? On-the-job?
Yes, to everyone! It all began in college, when I earned a design degree and began taking photography classes. But it was my experience working in advertising that inspired the narrative. Granted, the tales were much shorter (60 seconds vs. 73 minutes), but that’s where my sense of pace and time came from. On the technical side, I did a lot of reading and attended a lot of courses. However, the best teacher is ‘doing.’ Along the process, I was very lucky to have great filmmaking instructors and team members – they were essential.
It’s been an incredible trip. My father and I are closer than we’ve ever been. And I’m happy to call many soldiers my friends now.
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