Band of Brothers graced the screen in 2001. While I have interviewed cast, veterans families and writers, it was now time to talk to the crew. Those unsung heroes that pull everything together for exactly when it is needed.
Welcome Peter Christopher.
Can you share a little bit of who you are and where you’re from?
I am from south London /Kent, a bit of a maverick, as a lot of crews seem to be. I did ok at school in my O levels and A levels, but I did not have one iota of interest in sports or athletics. This did me no favours as so much of the hierarchy at the time seemed to be down to one’s prowess at these pursuits.
So, I took more exams at night school, to further my job as an engineer. This was my father’s choice, not mine. If I’m honest, I preferred English and creative writing, always wanting to become imaginary heroes or characters from films, westerns or war movies. I was known affectionally, because of this, as the ‘spaceman’, due my somewhat secular pursuit of dressing up with cowboy toy gun belts or bows and arrows (I didn’t discriminate).
What was your early life/childhood like?
I soon got tired of feigning interest in heavy machinery, as well as the loud and brash men at the time. I would get picked on for my shyness. I was always fascinated by anything military and anything to do with weapons of war, once blowing the roof off of my dad’s shed with homemade explosives! As retribution, he smashed my air rifle against the line post. I suppose he was rightly concerned for my safety rather than his shed, although I didn’t see it like that at the time.
I spent much of my younger days at my grandparents, who had both time for me and an exciting repertoire of how it was during the war. My Grandfather had worked at the Woolwich arsenal ammunitions factory and had a fascinating collection of inert grenades, shells and bayonets decorating his shed. I was in heaven, being given the task of cleaning and oiling said weaponry, whist listening of how he never went down into the anderson shelter during the air raids. I used to go down in the still remaining shelter, although by this time, it had been absorbed into the garden as sort of ad hoc rockery feature.
When did you know that working in films was something you wanted to do?
Many years and careers later, I had a few shops in London, Kings Road and Kensington, selling street fashion, skateboards and vintage clothing, I was almost responsible for starting the craze in used denim, supplying bands like Bros and many others (modesty precludes blatant name-dropping – to a point!)
I also sold army surplus in one of my outlets, nurturing my love of militaria, and it became a haunt for bands like Theatre of Hate, and The Cult, as the fashion was very into the vietnam war and the clothing, particularly the tiger stripe camouflage sported by bands like The Clash and The Stranglers.
This ended up attracting stylists from the fashion world, even J P Gaultier would pop in regularly and ask about what was hot, then shamelessly reproducing items, albeit blinged up, in his next fashion show. I got no credits whatsoever!
Some costume designers also would come and ask advice, like ‘what would they wear in this situation ‘ or ‘did they ever wear these things ‘during such and such a war.
How did this career start?
Long story short, after getting certain things for a film called ‘Empire of the sun’, I was invited to Pinewood Studios to see them filming the movie. My head and heart were turned irrevocably. I was hooked.
After my first brush with the film world, I continued with my clothing enterprises, sometimes buying /sourcing props for movies like ‘Memphis Belle’.
I should possibly add that I had been a ‘re-enactor’ for years too, which means I and many like -minded people, would dress up in period clothing. In my case, that was a WW2 American army kit and I’d spend weekends or longer, living the life of a G.I of the period.
We would have battles with opposing German re-enactors, sleeping and eating as would have happened during WW2, using M.O.D land at times and sometimes even training with current serving soldiers, using their assault courses etc. The laws regarding such things were laxer, and we had every weapon under the sun, including tanks and armoured cars.
We were once stopped by a bewildered policeman, as we were driving a tank down Villiers Street in London, having been been booked to feature it in a nightclub for a record launch.
I, and others, also had occasional jobs in TV adverts for cars, cigarettes, beer etc, as it was easier for an advertiser to have a group of individuals who looked and moved like soldiers and who had all the required kit.
I also had acquired my firearms certificate, which enabled me to have my own weapons at home. I was a keen shooter, and my club was at Bisley, 21 SAS, “Claymore’ club.
This extra ‘string’ to my bow, also enabled me to later get jobs as an armourer, as I was familiar with the handling and use of weapons, particularly the safety aspect of them.
Saving Private Ryan
Having looked through the reading and research of your work, I’d like to ask about a couple of specific pieces of TV and film you’ve worked in. How did you come to be working as a costume props maker on Ryan?
As for Private Ryan, a friend who re-enacted with me years earlier, had become part of the film industry, and was a buyer for the movie. He knew that I had vast stocks of WW2 kit in various garages, so we picked out masses of it for use by production. At the time, it was proving difficult for the production to find and buy enough original authentic kit for the movie. Many previous films just used any old costumes, supplied by any of the hire companies around. The problem was a combination of buyers not knowing what would have been used /worn by actors, coupled with not knowing where to get it.
Can you share some stories about that time? (Whatever you’re comfortable with)
The crew of Private Ryan was made up of many military buff’s, some of who’m had worked for Angels’, the costumiers, as military department experts. Others were re-enactor friends who had the required depth of knowledge required for the period.
Then, as I had the required machine, I got the job of stamping all the sets of dog-tags, both for the cast, and as crew gifts. My credits listed me as prop maker, I guess as they didn’t know what else to call me!
Band of Brothers
Did working on Ryan lead you to be asked to work on Band of Brothers?
My role on Band of Brothers was a result of my work on ‘Ryan ‘ but mainly as I had the only dog-tag machine at the time. It felt a little like being throw into the deep end as it was in prep, we were in a massive hangar at Hatfield. There were costume and prop people rushing in and out whilst I was sat at a small desk, reproducing all the dog tags for the cast, or rather, the characters they played.
The research had established the details down to each full stop. The dog-tags were original WW2 tags, the details were of the early style, which was the name of the soldier, rank, date of tetanus jab and religion. On the second tag, (there were two to a set), were the soldiers next of kin and home address – they had researched each character’s home details!
With a historical piece such as Band, where do you start? I imagine research is at the root of everything. Whatever you can share would be amazing.
The research had been done months before. Kit that wasn’t available had been specially made in incredible amounts, everything one could imagine, if fact, we were still receiving stock up to the last week of shooting.
The majority of the research was done by Joe Hobbs who had a personal interest in the 506 PIR as it had been his major interest for years.
What sort of interaction do you have with a director to understand their aims and objectives for the show you’re working on?
As I was stamping away, two rather dishevelled characters approached, and after gazing for a while, asked what I was doing. I explained what was going on and they seemed interested and after a while, wandered to another department.
It was only then that I realised who these rather shabby duo was. It was Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. After seeing them thereafter, I became used to ‘casual’ dress style. Tom Hanks had not long finished shooting ‘Castaway’ and had lost masses weight for the role, looking pretty gaunt.
Anything you can share about your role on Band would be appreciated. I’ll leave this open ended for you to share whatever you’re comfortable with.
What else can I tell you! I had a week or so back home after the dog -tags were finished, but then I was asked back for the costume fittings.
This was more of a production line of fitting the hundreds of cast and extras through each department, giving out uniforms, boots, belts and equipment.
I had scant knowledge of the movies story, and even less of the characters identity, so to me, they were all extras. It was only later that i got to know Easy Company as a group.
I later got transferred to the webbing section which involved everything that wasn’t uniform or actual weapons. The webbing was sorted by Alan Houseman, another history buff. All the crew were well versed in the kit, many of them being re- enactors or military dealers and it was our job to fit this correctly. We knew who wore what in each role and how they would wear it.
As the series progressed, it was also our role to take continuity pictures of every cast member for every scene. This was using polaroid cameras as we were pre- digital! It took forever to log each picture and mount it on the continuity sheet every day, with cast names and scene numbers, but it was essential as were were constantly shooting two units, sometime more. Many scenes were not shot in sequence, some starting in Hatfield and continuing weeks later, in Switzerland. I guess I was picked for the Swiss leg as I had lived there for a year or so and had got married there.We had to dress new extras all over again, I believe there were students and many military guys.
Of course, as the ‘war’ progressed, uniforms changed, got dirtied /damaged and had to be changed and even worse, kept for any re-shoots needed. The cost dept was so busy, as were we in webbing. Upon wrap, the extras just dumped everything on the floor and rushed off to catch the transport back to London. We had to gather it all up, hang it back on each named extras place, after checking it was both complete and would be right for which ever scene was the following day.
I was so tired, as were many others, I couldn’t face the drive home. I would sleep on an old stunt foam mat in the back of the costume department. Those 16–18-hour days are killers! Night shoots upset one’s body clock and it was fatal to sit down on set, as it was so easy to fall asleep. If you did, somebody would snap a picture of you dozing and it would appear on the back of the following call sheets ‘Page of shame ‘.
I remember a story from the Switzerland leg of filming. On our first day there, we discovered a shop that sold various brands of cannabis, it being legal in Switzerland. The following days call sheet in bold type, was a missive banning ALL crew from frequenting said shop. I believe some of the crew had partied too much!
Tony To, one of the producers, asked a few of us to watch the rushes of some of the episodes to get feedback on authenticity etc. Even without the CGI, audio and final editing, we could all see that it was going to be something special.
It is certainly the longest and most intense movie, even now, that I have worked on and one of the few that I am proud to have crewed. There is a bond between all who crewed this series. Seeing them on other productions gets you a nod of recognition, even from the actors. Michael Fassbender and Scott Grimes, whom I worked with on subsequent films, recognised me and we had many a chat about our shared Band of Brothers experience. Scott even signed my crew jacket that I brought in from home. I have never experienced anything like that since
Episode 9 is quite a dramatic episode bringing home the horrors of the concentration camp. What was it like being on set for that?
Our webbing crew, like most of the crew, had not seen the set until the first day of filming. Nor had we seen the extras. It was a shock, exploring the set alone, walking round it and seeing some of the prosthetic ‘dead ‘ bodies, the burning huts and the sheer realistic detail of the railway wagons.There was a lot more at the furthest end of the set that was not included in the final edit. For example, a large circular building, and a few other details were omitted.
One somewhat humorous episode took place on the first day, when the catering truck, stationed some ways away in the forest was about serve lunch to the crew and the extras.Through the trees come the prisoners, still in makeup, dirty and bloody, looking like an army of skeletal zombies.The catering boss took one look at these apparitions and stuttered,’Christ ! We’re going to need more food!’ That statement did lift what was a rather sombre mood, that pervaded that whole month there.
To finish this interview, let’s talk veterans. Did you have the honour of meeting Babe and Bill when they visited the set?
Others and I were hanging around one evening after fittings, in the big hangar that doubled for the mess hall before shooting started. Joe Hobbs appeared, with a few office people (producers, if my memory serves me correctly) and a couple of small old, but solid looking civilians.
To my shame at the time, I had scant knowledge of the 506 regiment, and no knowledge at all as to any individuals that were in it. Joe introduced the two guys as Babe and Guarnere. At the time, they were wearing just regular clothes, none of the ‘bling’, patches and badges that they wore latterly, after the series was screened. This was probably their first sight of the madness that was pre-production BOB.
I warmed to the pair at once, their ‘Bronx’ accents were almost stereotypical.
Joe and others started to bring items of kit and clothing that our cast would be wearing, they duly examined each of them, including trying on a steel helmet, but I got the impression that whilst they enjoyed it all, they were not that intrigued by the assortment. I guess 60 years passing has erased such things.
One thing that struck me was when they brought in a dressed cast member, I believe it was ‘Joe Toye’ (Kirk Acevedo), in full kit. I saw then in their eyes, memories of the war came back, the times they were together as a unit, as they seemed to become more introspective and less engaging.
However, this soon passed, and the pair were the centre of an increasing lot of crew, listening to these two. I think it was ‘Wild Bill’ who said, ‘Whenever we saw any Germans, we shot the shit out of them!’ I never forgot that.
Later on, I think it was Wild Bill, who said in slightly hushed tones as if to dispel any doubts that we, the audience, had as to their abilities. “Of course, what you have to remember is that some of us were in the Mafia!” Now, whether he was playing to the audience, I don’t know, but in that accent and from the look in his eyes, I can well believe it. After a while the group broke up as there was so much to do, all Bill and Babe then wanted to do, was go to the best and nearest pub!
Lasting memories of those two, I wish that I had more of a chance to talk, or just listen. Memories that will stay with me forever, not just of Bill and Babe, but the whole shooting of Band of Brothers and the everlasting friends I have made.
Thank you Peter, for not only your time but also the wealth of knowledge and stories that you’ve shared. It has been such a great interview.