Saving Private Ryan: Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes Facts

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:43:52 PM ET
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When Saving Private Ryan was released, it was one of the most accurate, raw depictions of World War II that had ever been produced in an industry as sheltered as Hollywood. The time-defying footage, timeless settings and intense scenes of combat ensured the flick's status as a true depiction of the chaos and terror of war.

From life-like battle scenes to city set constructions, plenty of heavy lifting took place behind the scenes to bring the film to its intense conclusion. Let’s take a look at some of the most fascinating unknown details about the filming of Saving Private Ryan.

The D-Day Scene Cost a Bundle

The most famous scene from Saving Private Ryan is probably the D-Day scene, which accurately depicted the chaos, terror and insanity of the actual event. How did they manage to produce such a terrifying replication of this major battle? By dipping into a major portion of their budget.

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Of the film's $70 million budget, the D-Day scene cost a whopping $12 million. Unbelievably, despite the scope of the iconic event, Steven Spielberg didn't bother to storyboard any portion of the scene. Winging it certainly worked in his favor in this case.

The Actors Actually Went to Boot Camp

What better way to prep actors to play soldiers than to send them through actual boot camp? In order to get the lead actors ready to immerse themselves in the experience of fighting in WWII, they went through a 10-day boot camp with retired former USMC Captain Dale Dye.

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The film's military advisor spent the time immersing the cast in military life, including requiring them to eat MREs, camp out in tents and move through field combat scenarios. They were also briefed on how to handle the weapons they would pretend to fire in the movie.

Matt Damon Was Supposed to Be a Nobody

Before Saving Private Ryan was filmed, Matt Damon was a virtual nobody in Hollywood. He wasn't a household name — which was exactly why Steven Spielberg cast him. He preferred casting an unrecognizable face who could emulate the image of a true soldier of war instead of a celebrity who could distract from the film's central message.

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However, between the time Damon was cast and the film hit theaters, he started to earn recognition and substantial fame as an actor. He received an Oscar for his script for Good Will Hunting, and his remarkable performance as Will launched him to fame overnight.

They Nailed 1940’s Styling

The film's crew did an outstanding job making sure the flick's footage looked genuinely vintage. Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, the film's cinematographer, wanted to ensure everything looked true to the era in which it took place. As a result, they attempted to style the film after news footage from the 1940s.

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To accomplish this task, the crew modified their cameras to capture scenes more like technology from the 1940s. They particularly applied this concept to the D-Day shots, which they modeled after the D-Day photography from photojournalist Robert Capa.

The Story Was Based on the Niland Brothers

While it was widely reported that Saving Private Ryan was based on the Sullivan brothers — a group of five siblings who were killed in the WII Navy — it was actually based on another family of soldiers. The flick was modeled after the military careers of the Niland brothers: Robert, Preston, Edward and Frederick.

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Initially, it was believed that Robert, Preston and Edward were all killed in combat, prompting the Army to send Frederick back to his family so all the sons wouldn't be lost. However, it was later discovered that Edward had survived when he escaped a Japanese prison camp.

Tom Sizemore Was Given an Ultimatum

Before filming Saving Private Ryan, Tom Sizemore was struggling with severe heroin addiction. When Spielberg was made aware of the issue, he seemed concerned for both the safety of Sizemore and the success of his casting in the film. As a result, he gave him a unique ultimatum.

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Committed to Sizemore's sobriety, Spielberg told the star that if he tested positive for drugs on set, he would let him go. Sizemore told the Daily Beast that Spielberg promised he "would fire me on the spot and shoot all 58 days that I'd worked over again with someone else."

The Opening Scene Was Spielberg's Experience

The opening scene in Saving Private Ryan wasn't pulled out of thin air. Although Spielberg didn't storyboard much of the flick, the beginning was based on his personal experience in Normandy at a military cemetery. While visiting the cemetery, Spielberg witnessed a remarkably touching scene with a stranger.

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He told Entertainment Weekly, "The man collapsed upon seeing all the crosses and Stars of David, and he began to sob uncontrollably, and his family had to help him to his feet. That's how this movie starts. It starts with something I actually observed happening right in front of me."

Spielberg Filmed in Chronological Order

Despite the fact that it may have been easier to shoot scenes when it suited production, Spielberg refused to stray from the chronological timeline of World War II. He shot every scene in the order the events occurred in the real world.

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Why so technical? He felt the cast would develop a more authentic connection with the plot of the film if they experienced the true sequence of the war. "It was a mentally demoralizing experience for us, because we shot in continuity, from beginning to end," Spielberg told Roger Ebert. "We were all reliving the story together."

D-Day Took a Month to Film

Considering that it took more than 1,000 extras, 30 prosthetic limbs and 40 gallons of blood to replicate D-Day in the 24-minute opening scene, it's not surprising that the monumental footage took a lengthy amount of time to capture. In fact, it took more than a month to successfully film the entire sequence.

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"I had to shoot this sequence one step at a time, because that’s the way the Rangers took the beach: one inch at a time. As a result, I was able to make up this whole sequence as I went along," Spielberg told DGA Quarterly.

Private Jackson Was Almost Garth Brooks

Barry Pepper gave an engaging performance in the role of Private Jackson, yet the part was originally slated to be played by Garth Brooks. The country star was initially written into the movie by the script rewriter, Frank Darabont. However, when Spielberg joined the project, Brooks got cold feet.

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Why did he decide to pass on the role? For one thing, he wasn't the star. After Tom Hanks was cast, Brooks felt intimidated by the idea of being in Hanks' shadow. As a result, he decided to shy away from the project — after asking to play the leading villain, of course.

Robin Williams Got Matt Damon the Job

Before Damon and Spielberg ever knew one another, Spielberg and Robin Williams were already buddies. They had worked together on the set of Hook and developed a strong working relationship. When Williams took his role in Good Will Hunting, he found himself filming in the same city as Spielberg's Amistad.

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Williams reached out to Spielberg to see if he wanted to meet up, and he happily agreed. He brought along his Good Will Hunting co-star, Matt Damon, to meet the famous director. They apparently hit it off, because two weeks later, Damon was offered the part of Private Ryan.

Damon Got to Skip Out on Boot Camp

All the main actors were required to attend boot camp — except Matt Damon. Although his co-stars suffered through it, Damon got a free pass on the grueling training. Spielberg actually hoped the cast would resent Damon and that their resentment would transfer over into filming.

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Why did Spielberg want to take such a risk? To further the storyline, of course. In the plot of Saving Private Ryan, the soldiers who must rescue Ryan do so begrudgingly, not happy that he will be sent home to his family once they risk life and limb to find him. Spielberg wanted the cast to harbor realistic resentment.

The Script Was Vastly Modified

By the time the Saving Private Ryan script was in Paramount's hands, it had gone through a stunning number of drafts — 11! — and it still wasn't finished. Scriptwriter Robert Rodat, Steven Spielberg, executives, producers, external scriptwriters and even cast members pitched in to perfect the final script.

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Tom Hanks told Entertainment Weekly, "We talked about Ryan being wounded and not being able to be moved. We talked about Ryan being an oaf, a boor, a guy that we all hated. We talked about Ryan being the greatest, neatest, coolest guy we ever knew...We talked about every conceivable thing."

Hanks Worried About Working with Spielberg

Tom Hanks is a notoriously wonderful actor to work with, and professionals in the industry consider it a treat to interact with him. It’s only natural that Hanks has made many friends in Hollywood over the years, including Steven Spielberg. When they were both eyeballing Saving Private Ryan, Hanks was worried their personal relationship would impact their working success.

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"Tom had to do some soul searching to see whether he wanted to mix business with personal, and so did I," Spielberg shared on the Saving Private Ryan DVD. Fortunately, they decided to work together, and they made a strong duo on set.

Spielberg Dedicated the Movie to His Father

Believe it or not, Spielberg never intended for Saving Private Ryan to become a blockbuster. He didn't think it would enjoy much commercial success, especially since it was a war movie. So, what prompted him to take on the project? He saw it as an ode to his father.

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During WWII, his father, Arnold Spielberg, was a radio operator on the Mitchell B-25 bomber in Burma. Young Spielberg grew up listening to his father's stories and struggling to comprehend the scope of war. Unlike some other directors and producers, Spielberg "really wanted to tell the veterans' story," he told The Morning Call.

Damon's Speech Was Entirely Improvised

One of the most genuine moments of the film came near the end when Private Ryan gave a rambling monologue reflecting on his brother's encounter with a girl in a barn. While the casual speech seems to fit in well with the moment, it wasn't part of the original script.

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Instead, Damon completely improvised the ramble, much like other stars did in raw moments throughout the film. While it wasn't a substantial monologue content-wise, it seemed true to Ryan's character, and Spielberg decided to keep it in the film.

The Film Was Nearly Rated NC-17

The movie was five minutes of violence away from being rated NC-17. Still, even if those five minutes had existed, Spielberg would have been unwilling to cut out any portions of the footage. He was intent on releasing the uncut version, even if it could have cost them part of their audience.

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Hanks
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He told the L.A. Times, "Had the board said this is an NC-17, I would have worn that like a Purple Heart, with pride and dignity, because I felt that the truth about what happened on Omaha Beach was long overdue...I would not have amended this film."

Billy Bob Thornton Was Turned Off by Water

Early in production, Billy Bob Thornton was offered Tom Sizemore's role as Technical Sergeant Mike Horvath. While he showed initial interest, he ultimately turned down the part due to the flick's opening scenery: the beach. What turned him off about that scene?

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Thornton's reason for rejecting the role was because most of the early scenes were shot in or near the ocean, and he has a huge fear of water. It’s not an exaggeration. He has legitimate aquaphobia that is serious enough to prevent his acceptance of the role. No pool parties for this guy!

World War II Veterans Struggled to Watch

The film crew went all out to provide an accurate depiction of one of history's most brutal wars. The resulting footage was raw, gripping and intense — and many war veterans couldn't handle watching the film. From military members on set to veteran theater-goers, many vets had to leave during the film's screenings.

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In response to the realistic battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set up a national hotline for veterans to call if they needed support after viewing the film. Additionally, the number of visits to PTSD counselors rose after the film's release.

The Two Soldiers Shot Weren't German

In one striking scene, two soldiers who are fighting in the German Army attempt to surrender and are shot down. However, those who recognized the language they spoke realized they were not German at all. Rather, the characters were Czech soldiers who had been forced to fight for the German Army.

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Their scripted lines were actually in Czech rather than German: "Please don't shoot me, I am not German, I am Czech, I didn't kill anyone, I am Czech!" This scene depicted the fate of many Eastern European men who were forced to fight for the Germans after their countries were invaded by Nazi Germany.

Omaha Beach Was in Ireland

Omaha Beach is one of the most significant locations of WWII, which meant the real beach came with severe filming restrictions. It was hard to obtain rights to shoot on the Normandy beaches where the Allies invaded France. Spielberg had to come up with a creative alternative to Omaha Beach for filming.

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Fortunately, he found another spot that could be sculpted into the desired backdrop. The location where they shot the Omaha Beach scenes was a setting in Ireland called Ballinesker Beach. With incredible attention to detail, Spielberg created a nearly exact replica of Omaha Beach at Ballinesker.

India Censored the Film

At the time that Saving Private Ryan was slated to be released, India had extremely strict laws restricting movies that included excessive violence. The India Censor Board felt that Spielberg's creation surpassed the acceptable limit. They asked the director to make cuts, but he refused and withheld the movie from Indian theaters.

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Still, not all hope was lost for Indian citizens who wanted to see the iconic flick. The Home Minister of India viewed the film and absolutely loved it. As a result, he asked that the ban on the film be lifted, allowing it to be shown and distributed in India.

Spielberg Thought He Invented Shaker Lenses

The authenticity of the explosions in the film can be attributed in part to the shaking of the cameras during peak moments of conflict. How was this shakiness accomplished? Spielberg attached drills to the sides of cameras and flipped them on when they needed to be shaken.

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By attaching drills and bolts to the cameras, "it created a wobbling movement and the camera shake we wanted," shared key grip Jim Kwiatkowski with American Cinematographer. Spielberg briefly thought he invented the concept, but the crew introduced him to Clairmont Camera’s Image Shaker, putting a damper on his inventive ego.

Tom Hanks' Speech Was Cut Short

In the original script for Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks had a much lengthier monologue. When asked about his occupation back home, Hanks was supposed to launch into a detailed description of his life before the war. However, this didn't sit right with the star.

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Being an intuitive actor, he felt that his stoic and domineering character wouldn't be likely to ramble on with such vulnerable and nostalgic content. He shared this thought with Spielberg, who agreed with the sentiment. As a result, the scene was cut down substantially.

Bombed-Out France Was in London

Although the scenes depicting the destruction in France were highly convincing, they weren't shot on location in France. Trying to film in a rubble-ridden French city would have been a major headache. To avoid this, Spielberg had the fictional town of Ramelle built in a WWII Air Force base near London.

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Ramelle was constructed entirely from scratch at the Hatfield Aerodrome. The construction of the set took a whopping four months to complete, including the impressive detailing that gave the shooting location its authentically French imagery. They even bought rubble from construction sites to scatter throughout the destroyed city.

Vin Diesel Was Written into the Script

While Vin Diesel is a household name today, he wasn't well-known when Spielberg cast him as Private Caparzo. He was just getting his start in Hollywood when Spielberg saw him in Strays, where he delivered a breathtaking performance that stuck in the famed director's mind.

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Spielberg was desperate to secure Vin Diesel as an actor for this movie. As a result, he ended up writing a whole new role into the Saving Private Ryan script for the now-beloved star. Diesel went on to enjoy a very fruitful career in the entertainment industry that certainly isn’t over yet. Spielberg definitely has an eye for talent!

Most Uniforms Were Individually Made

In order to create a realistic war scene, plenty of extra soldiers were needed. Costume designer Joanna Johnston was tasked with developing 3,500 realistic war uniforms. While she originally planned to use real period uniforms for the cast of characters, it would have been far too costly of an endeavor.

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Additionally, most WII uniforms have been destroyed over the years. As a result, Johnston had to create almost all 3,500 costumes by hand. "I feel a huge sense of responsibility to get it absolutely right...You don’t want to screw up on uniforms," Johnston told Clothes on Film.

The Gunshot Sounds Were Real

When it comes to sound development, production crews often find unique ways to come up with the noises required for movies. Whether it's using a fine-toothed comb to produce alien noises or scraping a metal item to overlap with horror music, creativity is often a necessity. For Saving Private Ryan, the sound team went right to the source.

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Behind The Hanks
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In order to accurately capture gunshot sounds for the film, the crew went to a genuine machine gun firing range to record the sounds of gunfire. They found weapons that emulated the film's period guns and spent time firing them and recording the sounds they produced.

Spielberg Demanded High Volume

Considering how much work the sound editors put into making the film sound like a genuine battleground, it's not surprising that Spielberg was picky about how loud the film was shown in theaters. When the movie was delivered to cinemas, it came with explicit instructions for the volume setting during screenings.

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Spielberg wanted to make sure that no sound was lost due to low volume, so he insisted that all theaters play the flick at full volume. Of course, this made for a much more immersive viewing experience, adding to the gripping drama of the film.

Fans Thought Their TVs Were Broken

In order to give the film an authentic vintage look, Steven Spielberg manipulated the movie’s color in a unique way by turning down 60% of the color saturation. While this certainly added to the period look of the film, many television companies decided to crank up chroma when showing the film on television networks and on-demand streaming services.

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What prompted them to manipulate Spielberg's artistic decision? Angry viewers. After the film was released for television, many major providers were flooded with calls from people who watched the movie and thought something was wrong with the broadcast or the color on their TVs.