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Berzin (RICHARD PANEBIANCO) jokingly shouts "orders" to his "troops" Eddie Birdlace (RIVER PHOENIX), Buele (ANTHONY CLARK) and Benjamin (MITCHELL WHITFIELD) in Warner Bros.' "DOGFIGHT," also starring Lili Taylor.
River Phoenix, whose career is filled with critically and popularly applauded roles in such films as "Stand By Me," "Running on Empty" (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor), "The Mosquito Coast" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," plays Eddie Birdlace, a role that is unlike himself in many fundamental ways.
Birdlace is a tough young Marine who drinks hard, curses loudly and looks forward to joining combat. Phoenix, by contrast, is an environmentalist, a vegetarian and a gentle, soft-spoken person.
He says, "I felt very removed from the character when I first read the script, but any script with quality stops you and makes you pay attention, so I read it again.
"Birdlace is not self-aware in any interesting way. He is unconsciously a prisoner of his own anger; a big part of who he is is in denial. I wanted to show him as a misfit who doesn't realize he's being used by society until it's too late, but who instinctively is angry about it all through his life."
Says Savoca, "River made a major leap in playing this part. I asked him if his parents ever bought him guns as a kid and his answer was no. He had a lot of courage to do this picture and I respect him for it. We both wanted the same things from this character.
For the movie's music, Savoca was especially interested in the folk songs of the period, the musically fabled '60s. Such evocative and memorable pieces as Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" and Joan Baez's "Silver Dagger" were used to capture the mood of the time and the action in the story.
"Like a good folk song, I wanted 'Dogfight' to have a simple beginning and a final verse that opens up so that the experience takes you beyond these two people," says Savoca.
To prepare to play the Four B's, River Phoenix, Anthony Panebianco, Mitchell Whitfield and Anthony Clark were sent off for a week of simulated boot camp, run by Retired U.S. Marine Corps Captain Dale Dye (who also consulted on "Platoon" and "Casualties of War").
Says Whitfield, "Boot camp gave us a new attitude toward the military; when you go through this you develop a new respect for what they have to endure. Now I wear my field jacket and I feel some pride and it's from being with these guys."
Clark adds, "It was probably the most horrifying week of my life and one of the best weeks of my life.
"You become incredibly bonded to the guys you're isolated with, almost to the point where it disgusts you to see civilians--they look so sloppy, fat and untrained. And believe me, I never thought I'd feel that way."
Panebianco notes that "Boot camp was crucial to whether or not I'd be able to think like a Marine. When we first got back, people were backing away from us; there was a definite barrier."