Filmmakers Ron King and Darroch Greer met in college at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1977 in the Fine Arts Department. Both were raised in California, lived in Manhattan as young adults, and moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry. They now live in southern California with their respective families. Ron works in video production, and Darroch is a documentary filmmaker and writer. Ron and Darroch have worked hard to create a personal, character-driven story that sheds light on both a formative, if neglected, part of American history and on the American character with implications for who we are today. Their movie, The Millionaires’ Unit, will be at the 2015 GI Film Festival.
Where are you from and what is your film background?
My filmmaking partner Ron King and I were both born in the Midwest (Illinois and Kansas, respectively) and mostly raised in California (Marin and Santa Barbara). We met in college at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh where we graduated with BFAs. We both worked in the theater in New York for a decade and moved to Los Angeles around the same time. In 2006, Ron saw a photo with his grandfather on a cover of a book called “The Millionaires’ Unit.” He called me to see about making a documentary. I changed careers in the early 1990s, pursuing my love of history and film, and I started working on historical documentary series, first researching, then writing/producing — about the West, Native America, the Civil War, pop culture, Hollywood history, social issues. “The Millionaires’ Unit” is the first documentary that we’ve independently produced. We started a non-profit and put together a board and a fund-raising team. It took us eight years, but we raised a million dollars, filmed up and down the Eastern Seaboard, in England, France, Belgium and New Zealand. The project grew from a modest family history with photographs from private collections to an epic film with pristine archival material and WW1 aircraft filmed air-to-air around the world.
Who are your biggest influences in film and why?
Loving history, I became entranced by several documentaries that imparted the past in such visceral ways. Films that changed me and the way I see the world are Jon Else’s “The Day After Trinity — J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb,” Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March,” and Albert Maysles’ “Salesman.” All of these films are quite different, but I love the cinéma vérité approach, the in-depth archival approach, as well as the humorous, ironic approach.
That said, my favorite narrative filmmakers are Jean Renoir, Werner Herzog, John Ford, and Preston Sturges, with Rouben Mamoulian, Francois Truffaut, Roberto Rossellini, Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks close behind. I love Renoir for his lyricism and layered approach to humanity in both comic and tragic situations. I love Herzog for his bold originality and startling images and situations. I love John Ford, corny as he can be, for his challenging looks at American history, the American character, Americans at war, and his clean, graphic, bold cinematic style. I love Mamoulian and Hawks for their ability to dig to the essence of whatever genre they work in while being both original and inventive. Truffaut and Rossellini I love for their highly personal and emotional views of the world. And who doesn’t love Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges? — both reminders to be light-hearted and purgatives for what ails you.
What was the hardest part about getting this film made?
The most difficult aspect was raising the money; convincing our non-profit board to spend money in the hopes of bringing in more money as we accomplished our filmmaking tasks. However, taking a long time also allowed us to find more and better material and to constantly refine the film.
What do you want viewers to take away with them after watching your film?
I would like viewers to come away with a better understanding and appreciation of our past — particularly the sacrifices that were made and how difficult they were for a country that was still relatively young with very little experience on the world stage. World War One is second only to the Civil War as a crucible that transformed both our nation and who we are individually. Literally a baptism of fire, the all-encompassing nature of the experience gave us all a lot more responsibility. Today, I think far too many Americans do not take enough responsibility for themselves or for our national destiny. The themes of our story are service and sacrifice, and I think people for whom those ideas and experiences are foreign and don’t understand the need to work together as a community, tend to be more selfish. I hope that the story we tell in “The Millionaires’ Unit” will feel personal and immediate enough to give people perspective on our past and on the country we are today.
What is a fun fact about you that would surprise people?
When I was a little boy I tearfully told my mother that I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be an admiral or president of the United States. It was a pressing concern at the time, and the fact that I’m a documentary filmmaker — bouncing around from one subject I love to the next — is evidence that the question has never been satisfactorily answered. I’m constantly torn between desiring to be home drinking a martini in front of the fireplace with my wife, my books and our cats or hitchhiking in a foreign country not knowing where I’m going to spend the night.
The Millionaire’s Unit directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King is playing at Angelika on May 24, 2015. Click here for tickets.