"From the very inception of the project," remarks producer Larry Brezner, "the dream was to make 'Good Morning, Vietnam' as a metaphor for the war. In early 1965, no one was taking the Vietnam situation very seriously, but by the end of the year, the number of troops had increased by the thousands. 1965 was the year that Jekyll became Hyde."
It was Brezner, a partner in the personal management firm of Rollins, Morra and Brezner, who first learned of Cronauer's story from co-producer Ben Moses.
Recognizing its value as a motion picture property, Brezner and client Robin Williams engaged Markowitz to write the screenplay and then approached the team of producer Mark Johnson and director Barry Levinson about bringing "Good Morning, Vietnam" to the screen.
The trio of talents were immediately excited at the prospect of doing a movie that used the dramatic backdrop of the Vietnam war as a setting for a behavioral comedy about a group of characters who are thrown together by circumstance.
"It's not necessarily the situation that has to be funny, but what the characters do and say in the situation that produces laughter," comments Levinson. "The humor in 'Good Morning, Vietnam' stems from Robin Williams' characterization of a radio D.J. and his outrageous behavior on the air."
Adds Robin Williams, "I thought the script made a great effort to show the Vietnamese as people rather than 'the enemy.' They have families and needs... they laugh and play and are afraid, just like everyone else."
Although Levinson and Williams had not met before, both felt that Williams' talent for improvisation would mesh perfectly with Levinson's well-established reputation as a writer/director of engaging ensemble comedies.
"This is the perfect role for Robin," says producer Mark Johnson, who also takes to the boards in "Good Morning, Vietnam" as Adrian Cronauer's compatriot Sloan. "Nobody else works with the inventiveness, the quickness and the zaniness of Robin Williams. When he sat down in the control booth to do the scenes involving Cronauer's broadcasts, we just let the cameras roll. He managed to create something new for every single take."
Of his character in the film, Williams explains, "At the beginning of the film, Cronauer is a victim of culture shock... one day he is in Crete, where all the women look like Zorba, and then BAM, he's in oppressively hot Southeast Asia, surrounded by hard-core military types. I actually think this character is pretty much the closest thing to me that I've ever done."
In the role of Garlick, Cronauer's dutiful sidekick, is Forest Whitaker, a second generation performer who caught director Levinson's eye with his excellent performance in the Touchstone drama, "The Color of Money."
"Forest possesses such sincerity and honesty that I knew he would be perfect for the part," reflects Barry Levinson. "His genuineness contributed greatly to the important dynamic that exists in the film between Garlick, who is always concerned about Cronauer and the disc-jockey himself, who is a bit of a wild man."
"Garlick's the kind of guy who'll give you the shirt off his back. He'll make sure you're okay before he's okay," sums up Whitaker.
To cast the three Vietnamese characters in the film, casting director Louis DiGiaimo and his associates scoured the United States during the weeks preceding production to search for new faces.
In the role of Tuan, the young Vietnamese boy who is befriended by Cronauer, is Tung Thanh Tran. An eighteen-year-old refugee who escaped from Saigon with his family in 1979, Tran was discovered in Chicago, where he was attending high school and working part-time in a Vietnamese Community Center. Returning to his roots to act in "Good Morning, Vietnam" was an experience the fledgling actor will not soon forget.
"Being back in Southeast Asia stirred up many memories," he admits. "The climate... the people... the traffic... even the signs on the set written in Vietnamese made me a bit homesick. At some point, I would really like to return to my homeland."
Gregarious saloon owner Jimmy Wah is portrayed in the film by Vietnamese native Cu Ba Nguyen. An ex-military prisoner who once staged a daringly dramatic escape from war-torn Cambodia, Nguyen was working at a convenience store in his adopted home of Houston, Texas when casting agents approached him about appearing in Levinson's film.
One of the most poignant elements in "Good Morning, Vietnam" is the relationship that develops between Adrian Cronauer and Trinh, the Vietnamese girl who captivates the outgoing disc-jockey with her beauty and shyness. As captured by Levinson, the scenes between Cronauer and the young woman serve as a sensitively-drawn framework around a picture of growing ugliness and violence.
Locating the proper actress to play Trinh was of utmost importance to director Levinson and his production team. After interviewing hundreds of girls, the director and producer were impressed by 23-year-old actress Chintara Sukapatana. Little did they realize at the time that their first choice for the part was actually Thailand's leading actress and recipient of her country's "Oscar" for Best Actress.
In working together on "Good Morning, Vietnam," Robin Williams and his lovely co-star, like their celluloid counterparts, learned to communicate with each other without the benefit of a shared language.
"Chintara spoke very little English, and I don't speak a great deal of Thai," remarks Robin, "so we developed a nonverbal rapport. She is a very gentle yet disciplined actress."
Rounding out the cast is a quartet of actors who are alumni of Levinson's previous film "Tin Men;" Bruno Kirby, J.T. Walsh, Richard Portnow and Ralph Tabakin lend their considerable talents and professionalism to "Good Morning, Vietnam" as Cronauer's fellow servicemen.
The ease and familiarity which marks this troupe's on-screen work is a prime example of director Levinson's heralded ability to endow group scenes with a rare naturalness and spontaneity.
"Barry allows the cast to be creative; he listens to our ideas," enthuses Kirby. "He encourages actors to jump over lines, interrupt each other, even fluff words. This approach leaves the audience with the feeling that they are eavesdropping on a bunch of real guys."
In discussing his flair for bringing a fresh sense of improvisation to his films, Levinson explains, "There are two important things to remember when one is working with an ensemble of actors. The first and most important thing is to have the actors spend time together so that they can develop a rapport. Inevitably the bonds they establish will translate to the screen."
"The second key is to do the entire movie on location so the actors will have a sense of place."
Stepping off the plane in Bangkok, where principal photography on "Good Morning, Vietnam" took place, both the cast and the British-American crew had an immediate "sense of place," as the temperature registered near 110 degrees.
In looking for a suitable location to film "Good Morning, Vietnam" Levinson and Johnson, accompanied by production designer Roy Walker, explored many possible sites before settling on the bustling capital.
"Our most important consideration was to find a place that could double as 1965 Saigon," recalls Walker. "I had worked in Thailand four years previous on 'The Killing Fields,' so I knew that Bangkok would fit the bill."
As "Good Morning, Vietnam" takes place two decades ago, one of Walker's first tasks was to import vintage props and materials.
Among the period items that appear in the film are mid-sixties jet planes, teletype machines and taxis, the latter of which had to be recreated from original fiberglass molds.
"There is no stock footage in 'Good Morning, Vietnam,'" emphasizes Mark Johnson. "Everything in the film, including the montage sequences that resemble old newsreel material, was created especially for this movie."
In addition to transforming the Bangkok meteorological station into military headquarters and dormitories, Walker also designed the bustling R and R establishment, Jimmy Wah's.
"I wanted the nightclub to reflect the growing influx of Western ideas into Vietnamese life, circa 1965. One example of this trend can be seen in the kind of suits that Jimmy Wah wears in the film--they are flashy and glitzy and they reveal Jimmy's perceptions about the way Western Europeans dress. Similarly, the club echoes the clashing cultural mores of its customers."
While shooting in Bangkok, many local citizens were introduced to the rigors of moviemaking when director Levinson decided to use them as extras in several instances.
His native acting company can be seen as students in Cronauer's rather unorthodox English class.
"Even though they really didn't understand much of what he was saying to them, Robin had the entire group in stitches," recalls Levinson. "They had the time of their lives and so did we. When I look back at our time in Bangkok, I am most pleased with the scenes that involve the locals, none of whom had ever seen a movie camera before."
During breaks on the set, Robin Williams, an expert mimic who is always eager to learn new dialects, enjoyed impromptu language lessons from the day extras.
"I learned how to call a taxi and order lunch... but it was tricky sometimes. Their language is tonal and often the same word can mean either 'bread,' or 'water buffalo.'"
It was great to make this film in Thailand," continues the actor. "Everyone was wonderful to us and very supportive... and they seem to have a fondness for golf carts," he adds, referring to the colorful tuk-tuk vehicles that speed through the streets of Bangkok.
For the final week of shooting, the "Good Morning, Vietnam" unit moved to Phuket, a lush tropical island located at the Southern tip of Thailand. It was in the remote area that Roy Walker and his associates built the Vietnamese village that appears in the film as Tuan and Trinh's home.
Unaware of how fertile the land was, Walker and his co-workers planted a rice field in the area surrounding their constructed community of huts. The rice grew in so quickly, though, that the "Good Morning, Vietnam" team had to harvest the crop and replant before shooting could begin.
"'Good Morning, Vietnam' is not an easy film to label," concludes Mark Johnson. "Audiences will discover that although it is set against a serious backdrop, it has great humor. I find the co-existence of these two elements in one movie to be very exciting."
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In 1942, Armed Forces Radio was launched in an effort to boost morale among the soldiers fighting World War II. Immediately popular with the servicemen, the radio network mushroomed during the post-war years; by 1960, there were 300 stations worldwide.
At the outset of the Vietnam war, the eleven military radio stations that were located throughout Southeast Asia comprised the Armed Forces Vietnam Network. With facilities that rivaled NBC studios in New York, the AFVN signal became the soldier's lifeline, featuring a mixture of eclectic music (everything from country and western ballads to the soulful sounds of James Brown) and information regarding the status of the war.
As a news source, however, the AFVN was subjective and selective in their reporting procedures. It was standard for all news pieces to be submitted to an artillery captain for careful review, a practice that led to documented cases of whitewashing and occlusion. It was not uncommon for a GI returning from the front to hear a AFVN report and not recognize it as a description of the same battle he had just been through.
When word of the sanitized broadcasts finally reached Walter Cronkite's desk and the 7:00 news back home, a congressional investigation ensued. In May of 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued the following policy directive: "Members of the Armed Forces are entitled to the same unrestricted news as other citizens... the calculated withholding of unfavorable news stories over Armed Forces Radio is strictly prohibited."