The new documentary, Viet Nam: 365 Days, provides a unique lens into one soldier’s journey via personal photos he took during wartime and detailed recollections 50-plus years later. Shared on his popular Instagram page and, now, on film, the story of Army veteran Michael “Mike” Mirell begins in 1967, when the teenage surfer from the San Fernando Valley was drafted to serve in the army. Mirell was a carefree kid whose biggest concern was catching waves in Malibu, and after a year of fighting for his country in Vietnam he returned to the U.S. a changed man. Without taking sides, his feed and now this feature-length independent doc give an unvarnished and candid view of the human side of the war. L.A. Weekly spoke with the film’s director and co-producer Chris Engles in advance of its Aug. 1 premiere.
L.A. Weekly: How did the idea for the documentary come about? How do you feel it stands out from other docs or films about the Vietnam War?
Chris Engles: I came across Mike’s Instagram feed (@vietnam.365days) by chance, and after reading his account about drinking scotch with a captured North Vietnamese soldier I was hooked. The best way I can describe his perspective is that it’s one of “neutral buoyancy” — neither wrapped in the flag, nor apologetic, and that’s a perspective I had never heard, particularly about that conflict. Coupled with his sparse, journalistic style of storytelling, I found his posts informative and frankly, just really satisfying to read. At that time he had fewer than 90 posts, yet over 26K followers, and now he has over 31K. Every other comment from readers fell along the lines of: “please write a book” or “you should make a film,” and I was thinking exactly the same thing. So I reached out and fortunately he agreed to work with me.
How long did it take to make, including securing permission, filming, editing?
I flew out for the first shoot in July of last year, so from first contact to release, approximately 13 months. It’s a tight window for a feature length doc, but it had to come together as soon as possible, as a natural extension of his Instagram feed.
You made the film independently. How was it funded?
The project was a bare-bones affair. I have the basic gear and am good at packing light. Frequent flyer miles were a godsend.
Were there any special challenges or rewards both creatively or technically with production?
The challenge was keeping the film contained. We had a ton of interesting content, and a lot of tough choices were made about what to include and what to leave out — for the sake of staying within the scope of the project, and being able to deliver within the agreed window.
How did you secure the debut at the Laemmle Monica Film Center?
As we headed toward completion we agreed it was fitting to mark that achievement with a live screening. I’m a Boston filmmaker, so premiering a work in Los Angeles sounded like great fun. I reached out to L.A. filmmaker Beth O’Rourke, who made some suggestions for venues. The Monica Film Center seemed to be the perfect fit, and their special events folks have been great to work with. On top of that, the film features surfing footage by several L.A. photographers (Mike is lifelong surfer), so it’s also an opportunity for Mike and his surfing community to see the finished film on a big screen.
What are your hopes for the film going forward after the premiere?
The film will go to the festival circuit, but since Mike has an international online audience waiting for this film, we feel the path of least resistance in terms of distribution is to premiere the film online simultaneously on the night of the screening.
Our hope is the film will help provide some clarity around what it took for our people to serve under uniquely difficult circumstances. Not clarity in the sense of distilling it down to black and white, but rather acknowledging the gray.
Viet Nam: 365 Days premieres Thursday, August 1, at 7:30 p.m. at The Monica Film Center at the Laemmle, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. A Q&A with the filmmaker and Vietnam veteran Mike Mirell will follow the screening. Tickets are available at the box office and here: laemmle.com/films/45752. The film can also be viewed online at vimeo.com/ondemand/vietnam365days.