Where Paintball and History Meet

The ultimate paintball game brings World War II to life in a documentary created by a 1998 Loyola grad

By Ariel Genovese, '14  |  Photos courtesy of Mike DeChant, '98

Independent filmmaker Mike DeChant, ’98, recently completed and released his first feature-length documentary film. Soldiers of Paint tells the story of the world’s largest paintball event, where upwards of 5,000 paintball players from around the world gather every year in rural Oklahoma to restage the invasion of Normandy.

There are two key differences between this battle and the Normandy invasion: the soldiers use paint instead of bullets, and the Germans could win.

The project took DeChant and his colleague, Doug Gritzmacher—whom he met while completing his Master of Fine Arts in Film and Digital Media at American University—nearly six years to complete, financing it themselves.

A senior video producer at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C., DeChant majored in communication and minored in photography at Loyola. He lives in Rockville, Md., with his wife, Emily.

Loyola magazine invited DeChant to answer a few questions about the story behind the making the of the film.

How did you find out about this event?

After the success Doug and I had with our master’s thesis project, Bone Mixers (a film telling the story of a group of D.C.-area domino players who gathered weekly to play the game they loved), we agreed that one day we wanted join forces again to make a feature-length documentary. We just needed an idea.

In 2007 I was attending a friend’s bachelor party weekend and we decided to play some paintball. I had played paintball maybe two or three times but wasn’t an avid participant. I met a teenage player that day who told me about a paintball event in Oklahoma where upwards of 5,000 people re-stage the invasion of Normandy with paintball. As a filmmaker I was immediately intrigued.

The next day I went online and found the website for “Oklahoma D-Day”—sure enough, this massive paintball event was real. I sent the link on to Doug and he was excited to learn more. He called the event owner the next day to see if we could come out to check out the game that June.

He said, “Well, no one else has made a movie about the event so come on down!” So we packed up my car with some film equipment and some camping gear and drove all the way out from Maryland/D.C. to Wyandotte, Okla., for the very first time.

Doug Gritzmacher (left) and Mike DeChant, '98 (right)

Why did it take six years to put the documentary together?

When we decided to make the film, we certainly never envisioned that it would take us six years to complete, but for us it was a journey that we knew that we had to see through.

We set out in 2007 to create a “teaser trailer” from footage of our first trip to OK D-Day with the hopes that we could use it to raise funds for making the feature film. In 2008 the economy crashed and though we were getting a lot of positive feedback on the idea from those in the paintball and film industries, no one was willing to take the risk to help us finance the film. However, we were so confident that we had a winning idea that we made the tough decision to push forward and self-finance the project as best we could.

In early 2008 Doug and I went around the country filming some of the OK D-Day participants we had chosen to follow as they prepared for the big game. Then in June of that year we went big. We hired a bunch of professional videographers to join us in Oklahoma to document the big game. We ended up with some amazingly intense battle footage—and a lot of it.

When we got back to D.C., we started the process of ingesting that footage into the computer and logging it for the edit. We realized that we still needed some specific things filmed so this time just Doug and I returned to OK D-Day in 2009 and 2010 to film some more.

We had so much footage and so many different directions our story could have gone in that it became a bit like climbing Everest. We sought out a lot of feedback from trusted friends on our script and multiple rough cuts before we were finally able to get the movie to “picture lock.”

All along the way we had to balance the needs of our day jobs and life to find time to continue working on the movie. We also were inevitably challenged by all of the steps (and costs) involved. But bit-by-bit the two of us took on each challenge as it came and in the summer of 2012 we completed the movie and happily screened it to over 200 people at a big private screening event at the AFI Theatre in Silver Spring, Md. However, we didn’t have distribution lined up yet and were fresh out of leads.

Our story consultant, Nina Gilden Seavey, is a successful documentarian and has several of her films in distribution. Nina recommended Soldiers of Paint to a contact she had at the NYC based distribution company, First Run Features. First Run screened the movie, loved it, and told us that they wanted to distribute our movie (DVD, VOD) in North America. In May of this year we were thrilled to announce the official release of Soldiers of Paint!

It has been a long journey and our work continues to market the film with the hopes of making our money back. The process of making a documentary is an extremely organic and nonlinear adventure. We have learned a lot along the way and looking back, beyond trying to win the lottery, I don’t think we’d change a thing.

How did you stay focused during that time?

Doug and I are pretty determined individuals, but there were definitely spots along the way where we had become frustrated with the slow pace of progress. I think we did a good job of feeding off each other to keep the wheels moving. We strove to overcome each challenge as they came rather than become overwhelmed by the innumerable steps it takes to get a movie made and distributed.

We also knew that we had the OK D-Day community eagerly awaiting the release of the completed movie. They had entrusted us to tell their story and remained patient and supportive as the years passed. We knew that we had to keep going so we could finally get to that day where we returned to Oklahoma with the completed DVD.

Where do you live? Was it difficult to be on site for so much time?

The bulk of our traveling was in 2008 when we went around the country filming various “characters” as they prepped for the big game. We traveled to Chicago, Atlanta, Florida, New Orleans, North Carolina, Missouri, Kansas, and, of course, Oklahoma.

It was a thrill to be on the road seeing America and meeting a lot of great people along the way. Logistics, life, work, and lack of money have made it challenging at times but Doug and I have returned to Oklahoma every year since then to gather additional footage and to screen edits of the film for the OK D-Day community.

You know, I never could have predicted that the rural town of Wyandotte, Okla., would become a home away from home for me, but it has. I really look forward to heading out there every June.

Describe your role in the project.

As Doug and I are “hands on” independent filmmakers, there were very few phases in the making of the movie that we didn’t directly participate in. We co-produced, co-directed, and co-edited the movie. Doug served as the director of photography and I did most of the field audio recording. That said, it takes a village to make a movie and we were very fortunate when we were able to hire talented and hungry professionals to help us with various parts of the film.

Who thought of the title?

Doug and I have had some epic debates on some of the smallest details of the movie down to the color of fonts used in the logo treatment. But the title may have been the easiest part of making the movie. In 2007 when we filmed the first footage and decided we were sold on making the movie, Doug blurted out “We should call it Soldiers of Paint, a spin on Soldiers of Fortune. I loved it and we had our movie title.

Do you play paintball? Did this spark an interest for you? Are you a history buff?

Prior to working on Soldiers of Paint, I had only played paintball a handful of times. I wasn’t an avid player and certainly hadn’t played in anything like the epic game at OK D-Day. However, since we stopped filming in 2010, I’ve played in the big game every year. For the past couple years I’ve played with the 899th Black Cats, an Allied unit that specializes in “killing” enemy tanks. Mostly the tanks have shot me, but I do have a few quality tank “kills” to my name.

I don’t consider myself a history buff but I am interested in WWII and am a fan of WWII movies. Both of my grandfathers served in WWII and I have an uncle who served in Vietnam. It was extremely special for me to, in a way, honor them by telling the story of how the event owner, Dewayne Convirs, puts on Oklahoma D-Day every year to honor his WWII vet grandfather and ultimately all veterans and active duty service members.

Has doing this project opened any other doors for you or other opportunities? Do you see this project leading to any sort of sequel or follow-up?

Right now Doug and I are focused on getting the word out about the movie. We don’t have a marketing budget to hire a public relations company so we spend a lot of time promoting the film by posting on social networking sites and paintball forums. We’re also going out to various paintball events to spread the word and sell our DVD.

Between all that work and our busy day jobs there hasn’t been much time to start working on a new project, but who knows? If we find another really good story, it may get the creative juices flowing again.

Do you find yourself reflecting on your Loyola experience?

Looking back I’m confident that my Loyola experience has played a large role in my work as a filmmaker. I believe that the Jesuit ideals of “education of the whole person” and “community service” shaped my perspectives on the world around me and in turn helped to form my interest in telling positive, compelling, and informative stories about interesting and little known communities.

With Bone Mixers and Soldiers of Paint, Doug and I spent a lot of time getting to know the people who made up these unique communities—understanding who they were and why they were so dedicated to their passions. In both cases I was impressed by how close these people (who otherwise may have been total strangers) had become to each other. My conclusion was that they had become extended families bound by something much greater than just their love of their game or sport.

I should also give a shout out to Dr. Drew Leder, Ph.D. (professor of philosophy). It was his Philosophy in Film course that first inspired me to think about becoming a filmmaker. He also wrote my letter of recommendation for my application to American University’s MFA program.

How has Soldiers of Paint been received?

We’ve been really happy with the response so far. Because the OK D-Day community entrusted us with telling their story, we wanted to make sure that they enjoyed the movie and felt that it was an accurate representation of their cherished event. The response from them has been overwhelmingly positive.

We are also very pleased to see that both fans of documentaries and fans of action/adventure movies like Soldiers of Paint, too. The most surprising and most rewarding reviews that we have seen are from people who were hesitant to watch the movie because they weren’t into paintball or WW2 but they ended up being engaged and entertained for the entire movie—enough so that they’d recommend it to their friends.

How does Soldiers of Paint stand out as a documentary? What makes it so different?

It was important to us to make a documentary that was unlike anything else out there. We had a good feeling that the intense battle action of 5,000 paintball warriors storming an 800-acre field was going to be great material for a movie, but we also knew we needed interesting “characters” and a compelling story. We also wanted to deliver the highest production value that we could obtain while working with a tight budget.

With the final product we feel we achieved all of that: We were fortunate to document the closest battle in the history of the event (it comes down to a nail-biting finish—no spoilers here though!). We were also fortunate to meet and work with a truly fascinating cast of “characters” who make this event happen every year. These everyday people (who come from all over the world) make up this tight knit OK D-Day community—a community that we think audiences of all types will find funny, engaging, and perhaps inspirational.

We also have a highly polished product: We filmed in HD, mixed the audio in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround sound, created high quality graphics and map animations, and—with the help of our music supervisor, Devon Leger—assembled a fantastic selection of music for the soundtrack.

What is the audience for this piece?

OK D-Day is considered the Super Bowl of scenario paintball, so naturally we were interested in making this movie for the fans of paintball. But we also wanted to make a movie that fans of film would enjoy. We were inspired by great documentaries that tell compelling stories about interesting little-known events and communities, like Murderball, American Movie, and King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters.

We were also hopeful that since the event deals with themes like World War II and honoring veterans of all wars that the film would appeal to history buffs, military service members, and fans of war movies like Saving Private Ryan.

Why should we see this film?

Because it rocks! But don’t just take my word for it, watch our trailer and check out some of the great reviews others have written.

What are you hoping people will take away from Soldiers of Paint?

Number one I hope that people are entertained by the movie. We made it a point to keep the film moving at a good clip, with top-notch cinematography, tight editing, and a great soundtrack.

We also wanted to make sure that we did not make fun of the participants of this event. We took them and their passion seriously and by taking that approach we earned their trust so they would give us an intimate look into their event and lives.

There are many Americans who have never been to Oklahoma or the Midwest. Some may even actually consider the middle of our country to be “fly-over America.” I have to admit, there was a period of time that I may have been guilty of that thinking.

However, after working on this movie and meeting so many inspirational people like Dewayne Convirs, I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot of greatness that comes from the “heartland” of America and I do hope that Soldiers of Paint in some way helps to convey that message.

Doug Gritzmacher (left) and Mike DeChant, '98 (right)

Is there anything we haven’t asked that you were really hoping to share?

Thanks for the opportunity to tell the Loyola community about Soldiers of Paint. We are proud of the movie and think it is an entertaining, action packed, humorous, and inspirational look into a community of passionate people, who, like many of us, have a hobby that we perhaps take a little too seriously at times.

But even if you aren’t into paintball or WWII movies, by the end of the movie you’ll be rooting for a side and hopefully have a new appreciation for this event and the people who make it happen every year.

Please note that the film is not rated and though family-friendly, it does include a small sprinkling of adult language.

I would also request that if you see the movie and like it, please help us spread the word by writing a positive review (Amazon, iTunes) or like us and send us a note on Facebook. Or just tell your friends to check it out.

Find Soldiers of Paint on Amazon, iTunes, Facebook, Twitter, the official website, reviews, or the official trailer.

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