Fire And Ice - MastersWorks Media Winter War Documentary
Interview with Ben Strout of MastersWork Media about his new documentary filmed on location in Finland - "Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia"
The documentary "Fire and Ice" is set for release in the U.S. by PBS stations this Summer, 2005 On May 16th, 2005, Marshall Kregel of KevOs4.com and Brent Snodgrass of MosinNagant.net had an opportunity to meet with Ben and Yelena Strout at the Music City Digital Studios in Nashville, TN. Mr. Strout was just beginning the post-production work on the new film but graciously gave us several hours of his morning to answer questions about his new documentary.
(From the MastersWork Media Website) Fire and Ice tells the story of the Winter War, the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland in November, 1939. The Soviets were convinced they could win the war in a matter of days. No one expected that tiny Finland could resist the highly mechanized Red Army, the largest military force in the world. And no one anticipated that 1939 would be one of the coldest winters in recorded history. During 105 days of intensely bloody and brutal combat, Finland improvised a devastating and deadly defense, for an environment historians have called a frozen hell. The Winter War changed the course of what would soon become World War II.
In 2003, Ben Strout founded MastersWork Media. Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia is the company’s first documentary release.
Marshall – We did a little research on your background and you’ve been involved in a number of historical media projects both with museums and in your “Journeys of a Lifetime” with WRTV-ABC. What was it about the Winter War that got your interest because this is kind of a different direction for you.
Ben Strout – Yes, it is, and it is very hard to find subjects that have not been done before and this is a subject that has not been done before. And when 3 years ago someone said to me “what do you know about the Winter War”? Winter War? I vaguely remember something…maybe I saw something of guys in white ski uniforms…I knew nothing. So that was what really got me interested. And then when I started investigating the story, it was a real important story from a number of different points of view. So that was the impetus and then of course, number 2, I was able to fund the project.
Brent - Do you as a documentary maker think that PBS or other organizations are taking a greater interest or do you think that this is maybe the experiment to see how it goes?
Ben Strout - Well, that a tough one. From what I have seen of TV in general there is less and less serious work that is being done and that’s even being asked for. It seems to diminish and I hope that at some point we are going to reach a place where everybody is tired of "Survivor" and all those reality shows and get back to real reality…you know... the history. But you know I am not optimistic. I think it is always a struggle to do something that is meaningful or serious. If anything, TV is eye candy, it’s entertainment. It's mass entertainment so you are always, sort of, going against the trend when you try to do anything that is serious.
Brent – Did you feel that since this was the first (Winter War documentary) basically in the west…was that an added pressure to you?
Ben Strout – Absolutely. Like I said, especially with history, tell me a history subject that has not been done in some fashion. I think the Winter War qualifies as a program that’s not been done before.
Marshall – Where did you find your initial information? When you decided you wanted to do this, where did you go to get your initial information? Did you buy Trotter’s book?
Ben Strout – I bought Trotter’s books. I bought all the books and I looked at all the websites. That is the initial research.
Marshall – How long did it take to make the project?
Ben Strout – From the time I started, to completion, it will be about a 2 year process. There was about 6 months of research before we actually started filming. Filming was 6 weeks total with time in between. We were there (in Finland) first in the Spring, came back in the Fall and then in the Winter. It was April, September and February. And I tell you what…this year…there was no snow! December goes by, no snow yet. January… no snow. It snowed finally in February and we went over and…it’s hard to do a winter war with no snow! (laughs)
Marshall – What is the story that you hope to tell and what is it that you want people to remember one year from now? What is it that you want to stick in their mind from the documentary or the story?
Ben Strout – To me there are some universal elements that appeal to all of us. Number one, it’s the underdog fighting for freedom, the little guy being attacked by the big guy, if you will. Fighting against almost unbelievable odds. Nobody expected Finland to survive or to win. Even the United States sort of gave up on Finland. Nobody thought it was worth supporting them. They were totally isolated and cut off from any kind of support. They were attacked by this huge power, the largest army in the world, and they (the Finns) prevailed. And if you look at this…”Did they win, did they lose"…if the object of war is to achieve political ends, then Finland won. They achieved their political ends. So I think it’s an incredible story of “Sisu”; that word that I learned that I didn’t know before I started. And the conditions that the war was fought under, too, was just unbelievable. I was reading some of these scenes of fighting in these kinds of cold horrendous conditions…the suffering that must have taken place on both sides in this conflict. I also have a great deal of sympathy for the Russian soldiers who thought they were going to be welcomed as liberators. They were doing their patriotic duty and they were helping the working class against the capitalist oppressors, which is what they were told, and when they arrived they realized this is not what they bargained for or what they expected and they died in the hundreds of thousands for reasons that…they were lied to essentially and used for other purposes that was very tragic. So there’s a lot of tragedy on a lot of different sides here. You can’t say “good guys, bad guys”. There is a bad guy, if you will, and the Russians need to judge their own history, examine their own history at some point and I think that is something that hasn’t really been done yet.
Ben Strout – I want to tell the story from a couple of perspectives. There is the civilian homefront as well as the military. I wanted to show and share some emotions; the ups as well as the downs in regards to this war story. I do not want it to be just war, war, war. I am not a military historian but a documentary film producer and I want to tell people stories, not just a war story.
Brent – So by telling these stories within the greater or larger story, is there a pace being set for the documentary to follow?
Ben Strout – Yes. We start with the war, the facts. Then we switch to the story of the homefront, and then we revisit the war – the fighting. We try to change the pace and keep it interesting for the audience. I want this to appeal to military history buffs but also to those with no knowledge of the Winter War and what took place. By that, I mean the person that says, “There was a War?”
Brent – What story or stories are you attempting to tell with this smaller story / larger story approach?
Ben Strout – Yes that is just what I am doing, with the smaller story as a part of the big picture. What I think is of human interest is also interesting to me. There is history, the facts, and I have to give this background but then I am also talking about……for example here is one guy’s story about how he was mobilized. Little personal accounts like this. Then I am back to the history then switch back to the personal stories…. Which are human interest stories at their best.
Brent – So you show how the War, as the big picture, affects the life of people. These people being the smaller picture?
Ben Strout – Yes. Big picture back to small picture. I of course used historians and their commentary to show this big picture. Like William Trotter who wrote I think the best book on the subject, "A Frozen Hell". He was a very good speaker. I want to do everything in little doses. The way I try and build a script is to give a general overview first then build on that knowledge base…..as a foundation.
Brent – Was it easy to get Mr. Trotter to take part in this work? Many historians and researchers agree with you and feel his work is the standard reference work in the English language; however, it seems that in many cases his work has been missed by the general public with more basic or watered down reference works seeming to be more popular and more accessible.
Ben Strout – Yes good point on his work. He (Trotter) could not have been more pleased to participate. He was very accommodating. We still communicate regularly with him. He has not gotten the recognition he deserves. So I hope he does get that now. He has written about 14 novels or like works and he is a great writer. He really deserves to get some recognition for what he has done. I think it took him 7 years to write his book and it is really an excellent work. It is the best work for a general audience that wishes to learn about the Winter War and what the war was all about.
Marshall– So, one year from today, if someone were to say “what did you learn from this documentary", you’re going to want them to say…"I learned about an underdog and the fight for independence?"
Brent– ...and talk about the tragedy of it all, I guess, on all sides?
Ben Strout – For the Russian people, I think hopefully they’re going to look at this conflict and say “There was something that happened here we really need to examine as a people”. And hopefully, it will lead to better relations between Russia and Finland and also Russia and the rest of the world because the Russian people really need to examine their history in order to become part of the world community.
Brent – You used Russian Reenactors (to make the film). I know that the Winter War has almost been a taboo subject in Russia for a long time, and what they heard of the Winter War, and what was the reality of the Winter War, was two different things. Was it hard to find Russian Reenactors to take part in this and how was the Russian understanding of the Winter War? Was it different than what you thought it would be?
Ben Strout – Well, it’s interesting. I have an associate producer who is an interesting young man who is Russian, lives in Finland, and he speaks Russian, Finnish, English. And he is also a reenactor. He comes from the St. Petersburg area. He put me into contact with these Russian Reenactors first of all. They were very enthusiastic. They wanted to participate in this thing, and to find them…most of them dress up in Russian uniforms. About 20 of them have a Finnish club which I was surprised to find. And then, during our first reenactment, a couple of guys showed up in German uniforms. They told me there were German reenactor clubs in the St. Petersburg area as well. So, it was surprising to find Finns but on the other hand it was surprising to find Germans. So…it was not hard to find them. They were very enthusiastic and when I talked to the Finnish guys, they seemed to sympathize with the Finnish side of the conflict. The Russians, there were a few of them that spoke English, and I was able to talk with them…a couple of the younger guys were still Stalinists. There is kind of a mixed understanding, mixed interpretation, and I think that probably reflects Russia as well.
Marshall – Do you feel like more people in the U.S.A. are searching out information on Finland’s Winter War?
Ben Strout – I think Finns need to be reconnected to their history. I think there is a lot of history that we really need to know, as Americans, about the world because it really will affect our future. Right now we have this situation in Iraq and the middle east and so few Americans know the history…that when you go into a conflict, there are a couple thousand years of history that have preceded us. The lesson of the Winter War probably has some relevance to us today that I think, hopefully, will come out of this. Of course history never repeats itself but there are certain principles, certain events you can learn from, to avoid making some big blunders. Russia is not going away. Russia is going to be a force in the world. And we need to understand the history of Russia as Americans and the Finnish / Russian war is an important part of that history because it tells you so much about Russia, their system, and why they are what they are today. It’s because of their history. Russians need to know their history but Americans also need to know that history. Finns, I think, understand their history. They have been under the boot of the Russians so long that I think they are very cautious about talking about their history. Hopefully if we can bring this subject to the surface then people can discuss this. We can solve some of these problems. Hopefully there will be a more peaceful future as a result of discussing these things and not keeping them buried.
Marshall – What do you think the reaction of the Finns, Russians, and those in the U.S.A. will be in regards to your work?
Ben Strout – It’s really hard to say. I’ve gotten incredible response from American Finns just from the couple of articles. I’ve gotten emails…the last one was just a few days ago from a woman who said “My father died on the last day of the war. I’ve got to see this program”. That kind of enthusiastic response from American Finns. From Finland…I’m not sure. From Russia? I really want this program to play in Russia. I think maybe it is more important to play in Russia than it is in Finland. We’ll see what happens. I was really surprised that they even wrote an article about this in the newspaper in St. Petersburg.
Marshall – Are there any personalities, either Russian or Finnish, from the Winter War that stood out or grabbed your attention?
Ben Strout – Oh yes, there are a couple of Finns that stand out. Mannerheim being the first. As a military guy who also understood so much about politics and as a politician who understood the military side and also someone who didn’t even speak Finnish. When he came back to Finland, that he was able to command so much respect in that nation and bring that country together.
Marshall - What was the most memorable or poignant part of your trips to Finland and Russia?
Ben Strout – Well there are a number of those. I remember the Finnish cavalry officer who is almost 90, maybe in his 80’s, and we were told when we arrived that he had been waiting all night for us to show up. He was so nervous and as we were setting up our lights, he says “Excuse me" and goes away and comes back and he comes in with his cavalry uniform, hat, boots, and sits down. He couldn’t wait to tell us his story. He's been waiting, I don’t know how many years. I think there is so many of those veterans that just want to tell their story and I think it’s really a shame that more has not been done, more people haven’t taken these stories. I don’t know if there is an oral history project in Finland like we have done here in the United States recently with our American veterans of WWII, but I think somebody needs to do that. They are disappearing from the scene. That was a very poignant moment for me.
Marshall – Did you get a chance to meet with a good number of veterans?
Ben Strout – A few, a few. Part of it is my creative approach to this…I wanted to not make this an old person’s story. I wanted to make this a young person’s story. The war was fought by young people, not by old people. And a lot of times when you present history, and you use a lot of veterans, it becomes an old man’s story and it does a disconnect between young audiences and I want to make this relevant to young audiences. So, what I tried to do was...I used some veterans but then I used diaries and accounts of guys at the time and the voices I am going to use to read them are young guys.
Brent – So that is why you used the animation and the 3D?
Ben Strout – Yes, for that same reason. That’s why my reenactors, being in their 20’s and 30’s, is important. I can relate to it because there were young people involved. And I think too many times when we do history, it becomes, like I say, old people’s stories and the young people don’t pay attention to it.
Marshall – What effect does the Winter War and the Continuation War have on Finnish attitudes today?
Ben Strout – It seems to me that the Finns are very reluctant to talk about their history. They all know about it but it’s not something (they) discuss in public. I expected that there would be a big commemoration of the beginning of the war, a big commemoration of the end of the war, and there was neither. I looked on the internet to see who was reporting November 30th . The Jerusalem Post was the only publication that I found that reported this. They said “Sixty five years ago, Finland was invaded by Russia” This is, to me, their 1776 if you will. This is their war of independence, where they really fought for their independence and they won their independence. And they really should be celebrating this. And they do…internally, but not externally and I think that’s part of the Finnish character. Things are internal rather than external. That was really sort of my surprise because in the United States, we wave the flag and it's very, very public and very open and demonstrative. The Finns are exactly the opposite.
Brent – These individual soldier’s stories, the lady with the Lotta Svard, the cavalry officer, how was your contact made with them? Was it through the Veteran’s associations?
Ben Strout – It was kind of word of mouth. You make contact with 1, 2 or 3 people and they say “oh, I know some folks” and they introduce you to them. It was just kind of person to person. There were no big organizations that helped us. There are veteran organizations and we met one guy who is connected to a veteran organization and he goes “Here are some stories that I think you’ll like”, and I tried to be selective and pick 1 or 2 representatives . I didn’t want to load the program with guys in their 90’s telling stories. It’s not a great way to tell history because memories fade and at this age they are not always accurate in their portrayal of the history. I take little moments and little personal elements from each of these people and sprinkle them throughout.
Marshall – What was the hardest part about making the documentary?
Ben Strout – Doing it 3000 miles away from base. When you are doing it on your home turf, you can work on this every day but now I’ve got to organize expeditions, if you will, 3 trips to Finland and each of those 3 trips is enormously expensive and you can’t waste time, you can’t waste resources, and you have to make the best use of the limited amount of time that you have. The entire amount of time we were there was about 6 weeks. But then again, with the communications technology, you can communicate anywhere in the world. In fact last week I did a recording session from my home in Indianapolis to the recording studio in Helsinki. We communicated via VoIP, and I directed the talent and the studio there from my laptop.
Marshall – You mentioned in one of the previous interviews about the ice…
Ben Strout – Working in the cold…when it gets below 0, as the temperature starts descending, it’s harder and harder to work in that environment. People move slower. I remember one guy, one Finnish guy, he’s operating this “jib arm”, a long boom that you put the camera on to get motions. He’s got icicles hanging from his beard and he’s got a hair dryer that he’s blowing hot air to unfreeze his equipment.
Marshall – Did you have any equipment failures?
Ben Strout – We had no equipment failures but then we took a lot of precautions, a lot of studying on how not to have problems. For example, the biggest problem you have is condensation on camera gear going from hotel to outside, then everything would be frozen. The problem is when you go inside. So what these guys did, is they had these big plastic bags, before we go inside, they put everything in these big plastic bags, into ice coolers, then you go inside. So the condensation forms on the outside of the container, outside the plastic bag, and not inside on your lens elements or the small electronics.
Brent – What the Finns would do is leave their rifles in the cold outside the dugout so they stayed that cold temperature. They didn’t take them in the warm dugout and then take them back into the cold where the grease and condensation would freeze. The Russians didn’t know to do that and it caused them a lot of problems. Its interesting when you look at the bunkers and the trenches, you see these racks on the outside. They didn’t take them in because they didn’t want the temperature change to affect the rifle.
Ben Strout – Some of the rifles didn’t fire properly (in the cold) and part of what you want in the film is that little bit of pyrotechnic effect so we are going to have to add some muzzle flashes digitally if they didn’t quite look right on film. But also to do the audio correctly we’re going to have to dub sound in for the explosions and the rifle shots and the machine gun shots.
Marshall – Did you already do the sound effects somewhere else?
Ben Strout– They will be done here in Nashville by a different company that specializes in audio.
Marshall – Do you have any plans for further work in Finland, Russia or Eastern Europe?
Ben Strout – Hopefully yes but nothing definite. There are things that, as you learn more about a subject, obviously there are other things that become of interest. The Continuation War is really a subject that needs to be dealt with. And for Finland, if you look at the Winter War, it is morally unambiguous. It's black and white, if you will. The Continuation War is really a gray area. But it is so fascinating how you walk this line…to the left is the devil and to the right is the devil and how do you walk the line? I think that is a fascinating story.
(End of Interview)
President, MastersWork Media
Ben Strout has been writing and producing television documentaries since 1981. That year, his documentary, "The Deadly Legacy", produced for WTHR-TV Indianapolis was a national Emmy finalist. Since then Ben has gone on to win numerous journalism awards, including awards from Ohio State, AP and UPI.
In 1994, he was a co-founder of the production company Nineteenth Star and writer/producer of programs for the Discovery networks, Court TV and other cable networks. He was also awarded two Emmys during this period.
Ben Strout is a member of the Writers Guild of America
All photos copyright MastersWork Media and may not be copied or used without express written permission of Ben Strout and MastersWork Media. Text of interview may not be copied or reposted without express written permission of Marshall Kregel, KevOs4.com, or Brent Snodgrass, MosinNagant.net. For information on Fnnish military history, wartime photos, and re-enactor's information please see www.kevos4.com by Marshall Kregal.