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"Saving Private Ryan" Star Called Steven Spielberg Film the "Worst Experience of His Life"

The cast were subjected to an intense boot camp before filming even began—and almost quit.

When he took on the 1998 World War II drama Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg sought to make a film that fully illustrates the horrors of war. To achieve that realism, he sent the cast to a boot camp run by a real soldier—and almost tanked the film in the process. One of the movie's stars even called it "the worst experience of [his] life." Read on for details on how a band of Hollywood actors almost bailed on the production of a future multiple-Oscar nominee—and how they were convinced to stay.

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Spielberg hired a Vietnam veteran to put the cast through their paces.

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in 1998
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

To help the actors prepare for their roles as soldiers, Spielberg brought on retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye as a military adviser. Dye endorsed a rather "Method" approach to playing a soldier on screen, explaining in the 2015 book Cinema's Strangest But True Moments, "I believe there is a certain core spirit that is common among men and women who fight for their country, and I think to understand it fully, the actors playing them need to experience the rigors that combat people all over the world face."

In practice, that meant subjecting the cast—which included Tom HanksEdward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi—to a 10-day boot camp that entailed subsisting on rations, sleeping in tents, and lugging equipment through the mud on three hours of sleep, according to a 1998 article in The Morning Call. "It was the worst experience of my life," Burns said of the pre-filming challenge.

The actors had a special nickname.

According to a 1998 Entertainment Weekly article on filming of the movie, the first thing Dye did when he got his hands on the actors was to strip them of their names. Instead, they were collectively referred to as "the turds." The exception was Hanks, who earned the distinction of being called "Turd No. 1." Along with intense daily exercise and drills, they were forced to call each other by their character names and punished if they slipped into modern parlance, all through weather that turned to frigid rain. "The idea was for us to resent being there," said Diesel, who played Private Caparzo, "just like a soldier would resent being in the war."

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Matt Damon was spared boot camp—for a specific reason.

Matt Damon in 1999
Brenda Chase / Stringer

The cast resented more than just being there. They also didn't have many fond feelings for Matt Damon, who was playing the title character they're all ordered rescue so one of his family's sons comes home from the war. His castmates weren't jealous of his more prominent role, however. Spielberg intentionally engineered their resentment by keeping them separated from Damon.

According to EW, the director didn't want Damon to go through the same trial-by-fire bonding experience as his co-stars, hoping their unease around him would affect their chemistry on screen.

With some success, it would seem. "They started to harbor that kernel of resentment, 'cause I wasn't there," Damon told the magazine. "These guys are lying facedown in the mud, and I'm, you know, in a bubble bath in America. When I showed up on set, a lot of that resentment just translated right onto the screen."

Some of the actors almost quit.

Still from Saving Private Ryan
DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount Pictures

Was all this necessary to get an effective performance out of the cast? Some of the actors apparently didn't think so and were ready to jump ship after a few days. According to EW, a vote was taken, and seven were in favor. The holdout was Hanks. "You can read books and see all the documentaries," the older actor said, "but you're still not going to have a palpable understanding of how tired and cold and wet these guys are, and how heavy this equipment is, and how long it actually takes to walk three kilometers with all this stuff hanging from you." After a second vote, the cast reportedly opted to stay.

Reflecting on the experience more than a decade later in an interview with Alex Simon, Private Mellish actor Goldberg found value in the boot camp. "We were just big pansies," he said. "Looking back though, it was an invaluable experience, and one of the more important elements of having done the film, to prove to myself that I could get through the kind of experience that otherwise I never in a million years would have subjected myself to."

Spielberg and Hanks worked with Dye again on Band of Brothers.

While some of the cast were eager to leave the onscreen horrors of war behind, Hanks and Spielberg would prove their dedication again when they re-teamed to create the acclaimed 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. And right there with them during production was Dye, who again served as a military consultant and also played the small role of Colonel Robert Sink.

In 2017, Dye launched a campaign to fund his own film about D-Day entitled No Better Place to Die. The next year, ScreenDaily announced Hanks would serve as executive producer and as of 2023, IMDB lists the project as "in production," with the actor's Forrest Gump co-star Gary Sinise evidently attached to star.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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