On Monday, Nov. 12, Dan Hayes and Clay Broga, along with their production company Freethink Media, will screen their film, “Honor Flight,” at the Naval Heritage Center. The 85-minute documentary called “Honor Flight” chronicles the trips World War II veterans take visit the D.C. memorial constructed in their honor. The veterans are in their 80s or 90s, and many of them would be unable to make the trip were it not for the organization called Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. SSHF arranges the trips free of cost to the veterans.
Monday’s screening is just one piece in a long journey for Hayes, 30, and Broga, 27 — a journey that started three years ago this month.
In November 2009, Hayes’ dad told him about a group of Wisconsin WWII veterans who would be visiting the memorial in Washington, D.C., courtesy of Stars and Stripes. Hayes, then 27, was working as a video producer for Reason.tv. He took his camera and went to check it out.
“I wasn’t even sure whether I was going to do a piece about it or not,” he said.
But after talking with some of the veterans and being asked to spend the day with them as they toured the memorials, Hayes knew he had stumbled on something special.
He turned the footage he had captured on Nov. 7 into a 5-minute YouTube video, titled “Every Day is a Bonus” after the slogan of SSHF. Hayes received more emails about it than any other video he had previously produced. It was clear the piece had struck an emotional nerve.
“I called Clay and I said, ‘Hey man, this is an amazing story. I think this is the best stuff I’ve ever shot,’” Hayes recounted.
SSHF asked Hayes to produce a 30-minute made-for-TV film about their program. Yet after completing his first Honor Flight trip in September 2010, he knew a short film would not do justice to the veterans’ stories. Hayes quit his job in October, at the age of 28, in order to focus entirely on the documentary.
Broga accompanied Hayes on a second Honor Flight in November. In January 2011, Broga, then 25, also quit his job, and the two founded Freethink Media a month later. It would take two years of interviewing, filming and editing — as well as the addition of several more staff members — for the Freethink Media team to complete the documentary.
During that time, the two men faced a variety of difficulties. Just days before they began filming, one of the veterans they hoped to feature passed away. Another veteran, who is a main character in the documentary, passed away during production, something that Broga described as very emotionally challenging.
It was also the first feature-length film the two men had created together. Because their background was in shorter YouTube videos, they sometimes struggled with maintaining the right emotional intensity and framework throughout the entire film. Hayes admitted he was discouraged at times during the production process, but Broga’s encouragement kept him motivated and moving.
“Dan was sleeping in a box in our office at that time,” Broga said with a laugh. “Literally, like a long keyboard box.”
It was more than just the length of the film that the two men found challenging, however.
“When your [interviewees] saved the free world from tyranny, you want to do a pretty good job,” Broga said. “So there’s an immense amount of pressure to do it right.”
The duo held the first screening of the film at the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park on Aug. 11, 2012. Through Stars and Stripes and an aggressive local PR campaign, they were able to turn out more than 28,000 people for the event, breaking the Guinness World Record for largest film screening in history. On a normal summer night at Miller Park, the atmosphere is raucous and high-spirited. On the night of the screening, it was the exact opposite.
“Everyone was just totally silenced and focused, and a lot of people said you could hear a pin drop,” Broga said.
The documentary received a standing ovation.
Tonight’s film screening in D.C. is sold out, but there are other upcoming showings in the District and across the country, on or before the film’s official debut day. Freethink Media has not signed a distribution deal yet, but is in negotiations. Regardless, Hayes and Broga are willing to work with communities and organizations to arrange screenings in their areas.
While the documentary is complete, the work of the two young filmmakers is not done. They are still investing time in the project, ensuring its continued success and helping to promote the cause of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. They have submitted “Honor Flight” to the Academy Awards, hoping to win an Oscar for best documentary feature. The short list of nominees gets announced in December, Broga said, and they hope their film is on it, even though it is somewhat of a long shot.
“I would say we’re a dark horse,” Broga added.
Beyond that, the men are working with individual clients and piloting ideas for possible future projects, including more documentaries, TV or online serials, comedies or TEDTalks-like shows. Whatever style of project they take on next, it will express the same themes as “Honor Flight,” such as freedom, human achievement, individualism and quality of life.
Looking back on the process, the two men can see how creating the film changed their lives. Broga said after hearing the veterans’ stories and experiencing the honor flights he has more appreciation for each day of his life, for their company and the ability to live out their dreams and for his family and friends.
Hayes summed it up in one word: Perspective. He said he feels a duty to take advantage of the freedom and opportunities he has been given.
“What better way to show your gratitude to this generation for what they did than by living meaningful, purpose-driven lives?”