by Jonathan Sperling
Students and alumni from John Paul the Great Catholic University recently participated in the production of the 90-minute special for EWTN entitled Called and Chosen: Father Vincent R. Capodanno. The documentary tells the story of a Roman Catholic Navy Chaplain who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions that resulted in the sacrifice of his life in Vietnam. Director James Kelty reached out to Catholic colleges in search of aspiring filmmakers with the right skill sets.
Those who answered the call were on set for three days in Santa Clarita, California shooting the Vietnam reenactments. JP Catholic Senior Preston Yarger was hired as Director of Photography. “It is my duty to make the film look as visually stunning as can possibly be in order to serve the director’s vision and to properly communicate to my team how we will achieve that.” Preston saw an opportunity to grow as a filmmaker, but he emphasized that the project was much more than practical experience on set. “One of the most memorable parts of this project was working with the veterans who actually fought alongside the courageous Father Capodanno in Vietnam. Listening to their stories and doing our best to honor their sacrifices and fallen comrades is a reward in and of its own.”
The group of veterans who were present throughout the weekend served alongside Father Capodanno during the bloody battle of Operation Swift in the Que Son Valley of South Vietnam in 1967. They shared their experiences of sorrow, heroism, and faith with the cast and crew so that proper tribute would be paid to their beloved chaplain and the other men who made the ultimate sacrifice.
JPCatholic alumnus Stephen Cunningham, who plays the role of Lance Corporal John Lobur in the film, said it is hard to know where to begin in describing the events of the weekend. “It was an incredible experience spending time with the vets of Mike Company 3/5 and receiving direction from them as to how things took place during the deadly engagement of Operation Swift.” Stephen recalled one scene in particular in which two actors are recreating a gruesome and tragic event from the perspective of Lance Corporal Fred Tancke. “I was standing off to the side, watching the scene play out, when I heard, ‘Cut!’ and saw the veteran, Fred Tancke himself, sitting directly in front of the actors, quietly wiping tears away from his eyes.” Stephen says he comes away from this project with “a huge appreciation for our veterans.”
Sophomore Andrew Ascough, having never worked behind the camera on a feature film before, eagerly seized the opportunity to work as a Camera Operator on this project. He recounts the experience as an emotional one. “I remember as I set up my shots for certain scenes and the actors ran through rehearsals, I could feel the emotion of the scene as if the real thing was happening before me. I think it was because the men who faced these dangers in real combat were there as a reminder of the actual reality.”
This film is also the first feature project for Sophomore Anton Weidner. He expressed that it was “super powerful” seeing the story brought to life in a way that moved the men who were actually there. Anton, who worked as Assistant Camera Operator and Grip, said this experience allowed him to make contact with multiple facets of production and also renewed his love for the medium he’s chosen to work in.
The documentary uses interviews, location footage, and cinematic reenactments to tell the story of Father Capodanno from his boyhood in Staten Island, to his ordination as a priest, and finally his service as a Navy Chaplain. Called and Chosen: Father Vincent R. Capodanno is expected to show on EWTN on September 4th of this year, the date which marks the 50th anniversary of Operation Swift and the death of Father Capodanno.
Photos courtesy of Andrew Ascough.