As part of the Cal State San Bernardino Alumni Professor for a Day program, theater arts alumnus Danny Bilson ’78 talked to a group of theater arts majors via Zoom about his successes in the film industry and his contribution to the movie “Da 5 Bloods,” which premiered on Netflix on Friday, June 12.
Bilson, who is a professor and chair of the Interactive Media and Games Division at the University of Southern California, co-wrote the upcoming American war drama film with his late writing partner and fellow CSUSB theater arts alumnus Paul De Meo ’78. The duo also co-wrote the 1991 film “The Rocketeer.”
“Da 5 Bloods,” which was adapted by director Spike Lee, is about four African American veterans who return to Vietnam decades after the war to find their squad leader’s remains and the gold fortune he helped them hide.
“The story of ‘Da 5 Bloods’ came from Cal State San Bernardino. That’s where it started,” Bilson said during his talk with CSUSB students. “When Paul and I were students from fall of ’74 to the end of ’78, the war was ending and there were three bases out there – Norton, George and March. And in those days, the guys did their last duty there, got the GI Bill and then a lot of them went to school at Cal State San Bernardino.”
Bilson recalls the Vietnam veterans telling stories of the war in his college dorm.
“I always felt like it was my older brothers’ war and I always wanted to do something with it in a story, but something different,” Bilson said.
After working on various projects throughout the years, in 2013, Bilson decided to get back to screenwriting. He thought about how difficult it is for his generation to retire, along with the Vietnam War veterans, who he calls “emblematic” of his generation. This prompted him to write “The Last Tour” (now “Da 5 Bloods”) with De Meo.
“What are these guys, in their 60s, doing in the middle of the jungles in Cambodia looking for gold?” said Bilson when talking about the plot of the film, noting it has to do with the lack of care for veterans. “The theme was really about that generation and what remains of the war.”
Bilson adds that the central plot they wrote for “The Last Tour” is still in “Da 5 Bloods,” which is why they get first-position credit. Lee was inspired by the book “Bloods,” which tells the story of Black Vietnam War soldiers, and saw Bilson and De Meo’s script as a great way to tell that story.
“Paul and I laid a foundation of themes about the Vietnam generation, the vets, the cost of war and the story itself,” said Bilson, noting that the movie is a collaboration between them and Lee’s team. “It’s a Spike Lee Joint. I think it’s a good one. If we get lucky and get nominated for this, it’s a great tribute to Paul.”
After Bilson talked about “Da 5 Bloods,” the theater arts students asked him questions about how to get started and succeed in the theater and film industry. He inspired many of the students, such as senior Bernard Iyawe.
“I learned that if you are passionate and determined enough to do what you love, it will happen,” Iyawe said. “Danny motivated me more and I’m even more passionate about acting.”
As for Janeth Shayo, Bilson’s advice to “write the movie you want to see most” resonated with her.
“I learned that the most important thing I should be doing right now is creating as much content as possible,” Shayo said. “It’s going to be difficult to get into the industry knowing someone is always one step ahead of me, but I am excited to see Danny’s work and hopefully build my own story.”
The advice Bilson emphasized that evening was to persevere and always go on to the next project.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Bilson said. “You got to keep going.”
About CSUSB’s Alumni Professor for a Day
The CSUSB Alumni Professor for a Day program by the university’s Alumni Relations office celebrates the achievements and honors the contributions of distinguished alumni. The program allows alumni to empower current students with the knowledge and wisdom they have gained through their experiences. For more information, visit the Alumni Relations website.