Rushing out the fast-and-dirty TV movie of a big news story before the Hollywood class-act hits is nothing new. It's just odd that Harvey Weinstein got into the act with fiction film "SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Bin Laden." This is hardly Oscar or even Emmy fare. What exactly motivated the movie mogul to plunk down $2.5 million for this run-and-gun movie at last year's Cannes?
Well, the presidential election. Harvey Weinstein likes to keep up his big-man-in-the-Democratic-Party bonafides. Any movie that could make Barack Obama look good ahead of the election was a winner. So Weinstein dug into John Stockwell's in-the-works fictionalized account of the CIA raid on Osama bin Laden, grilling the filmmaker about where all his information came from. He gave the filmmaker ("Blue Crush") some extra budget for adding expensive footage of Obama that could be intercut throughout the movie. And he rushed the picture into release ahead of November 6. (For maximum impact, the film airs at 8 PM on The National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 4 and hits Netflix the following day.) NatGeo has had to increase security due to the controversial film.
But the movie is no big whoop. "SEAL Team Six" is an oddly fictionalized account of the raid on Osama bin Laden that for all its attempts to convince the viewer of its "you are there" veracity, comes off as utterly false, from the Navy SEALs talking to the camera (which adopts different POVs) to the intercut footage of the president after the fact. This forces the viewer to leave the movie to calculate when and how that footage was obtained.
Who are these SEALs addressing? An interrogator? Is it a debriefing? Why is the CIA agent (played with heavy lip gloss by "Boss" star Kathleen Robertson) also being debriefed? The best material was shot on the fly in India with small cameras, especially the actual recreation of the raid itself, which has taut immediacy. Weirdly, the film shows a fuzzy Bin Laden with his head out of frame, mostly, and is vague about how threatening he was to the soldiers. Stockwell opts to make definitive the SEAL's orders to kill their high-profile target.
I spoke to Stockwell on the phone about how this unpretentious $5 million scrappy movie produced with foreign funding by Kathryn Bigelow's producer on "The Hurt Locker," Voltage's Nicolas Chartier, came to be made. That day, Stockwell was reacting to a New York Times "SEAL Team Six" story emphasizing its political focus, and had just been interviewed on CNN. "This movie is about history, not politics," Weinstein protested to CNN. Methinks he doth protest too much.
Anne Thompson: What did you dislike about the way the New York Times reported this story?
John Stockwell: The story inaccurately portrays the way the film originated with Nic Chartier and Seth Forman at Voltage, who had it written in-house. Nic is the least political person.
AT: Isn't it odd that Chartier, who produced "The Hurt Locker," pursued the same subject as Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty"?
JS: I don't know, of course Voltage produced "The Hurt Locker." Even to this day no one has read the script for "Zero Dark Thirty," which was written prior to Bin Laden being found and killed. It's a different movie. Nic saw an opportunity to make a good tense taut thriller. It came into being on May 2, 2011, when I went into Nic's office and he said, 'You want to make movie about this?' I got the script on November, 2011. We started shooting in February in New Mexico and India.
AT: What was your budget?
JS: Nic Chartier's good at squeezing, getting a lot of value on-screen. This is much smaller than "Zero Dark Thirty." We shot it for under $5 million on the Red Epic. We used the GoPro and Contour cameras, small waterproof mounts on helmets and rifles, in multiple formats. We did some remote-controlled 5D Canon and 60D helicopter shots of the compound, some of it is VFX. At a certain point when Harvey came along, we were hoping he'd be able to get us access to real security drone footage of the actual compound to root it in reality. But that didn't happen. Harvey never talked politics. Not with me. The only thing he allowed us to do was to pay Getty Images a lot of money.
AT: What was Harvey Weinstein's involvement in the film? How much money did he give you for that expensive stock footage?
JS: I don't have exact number. The exterior of the White House is a $10,000 shot from Getty Images. It can add up to millions. We're relying less upon stock footage. Harvey came in when the project had some press; he knew about it. He came into the edit room. I was going to show a scene or two. It was early on; we didn't have a director's cut, we didn't have the final third assembled. I showed one scene. He said, 'show me this and that,' I showed him the whole movie in rough form. He asked all these questions, 'How do you know this? Where does this info come from? Where did you come up this and that?' He was fascinated by the story, knew the details, had read the script before. In the editing room he asked me why I made certain choices.
AT: Where did your information come from?
JS: The screenwriter (Kendall Lampkin) talked to ex-Navy SEALs, I talked to intelligence sources, everything was conflicting. The writer had taken way too many liberties, it was much more fictionalized than it is today, we had little information. We dug deeper and talked to more people, read more things.
AT: Are the actors based on real people?
JS: The actors play composites, that's not the real team leader, not the special forces who went in to get Osama bin Laden. We don't pretend to do that.
AT: Will you alert audiences that the film is not based on fact?
JS: That must be pretty self-evident. What NatGeo will do with an upfront card, I don't know. We had no way of knowing what [Seal Team member] Matt Bissonette wrote. In no way is [our film] all true. I wasn't on the mission, not inside the counterintelligence discussions or the White House. Some of this is conjecture.
AT: What was Harvey's beef with the NYTimes piece?
JS: He was aghast at NYT article, it was not fair or accurate, it was misportraying events and his involvement, it was not the press he wants; he wants people to watch the movie and judge for themselves. The unfair part is it in no way shape or form idolizes Obama. I'm not sure what the Republicans would think, this is not the counterpart to "Obama 2016."
AT: Where did you get the voice of Obama as narrator over the action?
JS: That comes from his "60 Minutes" piece. I had an archivist bring materials to see what we could build. We didn't get any exclusive access to the president! Thankfully in that interview he's talking in the present tense, which made it useful to lay over sections of the movie as to what was going on at the White House at the time and in the thinking of the president.
AT: Presumably Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow had more special access?
JS: I'm not sure they had different access. My understanding is that the movie was written and meant to symbolize the failed hunt for Bin Laden and our intelligence and White House failing, like Tora Bora. It was written before. There was a rewrite after May 2. Our movie didn't start germinating until after May 2, 2011. Their movie was scripted and they were raising money for it.
AT: When did you finish the movie?
JS: I finished it –I've made another movie since–at the end of June. We first did the final mix in July.
AT: Weren't you trying to get this movie out before the election?
JS: As in all these issues it's a question of timing and marketing costs, how to get in front of the most eyeballs on all these weekends. There was interest in having it come out, if not before Kathryn's movie, at the end of the day NatGeo pursued it aggressively, wanted it to be a centerpiece of the network, to showcase their upcoming slate. Harvey knows how to draw attention to whatever projects he's involved in. It's the financials as well as the attempt to get it seen by as many people as possible and to be sure to make money on it. The timeline was, no one would be talking about it coming out three days after the election. It was ready to be aired.
AT: Where did you shoot in India?
JS: I went to India by myself, with a local crew shooting all of it with no permits in markets with an iPhone, not telling anyone. We were two hours outside Mumbai. I was running behind women in burkas with the Epic on my shoulder. We had to shoot quickly and get out of there. I had known that Kathryn had problems filming in India, so we went quickly before anyone knew what we were doing. The Indians are not big fans of Pakistan, they didn't want their country portrayed as Pakistan. I was not changing every flag, we were running and gunning.
It was a challenge. One issue is wherever you go, thousands of people show up. Our two actors were semi-well-known there. Sometimes we used the crowd, they're all real people showing up saying, 'what the hell is going on?' They swelled to such a large number that we couldn't keep them in control in a lot of instances. I loved that I got to operate the cameras, which are so small and nimble. Nobody saw the camera when we were shooting with GoPros.
AT: How accurate was your version of the raid? Is William Fichtner based on a real CIA person?
JS:. I haven't gotten Leon Panetta to go on record with me. It was everything I've read. I had lunch with Valerie Plame in Santa Fe, she wasn't still in the CIA, wishes she had been, but I learned a lot from her. Fichtner is not a specific CIA figure, he's a composite. The real intelligence community is so sprawling and multifaceted, it's impossible, it's rooms filled with 50 people, it was a massive operation. I heard about a woman that Kathleen's character is based on spearheading the drive to get Bin Laden. I never met her.
AT: Why did you show Bin Laden the way you did?
JS: One of the most challenging decisions. One version of the final takedown was initial reports that he was in an armed offensive position. We chose not to show him in a frontal position. It doesn't take place quite the way Bissonette talks about it, but it's close. We made it a capture or kill mission, with the CIA comfortable with either outcome. It's clear someone said that unless Bin Laden was naked holding his hands up he was going to be killed.