Note - This is the first in a series of interviews with the directors of some of our favorite nonfiction films from 2010.
How to describe the journey that famed journalist and writer (The Perfect Storm) Sebastian Junger and noted photog and sometime documentary cinematographer (THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK) Tim Hetherington have been on the past few years? First, they were put together, shotgun marriage-style by Vanity Fair to work in Afghanistan on assignment for the magazine, later realizing that they may indeed have the footage to make a documentary. Then came surviving an edit, premiering and winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (where it was described as a nonfiction HURT LOCKER) and now a whirlwind trip on the Oscar shortlist.
Earlier this year, I wrote briefly about seeing their film, RESTREPO, projected over a river in Kosovo, the sounds of machine gun fire echoing off the sides of the mountains and buildings. What struck me then was the film's refusal to advance an overt political message, although it's not hard to finish the film with some sense of mission futility.
We met a couple weeks ago as the duo were prepping to launch the DVD of RESPTREPO. The conversation was lively and genuine – they are comfortable enough with one another to rib each other in front of another writer/filmmaker – and you get the sense that they’re still wondering just how they ended up here, in this situation, together.
All these wonderful things: How did you guys meet? Or how did this project come that you guys worked on it together?
Sebastian Junger: I convinced Vanity Fair to let me follow a platoon for a whole deployment and I needed a good person to work with, a photographer, but also someone who could shoot video, because I had this sort of crazy idea that, if I shot a lot of video, if we shot a lot of video, maybe we could make a documentary. I just had no idea… It was an incredibly naïve thought, but luckily Tim sort of knew about that world and so, the first trip I was by myself – I was with another photographer that was a friend of mine, but essentially I was on my own – and the project really started on the second trip, when I went out there with Tim. Tim and I immediately just synched up really well together, he saw the potential in the film and in the project and that was when the project really began. Ultimately, he was put on the assignment by Vanity Fair.
Tim Hetherington: We met in the airport lounge in Heathrow. He was changing planes and I was coming…
SJ: I talked with him on the phone and just asked him some questions because I knew how hard it was out there and I wanted to make sure he had his shit together and was fit.
ATWT: And did you guys have any idea that you would still – it’s a long journey to take together.
SJ: No, no. (laughter)
TH: (laughter) No, absolutely no idea. Absolutely no idea. Yeah, everything just grew organically. You know, as Sebastian points out, we got on really well straight away. If we hadn’t got on well, we wouldn’t have been able to have done it. You know what I mean? Because the whole process is so super intense – not just being together in Afghanistan in very extreme situations but also being together in the edit, just making decisions together. I mean, that really, in some ways, there were parts of the edit that really stretched our relationship in ways…
SJ: Yeah, it was hard.
SJ: And it was like a jury and any person could have a complete veto, and it was me, Tim, Michael Levine, the editor, and Maya Mumma, the associate editor, and on any major or minor decision we had to all be in agreement. And if one person – we didn’t set it up this way formally, but the reality was – one person with serious reservations could make or prevent a change.
TH: You know, the other real pressure was that we made the film independently. We financed it independently. National Geographic bought a finished film. And we did that because we want to control the editorial process. In the end, it was during a recession, so we were independently financing so after a while we were like, wow, this could really turn out bad. We might not sell this and we could be in real trouble. So there was a lot of pressure in that way as well.
ATWT: And now that you’ve gone through the whole process, can you imagine doing it together again.
TH & SJ: (laughter)
ATWT: Or was the edit – everybody breaks up during the editing process.
TH: We both should say something. I say “yes” and you say “no” simultaneously? (laughter) I think we could definitely do it again. I think we could do it again if we found the right thing that we both wanted to do.
TH: I don’t think just to make a film for a movie’s sake because that’s what we do. I think we can work together on the right thing and I think we want to do that. We don’t need to churn it out like a machine, necessarily.
SJ: We’re journalists, so, the next topic that we do that would be a great film, that’s when will make a film. But were not going to set out just to make another film.
ATWT: You guys both came in with considerable credits and considerable backgrounds, what did you learn from one another?
SJ: I learned a lot. I mean, writers don’t necessarily think in visual terms and, so, Tim was just aware of things. He was just aware of the visual world in a way that I wasn’t. Once there was a very boring afternoon and nothing was happening. There hadn’t been a firefight in a week, everyone was hot and I was just completely zoned out. And everyone was asleep, everyone in the outpost was asleep practically. It was like mid-afternoon nap, just the buzz of flies and that’s it. And Tim was creeping around photographing all the sleeping soldiers. And for me it was the epitome of a moment where nothing was happening, there was no story to record, and Tim was like, “When do you ever see soldiers asleep, nobody ever sees soldiers asleep. This is awesome.” And I realized, oh my God, everything has a value. So, as a result, I wrote a paragraph about what’s it’s like to be at an outpost where everyone’s asleep. And that paragraph’s in the book. So that was just one example of the little ways that we affected each other. And Tim would think really conceptually about things – as a journalist, I think in a kind of linear fashion and Tim would really think conceptually, like what’s the emotional experience out here. He would organize his thoughts in a way that wasn’t linear, it was something else. And that was one of the reasons I divided my book into “Fear”, “Killing” and “Love”. I was trying to figure out a narrative for the book and literally I was like, OK, do like Tim does. Think about it conceptually, not linearly. That’s two of the many things that rubbed off on me.
TH: Yeah, I think our working relationship is just fantastic. We get on like a house on fire and then to work together is just amazing. It’s so funny because when people first meet us, they think that they have am idea of what that relationship is. And usually they’re always wrong. They don’t get it. From the basics of when they meet us, they think, oh, Sebastian’s the writer and I’m the photographer and therefore the division of labor is like that. They don’t get it. You know, working with Sebastian, we’re always talking about story and about stuff, tapping into each other’s heads and re-orientating and picking up information and flinging it each other’s way. It’s really like we’re sounding boards to each other. I’ve learned so much off of Sebastian doing business with people. He’s obviously had a much greater, bigger experience with The Perfect Storm of navigating very complicated business relationships. And that may sound like something that’s not so cool and crazy but it really is. You can make a film but then you’ve got to make it out there, you’ve got to connect it to an audience, with people, and Sebastian has an incredible way of connecting with people. And that’s both in terms of when we’re in Afghanistan with the men, he can connect with people and has built a relationship with them. There seems to be no effort in it and that’s a really amazing thing to see and to understand and to learn how to do that. Because I think it is something you can learn. Often Sebastian sometimes comes across as being so kind of, as if it’s no effort, but he can navigate between those worlds, and that’s something I saw out in Afghanistan, but I’ve seen it in making the film in post-production and afterwards when I was seeing him getting through this whole world. Just working with people and relationships and understanding them in a real way. Often times I find that journalists are so – life is in black and white and sometimes journalists can be very militant in their outlook. Sometimes I, myself, even in a conceptual thing, find myself being too militant about stuff. And he’d be like, “but, no, it’s not, it can be both these things at the same time.”
SJ: (laughter) Years of therapy. That’s what that was.
TH: So, my point was that it wasn’t just something that happened in Afghanistan or afterwards, but in the totality of dealing with people and navigating relationships.
SJ: Our film was at the most risk of not being made not out there in the field with all the physical difficulties, it was at it’s greatest risk much later in the business process. That was a far greater threat to the future of the movie than anything in Afghanistan.
ATWT: Well, it’s a funny thing, when you were talking about making a movie, you sort of forget you become your own small business.
ATWT: And then your life and your art has to be this other thing that you aren’t thinking about when you’re actually practicing it, but then to actually get it out to people, you have to…
SJ: It’s true. We had employees. We had hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. I mean it was freaking nightmare. (laughter)
TH: As an image maker, when I was young making photographs, I’d often look at a picture of a photographer whose work was getting out there and I’d say, how come his work is out there and mine isn’t? My picture is as good as his. And then you kind of realize that that isn’t the only point. A professional is someone who can not only make the work but also connect it to an audience.
SJ: That’s right.
TH: And our film is really about building a bridge between experiences. Buidling a bridge between the soldiers’ reality and the public back at home. Building a bridge for families who have loved ones in the military, helping them to understand their experience. And so, I’m deeply concerned about what’s happening in Afghanistan and I’m deeply concerned about what we’re asking them to do and I think we should really understand the totality of their experience. So whether you’re for or against the war, understanding these young men is fundamentally essential to formingyour strategy. Often people are very militant in their outlook, so the left says, “soldiers join the military because of economic necessity and that’s it, period”. Or the right is like, “if you question the rationale of the war, you’re being unpatriotic.” The extremities are often not very useful to moving forward. And I think that the strategy that we took was, how do we connect people to what’s happening out there in Afghanistan. Obviously the closest route to getting people to connect to that idea is through, “we’re sending young men out there”. So let’s connect through that. People looking at the film – so what happens, oh, I filmed when an Apache attack helicopter hits a house and kills and wounds Afghan people. And that’s very rare footage that you suddenly see on the screen. If I’d made a film that was purely about Afghan civilian casualties, that wouldn’t be on the screen, we wouldn’t be connecting to all the people who’ve seen our film. And so, talking about Sebastian’s influence on me, talking about all the ways that there is a middle ground, there is a way to have a discussion that is inclusive.
ATWT: Well, that’s what I think is a weird part of where we’re at in documentary is that, because so many films are driven by an agenda that what we all used to think of as documentary, the observing part of it, now people get confused when something is observing and bringing home some real human truth, then the question is, but you’re not telling me how I’m supposed to think about this in terms of how it relates to the war. I find it a strange disconnect.
TH: Since when did we stop thinking ourselves? Why do I have to tell you what to think? It’s interesting. You’re saying that and it’s one of the things that occurred to me about that is that, it’s funny, but you see it in the funding as well. In the funding you have to tick the boxes. The film world is driving people through funding into that thing where they have to have this. It can’t be more nuanced.
ATWT: I was curious, Tim, with your previous documentary work, what was different from being the cinematographer on a project to being a co-director and producer and shepherding it all the way through.
TH: Responsibility to subjects. Responsibility to audiences. I think that is really what comes with being a director and producer is the responsibility around it. As a cameraman, like in Liberia, I was hired, I’d just go in there. I mean, LIBERIA: AN UNCIVIL WAR and RESTREPO have something in common, which is that they’re both inside the war machine in very extreme circumstances that you don’t normally see. I mean me and James Brabazon were the only outsiders allowed in with the rebel group in the middle of the jungle, trying to fight to overthrow Charles Taylor. And the images would shock you, they’re like wow. And definitely when we were making RESTREPO it was like, we wanted to make an immersive and visceral war film, and a lot of my work was about immersion. But I was paid and that was it and my footage was in the film but I didn’t have any control over the edit. As I’ve gone through this practice, I want to control, you need to control the material to allow it to really breathe fully and to be what it is, which is three dimension, and that responsibility toward the material is what I felt most as director and producer. We both felt that way. And that’s why in the edit it was so tough.
ATWT: And, Sebastian, the difference between being able to write about something and knowing that you can capture something that you see with your eyes, but if you don’t capture it with the camera with the documentary… What was that experience like for you?
SJ: It made me just film everything. When I realized, oh shit, you can’t recoup something later? I mean, as a writer you can always do that. You can ask someone to describe what happened and then it’s a quote in your book and you’ve captured that moment. You can’t do that with film. At least not the kind of film we wanted to make. So, when in doubt I just turned the camera on. Tape is cheap and it was also good practice because I was learning. Every trip I became a better cameraman. I started out, I didn’t even know what a cutaway was. Tim explained to me what a cutaway and then suddenly in my footage, suddenly there’s like cutaways everywhere.
TH: You can tell, the light bulb goes on. (laughter)
SJ: (laughter) You can tell exactly where I learned that lesson.
TH: Sebastian learns the cutaway.
SJ: And then unfortunately at another point, I learned, I was just fooling around with the camera and I figured out what slow shutter speed does.
TH: This stuff used to just drive me insane.
SJ: I was like, oh my God, this is awesome. So suddenly it was like everything –
TH: Everything was in slow motion. I was like, Sebastian, we can always do that in the edit, we can slow the tape down. “No, no, no, it’s so cool.” (laughter)
SJ: You’d see these phases as I discovered things in my footage.
TH: I don’t think we used any of the slow motion film.
SJ: No, not at all. Not once. (laughter) And I ruined perfectly good fire fights.
TH: It was really funny because it was also like I’m trying to do wider shots so something’s happening and you want to do that kind of distance shots and Sebastian would be running into it like that close and it’s like, “hey, just kind of hang back at a distance”. (laughter)_ But now it’s like, I joke, he’s gotten really good and now I worry about my job. If we’re in Afghanistan I might have to push him off the edge of a cliff.