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.