Director John Stockwell Talks SEAL TEAM SIX: THE RAID ON OSAMA BIN LADEN, the Responsibility of Bringing the Story to the Screen and Debuting on TV

     November 4, 2012


SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden follows the elite Navy SEAL squad that took down the world’s most notorious and reviled terrorist while giving glimpses into the lives of those responsible.  Showing how the manhunt and raid on Osama Bin Laden unfolded through the eyes of the military and intelligence teams involved, the tense true-to-life action thriller is the National Geographic Channel’s first original feature inspired by real-life events.  From director John Stockwell, the film stars Cam Gigandet, Anson Mount, Freddy Rodriguez, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner, Kathleen Robertson, Eddie Kay Thomas, Robert Knepper and William Fichtner.

During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, John Stockwell (Blue Crush, Into the Blue) talked about the huge sense of responsibility in bringing the story of this mission to the screen, how this went from a theatrical release to the National Geographic Channel and Netflix, the footage of President Obama that was added to the film, the biggest challenges of shooting a war film on an independent budget and schedule, and what he hopes people will take away from this experience.  He also talked about his next film, In the Blood, about a woman who sets out to take down the men she thinks are responsible for her husband going missing, how he thinks audiences will be surprised by the film’s star Gina Carano, and shooting action scenes with someone who can do all of her own stunts.  Check out what he had to say after the jump. 

john-stockwell-seal-team-sixCollider:  How does it feel to be the first one to bring the details of this mission to the screen, in this way?

JOHN STOCKWELL:  Honestly, there’s a huge sense of responsibility.  When (producer) Nicolas Chartier brought me the script, it was in a very mason state.  I didn’t want to do it because I thought this would be an impossible movie to really fact-check or, in any way, vet.  But, through a whole variety of sources, mostly off the record, we were able to get a really good handle on the behind-the-scenes wrangling.  That’s what’s interesting to me.  Obviously, we wrote it and filmed it before the book No Easy Day came out, so we didn’t have the advantage of any of that.  Honestly, it started as almost completely fictionalized.  And then, as details started trickling out and I started to use the sources I had, it became more fact-based.  I’m happy, every time I read a new book about it.  I hope we line up with the way that (Navy SEAL) Matt Bissonnette says it happened. 

What was it that led you to go from a theatrical release to the National Geographic Channel and Netflix?

STOCKWELL:  That was a Harvey Weinstein decision.  He came into the editing room very early into the director’s cut and preemptively bought it, and National Geographic aggressively pursued it.  I’m sure there is a financial component to it, but I’m not exactly sure what the deal points were.  I know, from a marketing perspective, Harvey and NatGeo wanted to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible and get the biggest viewership.  That’s more easily achieved on a channel like NatGeo and Netflix than it is in the theater.  Look what happened this past weekend.  New films opened outside the Top 10.  It’s a tough marketplace.  It was made independently by Nicolas Chartier.  When you’re in the independent world, as much as someone can love a movie, they can say, “Well, it will cost us another $25 million to get the P & A,” and sometimes they’ll make a calculated decision, if someone is aggressively pursuing it, to go that way.  So, I’m sure there is a financial component, but I also know that, from a marketing and viewership perspective, this is what Harvey wanted to do.  And streaming it 24 hours afterwards on Netflix is a new approach.

Controversy never hurts, when it comes to directing attention to something you’re trying to make people aware of, but the controversy surrounding this film doesn’t really seem justified.  Do you think it’s been caused more by the idea of what people think could be in this film, as opposed to what’s actually in it, since it hasn’t premiered yet?

seal-team-six-imageSTOCKWELL:  Absolutely!  I know all the detractors haven’t seen it.  There will still be people who, if you are making a movie about a mission or a raid that happened during our current President’s tenure, won’t be happy.  I think it’s sad, in some respects, that they can’t look at this as a triumph of Americans, from both sides of the aisle, and a triumph of cooperation with the intelligence community and the military.  They think that it’s somehow a puff piece about Obama.  Honestly, in truth, I think we underplay his role.  He was the president that redirected the CIA to put Bin Laden at the top of the must get list.  He was someone who had countless meetings and was pushing and prodding, and we don’t get into that, at all, in the film.  Honestly, I just didn’t want to do re-enactments.  The President wouldn’t appear on screen, and I didn’t want to use the guy from Saturday Night Live.  He’s a very peripheral player in it, but he’s still Commander in Chief.  I can’t pretend that it happened under a different administration and under a different Commander in Chief.  It’s a little bit of the Harvey Weinstein factor too, honestly.  If Harvey gets involved, he is a big supporter of the President and, as a result, people think that it’s somehow an advertisement for the President, which it isn’t.  He didn’t have anything to do with the screenplay or the production.  He came in, after the fact.  That’s an unfair means of attack.  But again, he’s also a master at drawing attention to the things that he wants to draw attention to, and I stand in awe of that. 

Was there footage of President Obama added to the film? 

STOCKWELL:  Yes.  Look, this is not the first movie that Harvey has had notes on, in the edit room.  He has a history of getting involved.  Very little of the notes had to do with the President.  He had story notes.  He wanted a little more of this and a little more of that.  The Weinstein Company gave us the resources to be able to buy stock footage from Getty Images, etc., which is actually surprisingly expensive.  You get into the $10,000 for every 30 seconds world.  We used stock footage from Washington, from Afghanistan and from Pakistan, in an effort to root the film in reality.  That’s the way he did it on Iron Lady and on The Queen.  He blurred that line between the scripted film portions and the news stock footage portions.

This is a war film on an independent budget and schedule, which is no easy feat.  What were the biggest challenges, as far as filming this the way you wanted to film it, on the budget that you had?

seal-team-six-the-raid-on-osama-bin-ladenSTOCKWELL:  The biggest challenge was not hurting or killing anyone.  Even though we were using blanks, we were using full-load blanks and automatic weapons and helicopters, and we were moving very quickly.  Our actors aren’t real Navy SEALS.  We did have great military advisors, but I was haunted by the idea that someone would actually get hurt.  But, I took advantage of it by making it a down and dirty, gritty film.  We put cameras on everyone’s helmets and rifles, and we just had them rolling all the time.  It wasn’t so much a high-tech mission, as it was a boots on the ground mission.  What I took away from it was that this guys were the best of the best because they knew when to not pull the trigger.  That’s what they all told me when I would talk to them.  They said, “We train for years to learn when not to shoot.  Anyone can go in and open up, spray a room with bullets, take everyone out and figure it out later, but that’s not how we operate.”  But, it was a huge challenge.  Kathryn Bigelow had 30 times the resources that we had.  It’s different than shooting two people across the table, talking.  I can do 30 pages a day of that.  This was a little more challenging.  

Was it important to you to include the mock documentary interviews with the characters because the present story didn’t really allow for much of that?

STOCKWELL:  Yeah, we wanted to transcend the re-enactment component of this.  Obviously, there’s so much story that has to be told, and it is fascinating to understand the inner-workings of the intelligence community and the military and the local nationals on the ground in Pakistan.  We screened the movie earlier and people really liked it, but they wanted to know more about the characters.  Those sections were shot later. 

There’s a certain sense of pride and a level of assuredness that almost borders cockiness that comes with being a Navy SEAL and doing this kind of work.  For those moments when your actors were talking to the camera, were there specific directions that you gave them, as far as how you wanted them to carry themselves in those scenes? 

SEAL-team-six-raid-on-osama-bin-ladenSTOCKWELL:  Not specifically.  It was interesting, you would never pick the SEALs that I’ve met out of a crowd.  They were far from cocky.  They were the fathers that you see at soccer games.  They’re not G.I. Joe types.  They’re not big muscular guys.  They’re guys who can tread water for four hours with their boots on.  They have a certain mentality and a certain body type.  They’re not The Rock.  That’s what I wanted to get across.  Of course, there’s a certain cockiness because they’ve worked hard and they’ve been selected to be in one of the most elite units in the U.S. military.  Those interviews were tough because, at first, we conceived of them as a debriefing.  But the truth is that, in a real debriefing, you would never get personal.  It would be just the facts.  So, we had to turn it into more of almost like they’re talking directly to the audience.  I would have liked to have had interviews with the wives.  I would have liked to have gotten Bin Laden on camera, but he wasn’t available. 

Was it challenging to approach making something like this suspenseful, when you know that you’re telling a story where the audience already knows the ending? 

STOCKWELL:  It’s certainly a challenge.  But, I knew the ending of Titanic, and I still sat through those three hours.  People don’t know how the mission unfolded and how close it came to going south.  Yes, they know about the downed chopper, but the really interesting thing to me was all the what ifs and all the things that could have gone wrong, and the hazards and risks that were associated with the mission.  It wasn’t a no-brainer.  There wasn’t 100% certainty that Osama Bin Laden was there.  If that helicopter crash had resulted in the deaths of American soldiers, I think that foreign policy debate the other night would have been a whole different affair.  The truth is that not only did that helicopter crash, but they blew up the wrong wall.  I later learned things, that I wish I had included, like the explosives guy got some misinformation and thought he was told to blow the compound instead of blowing the helicopter, and almost blew up the compound.  It’s more the, “What if he had tunnels and escaped, would they chase him through the streets?  What if the compound were rigged to explode?”  There were theories within the intelligence community that they had Stinger missiles.  He was a mile from a military academy.  Pakistan has nuclear weapons and F-16 jets.  There were a lot of variables. 

You were very respectful with how much you showed of the actual shooting of Osama Bin Laden.  Was that always your intention, or did you edit that down later?

raid-on-osama-bin-ladenSTOCKWELL:  I think that was always intended.  At the time, there was a lot of conflicting information about the actual shooting.  Was he armed?  Was he unarmed?  Was he in a defensive posture?  Was he in an offensive posture?  I didn’t want to spend a lot of time with him, so we wanted to have the POV of the SEALs going in.  But yes, I never intended to do the Sam Peckinpah, riddled with bullets, guy crumpling to the ground thing.  When No Easy Day came out, he definitely had a different version of the actual shooting, that’s different from Mark Boal’s and a number of other sources.  I would assume his is correct, but this is a story you’ll never get official confirmation or denial about anything.  He could be inaccurate. 

What are you hoping that people will take away from seeing this film? 

STOCKWELL:  It absolutely shows what can happen when there is bipartisan cooperation.  Obviously, the politicians, for the most part, just stayed out of this.  It was a CIA-led mission, and our intelligence officials got it right.  At the end of the day, I think the SEALs did an amazing job, as did the local nationals and the intelligence committee.  I also think the President should get some credit for making a principled call, almost more than a pragmatic call.  Americans did need to know that the architect of 9/11 and a mass murderer was brought to justice.  He didn’t have to be.  There were decisions, under past administrations, that it wasn’t worth the risk to put American lives in danger to get him.  This President made that choice, and he should get credit for it.

Is In the Blood what you’ll be shooting next?

STOCKWELL:  Yes.  I’m going down, at the end of this week, to Puerto Rico to start production of it.  That goes right up until Christmas. 

What attracted you to that project? 

STOCKWELL:  It reminded me of a movie that I’ve always loved, which was Breakdown with Kurt Russell, where you’re in paradise, and then something happens.  In that case, his wife got into a truck and he never saw her again.  I wanted to work with Gina Carano because I really thought she was an interesting presence in Haywire.  And then, I met her and thought that a lot of what she had to offer hadn’t been seen on screen yet.  I like the idea of a kick-ass, female-driven suspense movie.

You also handle action really well, so is it exciting to work with somebody who can do her own stunts?

seal-team-six-osama-bin-ladenSTOCKWELL:  It will be exciting.  I haven’t gotten a chance to do it yet.  But in some ways, it also create a dilemma because she is better than any stunt woman, but I don’t want her to get hurt.  She has to be in every scene in the movie, so we just have to be very careful about sometimes telling her to sit it out and let the stunt woman take over.  Of course, she’ll probably be there going, “You know what?  That looks stupid!  Let me do it!”  Hopefully, we’ll get through it all without her breaking her nose or getting a black eye, or worse.

You mentioned people not having seen a lot of what she has to offer.  How do you think this film will surprise her fans?

STOCKWELL:  When I met her, she came in, in a simple white dress.  She was so sweet and smiling and beautiful, and there was no sense of the Gina Carano that you see in the ring, in MMA fights.  In Haywire, I thought she was great, but I didn’t see her smile once, and she has a great smile.  She’s just charming and silly and young and sweet, and I love that dynamic of featuring that, in the beginning, and then letting the inner dark side come out, at a certain point in the film.

Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden premieres on the National Geographic Channel on November 4th, and then will be available to view through Netflix.