'Generation Kill' Depicts Beginning Of The Iraq War

The new HBO mini-series Generation Kill focuses its lens on March 2003, when the U.S. first went to war in Iraq. Susanna White, one of the directors of the miniseries, talks with Linda Wertheimer about creating a realistic depiction of the start of war.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, an artist finds joy in singing the blues. But first, HBO goes to war this Sunday with a mini-series on the very beginning of the Iraq war in March of 2003. It's called, "Generation Kill." And it tells a story of a platoon of the Marine's First Reconnaissance Battalion making its way into Iraq.

The writer-producer of the series also produced "The Wire" for HBO, David Simon, and it's taken from Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's book, "Generation Kill," written about his experience embedded with these marines. Susanna White directed the first three episodes of "Generation Kill" and the final episode. She joins us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the program.

Ms. SUSANNA WHITE (Director, "Generation Kill"): Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm dying to ask you why. If some of your past projects included things like "Bleak House" and "Jane Eyre," this is not exactly a background for making a show about war. How did you get involved? How did you think you would know how to do this?

Ms. WHITE: Well, that's a good question. I think some of the actors were worried at first, as well. But in some ways, it seems a long way from each other, but in other ways, they're very similar. They're both character-driven stories developed over several hours with a large and diverse cast.

And as a director, you set about creating a world, whether that's recreating the Dickensian London, or in this case, creating the world of these Marines as they went into Iraq. To be honest, you know, it was harder for me creating Dickensian London, which I couldn't go and research because it wasn't there anymore. You know, this way, I could go to Camp Pendleton, talk to real Marines, talk to Evan Wright, listen to his tapes of events. In some ways, it was more straightforward.

WERTHEIMER: The look and sound of the series is very compelling. The characters and vehicles are constantly moving. You have lots of explosions, lots of gunfire. How did you figure out choreography in the battlefield?

Ms. WHITE: Well, my background's in documentaries, and that came in very handy. When I talked to David Simon early on, we came up with an idea that it would have a very live feel to it. We had hand held cameras, documentary-style cameras, and came up with a very reactive camera technique so that the camera would not have more information than any of the Marines. So you felt you were experiencing things with them through their eyes.

At the same time, there had to be some slight of hand because, obviously, I was doing huge action sequences with big explosions. An example is an ambush at al-Garraf (ph), which is on screen for about three and a half minutes, and we shot that over six days with, I think, eight cameras, all the traditional devices an action director would use. But I carried this documentary look through it.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the show is basically about what happens during the training in Kuwait and into Iraq in the opening sequences. But it's also - there's a very great deal about establishing relationships between the Marines of Bravo Company. You've created a set of a very intriguing characters, which, you know, which makes me think, is this series about the war, or is it about the soldiers and their relationships?

Ms. WHITE: Ultimately, it's about the guys. We wanted to take the subject and humanize it and show what it was like for those real Marines as they went in. And that was the big thing that drew me to the project.

What we do that I haven't seen done really in war films before is we deal a lot with the boredom of war. That we're waiting around. The tension that you never know when something is going to kick off. And it seemed those moments in the down time, you really get to know the characters. We learn their back stories. We learn what motivates them. We learn what amuses them. We learn how they cope with all the stresses of being in a war field.

WERTHEIMER: We have a scene where the marines, they're trying to get their units supplied with everything they need to go into Iraq, and they're having a great deal of difficulty. They finally sent the reporter to the PX to buy stuff for them.

Mr. LEE TERGESEN: (As Scribe) Why do you need me to get you all these stuff?

Unidentified Man #2: In the infinite wisdom of whoever runs the military post exchange store, they won't sell this stuff in quantity to actual military personnel. For civilians like yourself, the sky is the limit.

Mr. TERGESEN: (As Scribe) And why is that?

Unidentified Man #2: To keep us angry. If Marines could get what they need when they needed it, we would be happy, and we wouldn't be ready to kill people all the time. See the Marine Corps is like America's little pit bull. They beat us. They mistreat us. And once in a while, they let us out to attack somebody.

WERTHEIMER: The refrain of this film is partly like every other war movie that I've ever seen, where the grunts are complaining about the brass and carrying out their goofy orders and doing it heroically.

Ms. WHITE: I think what we see in the first episode, episode one, is how these reconnaissance Marines were deployed in a way they haven't been before. Usually, they went undercover. They were highly trained to go in behind enemy lines.

WERTHEIMER: These are the Special Forces-type soldiers.

Ms. WHITE: Right. But here, they were sent to spearhead the invasion as bait, in a way, in these thin-skinned Humvees. And they were trying to equip themselves as best possible for this highly dangerous push-up to Baghdad. There is a very dark humor that runs through this piece, but it's a way, as you see in other war films, that guys survive war. They laugh at their situation as a way of coping.

WERTHEIMER: How realistic do you think "Generation Kill" turns out to be?

Ms. WHITE: Authenticity and realism was one of the big things we set out to achieve at every level of detail. We had military advisers on set with us all the time. He'd been there for real. Eric Kocher, our key military adviser, had been on that journey. But he's played in the series by an actor. Rudy Reyes, he plays himself in this series. He was there for real. We really tried to be very specific on the detail, even down to the background action, that we'd call nearly all the cast, every single day.

So that when people are walking around in the back of a shot, they are doing something genuine, whether that is taking a pee, eating MREs, carrying water cans, working out. Every piece of background action was choreographed with the military adviser so that it was as real as it could possibly be.

WERTHEIMER: You know, it took about 10 years after the Vietnam War before audiences were able to look at films about Vietnam. I'm thinking of "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Full-Metal Jacket." But the films about this war so far have not found their audiences, it seems to me. "In the Valley of Elah," didn't, despite Tommy Lee Jones. "Stop-Loss," did better but still not great. How do you work around this apparent reluctance to watch even a fictional version of the Iraq war?

Ms. WHITE: Correct. Well, we're hoping people will have a different reaction to ours just because it's so character driven. It has the background of the war, but in a sense, ours is a giant road maybe, where you get to go on a journey with an extraordinary cast of individuals and watch them develop in the course of going from Kuwait to Baghdad.

One of the key characters, Brad Colbert, you know, we always talked about Colbert as the dad person. His driver is like the mom. Trombley, the new recruit, is like the kid in the backseat, and the reporter is like an unwelcome guest on this road trip. And so there is a level at which people can watch the show, and it's like watching a road maybe.

It also tells the story of these guys going through the first 40 days of the war. But there's levels you can watch the show on which are not a traditional war movie approach.

WERTHEIMER: Susanna White is one of the directors of the miniseries "Generation Kill," which premieres tomorrow night on HBO. Thank you very much for coming in.

Ms. WHITE: It's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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