Sebastian Junger and fellow combat journalist, Tim Heatherington, who was killed covering the Libyan civil war two years ago, envisioned a film project that would unfold in two parts, showing what troops experience both on and off the battlefield. Korengal, directed by Junger with cinematography by both men, is not only a powerful companion piece to their 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary, Restrepo, but also a work that stands on its own as a remarkable record of war. While Restrepo gave audiences a front row seat to combat, Korengal reveals the complex psychology behind it and the spiritual and emotional toll it can take, using never-before-seen footage and interviews with the men and commanders of Battle Company’s 2nd Platoon.
In an exclusive interview, Junger spoke about what inspired him to become a combat journalist and explore the experiences of the American soldier in combat, the logistical challenges he encountered shooting in a harsh and dangerous environment, his collaboration with film editor Michael Levine, the difficulties many soldiers face when they return home from deployment, his hope that the film will help soldiers and civilians understand the effects of war more realistically, the film’s clever financing and distribution strategy, how the journey has changed him personally, and his upcoming projects: an HBO film, The Last Patrol, and a screenplay in development, Blood Oil. Read the full interview after the jump.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: My father was in Europe during World War II and he left. His father was Jewish and they fled France. War affected my family a lot, and I was quite curious about it. I first went off to war in the early 90’s as a journalist, partly out of curiosity and partly because I needed a career. War reporting has been very glamorous and exciting, and everything else that young men like. On some level, I felt like I grew up in a wealthy, affluent American suburb, and I’d never been tested in any real way. I felt that exposure to war would turn me into a man.
How did this project first come together and why was it important to make this film?
JUNGER: My first war was Bosnia in 1993. I went to Afghanistan in 1996 as the Taliban were taking over. I’ve covered a lot of wars in my life. After 9/11, I was sort of delighted that the Taliban were kicked out so easily from Kabul. The Afghans were certainly delighted. A lot of errors by the Bush administration led to a really prolonged war. What should have been an easy war turned into a prolonged mess. I was totally against Iraq and I refused to cover it. But Afghanistan, I felt like we could do some real good there in that country and I wanted to know what it was like to be an American soldier in combat. So, I learned how to shoot video and I went off to cover one platoon off and on for a year. A lot of people saw Restrepo, and I thought of Korengal as a complimentary film that would feel coherent and whole even without having Restrepo in your background.
As the follow-up to Restrepo, Korengal tells a more contemplative, less visceral story about what war does psychologically to the men who fight it. How did you shape your storytelling approach to examine the lives of these young soldiers?
JUNGER: At my editor’s suggestion, we actually used a structure that’s borrowed from my book War. War came out at the same time as Restrepo and it’s a tripartite structure, three sections entitled Fear, Killing and Love, which are the three emotional experiences in combat, and we applied that structure to Korengal. We don’t draw attention to it, but that is the underlying structure. That seemed like a good way of getting at that material.
What were some of the logistical challenges you encountered shooting in such a harsh environment? Also, did you work with additional camera people in some situations or were you largely a two-man operation?
JUNGER: Tim and I shot all of it. Much of the time it was a one-man operation. We each took five one-month trips into Korengal. Sometimes we were together, but more often we were there on our own in order to cover more territory. I shot on a Sony B1 and he shot on a Sony Z1. We just had shotgun mics on the cameras, no remote mics, no lighting obviously. We didn’t even have tripods. There wasn’t a lot of electricity out there. We took a lot of batteries. We had to rely on the batteries and hope they lasted. When we were shooting, we’d get dust into the tape. We made our film with what we could carry on our backs in very rugged, high altitude terrain, carrying everything else you need in combat. It’s heavy gear and we had to carry enough water along with the camera. We really had to go light. The only exception to that was when we did the follow-up interviews about four months after the deployment ended in Italy where the troops were based. We hired a camera guy and a sound guy to do high quality studio interviews on the base, but that was after the deployment had ended.
The Korengal Valley was one of the most dangerous posts of the war. Were there times when it was okay to shoot and other times when it was safer not to?
JUNGER: The challenges were those of existing in that harsh environment. I mean, it’s just as easy to have the camera on as off. In fact, the only time I was ever really seized with panic was when we were caught… We were hit quite hard. We were at the outpost, but we were getting attacked very intensely, and there was too much gunfire for me to get to the camera which was about 10 feet away. Bullets were hitting the ground between me and the camera. Not having a camera and not having anything to do really scared me. As soon as I got my hands on the camera and had a job to do, it allowed me to focus on that, and I stopped being scared. I think the same is probably true with the soldiers. You have a task and you’re not focused on what could happen to you, and that’s true of journalists as well. We just ran the cameras as much as we could. The lenses got scratched. I remember there was one scene where it was a pretty intense situation. It was very hot, and there was this big drop of sweat in the middle of the lens while I was filming people, but it’s all part of that environment. Of course, I had huge concerns, absolutely. There was no way to make the film safely. I almost got killed a couple times.
How did you integrate the unused footage you’d shot with Tim earlier with the studio interviews you did later?
JUNGER: It was standard documentary format. We used the verite to illustrate what they’re talking about, and we used the interviews to understand more deeply what you’re looking at in the verite. We went back and forth. I hired Michael Levine who was the editor on Restrepo and we worked extremely closely together.
JUNGER: Their biggest challenge is the fact that many of them miss the war and miss the very close brotherhood of combat in their platoon. They’re coming back to a society which I think maybe for the first time in their lives they’re realizing is an incredibly alienated and fractured place. I mean, there’s nothing lonelier than an American suburb in some ways. When you come from the very close bonds of combat to sleeping by yourself in an air conditioned room on a suburban street, it’s a real existential crisis. This society has the highest rates of suicide, depression, child abuse and mass killings of any society ever in human history probably, and that’s the society they’re coming back to. On some level, it’s probably pretty appalling to them.
Do you hope this film will foster an awareness of and appreciation for what these men have gone through?
JUNGER: All journalists hope that their work will inspire a broader conversation. I think that’s just what journalism is. Specifically with this, I think soldiers are very misunderstood and they misunderstand themselves even. I’m hoping that the film will help soldiers, and by extension civilians, understand the effects of combat a little bit better and a little bit more realistically. On the one hand, being engaged in combat incurs a moral damage to people. Brendan O’Byrne was the soldier who had the very long, unedited sound bite on that. That’s certainly an example of it. But that same soldier, Brendan, also misses it tremendously. We have to be realistic both about the damage and about what could almost be called a longing to be back there.
JUNGER: The final film is exactly what I envisioned. I wanted a film that does exactly what Korengal does. I’m very lucky that I got close to my vision.
What do you think Tim’s reaction would be if he could see it?
JUNGER: (Laughs) There are a lot of funny things in there, and I think he would laugh his way through a lot of it. He loved it out there just like I did, and he really loved these guys. I also think he would deeply appreciate the more profound messages that are in the film about the reaction to combat. He was affected by some of those things himself personally. I think he would really relate to it.
Can you talk about your financing and distribution strategy? What were some of the advantages of funding this on your own?
JUNGER: Tim and I completely self-funded Restrepo and so we were out of pocket several hundred thousand dollars during the recession, and it was a very precarious place to be. We sold a finished film to National Geographic, and they insisted on editorial control. We refused and were prepared to walk away, and they blinked first. And then, they took on broadcast and distribution. As a result, most of the money that film earned went to them. In this case, not only did we fully fund the making of the film entirely – by me, I mean me and my production partners in Goldcrest Films — but we are self-distributing. We raised a lot of money on Kickstarter. We put in our own money. We sold the broadcast rights in the U.K. for a little bit more. We were able to completely control not only the content of the film but the manner of its rollout. And if this works as a business model, it represents – depending on how you see it – a small or large victory for independent film. It also means that all the money that the film makes comes back to the filmmakers, which almost never happens. As a matter of personal interest but also on principle, I think it’s a great thing.
JUNGER: The actual editing process was recent and didn’t change me very much (Laughs), but if you’re referring to our expeditions out there and the shooting we did, I’ve never been so closely connected to and accepted by a group of men, a group of people. That was a very profound experience and I think a very ancient human experience. I mean, a platoon in combat, in isolation like that, effectively duplicates the conditions of human life for most of our pre-history, and it resonates almost on a neurological level. It resonates very deeply with people, and I just loved it out there. We slept in such tight quarters that if I reached out my hand I could touch three other men. That’s not the suburban ideal for how to sleep, but it’s certainly an ancient human experience, and it felt quite good. Also, there was a lot of fear, a lot of trauma out there, and a lot of other nasty things, but taken in its entirety, that experience really opened me up emotionally in a pretty extraordinary way. It did with the soldiers as well. Some of them were complaining that they just kept crying all the time, not about bad stuff but about good stuff like weddings, and they were worried about the fact that they were turning into girls. (Laughs) But I think at a certain point in a man’s life that’s not a bad thing.
What are you working on next that you’re excited for audiences to see? I understand The Last Patrol is set to premiere at the end of 2014 on HBO and you have a screenplay in development called Blood Oil?
JUNGER: With Blood Oil, I sold the film rights to a magazine article that I had written. Relativity has it and I’m not exactly sure where it’s at. That’s how it goes. The Last Patrol is a film that I finished for HBO a couple months ago. It’s about the process of coming home for two combat reporters, me being one of them, and the other being Guillermo Cervera who was holding Tim Hetherington’s hand as he died in the back of a truck in Libya, and two combat vets, Brendan O’Byrne who was featured in Korengal and another guy named Dave Roels who was also getting out of the Army. Guillermo and I became very good friends. None of us are going to go back to war again, and we set out on a completely illegal 400-mile walk along the railroad lines from D.C. to Philly to Pittsburgh, sleeping under bridges and in abandoned houses, sort of a high-speed vagrancy. We have a long, 400-mile conversation about war, how it affects us, and why it’s so hard in some ways to give war up and come home.
Korengal is now playing in limited release.