‘Mosul’ Director Matthew Michael Carnahan on Filming His Directorial Debut in a Language He Didn’t Speak and in a Foreign Nation [Interview]

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It’s hard enough making your first feature film. But Matthew Michael Carnahan achieved this with what might look to an onlooker like having a metaphorical arm and a leg tied behind his back. He shot Mosul both in a language he didn’t speak and in a foreign country. But according to Carnahan, whose previous work includes the screenplays for brawny films like The Kingdom and Deepwater Horizon, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mosul is in many ways a true oddity in the filmic landscape. It was made with all the resources and support of a Hollywood production but features no performers familiar to American audiences. Carnahan, with the backing of Avengers directors Joe and Anthony Russo (who produced the film), took a gamble that audiences would be willing to experience the story of a SWAT team fighting ISIS the way it is lived: in the region’s native dialect. According to him, it was the only way to capture the authenticity of the source text, Luke Mogelson’s 2017 New Yorker article “The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS.”

As Mosul begins its trip around the fall festival circuit, I spoke to Carnahan about how Mosul came to be and what he hoped to achieve through its unique production.

What are you hoping audiences at Venice, Toronto and elsewhere, take away from the film?

That these men exist. I was so taken with that New Yorker article that this was based on because, since I was a senior in high school – that was the first Desert Storm – we had been in some state of war with Iraq that entire time. My entire adult life. It’s kind of embarrassing to say, I had never fathomed that a Nineveh SWAT team existed. There were people in Mosul fighting for their cities, their families and sacrificing themselves for one another on a daily basis. They’re fighting for the very same things we all want: a safe city, an in-tact home and a happy family. That, to me, cuts across all humanity regardless of the language you’re speaking, the color of your skin, the god you worship. These things that these men are fighting for are things all of us would fight for. Those are the two things: we are closer than we think, and these guys exist.

You mention universal themes that cut across borders and divisions, but when you’re on a project like this, how do you balance that with the specificity of the story?

On this film, our greatest tool was the fact that we could shoot as close to this part of the world as we could get. We shot in Morocco, in Baghdad-dialect Arabic and with a regional cast from all over the Middle East and Arabic-speaking world. Ten members of our cast and crew were Iraqi born. Mohamed Al Daradji, one of our producers, still splits time between England and Iraq. We tried to find as many people in that diaspora as we possibly could. We just told the story in their language using those people. What most people would think is a crazy idea, I think, turned out to be our greatest strength. Once you make peace with the fact that we’re all the same, then you let the language and cultural differences speak for themselves. In a strange way, they prove the point that even though we speak different languages and are from different parts of the world, we all want the same thing.

I think that comes across in such a stronger way when people from that part of the world are speaking their mother tongue than if we had English actors speaking with English accents – because that’s the stand-in for all foreign languages. How do you tell this broadly human story but still allow for the specific culture of this unit? We just embraced the language and actors in that part of the world.

The author of the New Yorker article, Luke Mogelson, does use the first person in his reporting – at what point did you realize you didn’t need a Western outsider to serve as an entry point into the Iraqi’s lives?

It’s the moment I read about the criteria for membership into the SWAT team. You have to know what you’re doing with firearms. You have to know what you’re doing on a battlefield. But, also, you have to have lost someone to ISIS or been wounded by ISIS to be taken on by the SWAT team. That struck me as so brutal and amazing all at once. In that moment, I thought, “God, they have to come across a young cop who’s in the standard Iraqi cop uniform. And he’s us moving through this world.” It was very early. It never really crossed my mind that we should have a Western face – a reporter, a Special Forces adviser, anybody. It was like, let’s find a really young cop who’s only ever known war. From the moment this person was born, Kawa, Adam Bessa in the movie, he’s at war. It’s all he’s over known. He’s talented at it, but he’s 21, 22. The criteria is the thing that sparked that character.

It’s interesting that you mention that character is the entry point because, for so long, the standard has been for films to force audiences to identify with white or Western characters. You’re really flipping the script and forcing Western audiences to identify with someone they’ve been taught to fear. Is there an element in the film of being a conscious corrective to the traditional on-screen representation of Arab-speaking people?

I mean, yeah. It was just the truth! I was so taken by the truth of the matter. Again, I’m embarrassed to admit as a senior in high school growing up when Desert Storm happened, having Mr. Millward, my high school biology teacher, tell me to get ready for the draft because this is going to be a bloodbath, from that point on … I didn’t fathom the Nineveh SWAT team. And why I’m so floored by Luke’s article. The truth is very different than I had imagined it. My desire was not to correct anything other than the record, that these guys exist. And we should hear them, in some version of their native tongue, hear them talk about things that we all want for ourselves.

The scope of the article, too, is so grand with flashbacks and a real sense of living with the subjects. Why did you decide to approach compressing Mosul into a single day?

To show the relentless hell that these guys face. At least in the first part of the war with ISIS, I was taking no artistic license there. For three weeks, these guys were holed up in the Mosul hotel and fought hourly. ISIS got so frustrated at some point that they couldn’t root these guys out of the hotel that they just started sending suicide fuel tankers into the lobby to try and blow up the hotel around them. I wanted to embrace that and show that this is their life. They can be in a hotel room watching a Kuwaiti soap opera and smoking hookah, then a bomb goes off and they’re fighting for the next hour. Maneuvering, trying to flank an opponent. I wanted to embrace that. I didn’t want anyone to think this is an intermittent, once every month, once every week even, event for these guys. It is literally hour by hour. It struck me, let’s put ourselves in the place of this young Iraqi cop and just experience one day in the life of the SWAT team.

Beyond the obvious shooting in a different country and in a language you don’t speak, what were some of the biggest challenges in directing for the first time?

I was just enthralled with it! Only in retrospect do I see where some of these crazy looks came from when I told people what we were doing. I truly believe that being in that part of the world, in a country like Morocco, letting these actors speak a version of their mother tongue that’s obviously very different from the dialect that a lot of my cast grew up speaking, it was a wonderful element that brought out the best in my cast. Thaer Al-Shayei [the actor who plays Hooka in Mosul] would come to me on a weekly basis and give me a hug and say, “It shook me again this morning when I woke up that I’m not playing ISIS Driver #2 or Terrorist #5.” It gave these guys so much fuel – it was so far and away better than any potential hiccup it caused. There really weren’t any.

Not to mention I had a spectacular group of people around me. Zainab Al-Hariri, my script supervisor, was born and raised in Baghdad. Her father, who was a physician, was part of a plot to assassinate Saddam and caught hours before they were going to do it. Zainab and her mom fled to London, where she spent the rest of her life. Suhail Dabbacj, the man who is so spectacular in the movie as the colonel, was born and raised in Baghdad, went to acting school in Baghdad, was a well-known actor in Baghdad before Saddam gained control of the arts through one of his awful kids. That’s what Suhail fled the country and was a refugee in Jordan, then finally made it to the United States where he works at a retirement facility in New Mexico. He’s just fucking spectacular in the movie.

There were all of these wonderful people who’ve lived version of this, who know the language pat that I could turn to at any given time on any given line and ask, “Did they deliver that correctly?” And if they didn’t, they would correct my actors. I had an on-site dialect coach, Dr. Abbas Abdulghani, who was born in Mosul, did all of his formal schooling in Baghdad and is a professor in Marrakesh. He helped translate the script. It seemingly was a crazy thing, but I think it was the best decision we made, truly. It just brought out the best in all these people who had not been represented in roles other than ISIS Driver #2.

Not to mention you had the support the Russo Brothers back stateside.

When you’re a first-time director and your safety net [is] the Russo Brothers, it kind of feels like you’re cheating! [laughs] At no point was I worried that something would go haywire and I would be left hanging. They took a daily interest. They were always there for me in any capacity I needed. They surrounded me with the loveliest killers on the crew. [Cinematographer] Mauro Fiore, who shot it … it’s a stunningly beautiful movie. But I’m a biased critic. Bruce Franklin, my first A.D., did massive movies for Tom Cruise – he was an infantry commander in the IDF, so he knows how to move a set. Philip Ivey, my production designer, fooled people in Iraq – they thought we actually shot in Mosul when it was Marrakech. I had them at every turn, and they provided me with the most crack crew I could fathom. They let me focus on the things I wanted to get across – the humanity of these guy, the brutality of their combat and the see-saw aspect of their lives where you could go from making jokes one second to having to fight for your life the very next second.

The movies that the Russo brothers are throwing their support behind with AGBO Studios like Mosul or adapting Nico Walker’s Cherry are novel … shall we say, a little more earth-bound than the Avengers movies. As a big player in their early universe, is there a larger, overarching vision for their production outfit that you’re plugging into?

Every time I’m in Los Angeles, I’m lobbying to have an office at AGBO. It’s truly unlike any other group I’ve ever worked with. Such a spectacular group of people. Yes, they have an earth-bound side, but Joe and Anthony do a lot of things really well. They kind of did period work on the very biggest scale and turned in spectacular, huge movies. But then they also are grabbed by a novel like Cherry because it’s a guy from their hometown of Cleveland. They’re grabbed by a story like Mosul reading a New Yorker article that Luke Mogelson wrote. They just do a lot of things well. I don’t think there is an overarching focus on subject matter outside of “what grabs our soul, and can we crush it?” And I think that runs the entire spectrum of Mosul, shot in Marrakesh, to an Avengers movie shot in a brand-new Pinewood Studios outside of Atlanta.

Mosul makes its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9.

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