There are few films in 2015 more harrowing, more affecting than Kilo Two Bravo. Its intensity is piercing, its tale one of both heroism and cruelty, focusing on both the grandeur and banality of war. Based on a true story, it’s one of the most brilliant War movies made in a generation, one that is neither cynical nor jingoistic.
Mark Stanley (known for his role as Grenn in Game of Thrones and also had a couple days on the Star Wars: The Force Awakens set) plays the ostensible lead character Paul ‘Tug’ Hartley, a gritty medic who finds himself in some pretty appalling circumstances trying to save his brothers-in-arms. Dork Shelf had a pleasure of speaking with the rising star during TIFF as he sat beside his real-life counterpart.
The film allows us to not only appreciate the danger we normally get in war films, but the sheer tedium of watching people bleed out. The most suspenseful parts of these films are those quiet moments of just waiting for stuff to happen. Mark, as an actor, how difficult is that for you to play quiet?
Mark Stanley: I think we were helped out by the way we shot the film. We started off with the first long line strike and then went chronologically, moment to moment, through the film, until we got to the end. We then shot the opening sequence last, that first 20 minutes where everyone’s chatting and shooting the shit at the beginning.
So the on-screen camaraderie displayed at the beginning of the film you had developed over shooting.
MS: Exactly! I think that was really well placed. By the time we got around to just sitting and talking in those opening scenes, nothing’s happening of particular interest really. By that point, we were so close that a lot of the improvisation was able to make it on to the screen. We were able to come away from script – we had our own in jokes, our own banter that comes through on it.
In terms playing those moments, like you said, quiet, because we shot it chronologically, you were just following on from the last scene before lunch. It runs through you – the adrenaline’s going, and some days were quite exhausting. For instance, the second mine Stu Pearson steps on, he’s screaming for 6 hours in this 55 degree Celsius desert, it can be quite difficult. It was a tough shoot, but the most rewarding shoot I’ve ever been part of.
I’m well aware it must have been a tough shoot, I’m not even questioning that, but there must be part of you at some point in time that the worse you felt, you’re thinking, well, what the shit were these guys really going through?
MS: Oh, absolutely. There was one day where we walked in and it was about three weeks into the four week shoot, and I stood there and I said out, I said, I mean, can you actually fucking imagine what this would be like? One of the cast members turned to me and said yeah, of course I’ve been imagining it for 3 weeks. I said, no, just actually just stop, take the crew away, have a look around, rocks, blood, friends, sand, and that’s about it and life threatening danger. Just for a moment, imagination tripped and you just got a taste of it, but of course it’s not a patch on what these guys actually did.
War films tend to glorify, they tend to simplify and they have to in many ways simplify what you guys actually do, but even when you guys come back, often times your stories don’t necessarily echo the reality. There’s a long tradition of people coming back and their stories either being more quiet or bigger than they really were. It feels that the tedium is there, the small moments of just inane bullshit of lack of communication of you signalling and the ‘copters not fucking getting what the hell’s going on. In other words, it’s chaos, brutal chaos, without the cinematic precision that one would expect in that situation.
Tug Hartley: Yeah, exactly. The deal we all sort of struck with the writer and the director at the beginning was you couldn’t change the story. It had to be our story. The first script that came out was Tug’s story and that’s all it was. I said no, there’s 10 guys went in. And then there’s a process of about 15 scripts that came out and then more other people’s stories came through and they did very well with that. The whole incident from the first mine going off to us leaving was about 5 hours long. And there were long periods of time of nothingness. And how you can reflect that in a film is very difficult. But I think they’ve done an excellent job in portraying that time scale.
MS: I think having no score helps that as well. The only sound you’ve got is kind of crunching of boots and flies. The flies were real. They were there because you’ve got blood made of sugar and all sorts of stuff, you just attract them. But I feel that that, the relentlessness of having no score can feel that you’ve been in that movie theatre for longer than you actually have. It’s good for that feeling on screen to transcend into the audience.
Tug, were you on set?
Did you consciously choose to not be on set?
TH: No, it was a small budget film. There was talk, but it never happened. I’m just an ex-soldier, I’m no movie star. Mark wouldn’t lend me his plane! [Laughs]. But it was quite surreal when a lot of the guys met their actors beforehand. Mark made the decision not to meet me. I felt quite insulted! [Laughs]. It’s the timing of things.
We spoke a couple of times while he was shooting in Jordan, through military advisors asking “did you really say this, how did you say it”, and things like that. It was probably a couple of weeks after the shooting finished we met for the first time. Meeting Mark for the first time I felt more scared than being in the minefield because he’s a famous guy. He’s been in Game of Thrones! He’s 7 foot tall!
I was quite disappointed when I saw him.
MS: “Lightning bolts come out of his ass….”
TH: Yeah, that was it. It was quite disappointing when you walked through. Yes, this whole process for me is surreal. I joined the army at 17 to be a soldier, that was my calling, and to be here at TIFF…
What made you join?
TH: It was my calling. Every male born in my family’s served in the military. From being a young boy – 6, 7 year old – I remember getting mud, smearing it across my face and going hiding in the bushes. All I wanted was to be a soldier.
I didn’t do particularly well at school, I left at 14 years old and I went and worked at a fruit and veg stall where I got £20 a day because I knew I was going in the army.
You knew you were going in to the army not because you’d seen movies and thought that would be a cool thing to be a soldier, but because you had duty, because you had tradition, because you had a long line.
TH: Yeah, it is a loyalty thing. I’m not a religious person, but I believe everyone’s got a path. My path was to be a soldier.
I joined the army as an engineer. I specialized in mine warfare and demolitions for 6 years. But I wanted to become a medic. I didn’t have any sort of fondness of medicine or anything, it was just.. I wanted to be a medic.
I became a medic for that incident I believe. In other words, since I was involved in it, it was my calling. It was my honour to do that. For people to thank me for doing that I find quite strange – I don’t thank you for recording this interview, I don’t thank the people who made this breakfast. You know, people do their jobs and so that’s all I did.
Now that you don’t do your job, people are telling stories about your job. That’s got to be a little bit weird.
TH: Not a little bit. It’s massively weird. I’m quite fortunate, I work in a company, an organization where I work with ex-soldiers so we’re all very like-minded. We keep ourselves grounded, but doing these sort of things where people are thrusting cameras in your face and wanting to talk to you and give you free goods and things like that, that’s all different. We released the film in London in November 2014 and it was just solid whittling away at starting to accept all of the goodness I’ve been through over there. Then this has risen again, so I think it’s going to take me probably another two years to be able to sit down and breathe and say I went to TIFF, you know, Mark Stanley played me in a film and, yeah.
It’s going to take me a lot of time for it to all absorb in.
Let’s go back to that whole notion of making sure the truth of the situation is on screen with the pressure, recognizing that that’s impossible. It’s about squaring that circle, knowing that not a single moment that you do is Tug’s actual moment, yet as an actor that’s what you’re trying to achieve. So you’re in a weird way in a constant state of failure.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. And terror, really.
How many times have you seen the film now?
TH: 14 times. 14 different screenings.
Have you gotten to the point now that you’re only seeing it as a movie?
TH: No, I can’t see it as a movie. The first time I saw it, I saw it at home. And I was quite nervous. There were a few TV shows out at the time about the British military and they were all terrible.
What specifically is terrible about them?
TH: They weren’t real. People walked around with creases ironed in their uniforms and they were in the desert. They’d get blown up, and you know, their finger tip had fallen off but there was no blood. It was just poor.
I’d got this horrible pre-decision that this was what this film was going to be. I spoke to Mark and he said no, you’ve not seen it, but I think it’s going to be good. Everyone was saying it was going to be good, and I was like, this is going to be terrible.
I watched it in my house and I was hypercritical. And I sat and I looked deliberately for faults. That’s all I did.
So the first time you watched the film, you were a film critic.
TH: I became a film critic, yeah, I watched it right down to Mark’s movements, thinking I wouldn’t walk like that, I didn’t run like that, that cap was bigger. I was a really hard critic.
When it finished, my wife was beside me in tears. The guys who’d brought it over were pure silent, just looking at me and it was really sort of uncomfortable. They were like, “did you enjoy it?” and I was like, “no, it was shit” and I walked off.
It wasn’t shit in the fact it was a poor film. It was that it brought me back in a sense but not in a negative way. About a week later, we had a private screening in London for all of the guys, the veterans who were there, and within 20 minutes of the film starting, the black humour on screen started to bring our black humour back. We went back to 2006, me and the guys again, and it’s done well.
I still can’t watch it as a movie, I’m still quite critical of it, but I’m starting to learn more about what the other guys did. There’s ten of us went in and I’ve got other things to focus on so I’m starting to see what they did and it’s done that well. One of the guys, Smudge, he left the military a year or so afterwards, fell on some hard times, seen the movie and was very apprehensive about seeing it. He saw it, enjoyed it, rejoined the forces. So you know, so it’s done very well for all of us to be fair.
What the film does that very few films do is show the everyday regular what we refer to as heroism, not in the context of a big giant battle but in the middle of a total shitshow in a desolate valley. How true to life is that aspect and how challenging was that just to pull out?
TH: I think unless you were there, it’s as core as you’re ever going to get. To say it’s 99.9%, it’s pretty much where they’re at. The only guys who’ll tell you any different is those of us who bled there that day. So from a film and the casting point of view, everything’s spot on.
It’s not Act Of Valour. I’m not pissing on that film, but Act Of Valour is four Americans go up a hill and shoot 200 people. The actual incident involved less than a dozen people.
TH: This is the thing – Kilo Two Bravo isn’t a war movie, it’s a people movie. There’s no political flag, whether you agree with the Afghan war or not, it’s irrelevant.
This is some poor fuck who stepped on a land mine
TH: This could happen downtown – A car accident that’s hit 3 people, and 99% of the population would walk past, or get the phone out and record it. The film’s about them blokes who step forward.
It’s a film about adversity and a film about courage. There were some young boys there, Andy Barlow who lost his leg, he was 18 and a couple of weeks old. Four people from that incident were recognized and awarded gallantry medals, so there’s six people that got nothing, no recognition. But they had this story – it’s an amazing story and I think what the film’s done is immortalized what they did.
Their view’s out there now and that was my big triumph. Young ‘Jarhead’, he saved Stu Hale’s life, I’ve no doubt about that. He was with him 20 minutes before I got to him. Alex Craig was a medic there and he saved Stu Pearson’s life, to a point where his lung had collapsed inside him but he still wants to carry on. This gives them that recognition that they deserved.
I had my 15 minutes of fame, they’ve been immortalized now for life. That to me is what it’s all about.
Mark you’ve been in stuff like Game of Thrones, you’ve been in these big, giant over the top action things, you’ve got here something that’s reasonably quiet, but even more harrowing in some ways. As a performer, what has that been like for you?
MS: It’s wonderful obviously when you go on to a set of something like Game of Thrones – you’re a tiny little piece in this huge machine and you have very little input. The performance comes somewhere along the line. Whereas this, from a selfish point of view, an actor’s point of view, it was very detailed work that we all did. We were put through our paces for it.
It’s all about those guys. There’s nothing to hide behind. There’s no mask. It was a very in depth feeling from everybody there. We wanted to make sure we did it with pride and respect. And in that instance then it drew performances out of people. Nine of those fourteen guys in the cast it’s their debut performance. They’d never set eye on a camera before, but it meant that much to them.
We drilled each other so much. You’ve got actors who’ve got to be screaming in a pit for six hours, they need to be bucked up and we’re prepping each other, we’re slapping each other around and making sure that we’re there for each other.
The whole drive of it came out of respect for these real guys, you know what I mean? You can’t mess around with this stuff, like these guys are going to watch it and either be completely and totally fucking mortified, that we’ve done something stupid with it, or they’re going to be proud of it, and luckily it’s worked out for the latter.
Do you see any echoes of this in what you do as a solider, Tug? What we hear about real war is is that there’s this big ass story, but none of that matters at the actual time of impact, that all you’re worrying about is the guy on your right, and the guy on your left. So when he’s on Game of Thrones it’s this relatively small part in a larger whole, but what you’re worried about is the role he’s doing, what’s right in front of him.
TH: That’s all it’s about. When we met all of the actors together at the premiere they had this bond. To look at them they were like young soldiers. I think that’s a credit to the effort that these guys put in.
It’s a low budget film, they got very little money for doing it, but it was that sort of pride and reflection that made it what it is. I think that’s sort of flipped around now. It’s those guys respecting what they’ve done. So it’s good. That little bond of brothers we had, we’ve now doubled it because these guys are part of that family as well.
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