Rushing out the fast-and-dirty TV movie of a big news story before the Hollywood class-act hits is nothing new. It's just odd that Harvey Weinstein got into the act with fiction film "SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Bin Laden." This is hardly Oscar or even Emmy fare. What exactly motivated the movie mogul to plunk down $2.5 million for this run-and-gun movie at last year's Cannes?
Well, the presidential election. Harvey Weinstein likes to keep up his big-man-in-the-Democratic-Party bonafides. Any movie that could make Barack Obama look good ahead of the election was a winner. So Weinstein dug into John Stockwell's in-the-works fictionalized account of the CIA raid on Osama bin Laden, grilling the filmmaker about where all his information came from. He gave the filmmaker ("Blue Crush") some extra budget for adding expensive footage of Obama that could be intercut throughout the movie. And he rushed the picture into release ahead of November 6. (For maximum impact, the film airs at 8 PM on The National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 4 and hits Netflix the following day.) NatGeo has had to increase security due to the controversial film.
But the movie is no big whoop. "SEAL Team Six" is an oddly fictionalized account of the raid on Osama bin Laden that for all its attempts to convince the viewer of its "you are there" veracity, comes off as utterly false, from the Navy SEALs talking to the camera (which adopts different POVs) to the intercut footage of the president after the fact. This forces the viewer to leave the movie to calculate when and how that footage was obtained.
Who are these SEALs addressing? An interrogator? Is it a debriefing? Why is the CIA agent (played with heavy lip gloss by "Boss" star Kathleen Robertson) also being debriefed? The best material was shot on the fly in India with small cameras, especially the actual recreation of the raid itself, which has taut immediacy. Weirdly, the film shows a fuzzy Bin Laden with his head out of frame, mostly, and is vague about how threatening he was to the soldiers. Stockwell opts to make definitive the SEAL's orders to kill their high-profile target.
I spoke to Stockwell on the phone about how this unpretentious $5 million scrappy movie produced with foreign funding by Kathryn Bigelow's producer on "The Hurt Locker," Voltage's Nicolas Chartier, came to be made. That day, Stockwell was reacting to a New York Times "SEAL Team Six" story emphasizing its political focus, and had just been interviewed on CNN. "This movie is about history, not politics," Weinstein protested to CNN. Methinks he doth protest too much.
Anne Thompson: What did you dislike about the way the New York Times reported this story?
John Stockwell: The story inaccurately portrays the way the film originated with Nic Chartier and Seth Forman at Voltage, who had it written in-house. Nic is the least political person.
AT: Isn't it odd that Chartier, who produced "The Hurt Locker," pursued the same subject as Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty"?
JS: I don't know, of course Voltage produced "The Hurt Locker." Even to this day no one has read the script for "Zero Dark Thirty," which was written prior to Bin Laden being found and killed. It's a different movie. Nic saw an opportunity to make a good tense taut thriller. It came into being on May 2, 2011, when I went into Nic's office and he said, 'You want to make movie about this?' I got the script on November, 2011. We started shooting in February in New Mexico and India.
AT: What was your budget?
JS: Nic Chartier's good at squeezing, getting a lot of value on-screen. This is much smaller than "Zero Dark Thirty." We shot it for under $5 million on the Red Epic. We used the GoPro and Contour cameras, small waterproof mounts on helmets and rifles, in multiple formats. We did some remote-controlled 5D Canon and 60D helicopter shots of the compound, some of it is VFX. At a certain point when Harvey came along, we were hoping he'd be able to get us access to real security drone footage of the actual compound to root it in reality. But that didn't happen. Harvey never talked politics. Not with me. The only thing he allowed us to do was to pay Getty Images a lot of money.
AT: What was Harvey Weinstein's involvement in the film? How much money did he give you for that expensive stock footage?
JS: I don't have exact number. The exterior of the White House is a $10,000 shot from Getty Images. It can add up to millions. We're relying less upon stock footage. Harvey came in when the project had some press; he knew about it. He came into the edit room. I was going to show a scene or two. It was early on; we didn't have a director's cut, we didn't have the final third assembled. I showed one scene. He said, 'show me this and that,' I showed him the whole movie in rough form. He asked all these questions, 'How do you know this? Where does this info come from? Where did you come up this and that?' He was fascinated by the story, knew the details, had read the script before. In the editing room he asked me why I made certain choices.
AT: Where did your information come from?
JS: The screenwriter (Kendall Lampkin) talked to ex-Navy SEALs, I talked to intelligence sources, everything was conflicting. The writer had taken way too many liberties, it was much more fictionalized than it is today, we had little information. We dug deeper and talked to more people, read more things.
AT: Are the actors based on real people?
JS: The actors play composites, that's not the real team leader, not the special forces who went in to get Osama bin Laden. We don't pretend to do that.
AT: Will you alert audiences that the film is not based on fact?