Vanity Fair writer Sebastian Junger is well-known not only for "The Perfect Storm" (which was made into a George Clooney action movie) and his intrepid war reporting--which he ended after the untimely death in Libya of his long-time partner, British Vanity Fair photographer and cinematographer Tim Hetherington--but the Oscar-nominated documentary "Restrepo."
I interviewed Junger and Hetherington for that movie (see video below), and talked to Junger again recently about the sequel "Korengal," which is in current release and available for pre-order on VHX.
"Restrepo" didn't resemble your standard documentary, in any way. It's not like other embedded war docs, or voice-over narration films, or movies with a strong personality or clear narrative spine. It's another animal. The film dogged me emotionally, messed up my tear ducts. Junger and Hetherington are strapping, manly men. They could hold their own with U.S. soldiers in the toughest mountain terrain. In our interview, even they got weepy talking about the movie. What's the source of its power? That film takes us closer to seeing what men at war go through, what they suffer and lose, and especially in Afghanistan, the futility of it all.
The two men visited the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan ten times between May 2007 and July 2008, five each, and the footage shows a platoon of army soldiers under almost constant attack from Taliban fighters in the mountains who they never see—until one horrific campaign. That’s when the filmmakers shot footage of a slain soldier which ended up on ABC News. You’ve never seen fighting like this. Ever.
The U.S. Army eventually closed the dangerous outpost. And Junger later returned to Afghanistan for Vanity Fair, to continue covering the war. That reporting wound up in his must-read book bestseller "War." He writes in direct, immediate, descriptive prose that Mailer or Hemingway would admire.
Junger and Hetherington funded "Restrepo" for $100,000 out of their own pocket during the recession, so it was "with a lot of relief," Junger says, that they sold theatrical and broadcast rights to the film to National Geographic Films, which typically for such distribution deals, collected the lion's share of the proceeds.
Junger and Hetherington had originally pitched a war trilogy to National Geographic, which only wanted the one film. When producer Nick Quested urged Junger to do a "Restrepo" sequel, he came up with the idea of editing together unused footage from a different perspective: the soldiers' emotions and feelings about war. Working with his "Restrepo" editor Michael Levine, he used the same structure for "Korengal" as "War," which is broken into three sections: Fear, Killing, and Love. "Some of the most emotionally compelling stories were off camera," he says. "I wanted to use them."
Junger denies that he was still trying to work through his grief over his lost friend Hetherington, the subject of his 2013 HBO documentary "Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington"? "If you're going as a journalist to cover upsetting things like war you don't work by getting in touch with your feelings, you work by putting them aside for a while," he says. "This was an opportunity as a filmmaker. The narrative had to be good for people. It didn't have to serve any cathartic purposes. We put all that aside."
Therapy has helped him. "I'm talking with a therapist for various reasons," he says. "Tim became one of them. Lots of things happened to me emotionally. I was not there with him, in a moment he was caught off guard. That's the worst part of the process. After Tim got killed Nick pushed me to go back."
In this respect Junger is not unlike many soldiers, who inexplicably, want to return to the most dangerous place they could ever be. "Most of them would go back," he says. "They miss their brotherhood. The short version is: the center of gravity of that feeling sits more with the connection they had with that group, a sense of emotional safety. They're basically willing to totally let go of physical safety in exchange for emotional safety. Here they're not safe anymore."
Junger decided to fund and control the making and release of "Korengal." He figured there was not only a huge fan base and name recognition for him and "Restrepo," but a target audience of 3 million veterans and military families totaling some 20 million. Knowing "Restrepo" had 200,000 Facebook fans, he decided to tap the power of social media. He figures: "If 10% of the fans buy 'Korengal' the movie we just made $200,000. I wouldn't want to do this starting from scratch. It could not work."
Working with Goldcrest and Saboteur Media, they launched a Kickstarter campaign for marketing and P & A--and reached $75,000 in two days. They also sold broadcast rights in the UK, and hired a PR team and a theatrical booker. Junger is a telegenic star in his own right, able to make multiple A-list media appearances including NPR, Jon Stewart and a Ted Talk, below.
Next up is HBO-backed doc "The Last Patrol," a doc that Junger just finished (which will also be a book) about four men who have given up covering war. It will come out Veteran's Day. Junger noticed looking out the train window from New York to Washington, D.C. with Hetherington that "the railroad tracks go straight through the middle of everything--ghettos, suburbs, crumbling industry, farms and swamps. You see America from the inside out. I realized that for the entire length it's very easy to walk alongside the rails safely." So he proposed to Hetherington that they should walk the train tracks from D.C. to New York, carrying everything they needed.
"And then Tim got killed and I decided never to go to war again," Junger says. "I'm done with seeking out situations where I'll get shot at." So Junger took the trip with two combat vets from "Restrepo" and new chum Guillermo Cervera, who was holding his friend's hand when he died. Junger clipped a Sony A7 to his backpack straps. Cameraman Randy Velez shot with a Canon C300 loaned by Canon. And Junger brought Daisy, a sweet but intimidating Rottweiler/Retriever/Shepherd mix, equipped with a GoPro on her back.
The men hiked at high speed the 300-mile trip from D.C. through Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in stages over the course of a year without tents, freezing in winter, boiling in summer. They carried their gear in 60-70 pound backpacks complete with bear spray, machete knives and dog chow, buying food as they went. They washed themselves and their dishes in rivers and creeks, slept under bridges or in derelict buildings or the woods, cooking over open fires. As they went they had long conversations, dodged police--they were trespassing on Amtrak property--and had one man fire a shot over their heads. And they asked the various people they encountered what they thought of America. Says Junger: "I wanted to see what America was made of."