Ever since the events of September 11th 2001, Iraq has been an extremely hot topic; particularly in the run up to, and just following, the allied U.S. invasion of the country in 2003; and continues to be so today; regularly appearing in the news, and being the subject of numerous films and documentaries (including the Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, topical movie Green Zone, and Gunner Palace, among others); but now, seven years after the invasion, non-combatants have the opportunity to gain a grunt’s-eye-view of the war (something that has never really been seen until now); courtesy of the upcoming film This is War; which was filmed entirely by U.S. marine Mike Scotti, during his time on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and chronicles his full experience of the war.
Recently we caught up with Mike to discuss his time in Iraq, the film, and what the future holds for a filmmaking, decorated, marine:
Good Film Guide: You also took a video camera to Afghanistan (where Mike was stationed before his time in Iraq) is that correct?
Mike: I did.
Good Film Guide: So why did you choose to make this film, rather than show what you filmed over there?
Mike: It’s because of the level of combat, and the amount of combat, that we saw in Iraq; the footage that I shot, the stuff that was worthy of taping, was much greater in Iraq than it was in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was more along the lines of sitting out in the desert; going on patrols, and not having that much contact; whereas Iraq was much more cinematic, and it was much more profound from a personal standpoint, than what we did in Afghanistan; not taking anything away from Afghanistan, but the invasion of Iraq was big.
“Iraq is my baseline of hell.”
Good Film Guide: And throughout the film you’re talking of turning the footage into a book; so what made you release it as a film rather than writing a book?
Mike: The original plan was to use the footage I shot to put together my thoughts and notes as a book, but what I was going to say in the book; as far as fighting the war goes; is in the film, so I wasn’t going to write a memoir that’s just Severe Clear (the U.S. title for the film) or “This is War – The Book.”
I’m actually working on a book now, and the book is about what it’s like to come home from the war; something that hasn’t really been told before, as far as re-assimilating into society, and what it’s like to step off the battlefield and be a regular… what do you call it? being back on ‘Civi-Street’?; so that’s the book I’m working on now, and I’ve just signed with an agent.
Good Film Guide: Have you done much work on it so far?
Mike: Yeh, I’ve got a couple of chapters in the bag, and it’s kind of back and forth now, trying to write the book and pay the rent.
Good Film Guide: Speaking of houses, what’s it like when you first get home, and find that aside from family asking you questions, that the war isn’t really talked about in everyday life?
Mike: Well here’s the thing… it’s there, but it’s… well the magnitude of what you’ve just gone through as a young man, or a young woman, doesn’t really fit anymore into civilian life; you can’t be sitting at the dinner table with your wife, or your husband, or your mum, or your dad, or your kids, or whatever, and all of a sudden rip into talking about, y’know, “one day at a checkpoint a machine gunner opened up on a car that bound down, and it ended up being a little girl and her father”… I did, um… but people will freak out if you say those things; it needs to be presented to them in a certain way, and that’s what I hope this film does; helps to bridge that gap, and show people what the horrors of war are really like, the true reality of the situation; but for the most part, war isn’t at the top of the mind of most people, unless they have a personal relationship with somebody who’s over there right now.
Good Film Guide: Does that annoy you at all?
Mike: It did in the beginning, yes. It did in the beginning, it becomes very difficult, especially when you’re younger; y’know, you’re in your early-to-mid 20’s when you get out; and it can be difficult to put that into context because you step off the battlefield from seeing your buddies caught fighting; where some are wounded, and some are killed; taking part in these really brave acts every single day, and back home it’s very, very, different.
Then I got a little bit older, and the war became a little but more distant, and you realize that life goes on back here… it just goes on, you want the whole country kind of shutting down because there’s a war going on, and it’s kind of hard to accept, but then I realized that the media doesn’t cover the war that much, and that’s the reason it’s not on anybody’s mind; and I thought about that for a while… but if the media’s a for-profit business, they have to sell what they’re selling, and if people are generally more interested in celebrity lifestyles and sport, then that’s what they have to give them.
It took a while, and I’m a little bit older; I’m 34 now; and I realize that’s just the way the fuckin’ world works.
Good Film Guide: So do you think that you’re fully adjusted to civilian life now?
Mike: Yeh, absolutely. The film really helped to get me to that place; it allowed me to deal with all of the shit that I went through, and confront it head-on, and that’s something you have to do; you have to confront what happened to you, so that you can understand what it is.
When I got back I got an MBA from N.Y.U., I was in investment banking for a while, ran a company for a while, made this film, and I started a charity to help veterans; I’ve done a lot of shit since I got back.
“If nobody’s shooting at me, then it’s a good day.”
Good Film Guide: And a lot of very different things.
Mike: Yeh. It’s all about pouring your energy into something positive, rather than ripping yourself to pieces. I still get drunk too much though *laughs*.
Good Film Guide: You mentioned charity work there, and we know that you’re heavily involved with Reserve Aid… do you want to tell us a little about that?
Mike: Sure. Reserve Aid was something a buddy of mine; Lucas; was the original founder of; he had the idea that we needed to help our reserve forces, who were getting forgotten a little bit; because these guys would take a big hit in income when they’d get called up for around 18 months; they’d have a mortgage, and a house, three kids, and a wife, and they’re an auto-mechanic or whatever they are, and they’re making X amount per year, but when they get called up to fight; for like a year-and-a-half; they end up making half of what they were on before.
We were seeing guys that were getting into financial trouble, and had really bad things happening to their families, and then if they got wounded, that meant; because of their reserve status; they would get booted out of the military; because they wouldn’t be able to fight; and their benefits wouldn’t show up for like 18 months. So you had this long lag time, and people were losing their houses, their electricity was being shut off, they didn’t have the money to buy diapers for their kids, and they didn’t have a car to drive to the V.A. to get rehabilitation for their injuries; some real sad stories.
The government’s a bureaucracy, and they’re not going to help out with that; so we thought it was necessary for the private sector to step in and help out. I met Lucas a week after he formed Reserve Aid, and became one of the original founding members, and we’ve raised almost $3.5 million over the last couple of years, and helped 1900 families; I’m glad that we’re making a real impact with it.
Good Film Guide: When you started making the film, what was it like to just hand over all of your tapes to Kristian [Fraga] (the film’s director), given that they’re obviously so personal?
Mike: It was interesting because I didn’t have any attachment, and I’d made a decision about Kristian being an excellent director when I saw some of his earlier work; and I knew that this guy is really talented, and that he’d get it.
It took a while for me to learn how to trust him, but not only did I hand over the tapes, I spent three or four weeks in an office with an assistant; reliving the whole war, almost like a therapy session; I just talked about everything that happened from start to finish; re-watching every piece of video, looking at every picture, and going through all of my journals, with me telling story, after story, after story; Kristian had 300 pages of stories, plus all the stuff I’d originally written when I first got back from the war (what eventually became the voiceover), and I basically just pushed it across the table so that he had all of the tapes, all of the pictures, and everything ready to go. I trusted him, and I trusted that he would be the one to be able to tell it the right way.
Good Film Guide: So with all that it’s no wonder it took so long to get made (as development took several years).
Mike: *laughs* Yeh. Plus we had to raise the money.
Good Film Guide: Was that difficult?
Mike: Well it wasn’t easy.
Good Film Guide: Is there anything left in the film that you would have preferred didn’t make the final cut?
Mike: No. I still get a little weirded out watching some of the scenes where we’re laughing and shit, while we’re calling in mortars on people; at the time, in that context as young men, it’s just fighting back; but I always cringe when I see that.
You can’t take it out though; that’s what happened; but how are people that have never served going to take it? We were laughing in the middle of combat, but it fuckin’ happens; it’s a defence mechanism, and it’s one that weirds me out a little bit.
“This film doesn’t show that war is cool, or horrible as hell; you make your own judgements.”
Good Film Guide: Sharing all of those personal things, you present quite a raw view of a marine, especially given that you didn’t leave anything out. Were you worried what kind of impression it would give the Corps [U.S. Marine Corps], and you personally?
Mike: Yeh… I really was; I took a risk by making this film; and I was most worried about what other marines who I had served with would think; specifically the guys that I personally knew; I was scared. I was scared that they were going to be mad at me, that I would be ostracized, and that they would hate me; that would really fuck me up.
It would hurt because these guys are my brothers, but they loved it; loved it. I was biting my nails for a little while, but they really liked it, and I’ve never had… although maybe they just haven’t told me… but I’ve never had anybody I served with say they didn’t like this film; guys from the Korean War have even come up to me with tears in their eyes, and said “that was my story”, guys that are like 25 and served in Iraq or Afghanistan have said “that was our story”; that was important to me… it was real important.
Good Film Guide: Usually when guys come home from active duty they tend to clam up, or…
Mike: Or they never shut the fuck up about it?
Good Film Guide: and act like it’s the coolest thing in the world. But you made a point of doing neither, and just showing it like it is…
Mike: That’s because I’m a writer, and writer’s let people decide for themselves. The film isn’t political either way; I felt it was the job of the film to not make a stand, and not show that war’s the coolest thing in the world, or that it’s a fucking disaster, and horrible as hell; you can make your own judgements, because you watch it and you see the reality of what war is; and that’s the kind of stuff that stands the test of time.
Good Film Guide: So how do you feel about the U.S. withdrawing from Iraq now?
Mike: I’m glad we got the fuck outta there. There was just… I’m glad we got out. We’re still fighting in Afghanistan; and I’m not glad that we’re still in Afghanistan; but I’m glad that we can take some of the resources we were using in Iraq, and really push them into Afghanistan; but I think we should either win, or get the fuck out… because every guy we lose, is another guy we lose.
Good Film Guide: Which brings us to Vietnam; because a few times in the film you compare Iraq to Vietnam. Was that mainly because you couldn’t trust the locals?
Mike: Exactly right. I grew up reading about Vietnam, and had an uncle who served in Vietnam, so that was kind of imprinted in me, and as far as not being able to trust the locals… if you read the book ‘The Tunnels of Cu Chi’; about the tunnel rats that were there; they discovered a Vietcong document listing people on their pay role, and in this base, every single one of the base barbers were Vietcong. So if you imagine a conversation between a Major and a Colonel about an upcoming operation; just shit that gets talked about; where every barber listening is Vietcong; that’s what I’m talkin’ about.
Good Film Guide: I take it you watch military films as well then?
Mike: Yes, definitely.
Good Film Guide: Things like The Hurt Locker, and Green Zone?
Mike: I love ‘em! There’s no bloodlust or anything, I just like it because it’s something I feel a real part of; it resonates with me, because I wanted to be a marine ever since I was a little kid, I went and did it, I’ve made a movie about it, and I like to see other movies; I’ve seen some really good Afghanistan docs, and Iraq docs; Restrepo’s coming out in the U.K. soon, and I thought it was fuckin’ great.
“People are more interested in celebrity lifestyles than war… that’s just the way the fuckin’ world works.”
Good Film Guide: It must get a little weird though, living in a war zone, coming home and having to adjust to living an ordinary life straight away, and now you’re releasing a film, and flying around the world to promote it. How do you adjust to all of those changes?
Mike: Just fuckin’ do it. The way I look at everything, is that if nobody’s shooting at me, then it’s a good day; if nobody’s trying to kill me, I’m sleeping in a bed, I’m not cold, I’m not too hot, I’m not hungry, and I’m not scared; that’s my baseline of hell, and I’ll always have that to draw on; and that’s the way I look at everything.
Good Film Guide: How do you feel about the name of the film being changed for release in the U.K.? (From Severe Clear, to This is War).
Mike: I like it.
Good Film Guide: You prefer it to Severe Clear?
Mike: *Nods* I like This is War, I really do.
Good Film Guide: And bringing it back to the reality of war… several times in the film, the guys around you are heard asking if you can tell what certain things are…
Mike: Yeh, with the video-camera…
Good Film Guide: Is that because they didn’t have the military binoculars, or…
Mike: It’s because the zoom on the camera was actually more powerful than the zoom on the binoculars.
Good Film Guide: And was that because you had such a good camera, or because the equipment wasn’t all that great?
Mike: Oh it was the equipment, it sucks; or at least it did back then; now they’ve spent a lot more money, but back in ’03 we had nothin’; our equipment was old and tattered; but if you just look at the marines now, and the gear that they have now, compared to what they had back in 2003; their helmets are better, their night-vision goggles are better, their rifles are better, they’re camo’s better, their body armour is better, and their vehicles are better; everything is better, but that always happens; in the beginning of World War II everything sucked, they had shitty rifles, but then they spent some more money and everything got better, it’s like history repeating itself here.
Good Film Guide: And when can we expect to see your book?
Mike: It’ll probably be a year-and-a-half, maybe a year; it’ll be a while, but you’ll know when it’s coming.
This is War is released in the U.K. on October 4th (available from most major online retailers, and in stores), and available now in the U.S.; exclusively from http://severeclear.wordpress.com; and more information on the charity that Mike’s involved with; Reserve Aid; can be found at: http://www.reserveaid.org/