Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
We submerged everybody in this theater of war.
Director Nicolai Fuglsig has seen first-hand accounts of devastation before as a photojournalist, chronicling in photographs a then previously untold story of nuclear disaster in the Russian village of Muslumovo. Accolades subsequently followed. After toiling away doing award-winning commercial work for years, he now makes the jump to telling yet another untold story – that of the brave men of the U.S. Special Army Forces in 12 STRONG. The elite crew of twelve men, just days after one of the worst days in our country’s history, were sent into the Taliban-controlled region of Afghanistan on an extremely dangerous mission.
At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, I spoke with the affable talent about everything from trusting his instincts, to putting himself in crazy situations to get a shot, to the correct approach working with legends, heroes and horses.
This ensemble seems like they really bonded. Did they do boot camp together?
I hadn’t done this kind of movie before. The real team was really a brotherhood. We put them into a boot camp which helped them out a lot, not only with the technical training, but also really to make these guys unite together. I think that kinetic energy, the way they were feeding off each other, was only successful because we brought them into a boot camp. Horse riding, but also military boot camp.
How long was that?
About three weeks concurrently running with a horse riding camp too.
Speaking of, what was working with the horses like from a technical standpoint? They don’t hit their marks the way humans do.
You’re right. It was a huge challenge. Because we did a lot of stuff in camera with a lot of real pyrotechnics, it was important not to stress the horses. Very often, we only got one or two takes with these horses. Also we were in high altitude terrain. It was as hot on the horses as it was on the humans. I had to get the very few takes I got right every single time. It was a lot of coordination. We worked with Clay M. Lilley, who is an incredible horse wrangler, who kept all the horses safe. They are such an important part of the movie. I was terrified of the horses, but I really loved working with them.
The book this is based on [Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton] is non-fiction. How was it to properly craft the emotional through line between General Dostum and Captain Mitch Nelson? Was it immediately evident to you?
It’s not the most easy book to translate into a cinematic language. Sometimes these guys were just calling in airstrikes from a hill. There’s very little action cinema in that. I think what always works cinematically is when you have strong relationships. Especially when you have colliding cultures, having to figure it out together under extreme circumstances. There’s great storytelling and great character development between two characters who have to work it out and then go to war together. This movie is a very character-driven war movie. That’s what excited me a lot. I love shooting action, but the character is really front and center. Chris [Hemsworth] and Navid [Negahban] have a really wonderful relationship that develops on screen.
I’m always curious, if in a post-9/11 climate if it’s possible to have a film that’s not jingoistic or xenophobic. I think you skirt all of those pitfalls because you have that LAWRENCE OF ARABIA-inspired relationship between the two characters.
This is one of the few movies where we have great bravery on both sides – on the American and Afghan sides. It was extremely important for me, and I can not stress this enough, that this is not a movie where we are at war with Islam. We are all fighting a common enemy, which is religious extremism. This was a very important story to tell. It’s really an homage to the human spirit.
What were some of the technical challenges that presented themselves to you?
The landscape, which also plays a character. Technically, I was less nervous, but we did this for very little money, in very little time. I took a lot of pains, and the crew took a lot of pains to go to very remote locations. I lost three hours, every day, transporting my people from the hotel, to the location. That’s very valuable time. I really wanted to immerse myself, the cast, the crew, the story in a very hostile environment. I think that is shown on the screen, the fact that it feels hostile, cold and uncomfortable – barren.
How many days?
40 days of shooting. And only 15 days concurrently of second unit. That’s very little when you think about it in terms of the scale of this movie. [laughs] It’s like David Lean or something.
You had done war photojournalism before. How did that experience help equip you on your feature?
I had never been to film school. You learn by doing, but you learn very fast. I had a good 15 years of award-winning commercial work. When you do commercials, you get to pick and choose some of the best crews, some of the best gear. We were constantly on our toes as to what the latest development is within gear and crew. I shoot more days per year than feature directors do. It’s short-form narrative. I treat most of my commercials like mini-movies. It’s narrative in 30-60 seconds, I just had to expand that. Trying to parcel out narrative over two hours is a much bigger challenge. I had a lot to learn but I was working with Jerry [Bruckheimer], who taught me a lot. I will forever be grateful for the advice he gave me during this process.
Were you ever star-struck working with him? I mean, this is one of the guys who brought us TOP GUN.
Honestly, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and all the actors. I went into this business by being very humble, I try not to be star struck, otherwise I’d be crawling into a corner and not being able to perform. I’m still pinching myself, though. I can’t believe we’re here today.
Your Canon commercial dealt with the extreme lengths photographers go through to get the perfect shot. Was there anything like that to happen to you on this shoot?
All the time – to the point the actors were really questioning, ‘Is this safe?’ We were really on the highest peak, on the most remote outcrops with howling winds all on safety wires because we wanted to get that right shot in the right environment. I would say we did a lot of extreme… it’s the special force of filmmaking really. We were really running and gunning, guerrilla-style.
A lot of this seems like practical effects.
Very. I’ve always been a fan of in-camera fixes. It was important for me to immerse the actors and the crew in real environments. It was six football fields long, burning tanks, vehicles, scorched landscapes. We submerged everybody in this theater of war. We all felt we were there fighting the same battle. We all had one goal: to get to the end.
And when you work with pyrotechnics, choreographing where the camera will go, how many shirts do you sweat through that day?
Oof. I definitely lost a lot of weight during that – also because it the high altitude really wears on you over time. In White Sands, New Mexico, the missile range is already pretty high up. I was in combat gear every day, simply because I was on my knees. I was in the same combat gear as most special forces would be wearing because that’s the right equipment for that battle. A lot of the techniques with the camera equipment is inspired by some of the certain precision military hardware. Instead of holding a gun, we’re holding a camera. We were all digging in together. I like to get my hands dirty and be very close to the actors.
Do you have a favorite experience from this film?
It was so amazing to fly around with the Night Stalkers, which is the Chinook choppers, listening and learning from them. I flew around both day and night with them through close quarter combat with them in the canyons. The precision that comes with controlling such a massive beast was mind-blowing. Hanging out with the real guys – they came to the set. I really loved those few days they were there.
Were there things you took from that time with the real guys that you were able to incorporate on the fly?
Oh yeah. I wish we could’ve had them there for a longer time. I was like a sponge those days. That was important to get as much insight and keep it real even though we had to take some creative liberties.
What did you learn about yourself making your first feature?
That’s a very good question. I’ve always had a lot of people around me saying, ‘No, no, no, no.’ And I’m always saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ I had a lot of things against me going into this, but I kept insisting. I’m so happy I had to convince myself to believe in my vision and stay on course – and it took a lot of convincing a lot of legendary people both in front and behind the camera. Of course, I’d listen to everybody around me, but following that pursuit of the passion of my aesthetic vision.
12 STRONG opens on January 19.
Header Photo: Chris Hemsworth in 12 STRONG. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.