Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, 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
April 15, 2013 was a terrible day in America’s history only made better by a city coming together to help those in need. It was the day of the annual Boston city marathon when two domestic grown terrorists, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, detonated bombs in the spectators stands, killing and maiming many. Their terror spree blessedly only lasted a few days after thanks to the dedication, training and skills of federal, state and local law enforcement. Director Peter Berg’s harrowing, heartfelt film, PATRIOTS DAY, meticulously chronicles the events of that day and those that followed. And it’s a story where heroism takes center stage.
At the film’s press day, I spoke with the film’s producers – Scott Stuber (TED), Hutch Parker (X-MEN APOCALYPSE) and Michael Radutzky (60 MINUTES) – about the complexities with making a film of this magnitude and emotionally-charged scope.
There are a multitude of different aspects from this one event. Hundreds. Where do you start whittling down where your focus is going to be?
Michael Radutzky: It started with the reporting that I did for several 60 MINUTES stories, getting to know Police Commissioner Davis very, very well, taking us through what happened. Same this with [Special Agent] Rick DesLauriers. Then meeting a bunch of the survivors and a bunch of the parents who lost loved ones. It was a very, very, very immersive experience. We weren’t “looking” for anyone to cast. It was more, ‘let’s just get the deepest pervasive experience that we can so that we can understand what happened’ – on the survival level, on the families, on those who lost loved ones level and on the police and the FBI and other state agencies who were responsible for tracking them down. Through that process we – Pete [Berg], Mark [Wahlberg], Scott and Hutch – all talked about how to assemble a group of people whose storylines we could develop and whose story lines were imperative and whose storylines intersect in a way. A lot of it was discretionary, but a lot of it was mandatory.
Scott Stuber: It started to find itself through a lot of conversation and research. One of the things we did well, as a group, was spend a lot of time in Boston before we made the movie – and spent a lot of time with everyone – so we could understand how to tell the story accurately, but also to tell the story with the right emotional component, the right spirit of what was accomplished through this group. I hope and feel we did. It really took a leader like Pete to say, ‘I need to meet everyone. We need to see everything.’ The people were great and gracious with their time in getting us what we needed.
You made this film during an active investigation when information is still coming together. Scripts change and evolve, but there’s an added degree of difficulty to this. Was that a challenge?
Hutch Parker: Well, you just articulated the challenge in that regard. The answer to it was really Pete. Though we’ve got literally one of the most accomplished news people working today as an ally, we had remarkable resources, and yet it’s very apparent to me, with all of that table set, there’s still far more ways to get it wrong than to get it right. As Scott mentioned, the key is having the right person at the helm. I feel like Pete has been training his whole career for this film. His passion for non-fiction, the dedication he’s shown repeatedly in a lot of films he and Scott had done together, for wanting to get it right for authenticity, for his techniques stylistically (more handheld), all leaning into and put the audience in that place and time. The complexities of this were met by talent was eager and excited and felt passionately about telling a story. Yes, there’s new information coming in all the time – not just because the story was still evolving, but because people were so voracious about pursuing every person possible. He’d meet somebody and all of a sudden the script would be changed again. That was on-going. That speaks to the dedication to get it right, but also to the degree he internalized and had a powerful, personal idea as to what to accomplish. That’s shared and, in some ways, co-authored by Mark. That’s really the antidote to the volume of evolving information was and is Pete.
Radutzky: To that point, one of the scenes that most exemplifies this ability to change as events are unfolding, Pete had this narrative imperative and integrity to figure out who was Katherine Russell, what role did she play in this and what happened in that room when she was interrogated. That’s never been made public. No one’s reported it. It was conducted by a team that fashions itself of not really existing. It’s sanctioned by the government, but it’s one of those special operations type. He was insistent on all of us, ‘Find out what happened in the room!’ We fanned out with all of our resources and that scene accurately depicts what happened – and it’s never been reported in news media before. That’s his imperative to dig deep and never be okay with where we’re at if there’s something more to be learned.
I didn’t realized how much of the Watertown shootout became such a visceral experience. I’m sure that was something uncovered in the investigative process.
Parker: Pete remarkably so. One of the officers described hiding behind a tree as the pipe bombs were being thrown and as he was walking us around, he’s like, ‘That’s the tree,’ and he was shocked by how small the tree was. At the time, it was the only protection and it was enough to save him.
By grace of God. In the HBO documentary, when Sgt. Pugliese returns to the scene of the shootout and sees where the bullet holes missed him. It’s astounding!
Stuber: And we saw those. That was what was remarkable. And they never deviated. Danny Meng, we asked to have him tell his story four times – an hour and a half each time. Every single time, it was exactly to the T. The ability to have those Watertown cops to walk us through each aspect of us through the street as we prepped it… they were there when we shot it all. That was a great resource for us- the remarkable men who were great advocates and great partners to us.
I’m sure that you always bring your A-game to work, but was there a greater sense of a smoother running set when it’s material like this? Are there less problems that arise when everyone is so respectful of getting this right?
Parker: Every movie you have the anxiety to do well, like you said – to try to do something good. This was different. Inevitably, you want it to be successful and entertain people. But this was about people. I think we all collectively, constantly had this overriding anxiety. Even when you get into post-production, your anxiety is, ‘Is this going to work?’ You test screen a movie. For me, we had a screening and it played great, which is like, ‘Yes,’ but now there’s another moment when we take the film to Boston and all the people we sat across and we promised would see before we finished. Now there’s this other level that’s way more important. When they came out of the movie and said, ‘You guys did what you said you were going to do.’ When they felt we had honored what they did, that was a great sense of relief. Once we know we did right by them, everything else, whether that be the press, that was our obligation.
Radutzky: We screened it with families who lost loved ones in small screening rooms – with amputees, with law enforcement. There’s twelve or eleven seats and when the lights go up, there’s silence, because this was so personal for them. We took their feedback. Overwhelmingly, people thought we straddled the line very well. Some people had notes and legitimate suggestions and we promised we’d listen. We took suggestions and addressed it. I think they appreciated it and we appreciated them to be willing to be part of the process.
PATRIOTS DAY is now playing.