Writing a new chapter

When Iranian students took the us embassy in Tehran in 1979, few could imagine the hostage crisis would last 444 days and would bring down the us administration. The embassy seizure and the eventual release of the 66 hostages makes for an epic tale, so perhaps it's not all that surprising that a new book on the crisis by Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden took five years of research and writing. What's less expected is that it was undertaken with the help of a doc prodco.
June 1, 2006

When Iranian students took the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, few could imagine the hostage crisis would last 444 days and would bring down the us administration. The embassy seizure and the eventual release of the 66 hostages makes for an epic tale, so perhaps it’s not all that surprising that a new book on the crisis by Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden took five years of research and writing. What’s less expected is that it was undertaken with the help of a doc prodco.

While Bowden hammered away at his 700-page Guests of the Ayatollah, Hermosa Beach, California-based Wild Eyes Productions worked in parallel on a 4 x 1-hour doc destined for The Discovery Times channel, with the author and Wild Eyes principle David Keane feeding each other information and often collaborating on interviews.

Ayatollah marks the third time Bowden and Keane – who are first cousins – have worked together on a project. Previously, however, the filmmaker was able to use a published book as his blueprint. This time, in order to create the biggest splash for the title, a near simultaneous release was planned. Add a partnership with Atlantic Monthly, which serialized excerpts of the book after debuting it on the May cover, and you have a marketing effort firing on all cylinders.

A history of histories
Bowden and Keane have worked together on two other adaptations, The True Story of Black Hawk Down and The True Story of Killing Pablo (2002 and 2003, respectively). Wild Eyes had formed shortly before the book Black Hawk Down was released, recalls Keane, ‘so I sat down with Mark and said, ‘Hey, I would really like to make a documentary about the battle of Mogadishu and your book.’ He basically said, ‘Just don’t screw it up.” The doc went on to become the second highest-rated special on The History Channel at the time.

For both films, Keane used the books as a template, retracing much of the research Bowden had done, and adding sources of his own. One such source was Carlos Castaño – the assassin given the task of whacking drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s family – a ‘person of interest’ who features prominently on the us terrorist watch list. ‘Amazingly,’ says Keane, ‘I got in contact with him through the Internet. He takes a satellite [phone] with him in the jungle, moving every day. It turns out that he had actually seen The True Story of Black Hawk Down and loved it, so he said ‘Come on down.’ But, of course, when I got down there, he told me to fuck off and go away.’

Keane returned to the us and contacted Castaño again, then made a second trip to Colombia for another shot at his quarry. ‘I put down bars and tone on my camera in my hotel room, and decided ‘I’m either going to get this interview and take it back, or I’m just going to leave bars and tone.’ It turned out great. He talked about his involvement, and about assassinating people – I thought it really helped the documentary.’

Trips to Somalia for Black Hawk were even more nerve-wracking. ‘They didn’t particularly like us,’ recalls Keane. ‘I think Mogadishu has got to be the scariest place on earth. I’d interview these Mooryan [militia]. They were chewing qaat and were amped up. They would just walk away in the middle of the interview: ‘I’m done.’ But I got everything we needed. If you are going to tell the story of a battle, you absolutely have to have both sides. You have to walk the battlefield, and you have to have both sides.

‘It’s about storytelling, but I think it’s rooted in journalism. That’s the common thing.’

And into Iran
That journalistic approach is especially evident in Ayatollah, where investigations for the film and book were simultaneous. Bowden estimates Wild Eyes recorded a third of the interviews he conducted, both in Iran and the us. The filmmakers themselves interviewed about 30 sources in Iran (including an intelligence officer for Hezbollah, witnesses and students), plus 20 rescuers and the same number of hostages in America.

With the investigation working on so many levels, information flow became problematic. Bowden had to integrate interviews he conducted with transcripts from Wild Eyes, as well as the work of a researcher hired by Atlantic. On the other side of the us, Keane was juggling his sources and the data stream supplied by Bowden. Early in the process, the filmmaker realized scripting was too big a task to tackle while shooting, so he turned the pen over to the author’s son, Aaron Bowden. (The younger Bowden has been with Wild Eyes since he worked as an animal wrangler on Killing Pablo.)

Complicating the scripting process further was the decision to not use voice-of-God narration. Notes Keane, ‘Aaron had to link all of these thoughts and stories and have people finish each other’s sentences without the shortcut of a narrator,’ though a feature interview with the author provided a thread.

The story naturally broke into four parts. The first was the initial 24 hours of the crisis, in which Keane says it becomes clear it ‘isn’t a student protest that was going to be in and out really quick – which is what the students planned. It was something the Islamic revolutionaries took for a ride and was going to be a gigantic international incident.’ The second part takes viewers though captivity. The third covers the ill-fated rescue mission, and the last shows the release of the hostages.

Keane, who has worked with several authors on non-fiction adaptations, including a soon-to-be-released History Channel version of Dean King’s bestseller Skeletons of the Sahara, notes that adapting books to docs adds a level of complication fiction doesn’t share. ‘If you are making a feature film,’ notes Keane, ‘you can take that book and just throw it out the window, and just use the title.’

But for docs, he warns, you have to be cognizant of the author’s voice and tone. He was careful, for example, not to turn the history of the Iran crisis into a polemic on the Middle East. ‘I try not to be political at all,’ he admits. ‘I try really hard to be neutral – fair and balanced. Not the Fox fair and balanced, but the real fair and balanced.’

Wild Eyes is currently balancing the wrap of Ayatollah and Sahara with projects for Nat Geo, A&E and The History Channel. Foreign distribution for Ayatollah is being handled by Watertown-based CS Associates, while domestic DVD rights are handled through Encino’s Solid Entertainment.

And the benefit for Bowden? ‘In coldly practical terms, the documentary being aired on television helps sell my books,’ he notes. ‘I think Killing Pablo has remained a strong selling book over the past four years largely because of the documentary David made, which seems to air every two weeks. That’s tremendously beneficial for the book commercially… If you can find someone you enjoy working with, it’s definitely a beneficial process.’

And their partnership promises to continue to pay dividends. Look for the cousins to team up soon on a modern terror war story based in the Philippines.

Familiar features
Getting Black Hawk Down to the big screen was a complicated process. While Bowden took on the original adaptation, the producers brought in Ken Nolan for subsequent drafts – a ‘real screenwriter,’ notes Bowden. However, when director Ridley Scott came on to the project, he went through each draft and pulled what he liked, including a lot from the original. Recalls Bowden, ‘I was on the set for about a month during filming. And I was involved in the final editing of the film, because when they put the movie together, they were still adding dialog to scenes. I wrote the crawl at the end of the movie and – much to my delight – I was very involved in promoting the film all over the world.’

Next on the big screen? Director Joe Carnahan wants to version Killing Pablo. The duo are just waiting to see if Paramount gives it the thumbs up.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.