Q&A: “Restrepo” co-director Sebastian Junger

Realscreen talks to the veteran journalist and war correspondent (left) about joining Tim Hetherington (right) on the remarkable journey that resulted in an Oscar-nominated documentary.
February 17, 2011

The idea to shoot Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Oscar-nominated war documentary, resulted as much from a print reporter’s pragmatism as it did from an author’s artistic vision.

“No one takes notes during combat. It’s ridiculous,” says Junger. “And having nothing to do in a firefight is actually pretty scary and I just thought, if I’m gonna be there off and on for a year, I might as well just shoot as much video as I can.”

The veteran journalist and war correspondent has authored several books, including The Perfect Storm, but never considered making a documentary until he spent a year in Afghanistan on assignment for Vanity Fair with photographer and co-director Tim Hetherington.

The two men were embedded with a platoon of young American soldiers deployed in the deceptively picturesque Korengal Valley, described in the film as the most dangerous place on earth. The first-time filmmakers documented the soldiers as they battled the Taliban, negotiated with the locals and built the outpost Restrepo, named after a medic killed in combat.

Beginning in June 2007, they each took five one-month trips to Afghanistan, sometimes together but usually alternating depending on who was injured last. Hetherington broke his fibula during a nighttime operation and had to walk all night with a broken leg. Junger ruptured his Achilles tendon and spent three weeks crawling, hopping and limping to capture the action.

The resulting film has earned critical praise for its unflinching focus on the soldiers’ emotional experience of a war that’s seemingly remained on the periphery of the average American’s consciousness.

Out of necessity and partially to retain complete editorial control, the first-time directors self-financed the film and cut a deal with Goldcrest Post to defer payments for editing once they’d sold the film. Restrepo premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition. National Geographic picked it up for TV and theatrical distribution and it’s up for Best Documentary Feature Oscar this year.

Realscreen spoke with first-time director Junger to find out more about his experience filming on the front line.

A view of Outpost Restrepo in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.

Have you been thinking about making documentaries for a while?
It was not a world I’d thought about very much until I’d made the decision to follow a platoon for a year. And having made that decision, it’s such a huge investment of time and energy and frankly, risk. I just thought I should capture the experience in as many media as possible.

What’s the risk?
The unit was in 400 firefights during their year and we were in the same place and undergoing all the risks of soldiers. So it was the risks of combat.

Aside from the risks of combat, what physical obstacles did you have to overcome to film in that environment? How did you prepare?
We had to essentially become soldiers in every sense except we didn’t carry weapons. We carried cameras. But effectively, we had to be physically fit enough and mentally disciplined enough to be part of a combat infantry unit in a very remote, rough location.

We had to carry all of our gear in a combat environment along with 50 lbs of bulletproof vest and helmet and water and MREs [Meal, Ready to Eat]. On top of that we had to carry our camera gear. So it was a pretty stripped down operation. We didn’t use wireless mics. We didn’t have any lights or anything obvious. We each carried a four or five-pound camera. I had a Sony B1 and Tim had a Sony C1 and we used a shotgun mic attached to the camera.

In places where there was no electricity, which happened quite often, we just had to bring two weeks worth of charged batteries, which in itself was a lot of weight. If we broke a camera we were screwed.

What was it like conducting the interviews with the soldiers in Italy after spending time with them in Afghanistan?
We knew those guys really, really well at that point and it was very, very emotional.

We did that because we didn’t want an outside narrator. We felt that would break the realism of the movie if you had Morgan Freeman or the beautiful Hollywood voice explaining what’s happening in the Korengal. We wanted them to narrate their own film so we set up these interviews. It’s very expensive to do. This was self-financed the whole way so we were really digging into our pockets to do this. And it just got very, very emotional. Every single guy we talked to at one point or another was struggling not to cry and, you know, there were times where Tim and I were too. You just don’t know that because we’re not on camera. It was a lot of strong feelings for the whole year of stress and trauma and intimacy and it all came flooding back.

What was it like working with Tim Hetherington?
He’s such a smart guy and we really fit together very, very well. Our personalities, our intellects - creatively, we really were a very good match. We’re very different people but I think that made us a very good match. His blind spots, I covered. My blind spots, he covered. We really were a very good team together and I really look forward to working with him more.

How are you different?
For starters I’m a writer and he’s a photographer, so he thinks in very visual terms and I think kind of conceptually and we really learn from each other. He has an enormous amount of energy. He focuses like a laser beam and he moves like a torpedo. He’s just, like, incredibly directed and driven and just amazing. I’m probably a little more laid back, a little less focused.

When you were shooting in Afghanistan did you two have a lot of conversations about how you hoped the film would look or is it too overwhelming to think about that?
We talked about it the whole time: how we were going to do things, what kind of narrative we were going to use, what we needed because we were continually shooting and thinking, “Okay, what are we going to need when we start editing?” Neither of us had done this before so we were thinking on the fly.

Do we need a tight shot of someone squinting behind the barrel of a gun? Do we need a shot of the guys walking at night? We actually didn’t get that shot and we should’ve and it really became a pain. I wish we’d gotten that shot because it would’ve made one since a little easier. There’s nothing to see at night but there are sounds, there are movements and that actually would’ve been very, very handy at one point in the movie. It was an example of something that, as a novice filmmaker, I was like, “Okay, it’s night time, turn the camera off.” But in some ways there’s always something… even if it’s just sounds in the darkness. Even that is evocative and I just didn’t know that yet. Now I do.

Are there any shots or sequences in the film that you’re particularly proud of?
Our editor Michael Levine - I just think he’s a genius. We worked together with him very, very closely as directors, but it was his incredibly subtle hand on the edit. There were some nice moments in there and - this was Michael’s idea - having the tight shots of the soldiers faces when they’re not talking, they’re just looking in between questions in the interview. Those are moments that we would’ve completely skipped over because they’re not talking and Michael saw the value in those. [They're] just beautiful moments in the film.

Was it you or Tim shooting in the Humvee during the roadside bomb sequence?
That was me.

What was that like? Have you ever experienced anything like that before?
I’d never been through anything like that before. I was mainly worried that after we were incapacitated by the bomb, we were going to get hit with RPGs and that, you know, after two or three hits they were going to breach the vehicle and kill us. But we were taking fire and getting out of the vehicle didn’t seem like that great an idea.

It was just sort of a weird moment where I wasn’t very scared and I knew I should be. So I was trying to do at least a good job filming this. Whatever happens, you’re going to want this filmed. I was just concentrating on the shooting and I actually got some interesting shots and interesting angles during all that chaos.

There was this skeleton bouncing - it was a skeleton that was hanging from the rearview mirror… You have this weird out of body heightened perception and I remember seeing that skeleton dancing and it was dancing from the force of the blast and after this thing settled down it kept on dancing from the end of its chain for a while. I was focused on it with the camera. I wasn’t looking through the viewfinder or anything - this was all completely intuitive shooting - and I was like, “Damn, that’s crazy.” I was worried that I was wounded because I wasn’t scared… I worried that I was just so calm. I was too calm.

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