On September 11, 2001 when two airliners were flown into the towers of New York’s World Trade Center, the weather over the city was ’severe clear,’ the sky a bright blue and cloudless with seemingly infinite visibility. The repercussions of the events of that day eventually contributed to the invasion of Iraq by U.S. military forces in March 2003. One of the marines involved in that offensive was First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, a member of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.
When Scotti set out for the Middle East in 2003, he knew that he would be involved in events that would change the course of history. With the intention of documenting his experiences for a book, he decided to capture as much as he could of the on-the-ground wartime incidents he witnessed with a home digital camera.
Upon his return to the U.S. after his tour of duty, Scotti happened by chance to meet up with documentary filmmaker Kristian Fraga (Anytown, USA) who edited the 60 plus hours of Scotti’s raw footage into Severe Clear, a riveting first-person account of the invasion of Iraq that allows those who have not served in combat to have the kind of visibility of warfare usually only experienced by a foot soldier.
In an exclusive conversation with CinemaSpy, Scotti talks about the catharsis of making the film, the logistical complications of shooting during battle without distracting from his duty as a soldier, and why he believes war films nowadays no longer have the box office power that they had in the wake of World War II and Vietnam.
CinemaSpy: In other documentaries filmed by soldiers cameras were supplied by the filmmakers who had a finished product in mind. But after serving in the first Afghanistan campaign, you set out to document the Iraq War for a book. Not every soldier goes into battle with the intension of making a document of his or experiences. Why did you decide this was important for you to do?
Mike Scotti: I was an avid reader growing up and I had read a lot of personal narrative of people who had fought in World War I and World War II, Korea and Vietnam. So, I just said in the end this is my war and my story and I would like to write something and get it out there. So, I was just kind of naturally inclined to that.
I was using the footage almost as a personal notebook, a video diary. Instead of jotting down notes that were written, I just took a video camera and to be honest I think it was much more effective. I had originally just wanted to link up with somebody at NYU to edit everything down to a manageable length. So if I wanted to show friends and family ‘the cool parts,’ I would be able to do that instead of cycling through 20 different digital videocassettes.
The person that I ended up meeting in the hallway at NYU was someone who happened to be doing freelance work for Sirk Productions, and he said: “There is I think somebody you should meet.” And he called Kristian Fraga from his cellphone right the way. Sirk Productions and Kristian and [producer] Marc Perez were the ones that really made the decision to make this into a film.
CinemaSpy: It’s a big thing to entrust someone with those tapes and your story? The film is Fraga’s sophomore movie after Anytown, USA. Had you seen the film and why were you confident he was the person to do this?
Mike Scotti: It took some time for the level of trust that was needed between he and I. I had seen some of his work but it wasn’t until I was actually at the Trenton Film Festival that I saw Anytown, USA play and he got a standing ovation. I just said: “That is it!” and we had already come pretty far at that point but that just put to bed any doubts that I had, and I think he is just a brilliant director, very artistic and gifted.
CinemaSpy: I loved some of the techniques that he used. He supplements your on-camera comments with voiceover excerpts from your journal but also uses some of the tropes of horror film to add suspense and tension. How involved were you in the editing process and constructing the film’s narrative? There were 60 hours of footage. What was most challenging aspect of reducing that amount of material?
Mike Scotti: In terms of the visual aspects of editing the footage, I had almost no involvement at all. I spent a few weeks locked in a room with people in 2004 just getting everything done on paper, and every time that Kris and I would talk some other story would lead to another story. So I decided: “Look, you need to do a brain dump of everything.” So I sat there with an assistant for weeks, literally. Several hundred pages of a stream of consciousness, watching the videos and looking at the pictures and triggering all of these memories, and at that point there was a large cardboard box filled with stuff, and I just lifted it across the table and began to absorb it. And I had Kris read a couple of books that were pertinent to what it means to be a marine, and things that I thought that he should know. Where we did work together was in the voice-over piece. I did a lot of the writing and that is where we collaborated a lot. But Kristian was the man when it came to the editing.
CinemaSpy: I love the film’s title. How did it materialize and did you toy with others. How do you settle on a name for a film or do the studio heads and marketing folk still have a powerful voice in the matter?
Mike Scotti: The title was a creation of Kristian Fraga. He came across the term while he was researching 9/11. The term is actually a kind of ‘unofficial’ FAA designation. ‘Severe clear’ means there is seemingly infinite visibility. It is as clear as it can possibly get. We have sometimes heard that it can even be almost too clear because of the horizon and where it meets the water. On the morning of September 11th, 2001 — and it is a very rare condition — was severe clear. It allowed the terrorists to line up on the towers. There are many layers to seemingly infinite visibility.
CinemaSpy: This movie was about the invasion more than the occupation, and most of the other war doc films of late have been about the occupation. It is almost 7 years since the US invasion of Iraq. The film took three years of editing. Do you think that you needed several years away from the theater of war to get a perspective on this material?
Mike Scotti: I think so. I have certainly grown older, and I think I have matured and am a lot wiser than I was seven years ago. I am in my early 30s now. I think around 30 or 31 something triggers and you just kind of calm down a little bit. I think for me personally it needed to happen. Kristian works at his own pace, and it was after the second or third year when I realized I just needed to let him work. He is an artist. I was always like, “When is it going to be done? When is it going to be done?”—so at some point you realize he works at his own pace. Good things take time. They could have slapped something together that wouldn’t have been as good as the finished product if they had got there very, very quickly. Mark and Kris made that conscious decision that they were going to take as long as it takes to get it right.
CinemaSpy: I am interested in the image of the marine and how he or she is portrayed on film. I interviewed Francis Ford Coppola last year and in connection with recent movies set in Iraq, he said that maybe people are just confused about more contemporary wars because Americans in their hearts want to be the good guys. He said, and I quote, “We love the GI and the American soldier having compassion but…more and more in the contemporary world we are forced to look at [the fact that] possibly we are the bad guys, or other countries think we are. And I think people are uncomfortable with that.” In your film you do not shy away from showing marines remarking on how cool it feels to kill live targets. There’s no attempt to glamorize fellow soldiers. Did you ever think about censoring yourself or panning away?
Mike Scotti: Yes. It was more because of my allegiance to the core. Even now when I watch it, I go “Oh, boy…” But it is what it is. Think about the colonel’s speech at the beginning of the film. Those marines were just doing their job in that hole. Marines are young and they are trained to do a job, and a lot of times that job calls for the loss of enemy life. And I think a lot of it has to do with their youth. The average age is 19. I was always older. I was a lieutenant and was six or seven years older than the rest of the guys. You look at things in a different perspective. So you have to wonder how much that affects [them] because the guys are younger and they are fighting the war. You wonder how later on in life that will come back to affect them.
CinemaSpy: Marines are often seen as disconnected from the Iraq war, ensconced in their Humvees, rolling through the streets to death metal music and taking out potential threats by getting a visual on them and pressing a button, much like a video game. Do you feel that for some of the war was reduced to a video game, perhaps as a coping mechanism, a means of survival?
Mike Scotti: Think about the unmanned predator drone aircraft. There is a live pilot but you could be in a different part of the world, and for them, yes, it is. But for the marines on the ground, it will never be a video game because you smell the smells and you see the sights and you feel. It is impossible to be disconnected from the war while you are in a boot on the ground in enemy territory, especially because of IEDs and things like that. So even if you are in a Humvee when you get out of your vehicle you are still scared that there is a 2000-pound bomb buried under the road somewhere that has got your name on it.
CinemaSpy: It’s interesting because I asked Kathryn Bigelow the same question and her answer was very similar.
Mike Scotti: I am a huge fan of The Hurt Locker, by the way.
CinemaSpy: I am very interested in the logistics of how you managed to film as much as you did while under fire. Did you ever tape the camera to your helmet or chest?
Mike Scotti: I tried to do that but it would always break the camera. I did that as I was propelling out the helicopter. I even thought about it right before we shipped out, and wished that I had some sort of device that I could attach my helmet to the side of my head with a stable vision mechanism or something. People always ask me that, and it is as simple as I was an observer. If we were taking heavy fire, I wouldn’t shoot back with my rifle. I would have a radio handset clipped to my helmet strap. I key the handset, I give out position and give the position of where I want the artillery to land. So my weapon was the radio and 30 seconds later all hell rains down on the enemy hopefully where I said it was supposed to land.
So if I didn’t have a small consumer video camera strapped round my neck, I would have had a set of binoculars, and I would have been doing the same thing with a set of binoculars. So I couldn’t really do my job just as effectively as I did if I hadn’t had a video camera. You see a couple of parts in the movie where they ask me, for example, “What is that?” and I say “It is a flag flying, sir.” And I’m trying to use the zoom on the camera — which is actually stronger than the zoom on the military binoculars — to see what it is.
It is like that joke when you come with a black eye and you say “Well, you should see the other guy!” It is the same thing. You should see the stuff I didn’t film. And the stuff that I manage to catch is jumping because I would take a shot and think: “Okay, this is crazy I am not videotaping any more.” Because I had two radio headsets, one in each ear; one to talk to the infantry and one to talk to the artillery. It was definitely something in my mind. I never wanted the video to get in the way of doing my job. I just wouldn’t do that. I am a professional.
CinemaSpy: The marines’ experiences are layered with overheard news broadcasts from the BBC and others as well as speeches by George Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. How aware were you and your unit of how the war was being reported by the international news media, and in retrospect how accurate was it in relation to what you experienced?
Mike Scotti: I had a small shortwave radio that my parents had given me for Christmas because I was going to get out of the Marine Corps and just to travel around the whole world for a year. We got the BBC on it and in a couple of shots you can see it sitting on the dashboard of the Humvee. That is how we got most of news. Think about the time that it takes to explain to everybody what is going on. And you are not worried about the strategic and operational level of what is going on. You are worried about your tactical zone and what is relevant to staying alive and accomplishing your objective that day or that week. So we had no idea what was going on in the rest of the war, except for what we got from the BBC.
There were debriefings of what was going on but, like I said, after the first couple of days, we just didn’t have time to get constant updates because we were constantly moving…bits here and there I think were brilliantly reported but I think in other places they just didn’t capture what we captured on film. I don’t know if that is because of where [reporters] were replaced in the battlefield or because they were hiding in their are vehicles or whatever. It doesn’t capture what we captured. But even if I took all of my footage and took the cool and interesting parts and put them on DVD for an hour, it still takes somebody like Kristian Fraga, who has this creative gift to make it into something that flows the right way that people are going to watch. That is the X-factor.
CinemaSpy: Another X-factor about this film — and I think it connects with The Hurt Locker — is that the movie has an almost ambivalently apolitical perspective. There is no concerted effort to take a political side. The same could be said of The Hurt Locker. Were you tempted to bring a clearer political ideology to this film at any point in the editing process or did you decide that at the outset?
Mike Scotti: I was adamant. It was one of the stipulations for me in licensing the footage to Sirk [that there must be] zero political bent to this thing in any manner whatsoever. People ask if you’re anti-war or pro-war. But I think that any film that is good and actually portrays combat or war, people will see it as somewhat of an anti-war film because war is so harsh and war is hell. But as far as any left or right wing bent to the whole thing, I was very adamant that that would not be included. That was very clear to Kris very early on and once he and I had an understanding and there was a level of trust built between us then he just basically said: “You needed to just let me go and make the film, edit it together and we will work on the voiceovers together but just let me make the film I want to make. And then we will just take a look at it.” And he made a great film.
CinemaSpy: The Hurt Locker has been described as re-inventing the war movie for the post-Vietnam era but it is also the least viewed film to win Best Picture. The war movie genre has had a tough time being embraced by audiences. But here’s the question: Apocalypse Now came out 4 years after the end of the Vietnam War and had a powerful impact. Do you have any thoughts on why Iraq War films made in its wake have not yet had the commercial impact as Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter had?
Mike Scotti: I do. I put a piece up on CNN. I have an op-ed that was out on Wednesday. In that piece I touch on what you are talking about. It is about the sense of disconnect and isolation that a lot of veterans feel when they come home and in that I talk about the fact that there was no draft like there was in World War II or Vietnam. In World War II you could take any city block or any block out of the suburbs somewhere and there would be a number of families who were directly touched by the war, somebody serving or somebody who has been killed. In Vietnam the world was changing and you also had a draft and people who didn’t want to be there that were forced to go. So that touched a lot of people.
With the modern military, is an all-volunteer force and it’s a much smaller subset of the population. Compared to World War II, it is much different and it doesn’t hit the country economically. You don’t have kids collecting tin. You don’t have pennies not made of copper. You don’t have stockings being used to make parachutes. There is no Rosie The Riveter. There is a much smaller subset of the population that is actually intimately touched and their families intimately touched by this war, and so it is just not part of the collective consciousness of the public.
I don’t want to say that people don’t care or that they don’t give a shit above the war because they care about the troops but in the end was kind of in the background of society. The piece I wrote talks about the isolation that guys feel when they come home. I think society is different. If everybody’s father or brother was in the war, war movies would be huge.
CinemaSpy: How has this experience altered you, not only as a soldier but now also as a filmmaker?
Mike Scotti: I think that it was a tremendously cathartic process, and it was really like the best form of therapy that I can possibly think of. To get locked up in a room for three weeks when you first get back, and you just get everything out on paper and then have somebody put it up on the big screen with a world can see it. It is like turning you inside out for the whole world to see, just totally naked. That was just such a cleansing process for me to go through. So personally, I am thankful that I had this opportunity, and I really think that veterans should look to creative outlets to get what is inside their brains down on paper, in a journal, in a painting, in a song, in a movie, whatever it is.
Hundreds and hundreds of comments were written on the CNN piece. I don’t even know how many private messages are on my Facebook from complete strangers, pouring their hearts out, telling me their entire stories. One of them was “I am crying on my laptop as I am writing this to you. My ex-husband was a marine and he almost committed suicide before he got back. He was angry all of the time.” Over and over there is the same type of story. People have this side of them and not just veterans but also the families of the veterans and their wives and mothers and the kids. And they just need a release of all of this angst or whatever feelings they are; they need to get it out there.
I never said I wanted to be a filmmaker. And the opportunity kind of arose and now I see the power of a well-made film and if it is well made how it can resonate with people. There is a basic human need to communicate.
CinemaSpy: Do you have any plans to continue making movies or are you now going to focus on the book?
Mike Scotti: I have actually been approached to potentially do some technical work for the military, and things like that. I would be more in a producer role. But for me that is probably a bit further down the line. I need to focus on making a living. It is kind of interesting some of the things that have popped up because of this. I am kind of at a personal crossroads, and I’m going to see where it takes me.