Mike Scotti turns his Iraq experience into a documentary

For decades filmmakers have tried to capture the essence of war on screen. From All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930 to Platoon and Full Metal Jacket in the 1980s to 2009 Academy Award Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. While intense battle scenes try to make the viewer understand what it’s like to be under fire from the enemy, however realistic they may be they are still fiction. No one is really hurt and no one has actually died. The movies just make an impact on your feelings and mind.

Colts Neck native Mike Scotti has a different perspective on film and war. His videos and journals form the basis of Severe Clear, a first-person documentary of life in the Marine Corps and on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mike was among the first American soldiers to fight in Afghanistan in 2001, engaging in firefights with the Taliban. He was later deployed to Iraq in 2003. While there, he commanded a detachment of Forward Observers and fought as a First Lieutenant with Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment in numerous battles along Route 7 in Iraq.

In Iraq, he compiled hours and hours of footage of the day-to-day trials and tribulations of being a soldier. The sights and sounds make everyone realize that war is not just battles but also many moments filled with tediousness as well as tension which the average civilian never knows or experiences. The term “severe clear” is used by pilots and refers to a rare combination of visibility conditions which produce unusual clarity. The videos were originally intended to be used to help Mike write a book about his time in Iraq. However, through a little bit of luck and effort, they ended up in the hands of director Kristian Fraga, who over several years was able to create what became Severe Clear. The documentary is being shown in select theaters around the country. (See severeclearthemovie.com for more information).

Mike was honorably discharged from the Marines (and remained a captain in the Marine Corps Reserves until his honorable discharge in 2008) and went on to attend New York University’s Stern School of Business, where he received an MBA with a specialization in finance. After some time in the leveraged finance group at Credit Suisse and 18 months helping turn around a distressed frozen foods distributor, Mike is moving on to a new chapter in his life, which included a six week backpacking trip through Vietnam this past winter. Recently, Mike sat down with Living In Colts Neck to discuss his experiences in helping make the critically acclaimed documentary Severe Clear as well as life in the Marine Corps.

LICN: How many hours of film did you shoot?

MS: Altogether for the movie we had 60, but that was a compilation of four of us. I had 22 tapes; some were an hour, some were two hours. All total I probably had 20-24 hours.

LICN: How did you get the footage from your fellow soldiers?

MS: Once Kristian said he wanted to do a movie of this, I told him there were other guys who had video cameras. His eyes got real big and he said to get a hold of them. So the ones I could get a hold of said, “Absolutely” and sent everything over. They were actually shot on different cameras and look a little bit different. They were in different formats but still digital.

LICN: How were you able to get permission to film what was going on while you were on active duty?

MS: I didn’t need to get permission to shoot the footage because there is no law specifically in the military code of justice that says you can’t do that. Obviously if it was against regulations I wouldn’t have been doing it as an officer in the Marine Corps. People find that hard to believe but we were never really told you couldn’t, as long as it didn’t interfere with doing your job. My job was as a forward observer and I would be using binoculars if I wasn’t using a video camera.

LICN: What was the reaction of other Marines to you having the camera?

MS: They didn’t care. I was never annoying with it. That’s why there’s not a lot of shots of the camera in guys’ faces; I just wouldn’t do that. The idea was never really to make a film out of the footage. The idea was to use it more as a video diary, almost like notes for a book so that I could actually right a memoir some day. That was the original plan.

LICN: When did you know it was going to have the potential to make a movie?

MS: When I met Kristian Fraga. He was the one with the vision. My story is no different than others it’s just that I was able to capture it and the opportunity existed to potentially make a great film out of it.

LICN: How did you meet Kristian?

MS: I had originally wanted to get all my footage – all the cool parts – and edit it onto one DVD because I kept having to pull out all these different tapes to show my family and friends. I literally talked my way past the guards at NYU film school because I knew it was a good film school. The idea was I was going to find a student and pay him $200. I was really looking for a flier that asked if you needed any editing done. I found this one guy, Andrew Torkelson, who was a student there and doing freelance editing for Sirk Productions. So Andrew called Kristian, who was looking for his next project, and told him that he was going to want to take a look at this. That was in 2003.

LICN: Were you surprised at how long the process to make the film took?

MS: I was stunned. After the third year, I stopped worrying about it. I knew how talented Kristian was and knew that he would finish it when he would finish it.

LICN: You said that your original goal was to use the footage as a personal journal

MS: It was going to be foundation for a book. So if I saw something interesting I would take 20 seconds of video to put myself back there so that would later turn into two pages.

LICN: Was there anything you recorded that you wish there had been more of in the film?

MS: I wish there had been more of the stuff of my family. That had been in some of the earlier cuts of the movie but it was taken out because it was too long. Those scenes resonate.

LICN: How involved with the project were you once you turned over the tapes to Kristian?

MS: In April 2004, I spent three weeks every single day going to Sirk Productions doing writing. It was just me and an assistant for 12 hours a day of for however long I could do it watching every piece of footage, looking at every single picture, going through every single journal entry and just expanding on it all. It was just 200 pages of stream of consciousness thought. When that was done, there was just a huge box of DVC tapes, pictures, journals, and all kinds of stuff and I gave it to Kris. It took him six months to a year to go through all that and come up with a narrative outline. Then he and I started writing the voiceovers.

LICN: What was it like to do those voiceovers and re-read your journals some time after leaving Iraq?

MS: It was very therapeutic. At that point it was less than a year after I had written them. It was a cathartic creative outlet. It was great to revisit and face all that. It doesn’t bother me that much any more. The film was a form of therapy.

LICN: How long did it take you to do the voiceovers?

MS: Along time. It took me a good year because I was working a full-time job. On Saturday nights from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., I would be doing voiceovers. It was interesting but sometimes I wouldn’t have it. I mean, I am not an actor. The ending took the longest. Kristian and I wrote that and we almost beat up each other over it.

LICN: What made doing the voiceovers so difficult?

MS: Kristian is a perfectionist, and if there was an inflection in my voice or if he wanted it a certain way, I had to do it over and over and over again. I think it came out pretty good. I wish that I had been an actor and been able to read like Charlie Sheen in Platoon. Kris would never let me try to act. I would try to be like Charlie Sheen, and he would tell me to stop because he wanted it a certain way.

LICN: What do you hope audiences take away from this movie? What has been the reaction of the people who have seen it?

MS: I hope they take away the experience of what it is like to be in combat and what it’s like to be in a war. That creates a shared experience with combat veterans, which is important. The overwhelming majority of the people love the film. They are a little bit shocked. They’re thankful we made the film and feel enlightened in a way. The real takeaway for me is that shared experience.

LICN: What did you learn about yourself by going through the filmmaking process?

MS: I learned that when people are as talented as Kristian just step into the background and let them work. That goes back to year three of the project when, coming from a business and military background, I was wondering what was taking so long. I also learned how to work with people who are artists. Kristian is an artist and doesn’t care about the money or the business aspect of it; he just cares about his art and that was awesome. That changed me a little bit. I got to be exposed to that artistic ability.

LICN: What made you decide to join the Marines?

MS: I was always drawn to the military at a very young age. It was kind of a natural instinct/calling that I had. When I was five years old, I was running around with a fake M-16 and battle fatigues. I had ancestors who were in World War II and I was interested in that. Then I saw the movie Full Metal Jacket and I said, “That’s what I want to do!” That was a huge influence.

LICN: You spent time in the reserves during college. Then following your graduation from the University of Miami in 1999, you went straight into officer candidate school. Describe the experience of becoming an officer.

MS: It was hard. It’s 13 weeks long. It’s physically demanding. It has high standards; they’re training leaders. If you make it through officer candidate school, which is a filtering process, then you have to go through six more months of leadership training, then you go through another eight months of learning your job as an artillery officer. The Marine Corps trains their officers more than any other branch of the military. It’s awesome.

LICN: What was a typical day like in officer candidate school?

MS: You probably slept three to five hours most nights, because there was always some sort of punishment going on. You have to do an hour watch every night, walking around with a flashlight. In officer candidate school, the punishment is taking away sleep. In basic training, the punishment is physical pain. The goal of officer candidate school is to see if you can still function as a leader under combat conditions. You also had four to five hours of physical conditioning. Then four to five hours of classroom instruction. You have chow time. You have drill – learning how to march and all that. You have weapons maintenance and personal hygiene time. And it just keeps going and going and going. The distances you run get longer and longer, and the weights you carry in the pack get heavier and heavier. It’s crazy

LICN: What was the one thing about being a Marine that surprised you?

MS: How ill-equipped we are. All of our equipment was hand-me-downs. Since the Marine Corps is part of the Navy, the Navy buys all the new stuff. We had helicopters that were 35 years old and old weapons. They’ve put more money into it now. All their equipment now is totally different. We went in with vehicles that were rundown and beaten to death. That was shocking to me. Another thing that was shocking to me was that the civilians in Kuwait were serving us our chow and that the water we were drinking was bottled with Arabic writing on it. Think about how easy it would have been to get a hold of something, especially if it’s bottled in Jordan, and put a couple of drops of whatever into that and kill a bunch of Marines.

LICN: Did you think of that when you walked into the dining area?

MS: The first time I saw a bottle with Arabic writing on it I said, “You gotta be kidding me!” And then I saw that it was locals serving us chow. I read a book when I was 10 years old called The Tunnels of Cu Chi, which was about the Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam that they used to launch the Tet Offensive from right under our noses. Inside one of those tunnels, they found Viet Cong documents that denoted who was on the payroll. In one U.S. infantry division, every single one of the barbers on the base was Viet Cong. Can you imagine what conversations took place? That kind of worked its way in. That’s why my brain was worried and that’s not paranoia.
LICN: What was the defining moment for you in the service?

MS: April 8, 2003. We had just entered Baghdad and it was complete chaos. There were a few thousand of us in a city of millions. There were enemy all over the place. People were shooting at us from all different directions. All of a sudden an artillery barrage hits our troops. I did know it was U.S. artillery because the Iraqi’s wasn’t that good. I knew I had 15 seconds to make a decision on what to do to stop the next barrage from killing Charlie Company 1st Battalion 4th Marines, and they hit one guy with the first barrage. I picked up the radio and called for all the Marine artillery for two minutes to be shut down. That act undoubtedly saved the lives of a ton of Marines to the point where the Charlie Company commander came up to me after the battle and said thank you. I am not really a religious person and I don’t really think about fate and all these things but I firmly believe I was meant to be on that radio looking in that direction in that vehicle that day in Baghdad. It was weird because a lot of people probably would not have made that call.

LICN: How did you know that they were U.S. artillery shells?

MS: I knew because it was the way the rounds fell. You had six cannons all shooting at the same time from up to 20 miles away; these big 150 millimeter howitzers which throw up huge shards. Good artillery mass in one area. Iraqi artillery were all over the place. I just knew. I was meant to be there that day. I have never felt that my whole life. When I came back from the war, I kind of drew on that.

LICN: How have your feelings about the war in Iraq changed since you first arrived there to now?

MS: The whole war is a totally different war right now. I said that to Kristian when we were editing the film in the 2005/2006 time frame. There’s the fact that they didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which obviously did not make me happy. It didn’t make anyone happy, especially the guys in the initial invasion, but you have to get over it. You can’t dwell on it, and if you dwell on it, it will eat you from the inside out. As far as the war goes, I am glad the troops are finally getting out of there. That makes me happy.

LICN: How did you personally feel once you found out there were no WMDs?

MS: It’s interesting because there was no ‘eureka’ moment where you opened something and they were there. After a while, we realized that we hadn’t found any. It was months. Even when I got back I thought there had to be a huge weapons cache somewhere; out in the desert they were going to find a huge bunker with 70,000 gallons of VX gas or serrin gas. For me, it was early to mid-2004 when it really dawned on me to ask where are these things. It’s one of those things you just shake your head at.

LICN: Do you think it would have been different if you had found out about there being no WMDs while still over there?

MS: It would have been difficult for me having been in on the initial invasion, especially knowing people who died in 9/11, having been in the Marines pre-9/11 and post-9/11, having been to Afghanistan right after 9/11. If I had to have gone and done another tour, I would have done it and done my job well, but it would have been hard on me.

LICN: How did your time in the Marines change you as a person?

MS: It gave me discipline, taught me initiative, attention to detail, focus, maintaining situational honor.

LICN: Do you view the world differently?

MS: Absolutely. Having been in combat you cherish life and little things. I seem to forget that some days, and you have to remind yourself that. You look at challenge differently. I‘m 33 and I still go to the gym at least an hour every day. That physical fitness is a part of who I am. That’s something that was instilled in me in the Marine Corps.

LICN: In the film you mentioned being inspired by a former high school classmate of yours, Beth Quigley. In what way, did she inspire you?

MS: I was on my way to Afghanistan. I got an email from a classmate of mine at Red Bank Catholic who said that she (and another classmate) were gone. I will never forget getting that e-mail. I remember sitting there in a little room on a ship that was supposed to be on its way to Thailand  but was on its way to fight a war in Afghanistan and not comprehending it…especially because it was her. I remember her as this beautiful girl in Mr. Russo’s Spanish class. I was like “how can that be?” It was like someone killed a piece of your childhood. It definitely had an impact on me.

LICN: What is something about being in war that the average person cannot understand?

MS: The feeling of having another human being hunting you. It’s the strangest feeling in the world, because it’s like the boogie man is real. You look into buildings and you look into a tree-line and you see there are people like me with weapons who are trying to kill me. It’s an odd feeling. It’s a very primal feeling. Our ancestors had it 100,000 years ago but most people never experience that.

LICN: Does it make you paranoid?

MS: No – but it pays to be paranoid. I was actually more paranoid of making a mistake getting Marines or civilians killed than I was getting killed by the enemy. If I screwed up or transposed a number wrong and dropped an artillery barrage on Charlie Company, like one of my peers almost did, that was my fear. Or my fear was getting wounded and maimed.

LICN: Was it hard to adjust to civilian life?

MS: Yeah, it was hard. You have to make a conscious decision to not isolate yourself. I went from being a reserve Marine the whole time I was in college to being on four years active duty from the moment I graduated. So my whole adult life to that point, I had been in the military. It’s a weird feeling. I went to a wedding within 72 hours of setting foot on U.S. soil and I remember sitting at the table listening to the conversation. Then I realized that I was an alien from another planet at that moment. Unless there was some veteran there who had seen combat, no one there could comprehend what I just went through. That’s when I realized that there was another whole battle you have to fight when you first get back. It can be feelings of isolation, feelings of anger, resentment. Those things can feed upon themselves very easily and can really mess you up pretty bad I woke up one day with swollen knuckles and a hangover in my New York City apartment. I was in a hole. I had to pull myself out of it. I learned all these great lessons about initiative and attention to detail, and you have to apply that to your life. You drop the anger, the isolation, and the resentment and let it go.

LICN: You are currently involved with a charity called Reserve Aid. What does the program do and whom does it support?

MS: We help alleviate the stresses for troops that are called for active duty by taking care of the stress of the families at home. There are two scenarios. In the first, a guy will get activated and they are making $40,000 a year doing whatever and now they are making $20,000 and they have a mortgage and kids and it’s a disaster. I knew that it was going to turn into something that helped wounded guys, and it did very quickly turn into reservist gets activated, gets wounded, gets medically discharged, but it takes them a year to get their disability payments, and if they don’t have  rich parents or grandparents, it’s a disaster. We pay the electric bill. We buy the kids diapers. We buy food. We make car payments for people. It’s need-based grants that are really helping families with specific needs. We’ve raised over $3 million since late 2005.

LICN: What’s next for you?

MS: That’s where I am at a crossroads. I am torn between heading back to finance or heading into small business for myself. If you ask me at different times of the day, you get different answers.

LICN: How did growing up in Colts Neck affect you?

MS: I had a childhood that most people would probably kill to have. I could not have had a better set of parents. I wrote in one my journals that the childhood I had in Colts Neck growing up allowed me to bounce back after the war much more quickly. For whatever reason it creates some sort of mental stability that a lot of people don’t have. It’s just a great place to grow up. I never really appreciated it as much until after I had gotten a little older and came back. If I ever have kids, this would be a great place for them to grow up.


Favorite restaurant:
Monte’s Trattoria in New York City

Favorite movie:
Full Metal Jacket

Favorite music:
Third Eye Blind

Pet Peeve:
Driving slowly in the left lane

Three people you’d like to have dinner with:
U.S. Marine General James N. Mattis, Stanley Kubrick, Charles Bukowski