I recently sat down with producer, and longtime Lower East Side resident, Marc Perez, to talk about his real life war movie, “Severe Clear.” After a successful festival circuit run, the documentary is opening at the Angelika this weekend. It was directed and edited by his partner (and cousin) Kristian Fraga. It’s based on the memoir by First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, and uses actual video footage shot by him and other members of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines on the outset of the 2003 invasion of Iraq:
TLD: So how did you get involved with the project?
MP: Years ago (2004) we were finishing up “Anytown USA” and an intern of ours was working in the video department at NYU and one day this marine (First Lieutenant Mike Scotti) walked in with all this videotape from the war and asked if someone could help edit it to show his family. So we called him in and saw his footage, really intense stuff, not shot for the purpose of making a movie, really just to show his friends and family. And we came up with the idea to take what he had and make this movie about the war, just from his point of view.
Marc said it took years to make because they decided to keep the film solely in Scotti’s perspective. They recorded some interviews with him, but soon realized it was his footage that was most compelling about the story. They scoured all of Scotti’s letters and journals (even some notes written on napkins) and then edited the footage, which was an enormous project, piecing his candid clips together in order to create a cohesive story.
MP: Basically when we made this film, we wanted the audience member to feel as uncomfortable as they (the soldiers) did when they were there. So we used a lot of horror film techniques. I mean, they never know when people are going to start shooting at them, so you’re always in suspense. It’s graphic, and we show everything. When the people are speaking Arabic to them, they don’t understand Arabic, and we chose not to use subtitles. One thing Mike said, that helped us, was, “You don’t know fear until another human being is trying to hunt you down and kill you.”
TLD: How involved was (First Lieutenant) Mike Scotti in the process?
MP: He was very involved, I mean it was all his footage and his notes. We tried to get him to write down everything he could, at first…a lot of these guys have post traumatic stress syndrome, they block out a lot of stuff that happened to them, so you really have to get them to – write it all down. Sometimes we’d ask him about something he had written (while he was over there) and he’d say, “I don’t remember that.” And then we’d talk about it more and it would start to come back.
TLD: What was it that interested you most about this story?
MP: Nobody’s really done a war film in that first person angle, it’s unique. I think we have something that is really rare – candid. Also it’s not for or against anything. We wanted it to be sort of a blue collar movie, not about the bigger picture but about the guy that has to go do what he’s ordered to do. The job.
TLD: How was he able to shoot all that footage? Didn’t the military mind these guys having video cameras out there?
MP: Well, this was the 2003 invasion so it was the first time soldiers could bring small video cameras on to the battle field, I mean in the Gulf War, the cameras were still too big to carry around, so it didn’t cross anyone’s mind and while they were filming, nobody said anything. And in fact, his job was a forward observer, so he’s way up front and he basically calls in artillery. If he wasn’t using his camera, he’d be just using binoculars. It actually helped him do his job, he just had it around his neck…After Abu Ghraib, with the pictures, everything changed. Now they have rules.
TLD: He was happy with the final product?
MP: Very happy. He feels like this is a real (portrayal) of what goes on. That it’s not a Hollywood movie (version) or a journalist’s version. We’ve screened it for a lot of veterans and they’ve told us they feel this really showed what they really experienced. Because they have trouble explaining it to their families. And a lot of these guys, they have a trust issues, I guess, with the press, they feel it’s a bit of a p.r. machine.
TLD: Did making this film change your perspective on the war in any way?
MP: Well — yeah. Seeing what they went through – for something that wasn’t there… I think they feel a little betrayed. They lost friends. A lot of people died for other than what they were told. But we didn’t want to make the movie about that. (We’ve found) both sides use it to strengthen their argument (either for or against the war). Arguments have broken out after the screenings. They take away what they want from it.
Iraq war films are an increasingly unpopular genre (although Marc hopes Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Oscar sweep with the fictional war film, The Hurt Locker, may have turned the tide.) The filmmakers knew they’d have trouble finding someone to distribute Severe Clear so they decided to do it themselves. They’ve launched an all-out Do-It-Yourself, grassroots marketing campaign – competing with films like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland for screens across the country. Make sure to go out and support the filmmakers. The length of their run will depend on how many seats they fill on opening weekend. They are hoping for a successful run at the Angelika to keep their momentum going.