Interview: Matthew Michael Carnahan on Fighting for the Soul of a City in “Mosul”

There aren’t many helping hands around Iraq in the final days that ISIS occupied the country’s biggest city of Mosul, slowly but surely receding due to the persistent efforts of the locals still willing to uphold the law in the region, making the Nineveh SWAT Team’s encounter with the Popular Mobilization Force midway through Matthew Michael Carnahan’s directorial debut as riveting as any of its kinetic action scenes. Led by the stoic veteran Major Jasem (Suhail Dabbach), the Nineveh SWAT team is in need of ammunition after patrolling the streets requires preemptive warning shots to protect against all of the various entities that are either distrustful of any armed forces or who wish to do them harm and the militia, made up of various professional soldiers of different provenance, offers bullets up in exchange for their stockpile of cigarettes.

Even 13 cartons’ worth of smokes will go quickly, but there’s relief in both the nicotine and the conversation it takes to procure them in trade when the trust required to even talk to someone else in the war-torn region is so elusive, and while the the men on screen may not be inhaling fresh air, what comes out of “Mosul” proves to be as it offers nuance, even within the confines of a bombastic action thriller, to how attitudes have been shaped by instability. While Carnahan is American, he is able to leverage the scale of a U.S. production (under the auspices of “Avengers: Infinity War” co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s AGBO) while putting Iraqis front and center as they fight to reclaim their country from terrorist groups.

Naturally, a little Western narrative flair enters the mix as the true story based on Luke Mogelson’s 2017 article in The New Yorker takes shape around the “Training Day”-esque relationship between Jasem and Kawa (Adam Bessa), a young policeman so new to the job that he hadn’t yet received his ID before being thrust into action, but heroism isn’t shown through strength and determination as much as you come to admire both in the film’s main characters, so much as Jasem’s ability to build a ragtag collection of soldiers who come to see a common cause when the reasons why they took up arms in the first place are a result of continual efforts over decades to divide them. Carnahan has considered this fractious history before as the screenwriter for such films as “The Kingdom” and “Lions for Lambs,” and while any film set in the region, particularly from filmmakers outside of it, may require as much caution for those behind the camera as those on screen dodging stray bullets and landmines at every turn, exhaustion meets exhilaration in “Mosul” where it’s understood that those constantly pressed into action are weary of war, giving themselves over to a battle that they know could only improve the lives of a future generation rather than their own.

Following the film’s premiere last fall at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, “Mosul” was recently unveiled on Netflix and Carnahan spoke about stepping up to direct the film, the cultural sensitivities involved in mounting such an international production and recreating Mosul in Marrakech.

Did you have the directing bug for a while or was this something you just decided you had to direct yourself?

In a vague, general sense that I think any writer has, but nothing that was as acute and as present as reading this article in The New Yorker. It had such an effect on me that I thought this is one that I want to make sure we get 1000% correct, as I saw the potential of this material. So it was the first time I’ve ever said, “I’ll write it if I can direct it,” and it was more a function of this article than it was any overwhelming desire for me to direct.

Had you been keeping tabs on the Middle East since “Lions For Lambs” and “The Kingdom” era?

Honestly, my senior year in high school was ’90-’91 when the first Gulf War happened, so in many ways, I’ve been keeping tabs on that region for almost 30 years now, and we have been at some state of war, in some way, shape, or form, some state of war with Iraq [for that time]. That part of the world has always grabbed me – a city like Baghdad that is one of the founding jewels of modern civilization, and that it’s only synonymous with war in a lot of corners of the West has always fascinated me.

When the film’s in Arabic, did you know the language?

None whatsoever. I made a pretty big assumption that there were people out there dying for the opportunity to be a part of something like this, and that assumption, I think, was proven right again and again because there are remarkable people out there who, once they got over their disbelief, they threw themselves into it. And I don’t think a lot of people actually believed what I was telling them the first one, two, three times.

Obviously, I wrote it in English, and then we began the translation process with Amina Anada who became my right-hand person there, who’s from Egypt, and there is a linguistics professor in Marrakesh named Dr. Abbas [Abdulghani], who was born and raised in Mosul, and did all of his formal schooling in Baghdad. And then 10 members of the cast and crew were Iraqi-born – Suhail spent most of his life in Iraq. My script supervisor Zainab Al Hariri was born and raised for the first part of her childhood in Iraq. Her father, who is a physician, was part of the group that tried to kill Saddam, but there were a lot of people around, so they called off the attempt. Everything I’ve heard, they had him, but they didn’t want to kill innocent civilians. But that’s the very thing that finally exposed the cabal [that’s in the film]. She and her mom had to flee to London and she never saw her dad again. That’s where she’s been ever since. So the stories that you start to tell about these people who threw themselves into this movie – they helped me get not just every word and every inflection correct, but there’s no way to do this without them.

Other directors I’ve spoken to who make a film in a language not their own tend to enjoy the fact that they can focus on body language rather than dialogue. Was that the case for you?

You start to phonetically key in on certain things I know generally what they’re saying even if have no concept as to how they’re saying it because I wrote it, and you start to pick up on where somebody who’s from Amman, Jordan might have a different way of saying the same word. We tried to specifically make it Baghdad-dialect Arabic, but after every take, I would look at Zainab, Suhail, Sam Salih, Amina, and wait for the thumbs up, like did they get that correct? And there were a few times where from my perspective, the take was brilliant, but you could hear somebody with the Amman, Jordan hint of dialect to a line, so we’d have to do it again.

Is it true Suhail became a leader in that respect as well – keeping the dialect in check?

Totally. At his fine arts school, he was the award-winning actor there and he obviously knows the craft, but also the language down pat, and very early on, he became the resource for the team, which was just serendipitous for us. It just worked beautifully that they all started gravitating toward him, both in the military tactical training, as well as the language and the dialect training.

How do you set up a production like this in another culture with a different pipeline?

It was a worldwide net. Early on in the casting process, we realized we weren’t going to be able to get anyone out of Iraq. This was right at the height of the travel ban madness, and even if we could, it looked like it was going to take many months to get them into Morocco, so it was a two-headed beast. We realized if we’re going to do this, this initial game plan of finding the best young crew and actors in Iraq and bring them over wasn’t going to work, so we just started tracking where we thought the diaspora had landed.

One of our actors is a dental student in Michigan, the southeastern part where there’s a large Chaldean population – so it was that granular. We papered the local universities with [fliers saying] “Come do an audition,” and there’s a [casting director] Sarah Halley Finn, who casts all of Joe and Anthony [Russo]’s movies, and Laura Tala, who’s in Aman, Jordan – and I keep saying this but without them, there’s literally no cast, and we found them wherever we could possibly find them.

This is silly to ask, but did that actually inspire the line about one of the characters having a relative in Michigan?

Believe it or not, I had that in there [from the beginning] because I’m from Michigan, so I knew that there was a pretty big Chaldean population there, so when we were looking around, I was like I know there’s this Chaldean population in Michigan. But that line existed before we found a kid from Michigan to be in the movie, so I can’t take credit for it.

While we’re talking about geography, one of my favorite scenes in the film is how you’re able to break down the cultural differences between different factions within Iraq during the scene where cigarettes are offered in exchange for bullets. How did you figure out how to handle that in such an organic way?

That was the most engaging part of the writing of the script, like how can I show the reality while also turning people’s perceptions on their ear? Because there is a general who runs the Quds Force in Iran, which leads the Shia popular National Guard – the popular mobilization units – basically, who has been photographed and videoed in the northern part of Iraq, and he’s a fascinating guy. He’s highly educated and not the villain that the politics would have us believe, so I wanted to show a version of him in all his complexity, and allow those two to duke it out about the last century of history about both places.

Since I’ve studied a lot, I know that the Sykes–Picot Agreement butchered these places without any sense of [how] tribes and religion and allegiances contribute to a lot of the bloodshed that we still see, and I wanted to not shy away from that, but to dive right in to give yet another dimension to what’s going on over there. It’s not as easy as we might think, especially in America and in the larger West.

It’s such a complicated story that I was surprised to hear it didn’t change much from the first draft of the script.

Trust me, that’s not par for the course for me. My first drafts are painfully slow and are way too long. My first draft of “State of Play” was 150 pages and “The Kingdom” was just behind that. So this one, it’s a cliché to say it just poured out of me, but I’ve never written something this quickly in that concise a manner, and it’s all a credit to Luke’s story, because I think I didn’t have to find it; I just had to figure out the best way to arrange it as I saw it.

We made tweaks once we were in Morocco based on locations. The minefield scene was [initially] written on a bridge over the Tigris, but there are no rivers in Morocco to speak of that flow like the Tigris, so those sorts of things we had to change, but [the producers] were never like, “Here’s a sheath of notes. Take a month and do the second draft.” It was ‘This is great, we want to do it.”

Was there anything that changed when you saw the dynamic between the men in the squad?

Certainly, and when we first got everybody there, it was just this hodge podge of these wonderful faces all over the world, and Joe Russo said, “Just think of them as the SWAT team, and as you realize somebody has something, you move them into a different role.” That happened pretty much right up until we started shooting. Another Iraqi-born member of the crew that had to get out, he sent in his own audition and filmed himself in front of a sheet, and I was immediately taken with him. And that character [he played originally] had a much smaller role, but when I realized how good that guy is and how good Adam can be consistently, I wrote that scene in the truck between he and Kawa where they start yelling at each other, like “You ask too many questions,” and he shows the video of the brother who was beheaded by ISIS. In the script was a quicker version of that, but I told them, “You guys run with it,” and that whole thing like “Don’t push me around, I’m not a donkey,” that was Kawa and Adam coming up with that on the fly and me just being lucky enough to have a camera on them.

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming on this?

There were several, not necessarily in a dangerous way. There was a part of Marrakesh we were in that, for all intents and purposes, is run by the local street gang, and in Morocco, if you have a gun, a bullet, or even a part of a gun, it’s pretty much a straight 15-years-in-prison sentence, so these street gangs fight with knives and [in this neighborhood], you saw scars like the Glasgow smile, where somebody’s been cut from the corner of their mouth up to their ear on more than one of these guys.

We basically had to make peace with them so we could shoot and there was a time where their rival street gang found out and enlisted a bunch of people, as the schools were letting out, to rush the set. That was the only time that security grabbed me and moved me. We always had a secure room and that was right at the end of the shoot, so it was at that point I was used to the craziness and it served our purpose in ways that I think I even underestimated going in because everybody’s a unit, and you’re in a country that’s not so far removed from the madness. And when you’re in a different country that practices a predominantly different religion, I found it fascinating and absolutely wonderful, and there’s a sizeable contingent of ISIS that was from Morocco, so the fact that that was so palpable did nothing but wonderful things for the movie.

What’s it like getting to the finish line? A seven-minute standing ovation in Venice, I hear.

First of all, I’m still not convinced they don’t give every movie a seven-minute standing ovation… [laughs] but it’s been more than I could have ever hoped. It’s been surreal, an absolutely exhausting, eye-opening time. And just the idea that this movie was made in this different, unorthodox… and I’ll say for the Russos, brave way – without them, and without their reputations, their abilities, and their support, there’s no version of this whatsoever being made by anybody anywhere, so it’s just lovely to see that maybe this can come to fruition for them. That’s been the most enjoyable part of it.

“Mosul” is now streaming on Netflix.

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