About a decade ago, it might have been a no-brainer for a Hollywood movie studio, and may have even inspired a big bidding war between a few of them: Brad Pitt starring in a politically timely movie that is based on a best-selling book that shook the government and made for months of headlines. But by 2014, when David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) signed on to write and direct War Machine, an adaptation of the book by the late Michael Hastings that led to the downfall of four star Army General Stanley McChrystal, it was clear that times in Hollywood had changed.
“We could sniff the air almost immediately — we could tell that the current movie climate wasn’t going to be entirely hungry for a movie like this,” Michôd tells Inverse. “It’s all about risk aversion. It’s a bold and unusual movie that was never going to be cheap to make. And no one could tell how it was going to play in Middle America. We still don’t.”
Hastings documented McChrystal’s time leading the effort in the Afghanistan War in 2009 and 2010; his story for Rolling Stone, which was later expanded into the book The Operators, contained colorful quotes and commentary from the general and his staff, some of which mocked the Obama administration. After its publication, he was summoned to meet with Obama and wound up resigning.
The movie is, from the opening voiceover by a journalist character played by Scoot McNairy, a scathing look at military hubris and more broadly, a critique of American foreign policy. And after war-skeptic movies made during the Iraq War largely sunk at the box office (The Hurt Locker was the lowest-grossing Oscar winner for Best Picture), studios held their fire this time around.
And so the producers went to Netflix, which bought the $60 million movie in June 2015; it was a splashy deal that signaled to A-List stars that Netflix was serious about original movies, not just TV shows. And yet, even once War Machine found a home, the movie faced support issues, which Michôd described during his conversation with Inverse.
A lot of big movies about the military ask for assistance from the U.S. military, but I imagine that wasn’t the case here.
No, we knew that we would never get it. And so we didn’t even ask. We were just in the fortunate position that we needed to find a place somewhere in the world to shoot for Afghanistan, and the best spot to do that, given the volatile security situation in that part of the world, Jordan and Morocco wouldn’t have been a good idea. We couldn’t be there for a few months with a big movie star, so the UAE was the safest bet. They also just happened to be willing to let us use all of their military hardware to make the film, and I don’t think it would have been makable without it.
How restrictive was the UAE?
They’re security conscious that’s for sure. One of the interesting things about working with a country like that is that it’s very small, and all the various departments are connected to one another. So, dealing with the infrastructure of a foreign production and that stuff was not that far removed from the access we needed to the military. So once everyone was on board and understood what we were doing, they were incredibly helpful.
Were there any changes to the script or edits they had?
No. But it is a functioning military. Francis Coppola with Apocalypse Now had to deal with the Philippines military taking his helicopters away to fight rebels in the jungle somewhere. There were days when we had to slightly re-adjust our plans because the UAE had something going on in Yemen, but they were just incredibly helpful.
That must have been surreal to adjust like that.
It never radically affected us, but there were some days when they would let us know that something was going on, and in those cases it was in Yemen, so there might be a disruption, but it never affected us catastrophically.
Did you reach out to McChrystal to gauge his thoughts, or did you simply use the Hastings book as the pure basis?
I knew it wouldn’t be in anybody’s best interest to reach out to Stanley McChrystal and what he’s involved with. In part because I made the decision quite early on to change the characters’ names, because I wanted it to be much larger than one particular guy. I wanted it to be about the system in general, and so I always felt comfortable not making that approach.
There are things that Brad does in the movie that are ripped from the book — the not sleeping, the running, how he carried his body. How much was Brad playing a version of him?
There was no part of us that thought we would be modeling his performance on Stanley McChrystal; we knew we’d be building our character from the ground up. We liked those details and the idea of a self-imagined warrior monk. But, the actual performance itself we knew would be much bigger and wilder than McChrystal is.
You make it clear from the beginning that this is a doomed mission with a lot of voiceover.
There was always, in any movie, a calibration, and an ongoing one. The movie is dense with information; it’s politically complex, and it’s tonally strange, too. It became apparent to us that that voice at the center of it was going to be doing more than just doling out information; it would be acting as a handrail for the movie. You never want to outstay your welcome, but I love voiceover, too. It allows me to editorialize and to write poetry, you know?
Was that during production that you realized that?
I always contemplate the voiceover, but I never know how much I’m going to end up with. With this one I wanted to keep that character as small and invisible as possible. But I never wanted it to feel like this was a movie about a guy who was brought down by journalists. I wanted it to feel as though the journalist’s story that was written about him was just the icing on a doomed-to-fail cake. But because of those things I described about the density of information, counterinsurgency, and the potentially muddy political waters, and the tonal complexity, it just became clear that that handrail was necessary.