In 2006, a group of British soldiers was tasked with defending Afghanistan’s Kajaki Dam from the Taliban. All was routine until they spotted something in the distance and moved into the dried-out valley…and one of the men inadvertently set off a landmine, blowing off part of his leg.
That harrowing event and the tension and terror that marked the hours following is the subject of a new film by British director Paul Katis called KILO TWO BRAVO. Unlike pretty much any other war movie you’ve seen, this one has so much authenticity that you almost feel like you’re there with the men, terrified of each step and waiting for what seemed like days for a rescue. It’s unglorified storytelling that pays respect to its subjects and it’s brilliant.
The movie stars Mark Stanley (Game of Thrones) as Paul “Tug” Hartley, the army medic on the team who essentially had to hold it together for the sake of all his men that day. Both Stanley and his real-life counterpart were in town for the film’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September and just the bond between them forged through this project was moving to witness. We chatted about the movie and the events that inspired them – and why Stanley chose to not meet Tug until filming was complete.
Ramona Zacharias: Watching you two interact, it’s clear you have a very close friendship. Did you experience an instantaneous connection when you first met?
Paul “Tug” Hartley: The first time we met…I was sitting at a bar in London and Mark came in. I was expecting a 7-foot giant from Game of Thrones! We sort of looked at each other and then embraced. That was it. I think we finished at 4:00 that morning in a dodgy bar. But yeah – we’re very, very close. To have someone play a part of your life…to give them that information, to allow them to play that…I think it naturally forged more than a friendship.
Mark Stanley: It’s a unique thing, I think. I can’t imagine any other professional job where you’d be able to have this interaction, and for it to be such a personal experience.
RZ: When it comes to many films, you get used to taking “based on a true story” claims with a grain of salt. This felt completely genuine and that much respect was paid to the actual events. How close was it to what actually happened out there?
PH: Yeah; the deal at the beginning from all of the soldiers was: “You have to tell our story. You can’t turn it into this big Hollywood blockbuster with helicopters and guns and so on. Tell our story, otherwise we don’t want any part of it.” It’s about 99.9% real. All the guys who have seen it are more than happy with it. If anything, they’ve doused a few little things down – some of the injuries, for example. What you see on-screen is horrific – what they were like in real life is slightly worse. And some of the humor…it was a bit crude to put on screen, so they toned that down. But in terms of the actors and the way they emulated us…they couldn’t have been any more spot-on.
RZ: Speaking of the humor, it’s such a strong part of the film and seems to be what got you through the real-life situation. What was the role of humor in the story for you?
PH: As a British soldier, we pride ourselves on being the best-trained in the world! But no training you go through can ever prepare you for that sort of experience. It is that horrible, black humor that gets you through. People don’t want sympathy or prayers – it’s a thankless job, being a soldier.
The three guys who lost their legs that day, they were put to sleep in Afghanistan and woke up in a hospital in the UK. When they woke up, the first thing they saw was they all had stuffed parrots on the ends of their beds and Women’s Weekly magazines beside them! So their first impact into realization of “I’ve lost my leg” was “they’ve already beat me to it”, you know what I mean?
But if you asked the guys, they’d tell you that if they would have been given ten minutes of conscious time to feel sorry for themselves, their lives would have gone a different path. If you look at Stu Pearson, he’s parachuting and raising money for charity…Andy Barlow is representing Great Britain in skiing…and Stuart Hale was the first-ever amputee to return to service. He went back to Kajaki two years later and carried on the fight. That is incredible heroism. Where if they’d been given a “there, there, you’ll be OK”, they’d have plummeted. So it’s that black humor that makes you thrive. It’s a bizarre world we live in.
RZ: Mark, how intimidating was this role for you?
MS: I think for all of us it was intimidating. But exciting to have been given such an amazing, unique opportunity, and for it to be set in a story which hadn’t been glamourized, hadn’t been “Hollywoodified”. You get the job and you say “fantastic, I’m going to give it my all” and then it soon sinks in that you’ve got to try and represent these guys truthfully, honestly, and respectfully on what was – for some of them – possibly the worst day of their life. There was a massive amount of responsibility, but I think every member of the cast and every member of the production team took that on board – and it was something we tried to execute with passion and vigour and just do our best. We’d talk, we would discuss scenes early into the morning and wake up in a couple of hours’ time to get on with it. And it really meant something for it to be such a personal experience with these guys who had signed over their life agreement and said “we’re happy for you to do it”. So I think as long as you come at it with respect, the responsibility soon gets put to one side and you’ve got to do the acting and play the situation.
RZ: You’re used to being in a show with a fair amount of violence, given your work on Game of Thrones. But this must have felt quite different. How did you approach the role of Tug?
MS: Yes, absolutely. You’re a very small cog in a very big machine in something like Game of Thrones. But as you come into something like this…that’s different. I think Tug was the first person the writer and director took an account from. And there are certain moments in the film where you’re watching the emotional devastation through this character. As the responsibility of the situation gets passed around amongst the guys and more and more of them are injured or disabled, Tug’s role becomes absolutely vital. So in that respect, it was very eye-opening to carry that through a few of those scenes. It felt like it had an element of responsibility – I felt significant in those parts. It was all to do with the performance and making sure that we were just truthful, really. It was a very different thing. Game of Thrones – small cog, big machine. This is big cog, very small machine. It was made with very little money at all and it had all to do with the guys.
RZ: Tell me about working with Paul Katis and what his vision for this was. Was it a daring choice on his part to have it be so un-glamourized?
MS: Yeah, I think massively. I think it’s very daring. For one thing, I think part of the experience of watching the film is sometimes feeling that you’re doing the waiting with the guys on the ground. He made big decisions like “we don’t want a score on the film…not until that first chime of the song comes in at the end of the film”. And when that comes in, it’s a bit of a heartwrencher. When they are literally just sitting there and drying out, bleeding out, and they’re waiting for the rotor blades of the chopper to come around the corner, you feel like you’re sitting there and waiting with them. In a strange way I find from what he’s done, in his bold decisions, it’s kind of an immersive experience for the audience as well. You feel like you’re on that ridgeline, watching this odd piece of theatre happen in front of you.
RZ: We only have to watch it for an hour and 40 minutes. How long was the actual ordeal?
PH: From the first mine strike to evacuation was about five hours.
RZ: Tug, how did you keep it together for the sake of your team?
PH: I’ve got no idea! There’s a part where I cross the minefield and I remember looking back on that. I share a birthday with my son and it was his first birthday the day after. I remember getting halfway across and thinking “What am I doing? If I carry on, I’m probably going to get it. If I go back, I’m going to get it”. It’s hard being a soldier – you have to sacrifice a lot of things in life. That day, the boys became more important than my family, if that makes sense. That’s not being disrespectful to my family…because I know that if I were to be injured, if I’d have been killed, the boys to my left and right would have made that extra effort for me. That was my role that day.
RZ: Did you guys work together to prepare for Mark’s role?
MS: Well, the time between the production being green-lit and going into the shoot was very limited. They spent a lot of time casting – I think they saw 600 people for the 14 roles of the film, because they wanted it to be regional-specific. We’re all from a similar type of area that our characters are from. Some guys met their counterpart, but I didn’t want to. It was a conscious decision on my part, because I thought “you’ve got to bring yourself to the situation”. Not to mention the fact that I had something that those guys didn’t necessarily have – an account which was so detailed and had been transcribed into a bit of an emotional map, really, certainly from Tug’s point of view. He describes certain moments and they are very detailed accounts of his thought process. So in that case, I was very lucky to have that kind of thing. We met after, of course, and we were propping each other up in a bar for days to come!
RZ: And Tug, how did he do?
PH: I couldn’t have asked for anybody better. I don’t like blowing smoke his way…but I’m a big believer that in years to come he’s going to be that big Hollywood A-lister. I just don’t want him to forget that it’s my story that made him who he was! But now that that role is over, what came out of all of this is we’ve got a very tight bond. The “band of brothers” for the guys who were involved in that incident…we’ve now emulated that and it’s doubled, because all these guys are in it as well. So we’ve taken our military bond and brought in their civilian bond and have this big gaggle. It’s that friendship that’s created through the military and has been created through this film that I’m appreciative of.
KILO TWO BRAVO is now available on iTunes and VOD across Canada and is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.