Interview with Mike Scotti from This is War (aka Severe Clear)

“This is War” (“Severe Clear” in the US) isn’t your usual war documentary – it’s filmed entirely by a marine – Mike Scotti – who took his camera while he was stationed in Iraq and filmed pretty much everything he could.  It’s certainly the most realistic depiction of war you’re likely to find – and as such, it doesn’t make for easy viewing.  Mike doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific realities of warfare, so it’s only recommended for those with the strongest of stomachs.  Regardless of its strong content, it’s still a film that should be widely seen because it reveals what really goes on during these dark times, and is therefore an important piece of work.  You thought “Cloverfield” was intense, you haven’t seen anything yet.

I got the chance to chat to Mike Scotti while he was in England last week.  He was a great guy, happy to answer all of my questions, and full of interesting anecdotes and information.  Read on to find out how our chat went:

Gazz Ogden: Firstly, I really enjoyed the movie, I thought it was really good.

Mike Scotti: Thank you man, thank you.

GO: I’ve heard you mention before that you were going to write a book originally, what made you want to do a film instead?

MS: I was originally using a video camera as a kind of video journal, so I could go back to it when I got back – it was basically the notes for the book. The book was going to be a memoir about fighting in Iraq, fighting in Afghanisthan, you know, 9/11 – the whole story.  The movie is kind of the book I was going to write, which is why it’s cut into chapters.  I’m working on another book now though, I just signed with a literary agent in the states and it’s going to be about coming home from the war and reassimilating into society.

GO: It wasn’t you that edited the film, so how did you meet Kristian Fraga (the director/editor), and how did you decide your level of input in the editing/voiceover etc?

MS: When I first got back I had a bag full of digital video cassettes, and then one of them fucking broke.  I freaked out and was like ‘I need to put this stuff on DVD, a more stable format!’  So I graduated from NYU, I got an MBA from the grad school, like 4 years later.  Then I talked my way through the gates at Tisch – the big film school – knowing that there would be some 22 year old who would charge me like 100 bucks to put all this stuff on DVD.  So I’m walking through the hall with a bag full of cassettes, like I just got back from Iraq, everyone’s looking at me like I’m fucking crazy – there’s like dead flies, blood and dirt all over the bag.  Then this one guy, a big tall dude with long hair is like ‘Hey man, what you got?’  I told him and he wanted to take a look, so we popped it into one of the machines and he tells me that he’s an intern at a place called Sirk productions [Kristian Fraga's company]. So they pulled me into the office, showed it to Kristian and he goes ‘This needs to be a fucking movie!’  It took 5 years from that point to actually make the film, to get all the footage together, go through all my journals, raise the money, do the editing, get the music, so it was a really long process.

GO: When you finished it, how did you go about getting it out into the public sphere?

MS: Our big break was when we got into the South by Southwest Film Festival, that was our premiere, which was huge, then in Rome we got a special mention by the jury for cinematic excellence – we didn’t win the documentary prize but they felt that we needed to get something, so that was another big thing.  Then we got Cliff Martinez, who won an academy award for the music in “Traffic”, so there were lots of elements all coming together that really brought the film to the next level.  Then it came to the time where we had to decide whether to release it theatrically or throw it out on DVD.  We decided to release it theatrically, we opened at the Angelika in New York city – a very prestigious theatre – then we hit Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Dallas, Boston, Philly, Maine, Salem Massachusetts – so it was a pretty good release for a war documentary!  We got very lucky, it resonated with audiences, and now the DVD is coming out in the UK.

GO: Throughout the movie, obviously you’re filming in intense situations – did anyone ever tell you to stop filming or did you ever feel the need to stop yourself?

MS: The first part of it, no.  No-one ever told me to put the camera away.  I was very adamant about making sure that it didn’t interfere with my job – you know, I would have had a set of binoculars around my neck anyway, and instead I had a video camera, so basically it became second nature.  If they had told me not to, obviously I wouldn’t have done it.  The Battalion Commander – my boss – is actually in it, he’s the one who gives the speech at the beginning, and in the night battle hes the one who’s like ‘You got your camera?!?’  I think he thought I was fucking crazy, but he didn’t tell me to put it away.  The second part of your question, you know, there were times where it was just fucking crazy, and there are times where the camera is all over the place and my hand is shaking – I didn’t even know it was running.

GO: The film is very violent and contains some shocking images, was there anything you felt was too extreme for the final cut?

MS: It’s all in there.

GO: Wow.

MS: The only thing that might have been a problem would have been the little girl’s brain, but I spoke to the director about it.  Describing it in a book can be very hard hitting if you do it well, but talking about it in a voiceover in a movie without showing it onscreen, it’s nothing compared to if you have it onscreen –  it peels back the layers and shows the brutality of what war really fucking is.  A dead little girl.  The political motives are nothing, everything else is bullshit, that’s the reality of war.

GO: With regards to showing what you showed, was there any sort of security clearance needed?

MS: Believe it or not, we could have just made the film, you know, just made it.  Surprisingly, they just weren’t thinking about that, it wasn’t on anybody’s mind, but I voluntarily contacted the marine corps, and told them I was making this film.  I said ‘I’m making this film, I want you to be aware of it, you can send someone to look at the footage if you want, you can meet me, you can meet Kristian, make sure we’re not crazy!’  So they sent a full Colonel to spend a day looking at the footage, and they didn’t have any problem with it – they even offered stock footage for filling in the blanks and stuff.  Kristian used that stuff for the part with the maps, and the BBC footage.

GO: How high would the approval chain go? Would politicians ever get involved?

MS: Nothing of that nature, but it’s an interesting point because there’s something called the Strategic Corporal, who is someone like Lieutenant Calley, one soldier who murders all these people in Vietnam/My Lai, or Lynndie England, the girl who had the pictures of the guys from Abu Ghraib – they were just low ranking people, but it became an international incident.  I wasn’t worried about it though, and actually there are some politicians who’ve attended screenings.  We did a big fundraiser on 9/11 this year for Reserve Aid, which is my charity – we just hit the 3 million dollar mark, we helped about 1800 families, we raised 46,000 dollars that night – there were some congressmen that were at that screening.  You know, the film is violent and brutal and raw, but it’s reality and if anyone ever tried to make anything political out of it I’d never endorse any of that shit.  I’m just happy to be alive.

GO: You’ve mentioned doing another book, would you ever be interested in doing any more filmmaking?

MS: I’m probably going to yeah.

GO: Will it be the same kind of thing or will it be scripted?

MS: Yeah it’ll be scripted, probably going to be horror!  I wrote a lot of what became the voiceover [in "This is War"] in Colorado, and it was where I spent the summer, after I got back from the war.  There’s a really really fucking scary hotel from 1896 up in the mountains of Colorado and while I was there one night I was so scared that I couldn’t fucking sleep, you know, I was hearing all this weird shit – they used to embalm bodies in the basement – really scary shit.  So I’m thinking about writing a script for a horror film, an indie one.

GO: Are you a fan of horror films?

MS: Yeah, I love war films and I love horror films.

GO: Any favourites?

MS: I’d say, old school would be “The Exorcist”, it’s terrifying, “The Shining” – terrifying.  New school, “The Ring”, “The Blair Witch Project” – that was one of the ones where you either thought it was funny or scary, but I was terrified, I was like a girl!  Yeah, those are the kind that I like – I like the disturbing stuff, I’m not really big on the slasher movies, more the really creepy ones.

GO: And that’s where you’ll be going with yours?

MS: Yeah, it wouldn’t be a slasher film.

GO: “This is War” is easily the most realistic depiction of war I’ve ever seen onscreen, what do you think of Hollywood war movies?  Which ones do you think are the closest to real life?

MS: “Full Metal Jacket”, that was very influential to me, just as a human being – watching that at like 10, 11, 12 years old, I thought ‘I wanna be a marine!’  It’s funny because Kristian saw that and he was like ‘Why would anyone wanna be a marine from seeing that?’  I saw it and I was like ‘YEAAHH MAAAN, ANIMAL MOTHER AAAHH!!’  Also, “Paths of Glory”, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and “Platoon” were really good.  As far as the newer ones to come out go, a few of the earlier ones like “Stop Loss” seem to have a very clear political message, and I didn’t really like that.

One that I really liked though, was “Brothers” – it’s more like a coming home from the war film.  You know, also everyone always asks about “The Hurt Locker”, and there was a big debate amongst veterans in the US, people saying things like “Oh, this is technically inaccurate, because this wouldn’t happen and that wouldn’t happen,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but you know what?  It’s a fucking Hollywood film and they did a really good job of capturing the fear, uncertainty and chaos of combat – I was freakin out when I saw it.  But I think the best war films are “Full Metal Jacket”, and “Saving Private Ryan” – that was a fucking masterpiece, just everything about it, from a story standpoint, and just the way they executed the film, Janusz Kaminski – the director of photography – is amazing.  It came out in 1998, and I think I saw it 6 or 7 times at the theatre.

GO: What was your background before you joined the military?  Did you have previous filmmaking experience?

MS: Well, I graduated from high school, then college, but while I was at college I decided to join the marine corps.  I joined the reserves, because I wanted to be a listed marine first, in order to become a better officer later – to know what its like to eat shit and fucking hate your life.  Then when you’re a Lieutenant, you know what the guys are going through, when you’re leading them they look up to you more.  I went to boot camp for the first time to become a listed marine, then boot camp the second time to become an officer, and right after I got out of college I spent four years on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.  When I got out, I went through 18 months of basic post-traumatic fucking lunacy, I was struggling – you see at the end of the film we touch on that, and that’s what the book is going to be about.

So I pulled my shit together, got my head out of my arse, went to NYU Stern, got an MBA in finance and became an investment banker.  Then I got hired away from that, and went on to turn around a 40 million dollar food distribution company that was going out of business, I saved it from going bankrupt.  That was December of last year, I quit, went backpacking through Vietnam for two months to figure out what I was gonna do next.  Then I got the call that we got a theatrical release so ever since February/March I’ve just been doing this and working on the book.

GO: Have you been getting a lot of offers and interest from other people in the industry?

MS: I’ve gotten offers for a lot of public speaking, and also a lot of offers from literary agents saying ‘We want you to write a book!’  I’ve actually just signed with a great agent – the guy who represented Jerry Seinfeld’s books.  So now I’m focusing on that and I’ve also got a TV show concept in production that hasn’t been bought by anybody yet.

GO: Whats that going to be about?

MS: It’s about following what my charity does, it’s about helping the families of veterans, showing the world what I do with my charity.  You know, when their lights are about to be switched off because they don’t have any money, because they got booted out of the military because they were wounded and the money from the Veteran’s Affairs Administration hasn’t showed up.  We help them out.

GO:  That sounds great.  Thank you very much for your time, really enjoyed talking to you and good luck with your various projects.

MS: Thanks man, great meeting you.

“This Is War” is out on Region 2 DVD now from Momentum.