Ahead of the release of British war drama Kajaki, we sit down with the film’s main players and discuss how the moving, real-life story was brought to the screen.
Kajaki recounts the real-life story of a group of British Paratroopers serving in Afghanistan, who find themselves caught up in an dried-up river bed littered with Soviet-era mines. When things take a turn for the worst, the platoon must stage a daring rescue to ensure they all get out alive.
Joel Draba-Mann spoke with director Paul Katis, lead actor Mark Stanley (Game of Thrones) and the man whom Stanley plays: real-life soldier Paul ‘Tug’ Hartley.
Paul ‘Tug’ Hartley
So Paul, describe how it felt seeing yourself and your friends portrayed by actors? It must be quite a surreal experience.
“Yeah, I think surreal sums it up. I’m a lad from Huddersfield – and people don’t make stories and films about us. Very bizarre.”
Did you find yourself wanting to be hands-on in the project, pointing out the best way to recreate the events? Or were you happy to allow the creative team to just go for it?
“No, the director and the scriptwriter came to my house a few years ago and promised me the authenticity of what happened. I gave my testimony and so did a few of the other guys. It was the belief of the guys that we’d keep it as true as possible, and then there was a great set of military advisers out on set, who we knew, and they’ve done a fantastic job of it.”
What is your opinion of the film? How was seeing it?
“I’ve seen it three times now. The first was at home: I think I’d psyched myself up too much to watch it and enjoy it. The second time was in a private screening with some of the lads who were involved that day, and it just brought back some fantastic humour and memories from 2006, and then I watched it at the Leicester Square premiere and it was just fantastic on the big screen with all those people there. It’ll take me a while to get my head around it.”
You had to make your way across a minefield alone, using your backpack as a jumping platform. What was going through your mind in that situation?
“You have mixed emotions. They’re your family at the end of the day…your brothers. I lived on top of that hill with them guys and we fought together and survived together. There was a part when I crossed the minefield and I paused for a split second and it felt like an eternity. It was my son’s birthday the next day and I just thought ‘What am I doing here? In this stupidity? It’s Sod’s Law, if I go forward I’ll probably get hit by one (a mine), if I go back I’ll get hit’. But looking at the guys that were injured, I knew it was my job.”
How has your life changed since coming back to the UK and even now?
“So much. I was quite self-centered to be honest. I loved the military and my life revolved around it. I put it before my family. But being involved in that incident, makes you value what you’ve got. It’s made me a better man, more thankful and more respectful of what you’ve got…when I first came back I was angry, I was bitter, but there’s no one to blame…war is war.”
Are you happy the story has been told?
“Yeah I am, not in the case of my own vanity. Ten of us went into that minefield. What the film does is immortalize the heroism of the guys that didn’t get any recognition [four of the group received Gallantry Medals after the event]. This’ll now show their families what they did.”
Your in-film birthday present was tins of fruit salad. Are you still a fan?
“I’ve never been a fan! We’d been up there for a number of weeks and not had any resupply. We were having to eat fish out the river, and I remember when that fruit salad was sent out to me it was like a gift from God. It was cold, wet, bits to crunch on. It’ll never taste the same as it did on top of that hill…you smile with whatever you get.”
How did you come across the story, and why did you feel it was a tale worth telling?
“Well, I was first motivated to do a film about the Afghan war when I met a young lad who was just turning 18, and within two weeks of turning 18 he was being shipped off to Afghanistan. I thought to myself: a) That’s a very young guy and b) What’s his life going to be like?”
Did you feel any pressure at all in ensuring realism, especially with the actual guys being involved?
“Yes there’s pressure. I think the actors felt more pressure than I did. But for me, it was just a question of trying to get it right and then it becomes slightly obsessive. When you’re trying to get things right, every small thing has to be right. We had terrific military advisers that were on our case, keeping us honest and when we showed it to the guys they’d point out ‘Oh, I recognise that…'”
It is a very intense and electrifying film, how was it directing those scenes?
“A really interesting directing experience. We didn’t have a vast amount of rehearsal. We did do a couple of days bootcamp, where we were put through our paces as Para’s (Paratroopers). Nothing like the real thing obviously, just two days…when it came to the real intense scenes, I just told the actors ‘Imagine the worst has happened to you’ and then there is no wrong way of portraying it. They then started working together and realizing it’s OK to scream and shout.”
In your opinion, what is the best aspect of the shoot? Not necessarily the best scene, but your personal moment?
“Undeniably getting back to the bar in the evening (laughs). No, it was a tough shoot. Six day weeks. Brutally hot. We broke two thermometers for over 50 degrees. I think it improved the film, because were all in it together and we have to just knuckle down and get through it.”
In comparison to a number of war films, it’s a very un-Americanized take. There’s no epic music, no glorifying of events- was that always the aim?
“One of the motivations was to make a British movie. It’s not that I’m fed up of American war movies but they are American war movies and they have a certain way of portraying their soldiers. It just isn’t British. So, we set out to make something truly British in its approach. Very early on I decided not to use a score. The soundtrack of the film is the sound of flies and grit and dirt. These guys didn’t have swelling orchestral music to accompany them so why should we?”
What’s next for yourself and the film?
“Bloody good question…a successful run at the box office. It’s really important that we get a good start and I’d like a lot of people to see it. It’s a very unusual film, I don’t think it’s like anything you’ve quite seen before. It’s utterly British, the black humour that’s laced through the entire thing most Brits will recognise. At the end of the day we’ve got to support these guys, the film ends with a thank you and whatever your politics, these guys are putting their lives on the line for us and you’ve got to be impressed by that.”
On that note, how was it showing the film to those guys? How did you feel?
“Terrified. Absolutely terrified. I was much more scared showing it to those guys, more so than the premiere or anything like that. We’d made a commitment to all of them that we’d be authentic and if they hadn’t liked the film, we’d be devastated. But luckily they loved it. I spoke to Tom Williams (screenwriter) and he said they talked, they talked and laughed all the way through and I think if you speak to Tug and a few of the guys they probably found it a bit of a release.”
Mark, how did you go about becoming Tug?
“I had Tug’s transcript – about a 2 hour long read. So I had that with me at all times. His memories are very vivid and he talks in depth about emotional responses and relationships with the other guys. My first urge was that you’ve got to embody this person, what some people would refer to as method acting…I’ll mention that in a bit. But the casting was done meticulously and after we’d met the guys that were on the ground that day, you realised that the actors shared a lot similar with the guys…so after the boot-camp I was like: ‘I need to put the weight on, look like him, get the haircut’, but it wasn’t a Daniel Day-Lewis transformation. We both come from the same area, same background…just at 18 we chose different paths.”
So how did you find the boot-camp?
“To be honest it was quite stressful and pressured. When you meet these guys from 3rd Para, they’re ballsy, they’re f***ing tough. They’ve got a swagger…everyone wants to be us. And when you’ve got them screaming at you telling you you look like Dad’s Army and you can see the dread on his face…we did two days training; intensive medical aspect of it, hand-signals, patrol…we took turns to do a watch, two hours each with a buddy. Then they set up a proper rescue situation and we had to run around with Luke (Military Adviser) with a stretcher for hours, up hills and what-not.”
Has that given you a greater understanding and appreciation for these guys?
“Absolutely. You get an insight into what their lives are like. We went out into Colchester and some of the real lads came down and people open up when they realise their lives are being told and our military advisors, they were an open book to us and they’d tell us stories and they were so on hand to help. Our appreciation grows massively and we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure there’s a hell of a lot more to go in terms of understanding, but it feels nice to have touched it at least.”
Did you feel any pressure at all in recreating those scenes, especially the backpack scene?
“Yeah, there’s an element of responsibility. Luckily for me, in that transcript, Tug had been very detailed about that backpack. It was his son’s birthday the next day. There is a responsibility, you don’t want him to turn up and be ‘Who’s this floppy haired flop who’s playing me?’, but luckily he wasn’t.”
There’s obviously a great camaraderie between the real guys in the film, was it like that on set, with the other actors?
“Massively. This is the point I was gonna go back to earlier on. The first day we met, we did a read-through and then we went home. The next day we were going for this two day boot-camp so I went home that first night and learnt everyone’s names. But, we never used our real names again other than that first day. For the next six weeks, it was character names all the time. I mean, I was stood at the premiere at Leicester Square last week and someone said: ‘Tug, will you take a picture?’ And I just said ‘Yeah, yeah’…’cos you’re so used to hearing it. Smudge, played by Andy Gibbons, he’s not Andy Gibbons to me, he’s Smudge. Dave Prosser’s Prosser. Funny how those things stick. Everyone of them is so detailed in their work.”
What was the best aspect of the shoot? Not the best scene maybe, but the best moment, overall experience?
“Gosh…there were a couple of days that stand out. When you’ve got a Black Hawk helicopter whizzing over your head, blowing up sand, you get quite a buzz outta that, not only because you’ve survived the ordeal! But we all stood up and went f***ing crazy, you’d think we’d won the world cup…we were dancing, celebrating, singing…it were great.”
Paul was saying the heat was a problem, did you find that?
“Oh yeah. It were 55 degrees. It ain’t easy is it? I’m sitting there going red as a pig. That was hard! Luckily for me, I run out in shorts and T-Shirt but some of these guys were wearing full kit, full armour and breastplates. You drink about 10 litres of water a day, literally putting it in your mouth and its coming out of your skin.”
(Warning: Minor Game Of Thrones spoilers follow…)
So if I can ask about some of your other work, are you going to miss Game of Thrones now that Grenn’s met his end?
“(Laughs) Yeah definitely. It was a great gig. I was really happy to have lasted the four seasons and I felt he went out in the right way. I felt an insignificant character was given enough breath to live in the show.”
So no flashback appearances or anything?
“No. They burnt my body didn’t they? I don’t think I’ll be coming back, not unless it’s a convention…”
Kajaki is to be screened exclusively in Vue Cinemas from November 28, for a fortnight, with a nationwide release to follow. Find screenings near you
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