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Inside Generation Kill

Writer/Consultant: Evan Wright

It often feels like I wrote Generation Kill four times. I wrote it first in the contemporaneous notes I made while rolling with the platoon. The second writing came when I returned from Iraq in May, 2003 and turned these notes into the three-part Rolling Stone series, "The Killer Elite." I wrote the book Generation Kill through the Spring of 2004. Though the book followed the same arc as the magazine articles I started it from scratch, going back to my notes and conducting new interviews. By the time I was finished with the book, I was ready to move on to something new.

HBO purchased the option for the rights to the book in the Fall of 2003, and in the original deal I was not to be involved in the mini-series as a screenwriter. I was happy with this arrangement, since I was tired of writing it.

But in early 2005 an HBO executive named Kary Antholis called me to his office and asked me if I would meet with David Simon and his partner Ed Burns, then shooting The Wire in Baltimore.  Simon had read Generation Kill and liked it but told Antholis he would only adapt it if we could meet and find some arrangement in which I could be involved in the writing. For this I would have to fly to Baltimore.

My agent was very exited about my trip to Baltimore. He believed that Simon lived in an eccentric but lavish compound, with whimsical guest houses for visiting dignitaries such as I considered myself to be. Based on my agent's expectations I pictured I would be staying at sort of Baltimore version of San Simeon.

When I arrived Simon put me up in what was basically a garret above his office in a row house. We had our first meeting while driving around the city in his car, a Ford Explorer nearly as old as and perhaps even more beat up than the Humvees used by the Marines. The radio knobs had fallen off. Simon had jammed a broken Bic pen into the radio to function as the volume knob. When Ed Burns showed up for the first story meeting, he carried a dog-eared copy of my book, blank note cards and pens in a rumpled grocery bag he was using that day in lieu of a briefcase. So much for my agent's visions of grandeur. And so much for my plan to be done with Generation Kill.

We spent about four months writing the scripts together in Baltimore. Burns's preference was to work in a Wire production office with defective air-conditioning that insured the room became stifling hot by lunch time. It was his theory that we would better focus on turning out lines for the scripts if we knew an extended afternoon session would be torture. Often we worked into the afternoon anyway. Burns did not mind the heat. What did bother him was my habit -- which I'd never been aware of until he informed me -- of striking the keys way too hard on the keyboard when I type. The crashing of keys drove him to distraction. So, a lot of the work on the Burns scripts was done with me sweating profusely, Burns gnashing his teeth. The only thing that could have enhanced our morale was if we'd worked in MOPP suits.

Simon's approach to writing was to focus on finding the best lunch -- whether the catering on set, at a nearby restaurant or one across the city -- and then to spend as much time as possible trading stories about our experiences as reporters until one of us broke down and decided to actually work on the job at hand.

Alpha Company's mission to Ash Shattra is one of the few episodes in my book which I didn't in some way directly witness.  The account was based on interviews I conducted with Capt. Patterson, Sgt. Fawcett and others after their return. By the time we adapted this section of my book for the miniseries, I had read other accounts of the Iraqi "Freedom Fighters" used during the invasion with such poor effect. The Iraqi commander's theft of Patterson's sunglasses is something I witnessed happen to a Coalition commander in Afghanistan while working with Afghan Anti-Taliban Forces. Given the thieving and graft that became a hallmark of American-appointed Iraqi military leaders after the invasion, I thought it was appropriate to graft this event into this story. The "grim moments at Valley Forge" comment by the CIA agent in charge of the failed operation is another bit of dialogue I heard elsewhere in Iraq but felt was appropriate here. These are among the few moments of creative license in the episode.

In the original Rolling Stone series we ran a photo of a Cpl. Redman, the machine gunner on Sgt. Kocher's truck, holding up a finger puppet. A caption explained that Redman was using finger puppets to re-enact stupid situations involving his commanding officer, Captain America. After the fall of Baghdad, it's true that Redman and other Marines had so much time on their hands and so little to do with it, they did entertain themselves with such bizarrely trivial acts as putting on plays with finger puppets (which Redman had inexplicably received in the mail.) Memory of this had been rattling around in my mind for a few years when Simon and I sat down to work on the scene in which the Alpha Lieutenant encounters a villager and is handed a goat. This seemed like the ideal place to use that concept of having the Marines watch their commander from afar while improvising dialogue as if they were scripting a play.

Simon and I were working that day in a spare office at a sound stage where he was overseeing the last day of shooting of season four of The Wire. I don't think he'd slept much the previous few days, and I know I hadn't. We started writing this scene in a sort of delirium. We had much in my notes to work with in the way of observations Marines made about this incident. The trick was working these into the scene at hand.

Somehow the sleep deprivation seemed to be working to our advantage. The scene poured out in a few minutes. It was pure madness, and I felt it captured as well as anything the kind of humor Marines traded among themselves, even while on their guns pulling security in the midst of a tense situation.

We immediately moved into Colbert's discussion of religion and Espera's critique of Pocahontas.  Of the many Espera discussions I'd written down in Iraq there was one I'd always wanted to fit into the book but couldn't: His meditation about the power of the mind and how this might be applied to sexual gratification. I shared this with Simon as we worked on the religion/Pocahontas discussion, and Simon insisted we try to fit it in here.

It's risky to include tangential dialogue in a script that is neither expository nor tied directly to action and conflict. But writing about Marines, Simon and Burns (who served in the Army as an infantryman in Vietnam) and I all agreed we should push this banter into scripts when we could, because non-linear discussions capture a truth about military life. Men in a unit such as Bravo Two -- who have spent several uninterrupted months together living, working, sleeping and fighting side-by-side -- refine their banter to a level seldom experienced in the civilian world. We wanted the scripts to reflect this.

In writing the scripts the question in my mind wasn't whether we could improve upon the Marines' wit but whether we could reach their level. I felt that in those sleep-deprived hours, when we constructed the scenes in episode four of Alpha's bomb-damage-assessment mission through Encino Man's speech, we hit the mark.

I wasn't on hand when director Simon Cellen-Jones filmed this script. As tricky as it is to write humor and free-floating banter into a war film, I couldn't imagine how the director was going to film it in these scenes. Casting Jeffrey Carisalez, the former Marine who served as Sgt. Kocher's driver in the actual invasion, as Alpha's "Cpl. Smith" was the right move. Carisalez (who is himself played by J. Salome Martinez) was one of the funniest, most trenchant satirists in the unit. His quotes were among the best in my book. His presence as "Cpl. Smith" in Alpha, commenting in his Texas accent on the bomb damage assessment mission and later in the mission to find the lost Marine in this episode, made those scenes. There's a kind of unyielding irreverence evinced by a certain type of Marine, of which Carisalez is sterling example, which I doubt an actor could have captured. Among my favorite lines in episode four are those delivered by Jeffrey Carisalez as Cpl. Smith.

Beyond Carisalez's acting I was pleased with Cellen-Jones' skill at rendering the barely tangential but all-important banter that fills some of these scenes. I always believed this would be harder to do than action sequences, and Cellen-Jones, in my opinion, nailed it. After seeing this episode on film, I was glad that Simon and Burns persuaded me, with all the charms of Baltimore, to stick around for the fourth iteration of telling this story.

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