David Simon on What Gen Kill Got Right
By Ashley Morton
Ten years after the premiere of the Marine miniseries, Simon discusses its enduring wisdom and shares his memories.
Generation Kill follows a group of Marines on a mission from Kuwait to Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The seven-episode series was inspired by embedded journalist Evan Wright, who would go on to write a book about his experience, and served as a consultant and writer on the show. David Simon sat down to share his memories of working on Generation Kill, 10 years after its premiere.
How It Began
The real problem with making a war film was no matter how politically or passionately you approach it, in the end it’s still young men in life or death situations, and the camaraderie of that. So even the most fundamentally anti-war journalism — and Evan’s book is a really thoughtful piece of journalism — nonetheless gets to some of the Iraq misadventure. Even in the first weeks, there was a problem over the mission that becomes evident.
When you put it on film, you’re with those guys and you’re drawn into their journey. Even the most passionate anti-war movies still become war movies. I don’t know if you could prevent that, if you were being true to who they were. The sense of camaraderie in the recon community was pretty profound. I thought we did a good job making you wonder about the mission, and what was at stake in committing to the use of force and troops to Iraq. We did it subtly, so I don’t think there’s a lot of “rah-rah” to the piece.
I arrived in the beginning, when the actors were coming out of the boot camp. The actors felt as if they had learned a lot, and were “becoming Marines,” and the Marines that ran the boot camp felt like the guys were still actors. They would roll their eyes. But they did get them into a certain degree of order for the sake of credibility, like how to hold their weapons. The actors that went through this four-to-six-month exile had a unit camaraderie. No other word for it. They felt like they had gone through something. In the beginning, everyone was being polite and cautious around each other, and they had almost adopted a tonality of some sort of paramilitary enterprise. The guns were fake, but the attitude was at least real. It was very funny to see.
Keeping It Real
We gave a lot of authority to the book. We felt like if we were using real people’s names, we couldn’t lie. We carried Evan Wright along in the process throughout. He was integral to us creating scripts from the book. We’d often say, “You didn’t have as much in the book on this. What happened on the drive back? What was said later that night?” And he’d invariably have more in his notes or memories.
So having him along, and working on scripts with him, was essential. And the Marines that we took to Africa, they were completely committed. Jeff [Carisalez] was taking courses at the University of Texas when the Humvees we bought got to Africa. They came off the ship and [key military advisor] Sgt. Eric Kocher, who was there, said they were in a state of decrepitude. He called Jeff and said, “I need you.” He was really good at fixing the Humvees, which is what he did with the real unit.
Jeff got an emergency passport and got on the plane within 48 hours. He quit his classes. I was sort of mad when I heard. I said, “You’re going back, right?” He said, “I don’t know. Squad sergeant needs me.” Those guys were incredibly brave. We tried to empower them to speak up.
Capturing the Adrenaline — and Infrastructure
The truth is, the male perspective and humor is pretty malleable across professions. If you can write a police squad room and the way guys talk to each other, you can write Marine barracks. But there are certain twists and vernacular pivots that are unique to the Marine culture; you just have to know them.
I remember one moment, we’re asking Evan, “What happened in the Humvee after you crossed the border?” And he said, “Everyone was really quiet. Except for Ray Person who was motor-mouthing.” And one of the things in the book Ray rambles about is the advocacy group for pedophilia in America, and how they had run out of victims there, so they had had to plant the flag elsewhere. It was just total rip-fuel, and adrenaline, and him trying to be funny. It was one step too bizarre.
We wrote that he went off on this long tangent, that if you got all the officers laid, we wouldn’t have to fight this long war. And Evan said, “Marines love the phrase ‘infrastructure.’ They love nomenclature. It’s not ‘cars’ or ‘Humvees,’ it’s ‘vehicles.’ Call it the ‘pussy infrastructure of Iraq.’” And I thought, “This is brilliant. This is why we’re working with Evan.”
When we showed the film to Ray, his first inclination was to go, “Man, I was rolling that night.” And Evan had to say, “No dude, you didn’t say half that stuff.” And Ray was like, “But it sounds like me!” And that was the point. That’s the moment synthesized — everything about that moment was true, except we made up the words.
It’s Part of the Canon
If you went to [Marine Corps bases] Pendleton or Lejeune before Generation Kill and talked to Marines about characterizations in film, they would’ve probably started reciting the dialogue from Full Metal Jacket. In fact, we had them do that in the background. You go to a Marine anywhere in the world now, and somebody will be reciting the wisdom of Ray Person or the dry sarcasm of Colbert. It entrenched itself in the canon of the Marine Corps.
Generation Kill speaks to the enlisted men. That’s a credit to everyone who worked on it, and also to Evan who went with them during those weeks and pulled that book out. Particularly if they are Marines, they’ll say, “Oh man. That was my life for two years.” I’m very proud of that.
Looking Back 10 Years Later
Generation Kill was as carefully executed as anything I’ve ever worked on. Judging the distance between intention and execution, there was almost no distance with Generation Kill. I don’t think if we’d had an extra $10 million, it would have been any different. It was a very specific story of guys in a given unit, and it was very historical.
You always lose some of your intentions, even if you’re intensely careful; things are unattainable; other people have different ideas. But if you went back and looked at the scripts, they were most like the end product of anything I’ve ever worked on. I was really fascinated by how it turned out as a process. We realized the power of having six hours but knowing the ending. Instead of having a sustained franchise, we were just trying to create the book. Knowing your ending, and where to create the pivots, was really a delight.
I am proud of other pieces of other things, such as creativity in story, but jumping off something that is historically accurate is a comforting thing. It’s the piece I am the most proud of in its execution. We owed it to Evan, to the material, and to the names of the Marines we were using, to not cheat it.
I mean, everything is cheated in some respects. They say drama is “life without the boring parts.” The camera can’t be everywhere at once. But this is the view of labor, not management. The camera has to make a choice. If the camera is everywhere, it’s nowhere. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end, and we stayed true to the page. We were committed to doing the material we had, and doing it well. Every story has to be somewhere. There are other narratives about Iraq that are equally valid, but when it comes to what narrative was on the ground, I think Evan’s was the best. There are other books that have a realm of middle management, or a good command perspective of what the war meant; but if you’re going to chase that, you do another book.