12 Strong tells the story of the Horse Soldiers, U.S. Special Forces sent to Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. First, on the ground, these 12 forces teamed up with Afghans to combat the Taliban. Based on Doug Stanton’s book, Horse Soldiers, the story was classified until Stanton wrote about it.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Captain Mitch Nelson, based on the real Commander Mark Nutsch. Danish journalist and commercial director Nicolas Fugslig directed 12 Strong. Hemsworth, Fugslig, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer spoke with reporters in Los Angeles. 12 Strong opens Friday.
Q: Were you attracted to this film because it shows the military in a positive light?
CH: This script came along a few years ago. My first instinct was I just couldn’t believe it was a true story. I knew about this conflict and this war, like a lot of people, but not about this mission. I was engrossed and shocked and fascinated by the details. Then speaking with the real guys through the process, there’s just such an honesty and openness and lack of dramatization or ego as they retell and recount these events, and such a humility.
Q: You’ve been playing a superhero like Thor. Do you feel the military are real-life heroes?
CH: Absolutely, yes. As you say, I’ve done a lot of stuff in the comic book world and fantasy based heroes and so on. It was a lot of fun but I desperately wanted to do something with some real heart and something more grounded. They’re real heroes to put themselves in these positions, in harm’s way with their safety in jeopardy, for the rest of our safety, is something beyond admirable. Something that is inspiring and something I felt the honor to be asked to play this character and be part of this story. I definitely felt the weight of that responsibility. I think we all did and were very thankful that we had the real guys there. We had this amazing cast, crew. We had Doug, this resource of knowledge at our fingertips. It was an incredible experience and one that I’ll remember for a long, long time.
Q: What responsibility did you feel to bring reality to these soldiers?
CH: The way they were able to adapt and evolve and embed themselves within this world and work with the local people, not against them. Working with them and fighting a common enemy, and the brotherhood they formed with the local Afghan people but also amongst the soldiers was something that kept coming up amongst all the guys I spoke to in this experience. The relationships they still keep to this day with one another is as strong as any family bond they’ve ever had. That was something that was always, again, inspiring and pretty evident with their approach to why they did things.
Q: What is the one thing you’d like people to learn from 12 Strong?
CH: I feel like a big thing I took away from this experience, definitely with the real guys themselves talking about how important it was for their own survival, when they first got there, to convince the local people they were fighting with that they weren’t there to occupy the country. They were there to chase the same enemy. The local people we had working with us, from Afghanistan that were living in Albuquerque, a number of them came up and said, “Thank you for telling this story because I was there. I fought with the Americans but the whole world thinks I’m a terrorist. I think it’s so important that people know that we are on the same side. The invading force is the Taliban, is Al Qaeda. They’re the infection that are coming in to take over and restructure the place.” A lot of them normally didn’t want to be involved in films like this but couldn’t get there quick enough. That meant a lot to all of us and was certainly something that the soldiers were very concerned with as well in this mission. I think their collaboration, the heart and the bond and the brotherhood they shared with them.
JB: I think these men don’t see themselves as heroes. They’re just doing their job. That’s what they’re trained to do. They do it because they love their country, they love their families and they’re professionals. They’re highly trained, highly intelligent and they’re deadly. The fact that they went into this country and bonded with the Afghan people, and you have to understand that there are so many different tribes and they show in the movie where they all fight amongst each other. The fact that this group of 12 men got in there and got them all to work together against a common foe is so interesting. It all comes down to our military and how well trained these men are. They don’t see it as sacrifice. They see it as their job. That’s what they’re trained to do. They’re so good at it. We’re very fortunate that we could show their excellence in this movie. Thanks to Doug who found this story. This was classified. We would never know about this story had it not been for Doug digging in. He ran into a soldier who started telling him about this classified mission that he couldn’t talk about. That’s so interesting. This is just one mission. There are so many others that we know nothing about. What happened right after 9/11 is President Bush went to his military and said, “We have to root out this evil. How can we do it?” The military advisor said, “Well, it’s going to take us at least six months to put a force over there.” [Bush] said, “That is not acceptable. Tell me another way.” They went to, I guess, George Tenant, who was the head of the CIA at the time. He went to one of his operatives, a CIA agent and said, “I want you to get in there.” He put his hand on a map and he said, “I want these five provinces. I’m not going to ask any questions. Just get it done.” That was J.R. Seeger and he went in there right after 9/11 with I think seven guys. He was the first group to go in and quickly, I guess a week or two after that, these 12 guys went in. It just shows you what a small force can do and how good they are at their job.
NF: I think in a way it’s also an homage to the human spirit. Both on the Afghan and American side. All these heroes were just ordinary people. They could be your friend, your neighbor. Under extreme circumstances, they all rose to the extraordinary.
Q: How hard was strength training in Albuquerque?
CH: Walking up the hill, my lungs were burning. It’s funny, we had these little trucks that would be whipping people up and down the hill. Occasionally you’d be like, “It’s cool, I’ll run up there.” Within three steps, the mountain’s like this, you’ve got all your gear on, the altitude, it was like, “Bring that truck back.” So yeah, we’re in incredible peak condition, couldn’t walk up a hill. We did three or four weeks of military training, weapons training. For me, the most important thing from that was more the chemistry and bond that we formed. Obviously the technical side of things was an absolute must but it’s tricky to fake the connective tissue that links all the exposition and so on at times together. All the little moments and jokes in between the bigger scenes was just because of the contribution of all the guys and our friendship that we formed in that training.
Q: How did you capture these widescreen shots in the harsh desert?
NF: It was always important for me to try and portray Afghanistan in the most accurate way. We’ve seen so many movies that try and get the terrain right and I really feel we did. We really took pains to go to very remote areas. I think the landscape is a huge character in the movie also. It was important we sort of brought all the elements together and immersed ourselves in that environment. I wanted all the composition, the lensing to be like an epic war painting. Every frame should be like hostile, barren, cold, no comfort. It was important that the viewer felt instantly hostile, uncomfortable in these environments.
CH: Everything’s on fire, the bombs, the noises, the smoke. “More smoke” was the common thing Nicolai would be yelling. “More fire” and we’d be like, “No, no, less. We can’t see.” You don’t have to act at that point. You’re reacting to the environment in the most authentic way.
Photo Credits: Warner Bros.