Kajaki is the story of what happened when a team of British soldiers went on a routine patrol in September 2006. When one of the team encountered mine, an incredible tale of survival and camaraderie unfolded in the dust of Afghanistan.
It’s an intense and powerful film, more about the real people involved in this horrific incident than the surrounding war and a truly visceral cinema experience. We were lucky to get the chance to talk to the films director Paul Katis and Producer Andrew de Lotbiniere about creating a modern British war film, the influence of the horror genre and many more things besides.
This interview was conducted in person in Dublin on the 10th of March 2015.
Andrew: We worked together for a while and set up a company in 2002 which concentrated on setting up behaviour change films. So films directly for business clients, across multitude of industries.
Paul: To give you an idea it might be… for the Child Exploitation Mob, making a film that would go into school to try and teach their kids not to take pictures of their bits and send them to one another. So that was one of our projects for instance.
Click: That’s a little bit different to Kajaki!
Paul: Yes except the process is slightly similar. In as much as we read real reports of real things that go on – to see what happens in the real world and then extrapolated a hypothetical scenario to play back to the kids. In a sense that’s what we did with Kajaki but we never got to the hypothetical bit. Because the story was so compelling and complete in its own right. And then when you started meeting the real guys you just felt compelled to do it straight.
Click: Did you always want to work on feature films as a director?
Paul. Yea if you’re a director you want to paint on the big screen.
Click: And as a producer?
Andrew: Yea we’ve always had projects that we’ve developed and have got to different degrees of completion. And this is obviously the first thing that has made it!
Paul: Never give up!
Click: Did anything get close?
Andrew: No – not very close. But it’s interesting this got a momentum of its own early on. The writer Tom Williams has written 90 percent of the corporate stuff that we’ve done together as well as being a feature writer – his other credit is for a rom-com called Chalet Girl. That’s a good testament to his writing skill, to go from that to Kajaki.
Click: What was it about this project that pushed it that bit further?
Paul: What got us over the line? Just bloody-mindedness I think!
Andrew: Tom’s script. All we had to take to people really was this script – we were first time filmmakers and technically able but when you’re raising money you have a story and a script. So I think the story had a lot of resonance, the elevator pitch. I think that it was a true story and they were real blokes and the Afghan conflict was high up in people’s minds. That all made it easier to start talking to people.
Paul: And I think probably the big thing that made a difference to finally getting it over the line was that there are a large number of people; largely ex-military themselves who like us couldn’t understand why there aren’t any Modern British war films. There’s a lot of American stuff out there and no British stuff. So I think an awful lot of our funding to be honest came from people with military connections who signed up to the idea that we’ve got to do something and this is the only project that’s in front of me.
Click: The development stage seemed quite lengthy?
Andrew: Yea we worked on the research and the script and then we then went to crowdfunding for development money and that expanded our possible audience with 5 or 6 hundred people donated from 15 pounds to a thousand pounds so we knew there were at least 600 people who would go to see the film plus their mates. And that unearthed other people who wanted to talk to us about investing in a bigger sense. It helped. And it gave us a bit more legitimacy.
Paul: It paid for the casting and recce, really important things without which you can’t move forward.
Click: When did development start?
Paul: About 2010 I think… we were working with the Ministry of Defence and made a film for them and in that process I met a 17 year old boy who within three weeks was turning 18 and was going into Afghanistan. So that’s what started me on the trail, I wanted to know what was going to happen to this guy. I did some research and it really was as simple as sitting down at your computer on Monday morning with a coffee and within half an hour of Googling I’d come up with this story. And if you read Mark Wright’s citation, it reads like a two page treatment. It’s just all there, so I sent it off to the writer and from that point we tracked down the reports and the lawyer who represented the families who sent out notes to the survivors. And they said yes, and we swiftly met Bob and Jem – Mark’s parents. That was crucial, getting them on board, was key because to a man everyone else asked if we’d spoken to Bob and Jem. So as soon as we said yes and they were up for it, then these guys were up for it.
Click: If you hadn’t gotten that intimate access, would you still have wanted to do the film?
Andrew: We still might have investigated. We set out to see why there were no military films and this was a good story. It was difficult to know if we’d have carried on just based on the report.
Paul: I think yes
Andrew: We might have run into different barriers, like the script might not have been as good as it was because we wouldn’t have had the access in the first place.
Click: Maybe more fictionalised?
Paul: But when truth is strange than fiction you’re best off sticking to the truth.
Click: Have you worked on material of this scale before? With the MOD and other clients.
Andrew: A lot of our industrial projects, whether working for a bit oil company or whatever, you have to get your head around technical things and also you have to portray everyone – because the audience is a professional audience.
Paul: Getting it right is part of our lifeblood.
Click: Even when you’re making a film which is a fiction to some degree you can bring that almost documentary realism to it?
Paul: Yea. It’s a retelling of a story, is the way I’d describe it. Rather than fiction.
Click: You met and interviewed this people, did you ever consider making the story as a documentary?
Paul – No!
Click: Short answer!
Paul: No because there are documentaries about the war out there, the fantastic Our War series which was on BBC 3, like Restrepo which wasn’t a UK force but was shot by a Brit. These are really cracking docs that are out there. What hadn’t been done before was a dramatized retelling
Andrew: From a British perspective.
Paul: Largely because drama does something very different to doc. Drama is about character rather than what happens – about who the people are. And that’s what we were interested in doing.
Click: You’ve worked on lots of different projects, what was the big difference in moving to a feature film?
Paul: The legalities!
Andrew: The size of it. It’s a bigger project, the way the financing works. In the day job making promo films you might have to win a job but then you tell them what it’s going to cost and they give you that money! It didn’t quite work like that here. So putting together all of it was bigger. I think actually Paul might say that when he was shooting it was most like his day job in experience, just with a few more people around.
Paul: I think the whole thing was just a bigger version. If you strip the financing away; funding it and selling it, either end of the pipeline were different but the bit in the middle was just a scaled up version of what we do anyway.
Click: It seems like there was a long development process but a very short shoot and edit – only three to four months?!
Paul: Yes… I was very attached to making sure that it got out before the troops came home and within 2014. So with that in mind we were driving towards that date and so as deadlines slipped and we didn’t have enough money, etc. we started getting close to the end of the year. We did casting without full funding, and eventually got our green light probably in July.
Andrew: End of June.
Paul: And we were on the ground shooting 4th of August.
Click: And then six week shoot and in cinemas end November. What was the edit like?
Paul : Intense!
Andrew: We took our editor out with us. So he was assembling.
Paul: We had picture lock notionally, something pretty close within three weeks of getting back. A lot of post-production work to do to make it into the final film. But it was pretty intense.
Andrew: Quite a lot of VFX as well so a big part of the equation was managing the VFX team and that was out of our control because it was another post house. Whereas all the offline was done in house so we had more control.
Click: Are there many effects in the film?
Paul: Well there aren’t really actually. The only VFX really is the Chinook. The other helicopters are real, but the Chinook was entirely CG. But there aren’t a lot of other effects in there.
Andrew: A little bit of shooting…
Paul: OK the mines for instance, we filmed the mines going off but clearly nowhere near them at the time, but that’s a fairly simple piece of composition.
Click: An American film like this would have the actors going for a couple of weeks of SEAL training but you guys had two days and they still came back like a real group!
Paul: We did… it’s all scaled down and done on the cheap! They may do weeks with the SEALS but we took them camping for a night!
Click: But it’s amazing, how do you get people to bond like that?
Andrew: So we had Hubbard’s casting it and there wasn’t a choice that we didn’t agree with. I think when the blokes all met and none of them were stars in there and they all just gelled. It was a bit of an adventure – if we’d been doing a studio shoot in London and they all went home every night I think it would have been very different. They were thrown in the deep end together and it was pretty ferocious working conditions.
Paul: But that’s after the camping. The key moment I think when it started happening was we had some ex-Para’s training the guys, just basic stuff. But they did sat them all down and one guy in particular who was quite diminutive but looked quite aggressive said ‘look, I served with Mark; he was my friend so you guys had better get it right!’ And you could see on their faces, just realising it. That they are involved with something serious and everyone's intensity just went up a level.
Andrew: And they met some of the people they were playing before the shoot so there’s a sense of responsibility. And often if a film is made of true events it tends to be about famous people, not just ordinary blokes. These are normal guys, some of them came out of the army as security guards and I think the actors just felt a real sense of responsibility to each other and the people they were playing.
Click: I did not find it easy to understand at the start, mostly because of the jargon of the thing. But as you watch it becomes easier, you almost learn the language and get used to their personalities.
Paul: That’s what I think it is. A couple of people have said this and sometimes they’ve even said the acting was a bit patchy in the opening but it’s no different to the rest of the film. It’s a question of people tuning their ears in. when you start watching a film you’ve got an expectation of what you’re going to hear and if you don’t get it, it takes 5 or 10 minutes to tune into what you’re listening to. And then you’re quite happy. But I do think it’s an audience perception thing, because it doesn’t matter in the end.
Click: There are some strong accents here, would you consider subtitling it for an international audience like America?
Andrew: It’s not something we’re thinking of yet. We’ll talk to distributors if it’s something they’d like us to do!
Click: It’s very intense film – how do you manage that intensity, the ebb and flow of it so it doesn’t overwhelm people?
Paul: The script first of all is invaluable. Some people have asked what was improvised – very little in the end. The edit is crucial where you string it all together but you’ve got to have the material first to do it. So there were certain key things – I knew we had to get. Like the ridgeline stuff which we ended up shooting as the very last thing, last shot.
Click: The reverse angles up on the ridge.
Paul: Yea, absolutely vital though! Without those angles you wouldn’t get the geography but most importantly you wouldn’t have that pacing thing that you were talking about. That moment of ‘phew’ - just relax a bit. But also to chart the passage of time. The real incident took three or four hours, we’ve done it in an hour. So in order to chart that you needed that material. That added to our ability to ebb and flow the tension.
Click: It feels almost real time once it kicks off and you don’t really cut away. It gets very heavy at times, what kind of audience reactions have you had?
Paul: People have left…
Andrew: Some have got distraught. A lot of people have said they didn’t eat a single bit of popcorn. They just sat there and couldn’t open their bag of Maltesers. But I think it’s good because in a filmic sense, we didn’t want to just make a worthy film about the army. You still have to make a film – when I only go to the cinema once every three months and I hand over my 10 quid, I want to be entertained and have an experience that I don’t get by sitting at home watching TV. So I think the film needs its monster in the house feel, its suspense, that ‘fucking hell where did that come from, oh shit don’t do that!’ element. And it gets that and that was the reaction we wanted. We didn’t want everyone to pat us on the back and say ‘you really portrayed the tough soldiers’ life…’
Click: In an adequate fashion
Andrew: ‘In an adequate fashion!’ we wanted them to say…
Andrew: ‘Fuck me I nearly shat myself’
Paul: I don’t know about that reaction – wow was adequate for me!
Andrew: But we got that reaction, buttocks clenched for an entire final hour. And then release!
Click: It does feel more like a horror film at times. Did you have any touchstones for that – other movies or moments?
Paul: Not specific references. But I was well aware that it was a monster in the house movie really. Is it a war film? It’s questionable…
Click: There’s no enemy…
Paul: It’s more akin to Jaws than American Sniper. And there was a requirement to do those things that those movies do to keep that tension and ratchet it up with a hidden enemy. So we couldn’t even see a dark shape in the water, or use a deep cello sound. We couldn’t do that because it’s literally hidden. We were a bit stuffed that way but oddly enough given that we wanted to be authentic and didn’t want to do the shot that disappears underground to see the mine. We decided not to do that – never mind the fact that we couldn’t afford it! But we didn’t want to anyway because we were staying with the guys, what was their experience? If they don’t know where these bloody things are, nor should we. They don’t have a music score telling them that somethings about to happen, so why should we?
Andrew: That’s also why we didn’t cut away to another camp.
Paul: Or flashback to stories of their lives.
Andrew: You’re all at the theatre together and right in the middle of it and you are that bloke.
Click: Physical effects are a very important part of that horror element and the work here is amazing. Do you want to give a shout out to your effects person?
Paul: Hell yes, Cliff Wallace, the only real artist on set!
Andrew: He’s brilliant and we were lucky to find him. We talked to a few prosthetics people. We were very pleased with him. And he did really great research – we had a medical advisor who had worked in Angola.
Paul: He was actually one of our investors! He worked on mine victims all his life. He had a photo album which you wouldn’t necessarily get out at the dinner table but was invaluable for Cliff. You look at those limbs and I can show you the real pictures they were modelled on.
Andrew : And again for the blokes who’ve seen it who have been in those situations, they all said they were really realistic without being filmed up. That’s just what happens and that’s the moment when you go from able-bodied to disabled.
Click: It’s horrible because it’s not a killing machine, it’s a maiming machine.
Andrew – it’s designed to take three people out, one person to get blown up and two to treat him.
Click: You’ve got an Irish release going on now, are you thinking beyond that to the US?
Paul: Trying. That’s really what Berlin was about, it was an international market so we’re trying to flog it. And it’s interesting – we’ve had a lot of individuals coming out saying the film is great and then they start thinking about how they’re going to market it. It’s not an easy movie to position.
Click: I read a comment online saying they wish this film was getting the attention that American Sniper has. Do you think it has a better chance in the wake of that film?
Paul: If I change my name to Clint Eastwood and Mark Stanley changes his to Bradley Cooper, it might help!
Andrew: It definitely has a better chance. It doesn’t mean that it will do better but I don’t think American Sniper has damaged our film. We didn’t lose to American Sniper, its good competition to have.
Click: It’s made so much money as well!
Andrew – I know, just 1 percent of that!
Paul – half a percent of that! We’ll do our next interview on a yacht!
Click: I just wanted to ask what you’d like to do next, another feature?
Paul: Yes of course you would.
Click: Maybe something a little less grounded, more genre based?
Andrew: With girls…
Paul: Yea that was my comment on top of the hill, I just said ‘whatever the next film we’re doing is it’s got to have girls in it!’ Um… people talk about the second film being tricky. You’ve gotta build on what your perceived strengths are – tension, naturalistic acting. We know we can do that so the next one has to have some of that but also be totally different. There’s one other army based story that I’m very interested in.
Click: True story?
Paul: True story. But I’m not sure that it wants to be the next immediate thing. We don’t want to become Mr. Army really.
Click: I’d love to see you guys make a tense, single-location action-thriller. It doesn’t have to be a true story.
Paul: True stories are great though because there are some fantastic true stories around.
Andrew: Its interesting though because everything at the Oscars with The Imitation Game and Theory of Everything, there’s a danger that we’re just not very brave and it comes down to conservative commissioning. It’s easier to sell a real story. Our film has been easier to sell because it’s a true story as well. But that’s why it’s cool when things like Birdman do really well, from a film point of view. Or Grand Budapest Hotel. Mad, crazy films. Because that’s also why you want to pay 10 pounds and go to the cinema.
Paul: You don’t go to see the fiction films, like Godzilla 3 or whatever!
Andrew: That’s not based on a true story?!
Paul: No it’s not true. Neither is the Santa Claus movie!
Click: Is there a film you’ve really enjoyed recently?
Paul: I loved whiplash, fantastic. What I love about that is they made it in 19 days! So they beat us but we were stuck with the daylight hours so we had to stop when the sun went down!
Click: You had a big cast and explosions!
Paul: It just had a great soundtrack, fantastic performances. And a small film again that just for me does everything a film is supposed to do. I watched the last 15 minutes of that with a broad smile on my face!
Click: Great thanks guys. Congrats on the film again!
Kajaki is exclusively at Omniplex cinemas across Ireland from the 13th of March 2015 - find a screening time here.
Read our review of Kajaki.