How to Create Kabul in Santa Fe: Director Glenn Ficarra on 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'
With a low budget from Paramount, the directors of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot faced an uphill battle. So they got creative.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot brings us to the front lines of war in a rare and "meta" way: it’s a movie about filming. Specifically, filming media coverage of a faraway battle, from the perspective of the television journalists on the ground. It’s also Tina Fey’s first major dramatic role. Those facts alone give us plenty to talk about, but as usual at No Film School, it’s the story-behind-the story that most piqued our interest.
Based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker (played by Fey), the film chronicles Barker’s days as a news copywriter who was thrust from a desk job in New York into the fray of field reporting in Afghanistan in 2002.
Ficarra recalled how he and Requa, who also co-directed Crazy, Stupid Love, were attracted to the script in part because of the similarities between the “war reporting bubble” (depicted in the film) and the film production bubble itself. “We immediately saw the kind of parallel to when you're on location and you're living a created life,” Ficarra told us. “That seemed to be the big theme: when you create your own world, it can be as much of a prison as it is a liberating experience.”
They faced several challenges trying to bring viewers into that bubble, not the least of which was that they were afforded a relatively small budget to create the type of realistic war zone scenes that are usually reserved for bigger-budget pictures. We spoke with Ficarra in the film’s opening week to learn about how they did it.
"We really love to get in over our heads and scrap our way out of a situation."
NFS: Watching the movie, it looked like production must have been a pretty wild ride.
Ficarra: It was a challenge because it was kind of a prestige project for Paramount. They knew it wasn't going to make a lot of money and that it would be hard to sell, but, just like us, they loved the script. So we had to do it cheaply and we knew we were going to have our work cut out for us. On a brass tacks level, John and I knew we were in for a pretty intensive process of trying to replicate Afghanistan on the cheap.
NFS: I heard that you sort of felt like you were back in film school when you were doing the work. What does that mean?
Ficarra: We're kind of do-it-yourself guys. We really love to get in over our heads and scrap our way out of a situation. We were definitely in over our heads from a budget standpoint, and we knew that we would have to be super creative, use all the tricks in the book, which basically was our film school way of living. You do everything yourself — not to say that we didn't have an incredible crew who did all the work, but we were very much a cohesive uni. We weren't looking to outside vendors a lot. Everybody was getting super creative about figuring things out. That's everything from writing towards the budget, as well as doing all of our visual effects in-house as opposed to paying per shot by some vendor. Our production designer came up with these insanely clever ideas on how to get splendor cheap. I love that “let's put on a show” aspect of making a movie as opposed to just having a lot of money tossed at you. It just forces you to get creative.
NFS: I think a lot of our readers will be able to relate to that. Where did you actually shoot?
Ficarra: We shot in New Mexico, in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and everywhere in between. We had an awesome second unit photographer, Gelareh Kiazand, do a couple of days of shooting in Kabul. She's a correspondent for Vice, and a photographer and filmmaker. Being Iranian and Muslim, she had more access to Kabul than we did. I think it's a piece of poetic justice that she's a woman.
We went out of our way to make it even a little more Afghanistan than Afghanistan. We had 25,000 lbs. of dust that we were constantly flying into the air. We used all of it.
NFS: How did you create Afghanistan in the majority of scenes that weren’t actually shot there?
Ficarra: At any given moment, there are 1,200 or 1,300 visual effects shots in the movie. Little things everywhere: adds, subtractions, fixes, anything you could do. We employed every technique, from generated imagery to using B-roll from other Paramount movies and stock footage. We built two square blocks of Kabul. Basically they were two roundabout 360 sets so we could drive them in circles repeatedly. It was like a Flintstones episode. Driving past the same background over and over.
Actually, New Mexico is strikingly similar to Afghanistan, so much so that there's a very large Afghan population in New Mexico, 'cause I think it feels like home. It's a high desert. It's arid but temperate. I think we went even a little farther in stylizing it, though. Even though there are mesas in Afghanistan, we tried to not photograph mesas because they seem so American, from westerns and stuff. We really went out of our way to make it even a little more Afghanistan than Afghanistan. We would add smoke and dust every day, which I don't recommend, but we had 25,000 lbs. of dust that we were constantly flying into the air. We used all of it. I think we had one bag left when we were all done.
NFS: Which you probably never want to see again.
Ficarra: Yeah, and smoke, just to give this kind of atmosphere that seemed otherworldly. The thing about New Mexico is the air is incredibly clean, and everything's pretty crisp, and I think coupled with shooting digitally, it tended to produce an over-clean image, so that was a big concern early on.
Everybody but the military is offended by a comedy in a war zone. A war zone has to be the funniest place on earth. Otherwise, you'd kill yourself.
NFS: You also had some seemingly high budget set-ups, especially relative to other films in the “dramedy” genre, like helicopter shots. Do you have any stories about shooting those on a shoestring?
Ficarra: Well, the military was great to work with. They were involved from very early on. Our producer Ian Bryce has great relationships with the military that he's cultivated over the years because he's done most of the Michael Bay movies, the Transformers movies in particular. He was able to use those relationships, and even though we weren't making some big blockbuster that would really feature them, they were very happy to help us out.
Because this is not a political movie, and that's by design, the Pentagon actually liked that there was a positive message in there about amputees and Vets and what it is like to be in a war zone. We've gotten incredibly good press on that from Star and Stripes and Veteran groups about the depiction of war and how accurate it is. Some people are offended by a comedy in a war zone. Everybody but the military is offended. A war zone has to be the funniest place on earth. Otherwise, you'd kill yourself.
Kirtland Air Force Base is in Albuquerque, so it was very convenient that we could work out of there. They lent us helicopters for a day, and we were able to use a section of the base for Bagram Airfield, which has been used before in other movies as Bagram. We used them to vet things and make sure they were accurate. Our second AD was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines, so he was constantly chasing accuracy. It was very important to us that everything was as it would be in the field. There are very few artistic cheats in there.
NFS: I was surprised to learn that you edited the film on Final Cut Pro X, given the industry shift away from it. Tell me about your post process.
Ficarra: Our [Ficarra and Requa’s] last movie, Focus, was cut on Final Cut X as well, which came out of a long process of trying to find our best way of operating. John and I both came up in post-production and we were frustrated with the process, that it was kind of trapped in amber, and it was so slow. I fell in love with Final Cut amidst the controversy of Final Cut, of people being really pissed off that they changed everything. That attracted me to investigating it and I was doing a little research and was really enamored with what they were doing with metadata and updating the visual metaphor of how to interact with the media.
When you wrap the movie and you go and look at the editor's assembly, no director really wants to do that. It's a depressing, awful experience. As valuable as the editor is to the process, you really then spend the next six weeks trying to get to the "Director's Cut" to try all the things that you intended, whether the editor has already decided they work or not. You're always going to go back there before you start the collaborative process. Final Cut gave us a very quick way of slapping cuts together basically the day after we shot them and go, "This is what was intended." The day after we wrap, we're watching the "Director's Cut." It saved us a tremendous amount of time.
We found a lot of things about the Final Cut X tool set that were really helpful. We edited in full resolution 2K. We acted as our own laboratory because we stored a copy of the original files in the editing room. We weren't paying the lab for pulls to do effects. We could generate our own DCPs quickly and easily so we could do screenings at any moment. The audio tool set was advanced enough where we didn't have to go out to Pro Tools and back, which is an incredible time suck. Everything was kind of all in the family, and that again felt like film school, that we were all under one roof. We were all working toward the same goal and we worked incredibly quickly and collaboratively. Everybody could talk to everybody, we weren't spread out across the earth trying to do these things.
Filmmakers have so many advantages now. There should be nothing standing in the way of you telling your story.
NFS: Any advice for up-and-comers?
Ficarra: There's no excuse not to make your movie. I wish I had half of the tools that we have at our fingertips now when I started out. The fact that Final Cut now is a $300 piece of software. The fact that you can shoot 4K on a phone. You can get as complex or simple as you want. The fact that people will watch a movie that's all handheld. Filmmakers have so many advantages now. There should be nothing standing in the way of you telling your story. I think it's a great time to be a filmmaker, and there's so many ways to exhibit your work. You never have to say you can't.