Tonight, the film SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden premieres on the National Geographic Channel (8 p.m. ET) before becoming available to Netflix members in the U.S. on Nov. 5. Having already making headlines for its pre-election airdate — which director John Stockwell, distributor/Obama supporter Harvey Weinstein, and National Geographic have insisted is not politically motivated — the film uses composite characters to dramatize the events surrounding the killing of bin Laden. EW spoke with Stockwell.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is there anything you’d like to make clear about Harvey Weinstein’s involvement with the film?
JOHN STOCKWELL: Well, he didn’t make me change the story so that it’s the president who fires the fatal shot that kills Osama bin Laden. Honestly, he’s so into this story, he’s so proud of our special forces and our intelligence community. He did afford us the ability to get some stock footage and news footage into the movie, the same way he did with The Queen and The Iron Lady. He didn’t choose the date, that was chosen by the National Geographic Channel, and they are majority owned by [News Corporation’s Fox Cable Networks], so I don’t think it was a political decision — at least not one that was intended to get the president re-elected. Harvey came in really late in the game, after I’d done my director’s cut, so he didn’t influence the actual movie very much.
You make a point of showing that there was only a 40 to 60 percent chance that bin Laden was in that Pakistan compound, and that while Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and CIA director Leon Panetta were for the raid, VP Joe Biden and Sec. of Defense Robert Gates advised against it. It’s clear the raid was a good call in hindsight, but it could have been disastrous.
If the mission had been a failure, the president would definitely get the blame, so I think if it’s a success, he should probably get some of the credit. The movie shows that there were certain folks in the CIA who wanted to try an alternate approach. There were others who wanted to move quicker and were frustrated by the hesitation of the White House. Honestly, there are so many things we didn’t show: We didn’t show the president making the decision to put Osama bin Laden at the top of this must-get list. We’re not trying to do any reenactments. We don’t hire any Obama lookalikes or soundalikes to further feature him in the movie.
The screenwriter of the film talked to ex-Navy SEALs, and you spoke to intelligence sources.
The specific characters the actors portray, we don’t pretend those are based on any one specific SEAL or CIA analyst that we met or interviewed. I had heard talk of a female analyst in the CIA who was dogged in her pursuit of Osama bin Laden. I don’t know her name, I never met her or interviewed her. But that’s how Kathleen Robertson’s character came about. There’s not one particular book or article that is source material for it. There was so much conflicting information — from there was a 35-minute long firefight to there was no firefight, from Osama bin Laden was armed and in an offensive position when he was killed to he was hiding under the bed. It’s a very tricky movie to vet and verify.
So then how do you make the call on how to portray things in the movie?
For some things, it’s when you see enough information and it begins to sync up — enough people tell you off-the-record or unconfirmed that this is the way things went down. We also heard things that certainly wouldn’t be wise to portray or talk about. Like certain people in the military told me, “Okay, this is the real reason the chopper went down, but you don’t want to talk about it because it could give enemies of the United States future ways to defend themselves against a helicopter assault.” So I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I didn’t include it.
One of the things I was interested in seeing was how much you would show of the celebrations in the U.S. after news of bin Laden’s death was announced. I remember some of the reveling I saw on TV late that night made me uncomfortable. You show just a glimpse of the crowd outside the White House. Was that something you had to consider — how much of the celebration to show?
Yes. Look, I was in Thailand in a bar, and there was a U.S. Naval ship in port, so that’s how I learned about it. There was some celebration on the part of the military, but not a lot, and certainly no celebrating amongst the actual SEALs on the mission. It’s a tricky thing. But at the same time, it is what happened, and I wanted everyone to sort of remember where they were when they got the news. That was the intent of that footage.
You shot some of the film in India. Tell me about that.
That was my favorite part of the shoot. I went over to a small town about two hours outside of Mumbai with some GoPros, 5Ds, and 60Ds, and we had a really tiny crew. We went everywhere without permits. I would send my actors into the real active marketplace. I’d say, “You’re the two local nationals pursuing these occupants in the compound. You’ve got your iPhone. Just go shoot them as they go shopping.” No one else in the marketplace knew what we were doing. I stayed away because any white Westerner would’ve been a giveaway that something was happening. Any place we showed up at, and they saw a camera and recognized the two actors, all of a sudden we’d have 20,000 people and we couldn’t shoot.
And what about the actors playing the SEALs (including Cam Gigandet, Anson Mount, and Freddy Rodriguez) — did you put them through training?
They went through a very intense but very abbreviated boot camp with our military advisors in New Mexico, just because of the nature of our schedule and how quickly we were moving. The real SEALs have decades of training, our guys had, I think, 10 days. My concern was that they look and feel credible, but also that no one get hurt or injured. We’re firing blanks, but they’re still full loads. We had helicopters. It was a very chaotic set most of the time.
The actual raid is the last quarter of the movie. Did you ever think about making that more of the film?
There was, at one point, the idea of oh, we’ll make it real-time and we’ll have a ticking clock, but I could never get a real honest answer on what the real-time was. [Laughs] Of course now, there are these books, like No Easy Day and Mark Bowden’s book [The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden], that have come out and ostensibly given more clarity. But at the time, we didn’t have those available, and I couldn’t get verification, so I scrubbed it.