Art Throb – Interview with Director Kristian Fraga
by Elias Andrinopoulos
“Severe Clear”, the uncompromsing new documentary film from Sirk Producions, had it’s inception in 2004 when a young Marine, newly returned from combat, walked into NYU’s Tisch School of Film one fateful day.
Heavy with a bag of DV tapes under his arm, the young Lieutenant had but one simple goal in mind: He was looking for a film student, someone to condense “all the cool parts” from his raw war footage shot on the battlefield in Iraq.
Flash forward 5 years later, to a superbly crafted by film by Director/ Editor/ Producer Kristian Fraga, “Severe Clear” is an unflinching, brutal portrait of one man’s front-line experience of war.
Accompany First Lieutenant Mike Scotti and his men of the 1st Battalion 4th Marines on the grueling, 300 mile march towards Baghdad, 2003, to topple the regime of Sadam Hussein.
The film takes no sides politically, but be forewarned: much of it’s footage may be too graphic for some viewers. It’s makers pulled no punches at any step of the filmmaking process in bringing Mike’s story to the screen.
“Severe Clear” was most recently honored as the Jury Award Winner at the 2010 Salem Film Fest.
This conversation took place exactly one day following the Oscars…
Elias Andrinopoulos: Hello, Kristian!
Kristian Fraga: Eli! Hi, how’s it going man?
Eli: Pretty good!
K: What’s new?
Eli: Draggin’, up until all hours watching the (Oscar) ceremony.
Eli: Speaking of awards, Kristian, congratulations on winning the 2010 Salem Film Fest Jury Award!
K: Thank you, that is a huge honor for us, we are really excited about it.
Eli: You’re welcome. Our audience in Salem loved “Severe Clear.”
Eli: Now, it’s been well-documented how you met Scott. I was wondering: What were your first impressions upon viewing the footage that he shot in Iraq?
K: It’s funny, because when I watched the raw footage, the movie that you all saw on the screen essentially just danced through my mind, down to even the music! You know, I was thinking of the score to “Traffic”, written by Cliff Martinez, who, ultimately we got to write the original score for Severe Clear, and, it struck me: If I could figure out how to allow an audience to experience what I’m experiencing right now watching this footage for the first time, we would really have something. And what I saw in that raw footage is not in any way digestable for an audience, but, there were powerful moments that kept popping out, and I thought, man, if I could harness this and put it together as a narrative, that would be something really special.
Eli: One thing that struck me was the gulf between what the media was telling us was happening in the fighting on the march to Baghdad, and the reality that we see in the footage of “Severe Clear”. Was this anything of a shock to you in the editing process?
K: I’ll tell you what, I’m a student of American History, and I was doing a lot of research outside of what was just being showed in the media, so, you know, I was kind of aware of what was going on, but the magnitute of the situation, even just sitting down with Mike and
hearing that these guys were in combat from day one, until they took Baghdad, that was not what was being portrayed in the press…and the intensity: of the Marines’ getting killed, and the civilians getting blown up, they were in constant combat, in dangerous situations.
Obviously they (the media) wanted to control what we back in the states were seeing, and you kind of know that’s whats happening, but, when you see it in full color, it’s shocking.
Eli: It’s pretty brutal, and you know, it’s 2010 now, we have some psychological distance from the war -at least, some of us do- and you were watching this material in, what, 2004?
K: Yeah! Yes, absolutely. We probobly could have gotten a theatrical release just by virtue of none of this stuff having been seen before, but that wasn’t interesting to us. My partner, Marc Perez and I, we sat down and said: “You know, it’s gonna take time to make the movie that we really want to make with this material.” We knew the potential with this material, that we can’t worry about just being the first, we just have to be honest and true to the story, and see it through to the end.
Back in 2004 we felt “Wow, people really don’t know about this, and if we do this right, when we open we can give people a window into a world that they did not know was existing at the time.”
Eli: The reactions from veterans seem to be overwhelmingly positive.
K: I’m not going to lie: the good reviews, the Jury Award from Salem Film Fest, is huge, it’s a huge boost to the film. But when you have a veteran of, not just the war in Iraq and Afganistan, but veterans from the first Gulf War, from Vietnam, and even from as far back as Korea, coming up to you after a screening and saying “Hey, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen my story up on the screen.” That’s just..I can’t even tell you what that feels like! Or, a father coming up to us and saying: “Thank you for giving me a glimpse into what my son or daughter went through.” For us, that is the compliment of the highest order.
Eli: Amazing, really great. Well, you’re gearing for a pretty intense promotional campaign; what is the vibe like in your office?
K: We’re all really pumped! We’ve been living with this for 5 years, and from day 1 there was no guarentee with this film. In fact, people were telling us we were committing career suicide, because, supposedly, the subject matter of the Iraq war is box-office poison!
When we were coming back from Salem, which, for the record I will say Salem Film Fest was the perfect way to end our festival run, it really was, Mike (Scotti) and I were talking about it, and the way you guys treated us, the way you treated all the visiting filmmakers, the way you guys presented the movie, across the board, it was just great, it was a really great experience, but, back to the trip home, the NY Times had an article about “The Geen Zone”, Matt Damon’s movie is opening the same day as ours, and in the second paragraph of this feature the studio is panicking, due to the percieved imposibility about selling the war in Iraq! I mean, these guys got Matt Damon starring, and they’re worried? It’s like, how should we feel?! (laughs) But, the response has been great, the groundswell has been picking up, we’ve got Newsweek, Newsday, NBC, Hulu.com, it’s just picking up, and with The Hurt Locker winning so many Academy Awards yesterday, there is possibility, we’re all excited to finally have audiences see it.
Eli: We were excited to have your film. We all love great Cinema here in Salem.
K: Maybe I should make another documentary so you all can invite us back to your party! (laughs) Rome was tremendous, the Rome International Film Festival treated us like rock stars, and you guys were right up there, I kid you not, Rome and Salem! They’re all great, though, I’m not going to disparage anyone, South by Southwest, they’re all very good, but you guys love film and it shows, you really treat filmmakers the right way.
Eli: Thank you Kristian, and to Mike as well. All the best to you guys with “Severe Clear”!