Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, and several others give us some insight and behind the scene stories from their time on set of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
Last week, The Knockturnal had the chance to sit in on a press conference for the newest Tine Fey-led film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Sitting alongside Fey was co-star Margot Robbie, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, screenwriter Robert Carlock, and author of the book The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker. The group go on to talk about the experiencing of working on a war comedy, women in both Hollywood and reporting industry, the difficulties of translating the book to screen and much more.
Q: What were some of the challenges in adapting Kim’s book and how did you make sure not to lose this sort of great midlife, coming-of-age story to too many jokes?
RC: Kim’s book as a starting place was just empowering to be able to approach this subject comically, and yeah, it was a line to walk and I think John and Glenn get most of the credit for figuring that out. You know, when I was working on it, people would say, oh, you’re working on a feature, what is it? I’d say, it’s a comedy about Afghanistan and everyone would kind of raise an eyebrow and then, good luck with that. But when I would talk about it with Kim’s friends and their friends and friends of mine who were journalists over there or in the military over there or NGO workers, whatever, they would all say, oh, I have so many hilarious stories to tell you. And that really helped me get my head around how do you walk this line, and it’s just that when people are people in a place, funny things happen, and darkly funny things, and tragically funny things – they make funny things happen, they live their lives, and that was just something I had to be
Q: John and Glenn, talk about your process a bit, who first read the script for this film, or did either of you read the book first, and who gets to decide what project you both direct?
JR: We haven’t read the script yet.
GF: Nor the book.
JR: I think, Glenn, you read the script first, right?
GF: Yeah, I think – I really don’t remember. It was pretty much the same weekend, though, right? I just called you on Friday night and said, you gotta read this tomorrow. But, you know, it immediately jumped off the page, I think, on the first page, just the description of the house and everything really made me perk up and go, oh, okay, I can tell already this isn’t, you know, typical comedy fare, which I thought it was, and as it was pitched to me. And I couldn’t put it down. And by the time I got to the end, I was like, okay, you know, John, you gotta read this, I think this has kind of got our name on it because of the balance between comedy and drama.
Q: Tina, Was it scary for you to know that this role had quite a bit of drama in it, that there wouldn’t be a joke waiting for you at the end of a line of dialogue? And how did you find out about Kim’s story?
TF: Well, first I found out about the book because – I think it was – was it the Times Review where they said, this is like a Tina Fey character, and because I’m an egomaniac and a moron, that really spoke to me. And incredibly unimaginative, yeah. So I got hold of the book that way. Love the book, found it so – you know, for me, when you look at something like that, when you read a book for enjoyment it’s one thing, when you read a book also thinking could this be a movie, when you see things, events, moments, that to me were so fascinating and strange and funny, and cinematic I hoped, so I definitely thought it really should be a movie and took it to Lorne Michaels and to Robert, who I thought would be really well qualified to try to adapt it. And then in terms of yeah, whether it’s drama or not, I think, you know, again, the book is funny and I think no life experience is wholly dramatic. In real life, people in the most dire situations must cope through humor and find humor in these things, and so I thought there was a real honestly that way in the book and the hope was that you just see how you try to perform honestly and where there are jokes or not, it’ll be fine.
Q: Kim, so Tina Fey’s playing you in a movie. That’s pretty cool.
KB: She’s playing Kim Baker.
Q: Talk about that, and also what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets right about your experiences as a war reporter.
KB: Well, I mean obviously when I found out that Tina was going to play me in a movie, I was excited. I mean, if there are any print journalists in the audience you could probably relate how strange that is and how rare that is. I mean, the guy’s over there nodding. You’d probably like Tina Fey to play you in a movie, right? So no, I mean, it was very exciting, and you know, I met a lot with Robert during the process and he was always very honest with me about the likelihood of getting a comedy made about Afghanistan, not likely. And just honest with me about the process, and about how, you know, it’s not going to adhere directly and strictly to the book, but his whole goal was to make it adhere to the spirit of the book and to keep my narrative arc accurate. I mean, I’ve seen it now twice. The first time I was terrified, obviously. I was practically holding hands with my brother. You know, and he’s like, it’s great, it’s like Bridesmaids meets, you know, the Hangover, meets something really sad and meaningful, and you come away with a moral at the end of it. And I’m like, you had half of your Hollywood analogy there but you needed to say, like, you know, it’s like, you know, Bridesmaids meets the Hurt Locker or something like that. And you know, I’m really pleased with it and I think that it is really accurate to my narrative arc and to the absurdity of how we lived over there, and to the sadness that we saw, and to the war that continues to go on in Afghanistan and the fact that it just seems to go on and on. And one thing I really like about the movie is how you have this year, every year, and it’s kind of like rinse and repeat, it’s just going to go on and go over and repeat itself. So I’m really happy with it.
Q: Thank you. Margot, your character Tanya is a fierce, self-confident killer of a reporter but there’s definitely a great deal of vulnerability underneath that façade. Talk about how you prepared to play such a role, and with working with John and Glenn again, and Tina for the first time?
MR: Well, I was, you know, probably halfway through shooting Focus with John and Glenn when I told them, like, whatever project you ever do again I want to be a part of it. And they said, well, funny you mention that, because you should have a read of this script. And then I heard that Tina was going to be playing the lead character and I thought, oh, what a brilliant learning experience that would be, just to be able to work with someone like that. It would be really, really helpful for me. So I was very, very…gonna jump on board, and yeah, to find Tanya, it was, you know, on the page. She’s kind of, you know, looking out for herself and I think it was important to find the vulnerable side of her for sure and I think it was important to find a genuine friendship between Tina’s character and my character, just to warrant – I mean, though they may not have been friends in the real world, I think their friendship was very genuine over there, and I think I anyway love watching genuine friendships on screen. I love those bromances when there’s like two guys that are friends, and like whatever the dynamic is, a genuine friendship for me is entertaining, despite the circumstances that they’re in. So no, it was fun finding that and it was great to get to do it with John and Glenn again and for the first time with Tina. Yeah, I’m very, very lucky.
Q: Tina, war comedies seemed like a dead genre, despite our country being at war now for quite some time. Talk about the challenges of making a movie with comedy and heart that is set in a warzone and you know, the inevitable comparisons to classic comedies like M.A.S.H.?
TF: Right, there actually are so many great war comedies. And this movie at its core I think is a human story, it’s about relationships, it’s not political, it’s not Dr. Strangelove, right, it’s about this woman who’s sort of making a choice to blow up her existing life and go on this adventure, for lack of a better word. And so for me it was about like these people and these relationships, and maybe it was just not knowing better to know that this is a genre we weren’t supposed to be trying to touch. It didn’t seem hard at all until now when you go to try to like sell it to people, like maybe we should say that the vehicles transform to robots, and then they fight each other. And listen, you’re going to be halfway through the film before you realize that that didn’t actually happen.
Q: This is for Tina and Margot. So I’m wondering, is there anything about, you know, living an actor’s life that you feel is a lot of fun, could be addictive, and possibly dangerous? And also the second part of my question is, so Margot, I know that you’ve traveled a lot and you’ve been quoted as saying you enjoy going to hostels sort of anonymously. I’m wondering, you know, as people who travel a lot, what was the most important thing you learned about, you know, this particular movie, the customs that, you know, you found fascinating or, you know, even just the opposite of that, you found very uncomfortable?
TF: You’ve traveled more than I have.
MR: I love traveling. I really like immersing myself in a different culture and I feel that you get to do that more when you stay in like hostels, and when you’re in a hotel you can kind of be anywhere in the world, they all kind of look the same, to an extent. So that’s why I like to travel like that. As for becoming desensitized to your surroundings, I think that’s applicable for a lot of occupations and I’d hate to draw any comparisons between being an actor and a war correspondent because I think they’re worlds apart, and yeah, but I do think the metaphor of the whole frog in a pot boiling is very applicable to a lot of occupations. And yeah, I think it’s definitely prevalent. I think it’s easy to lose sense of reality when you get caught up in something that’s such an adrenaline rush sometimes. But yeah, like I said, I think a lot of people in a lot of jobs kind of do that. What do you reckon?
TF: Yeah, I think actors, it’s such a so much smaller scale and so much less important, but you’re like, I’m in the middle of this project, I can’t, you know –
MR: It’s life or death.
TF: I can’t go to my cousin’s wedding. I’m in the middle of this project, you know, it’s like, you can kind of get addicted to that feeling of like, I’m very special and important right now.
Q: This movie has some interesting things to say about being a Western woman in the Middle East, and there’s a terrific line about: now you’re in the purple prison when Tina puts on the burka. I wonder if you guys could speak to that?
TF: Yeah, I mean, we did not really travel to Asia or the Middle East at all, so we are just sort of guessing what it felt like. And just Kim should actually answer more of what it’s really like to feel that over there, as a Western woman, to feel like – ‘cause I’m always fascinated with journalists, go like, okay, I’m gonna play along and I’m gonna wear the headscarf on on the news or I’m gonna go in the full – Kim should answer this, ‘cause you’ve actually done it.
KB: Well, it’s actually a direct quote from Faruk, when he said, “Now you’re in the blue prison.” And that’s actually directly from the book. And just like I always have to say that Afghanistan is in south Asia, not the Middle East, ‘cause it always gets sort of conflated and they’re very different cultures. And it’s weird, you know, when I first went over there, I had to bring brown contact lenses, you know, because I had blue eyes and it’s what makes me look like a Westerner, and I’m 5’10” and I had to blend in. There’s no blending in for me, right? It would be like I would be sitting in a car and I could blend into a bed if I was wearing a full abaya and I was wearing the brown contact lenses, and then if I was sitting in a car and wearing a burka, I could blend in. And so a lot of times when we were traveling around that’s what I would wear, just so that nobody would sort of notice us. We’d travel around and beat up Toyota Corollas outside the cities. We didn’t have security. You know, it was all about trying to look like we were locals and not raising anybody’s attention. You know, but it was like there were times, you know, when you’re wearing these things and you feel very constricted, but then there was a real freeing sense to it as well, because for the first time you’re wearing something that makes you completely invisible and nobody’s staring at you anymore, and nobody’s trying to take your picture or pinch you. You know, you can relax. And I did not mind that feeling. And it also reminds you every single day how lucky we are to be born here. I mean, this is like, you know, as women, we’re very lucky to be born here, and I don’t think it’s something we think about often enough.
Q: For Tina and Margot, what was the most challenging thing to play your characters on a personal level? And for Robert, John and Glenn, the difficult part of – well, the most challenging part of directing and making this movie, what was? And Kim, how was it to see all of this story again in the big movies?
TF: I mean, I think for me the most challenging thing personally was trying to pretend we were there, because to really try to imagine the feeling of danger. Because we were in New Mexico, we are in the United States, to try to yeah, to do that, ‘cause everything else was there for us. The words were there, the characters were so well drawn, so that for me was the biggest challenge.
MR: I agree, yeah. It is difficult having no exposure to what it would be like to be a war correspondent. I did like a lot of reading about things that we weren’t actually talking about in the script necessarily, but you know, the things that would happen to reporters over there, just so that I could recognize the stakes that we would technically be in and try and bring that fear to a scene. Like it’s not all fun and games the way, you know, sometimes the scenes in the fun house. It is fun but when we’re out, you know, actually doing an embed or whatever it is, like it’s a real life and death situation. So I just tried to read about it, so I could kind of get a grasp of the stakes. And I think with the actual like character storylines, I think a lot of the things are kind of universal things that people experience anyway, so you can kind of draw on your own experiences for that. But yeah, definitely difficult not actually being there and not actually feeling the imminent danger the way they would have been.
GF: I think the hardest thing by far, I think early on I said to you, Robert, I said, you know, we have to recreate a city in New Mexico, and just the huge task of recreating a city, a Kabul, and a country in New Mexico was really daunting, and I think we were trying to do it in a convincing way so the actors when they came on set, they were like, okay, well, it’s a little easier for them to imagine and be immersed in that world. So it was a big task, and we wanted to build it for real. I mean, there’s a lot of sort of digital tricks in the movie, but there’s a lot of giant sets that we built as well, and we didn’t have a lot of money and a lot of time. But we felt like it was important to actually have the actors go into places that were real, that were completely immersive, and that was I think what nearly killed us.
JR: It was a big challenge, because it’s not a large budgeted movie. And I just have to mention, Gelareh Kiazand, who did our second unit photography in Kabul, she’s a, I think, Turkish correspondent and filmmaker and she went in for us because Paramount wouldn’t let us go for a couple of days and get some stuff, so she went and she’s really key to this whole thing. She really did an amazing job.
RC: And I would just say, you know, Kim had mentioned sort of her real life narrative arc earlier and I think the biggest challenge in writing the thing and adapting it was knowing that that was the spine and that was the truth of this thing, and then trying to figure out, okay, how do I take this beautiful, funny book that reflects real life and be true to all of that while giving it the kind of moments that a movie requires narratively and all that stuff without making Kim furious at me.
JR: How did we do?
KB: I think you did really well.
JR: ‘Cause I’ve never been there. I don’t know.
KB: I gotta say, in watching it, it looks like Afghanistan, it looks like Kabul. Yeah, I was impressed. You know, ‘cause when you’re on set, I saw maybe two minutes of it filmed and I was a bit skeptical, but we were just doing explosions and things like that when I was there. And as far as your question, what was it like?
KB: It was weird, yeah.
Q: Kim, I know you wrote about this code of silence for a female journalist when encountering sexual harassment. And the film kind of touches on that too. So I was just wondering if that’s something you noticed the situation has improved for journalists now? And to Margot and Tina, if you feel like that applies to the entertainment industry as well?
KB: I mean, I haven’t been overseas since I came back, but I think that what has changed is there’s been a lot more attention about it, in large part because Lara Logan was so brave to talk about what happened to her, and I think, you know, Lynsey Addario has talked about it, even male journalists have talked about it. And I think a lot more people are talking about it. And you know, the fear in talking about it in the first place is that, is this going to mean that I’m not as tough and that, like, my editor’s not going to send me overseas anymore or say, you know, you want to come back here for a hug? You know, it’s like if you’re overseas you sort of feel like you got to take care of everything yourself and you don’t want to complain back home because there’s a line of people that like to come out the door and do the job you’re doing. So, you know, and you talk to other reporters but it’s always like the black humor thing. So I think that’s what’s happened, and Lauren Wolf has done a lot of work on this as well, is that people are talking about that, and I think it’s only a good thing if people are talking about it. And everybody should remember that we’re their foreign reporters there and this is what’s happened with us, and with the local reporters they obviously suffer much more. And you’re talking about men and women, you know? So I’d always like to point that out. Now you get to answer the question, guys.
MR: I’ve been very fortunate. I mean, I’ve got a really good team around me, I haven’t been exploited, I don’t feel – I think it’s as much, I guess, the perception and the persona to the masses as it is to the people that you’re immediately surrounded by. I think I feel more concerned with being labeled like a sex symbol to like everyone –
TF: Me too, guys.
MR: – than I do – I don’t feel – I feel that makes me more uncomfortable than any day to day interactions I ever have. I don’t feel exploited.
TF: Yeah, again, like Kim said, we’re lucky to be born here, you know. You know, mild complaints in the US, but very lucky.
Q: Hi, this is a question for Kim. I’m wondering what does it really take to be a war reporter. Is it courage? I mean, what are the characteristics. Is it something that you can really prepare for? How do you see yourself?
KB: I mean, I don’t see myself as particularly brave. I mean, I grew up, I was very scared of everything. I think it takes curiosity and the desire to challenge yourself to do things that really scare you. But primarily curiosity about the world and about like seeing history again unfold right in front of you. And bravery just sort of follows behind like about six steps going like what the hell did you do to us? Like, we all of a sudden ran Afghan – I mean, I went to Pakistan and Afghanistan before I ever went to Europe, you know? Seriously. It’s like I was not traveled at all, and I did not know what I was getting into at all. Maybe that’s the key to being a foreign correspondent – have no knowledge whatsoever of where you’re going. Wing it from there.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, written by Robert Carlock, and stars Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Sheila Vand, and Nicholas Braun. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot will be in theaters March 4, 2016.