Kill Team, opening in theaters and OnDemand this week from A24, has the rare distinction of having been written and directed by the same guy who directed the documentary upon which it’s based. That’s certainly one way not to screw it up.
Dan Krauss, who won an Independent Spirit Award for his 2013 documentary The Kill Team, about a 21-year-old Private trying to blow the whistle on his own platoon as they carried out illegal assassinations in Afghanistan, this year found himself directing a fictionalized version of the same story with an all-star cast that includes Paper Towns‘ Nat Wolff (older brother of Hereditary‘s Alex Wolff) as Private Briggman, Alexander Skarsgard as his squad leader, and Rob Morrow from Quiz Show as Briggman’s father back home. You might expect a documentarian who knows his subject backwards and forwards to try to pack in every detail and subplot, with no tidbit left behind.
Instead, Kill Team packs the entire tale into a tense 86 minutes, where the characters all speak in a clipped military shorthand and convey as much with what they leave out as with what they actually say. And let’s face it, if anyone was going to play an aloof father figure who’d lead you down a dark path using your own desperation for his approval, you’d want it to be Alexander Skarsgard, right? Our Meekus has come so far.
Meanwhile, if there’s a greater minefield of potential criticism than directing a war movie about the true story of a squad of rogue killer soldiers (“bad apples,” in the parlance of our times), I don’t know what it is. I spoke to Dan Krauss this week about why he would attempt to pull off such a thing, and why Alexander Skarsgard is so good at playing a guy you want to impress, even when he’s evil.
So you’re adapting from your own documentary, but the characters are different. How much did you change and why?
What I would say is that the feature is true to the overarching facts of the true story. The fact that at least three innocent, unarmed Afghans were killed, that we know of. There was at least one soldier who attempted to alert the military to the atrocities and was drawn into participating and was accused of murder himself. And there was a squad leader who was a dominant presence in the unit and perhaps led some of the guys to make choices that they wouldn’t have ordinarily made. Those were the untouchable facts of the story.
Within that framework, I deliberately took some liberty in order to crystallize the feeling of isolation, fear, and intimidation that the main character faces. I felt that there was an opportunity to create a version of the story that was more interpretive than literal. That was about trying to get at those very human emotions that we hear about in the documentary, but we’re not able to experience in a first-person, present-tense point of view.
Is there also an element of doing a fiction feature to help the story reach a wider audience?
I never thought of it in those practical terms. For me, it was always just the creative excitement of trying tell the story in a very different form, and the opportunity tell it in the present tense, which I couldn’t do in the documentary.
So Alexander Skarsgard’s character. Was it important to cast someone that seemed like a person that younger guys would want to impress?
Oh, yes. I mean, I think the role of Alex’s character in this movie is that of the seducer. He is testing the loyalty of the guys in his squad, and luring them in closer to his worldview. And in writing the script, I watched a lot of mob movies, actually, because I was interested in the ways that mafias are formed, and built, and the ways that loyalties are tested. And you could probably see some of that influence in the film. The character who is most threatening to you is perhaps the guy who comes to you with a smile on his face. Perhaps what was unsaid was the thing that was most menacing. And that was a lot of fun to write and also a lot of fun for the actors.
Right. It seems like the clipped military jargon they all talk in really highlights the ambiguity of trying to figure out where everyone stands.
Yes, exactly. If there is “fun” in a movie like this, the fun is in creating an atmosphere and a set of characters who are not giving you a perfectly transparent view of their intentions.
Do you think this story would be politicized and covered differently if it had happened during the Trump era?
It’s impossible for me to answer that. I mean, we’ve had a case recently with the Navy SEAL, a similar case of a decorated soldier who is accused of committing atrocities. And that took place during the Trump era, and interestingly, that soldier was acquitted. I don’t know if I can say how this story would have been viewed in the Trump era. I do think I would argue strongly that this is a story that transcends politics, and even the US military. The story that I’m trying to tell is a story of human morality and human psychology that I hope everyone can relate to, whether they’re a part of the military community or not, whether they have an interest in the war in Afghanistan or not. It’s really about young people finding their own individuality at odds with the values of the group around them.
But I mean, in this case, yeah, I agree that it doesn’t seem particularly political. And it also seems like it was something that the army was actually able to and bring some kind of justice to versus the Navy SEAL case that happened. It seemed like that guy’s platoon turned him in at first and it was apolitical, but then when it was getting tried, it became a political thing for people to weigh in on and to find whatever they wanted in it.
I guess what I would say is in terms of what’s happening in the world right now… it’s certainly an interesting time to be putting out a film about whistleblower intimidation, I’ll say. And I think in many ways, this movie is a case study. Here’s a young guy who tried to expose the truth about what he saw, what he witnessed, and was silenced by threats and intimidation, and bullied into complicity. Given all the events that we’re seeing right now in the Trump administration, I hope that people will see this film as an opportunity to further that discussion.
People in the military always seem like the harshest critics of movies that depict the military and get anything wrong. Did that make you approach the movie any differently?
It didn’t make me approach the movie differently, but I’m certainly aware that there are members of the military community that would prefer that movies are not made about episodes like this, that they believe that telling these stories casts a bad light or casts a shadow across the entire institution of the military. I happen not to agree with that, and I know that many soldiers I met, when screening the documentary, agree with me. I believe that the military wants to learn from its past mistakes, or the mistakes of its service members.
Along with Adam Winfield, the subject of the documentary and the inspiration for the Andrew Briggman character, we were invited to West Point to screen the documentary and have a discussion with cadets. And I saw, firsthand, an openness and a willingness on the part of the military to discuss this problem in an honest way to try to learn from it and to move forward. And I hope this movie furthers that conversation instead of being viewed as an attack on the military, which it’s not.
But I mean, even on a shallower scale, if you get the placement of a patch wrong, or the wrong type of helmet, or a different type of gear, everybody notices.
Well, I think what happens is that sometimes people use those inaccuracies to dismiss the content of the movie. And by the way, we tried our best to make this movie as accurate as we could. We had a military advisor on set most of the days we were shooting, but not all of the days. And I’m sure it was on the days where we didn’t have our military advisor present that we may have made some mistakes about whether someone was supposed to be wearing a cap or saluting indoors or outdoors. I have not served, and I think that’s clear to everyone who I’ve spoken with, but we really tried to get all those details right. It’s very hard to have a 100% track record on all of the details of military procedure but I think it’d be a mistake to dismiss the validity of the movie and its content based on small technical errors.
Tell me about the focus of the movie. It seems like there’s a lot of other parts of the story that you didn’t try to depict, and you sort of focused on one very specific part of it.
Well, in conceiving the movie, I envisioned a contained thriller where the military base itself, which is intended to be a haven of safety and security, is actually the stage against which this dramatic conflict takes place. And so I really liked the idea of it having a myopic focus and creating this hot box environment on the base.
This was not a war movie in the traditional sense. The sense of threat and menace doesn’t come from the enemy and traditional warfare and combat, it comes from the sideways glances from the people that you think are your friends. That’s why I wanted to give it such a tight focus because I think if it felt more expansive you wouldn’t feel the same degree of suffocation.
Do you think this story plays out differently if the Briggman character doesn’t have a father who’s in the military and understands the military hierarchy?
Again, it’s hard for me to know, I hate to sort of speculate. The father character, who’s played by Rob Morrow, I don’t know that his military experience really has a bearing on how he responds. I mean, certainly he would know, technically, how to get in touch with the relevant authorities more expeditiously. He wouldn’t have to go through the process of learning who he has to reach out to, and perhaps he has some shorthand in the way that he can speak to them.
I think what I related to in the story was the idea of a father who is desperately trying to help his son, 8,000 miles away. And as a father myself, I can’t imagine the intensity of emotion that he must have experienced feeling just so helpless and having someone that you love in such jeopardy and feeling powerless to do anything to stop it.
Right. But I mean, his character knows immediately, “Yeah, well I’ll call the CID.” If that was your kid and they told you what happened, would you have any idea of what authorities to try to contact?
Well now I would, having done the documentary. But, yeah, had I not had any experience, I would’ve had to start from the ground up and start calling people, and navigating the Byzantine hierarchy of the US military and ascertain for myself who the appropriate body is to reach out to. But this character, and the real life father that he’s based on, was able to circumvent a lot of that process because he had, in fact, served and knew that CID was his first stop, and knew that the duty officer at Fort Lewis would be his next call, and his state senator. He had a lot of ideas right on his cuff that he could attempt to pursue.
What did you see in Nat Wolff, and why was he your ideal protagonist in this?
I mean, first and foremost, he’s just a fantastic actor who acts 100% from his gut. And what I love about his performance is that he says so much in his eyes without saying anything verbally. And this is a character who is very contained, who doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but has to react emotionally to incredibly challenging decision-making. In addition to that, Nat is one of the rare actors who possesses the maturity to allows us to believe that he could be a soldier, and also carries with him a certain youthfulness and naivete. That was really important for the character to be straddling those.