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.