BEHIND THE SCENES
As he contemplated wading into the world of Green Zone, director/producer Paul Greengrass knew he wanted his next film to grab people by their shirts with a high-stakes thriller, drenched in the authentic details of a war zone. "This is not a movie about the war in Iraq," the filmmaker emphasizes. "It’s a thriller set in Iraq, and that’s a very different proposition. In my experience, thrillers are at their best when they’re in extreme environments where the moral challenges are acute."
Over the course of the past decade, Greengrass has become renowned for his pulse-pounding action-thrillers. The last two Bourne films he helmed achieved a rare feat: the ability to impress critics and worldwide audiences alike. But the filmmaker is equally well known for his hard-hitting and meticulously researched dramatic movies.
With United 93, the story of the brave passengers and crew who rallied against terrorist hijackers on September 11, Greengrass not only honoured the memories of the heroes lost that day, he created a powerful dramatic thriller that invested audiences in their lives. Critical nods included an Academy Award nomination for Best Director in 2007, a Best Original Screenplay nomination from the Writers Guild of America and BAFTA’s David Lean Award for Direction. As well, his 2002 film, Bloody Sunday, which depicts the brutal murders of 13 civil rights marchers in Northern Ireland, won top prizes at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals.
Many moviegoers may not be aware that Greengrass began his career covering global conflict for Britain’s ITV. During that 10-year span, he travelled to war-torn countries and reported upon powerful stories. After shifting his focus to fictional dramatic fare, he still found himself drawn to creating films that explored timely social events. By blending a documentarian’s rigorous discipline with a dramatic filmmaker’s sense of structure and plot, he heightened the impact of his projects. Explains producer Lloyd Levin: "Paul has a very keen sense of how to bring each beat of a story to life. He creates the most dramatic version of reality he can."
In between his two blockbuster thrillers starring Matt Damon as amnesiac super-agent Jason Bourne, Greengrass wrote, directed and produced United 93. A deeply rewarding experience for the team, the heart-stopping United 93 left Greengrass and fellow producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Lloyd Levin eager to develop another project together. "This time, we decided to make a bigger film, but still set against a real backdrop," notes Bevan. "That was our starting point."
The initial idea that Greengrass discussed with screenwriter Brian Helgeland was to develop a thriller about the failed hunt for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Along the way, they sought the active collaboration of many participants in the Iraq drama, including key figures in the WMD hunt, two dozen US combat vets who served in Iraq, a half-dozen ranking former CIA officers with first-hand experience and an elite CIA paramilitary team leader who captured several of Iraq’s "Most Wanted."
Inspiration would also come from former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s best-selling non-fiction book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone." Chandrasekaran, who reported first hand from Baghdad on the weapons-inspection process, won the Overseas Press Club book award, the Ron Ridenhour Prize and Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize, and became a finalist for the National Book Awards. His much-acclaimed book served as a window into the world of the Green Zone.
Levin sums up their motivation: "Paul and Brian wanted to incorporate the world of the Green Zone and the hunt for weapons of mass destruction into a thriller. We knew this source material was just what we needed."
As the project developed, Greengrass understood it would be the perfect blend for his and his often-star’s sensibilities. He offers: "When Matt and I finished The Bourne Ultimatum, we sat down to discuss our next project. It was obvious that the most dangerous place in the whole of the world at that point was Baghdad. And it was just as obvious to us that the challenge was whether we could make an authentic and believable thriller there.
"Thrillers are in a language audiences understand," Greengrass says. "People come to the cinema to be taken places that only cinema can take them. They can be fantastical places of the imagination, or the compelling real-life environments that we see on television news. Cinema can take you there in a way that the news simply cannot.
"For both Matt and me, our creative mission was ‘Can we create a film that’s every bit as compelling, filled with action, exciting, mysterious, and a privileged inside view to a secret world as the Bourne films, but can we do it in that extreme environment of downtown Baghdad in those desperate weeks immediately after the invasion?’ I’m confident the audiences will say, ‘Yes, they can.’"
With Green Zone, Greengrass worked with Helgeland to weave a dramatic story set against a time period of historical events. Their mission: Bring audiences across the exotic deserts of Iraq, with a view from the front seat of Roy Miller’s Humvee. That landscape also includes sequestered chambers of the Republican Palace, where the US-led provisional government aimed to put the country back together again, as well as the shadowy streets where operatives hunted down the men deemed Iraq’s "Most Wanted."
Helgeland imagined a screenplay in which a WMD hunter comes to Iraq with one objective: to find weapons and save lives. Loyal to his mission and team, Miller sets out to find those responsible for those creating and potentially detonating WMDs. His end game? To bring them in and guarantee that justice is served. Miller is told that a source with the code name of Magellan met with US officials prior to the war and guaranteed that weapons actually exist, and Hussein was ready to deploy them on his own people and any usurpers. What Miller is finding, however, does not add up.
The screenwriter developed a story in which his protagonist begins to question the intel behind this list of potential weapons locations: the warrant officer finds that site after site yields nothing. Miller receives no answers through official channels, but off-the-record encounters with a veteran CIA operative, an Iraqi civilian and a journalist point him toward the elusive source Magellan and lead him into conflict with a civilian Defence Department intelligence head, as well as a Special Forces officer and a shadowy group of formerly influential Iraqis with conflicting agendas.
Recruiting the Players: Casting the Action-Thriller
Not long after they wrapped principal photography on their second collaboration, Matt Damon agreed to a third project with the man who directed him in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. "Working with Paul is an invigorating process because he insists on capturing something real for the camera," commends Damon. "It’s no surprise when you look at his other work. Not a moment of Bloody Sunday is contrived or promotes a personal agenda. United 93 practically vibrates with tension as its characters recognize the truth of their situation. Paul wants the audience to feel that truth and tension along with the characters."
The opportunity to partner again with his long-time friend wasn’t Damon’s only motivation in signing on to Green Zone. He explains: "Besides working with Paul, who I admire and whose movies I really like, the big thing for me was the chance to work with a bunch of veterans who had just come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They were the ones who really made our cast. They helped create an environment that felt very authentic. To be around people who are alert and who have been in those situations before is invaluable as an actor."
As Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, Damon portrays a career soldier who served in the 1990 Gulf War and is now doing duty in a very different Iraq. He returns to the region in 2003 to lead a gung ho team of WMD hunters known as MET D (Mobile Exploitation Team Delta). His soldiers have one objective: evacuate a long list of reputed WMD sites.
Much like Jason Bourne, Roy Miller wants only to find out the truth in his precarious situation. Damon elaborates on this character’s motivations: "Miller becomes obsessed with figuring out what’s going on and getting to the bottom of all this. He gets himself reassigned to work for the station chief for the CIA in Baghdad and starts working with him to try and figure out where the weapons are…if they exist at all."
Greengrass adds: "Miller is a man of action who has had this frustration that builds and builds at not finding the weapons. Then suddenly somebody gives him the opportunity to do something. And he takes it, because he wants to get something done."
The filmmaker was happy the actor he’d almost run down with subway cars in the London’s Waterloo Station and sent freewheeling through rooftop windows in the Medina area of Tangier was willing to trust him for their third time together.
"Matt drives this movie with a great performance," notes the director. "This is the kind of role people want to see him in. He’s one of the world’s great physical actors. If you put Matt in a big action-thriller, he commands attention because you know he’s going to go to exciting places-to-be absolutely determined to get to the truth and exhibit courage. He’s going to be running and jumping and chasing and fighting and doing all those things that you want to see Matt Damon do. But he does them with class and integrity and also tells a great story."
Cast as Miller’s nemesis, Defence Intelligence agent Clark Poundstone, was Greg Kinnear. The actor quickly adapted to Greengrass’ unique shooting style of allowing his actors situational improv, and Kinnear’s co-star was a big help in achieving that skill. "Matt advised me on how all this would work," Kinnear says. "It’s a big change from most traditional movie sets. As you adjust, you start to realize that it’s exhilarating and very unpredictable."
The Defence Intelligence agent has ostensibly come to Iraq to repair the damage that’s been done to it; he will achieve this goal by any means necessary. "Poundstone believes this place can be put back together very quickly, and that it’s all about the end game, not the means of getting there," reveals Kinnear. "This story has multiple points of view, and with Paul’s way of working, everybody’s argument is given space."
Irish native Brendan Gleeson was asked by the filmmakers to portray Martin Brown, the CIA station chief to whom Roy Miller turns when he believes there is no one else he can trust. Of the character, Greengrass laughs, "From my point of view, it’s good to have a CIA character that’s a good guy, after the Bourne movies."
The journalist who finds herself unknowingly serving as Poundstone’s mouthpiece is prominent Wall Street Journal writer Lawrie Dayne. Chosen to play the newswoman was performer Amy Ryan, introduced to many audiences in her much awarded breakout role in Gone Baby Gone. By the spring of 2003, Dayne has become an expert on the subject of chemical warfare and is embedded in the Green Zone, where she is unwittingly being fed stories by the duplicitous Poundstone.
Greengrass encouraged flexibility in how his actors interpreted their roles, and Ryan had a specific take on Dayne. The actress offers: "Lawrie spent the majority of her career writing about WMDs. Now, she is in a situation in Iraq where she’s searching for answers to something she’s believed in her whole professional life. This will be the biggest moment in Lawrie’s career, if she can be there when, and if, the WMDs are found."
Chosen to play Freddy, an unemployed Iraqi veteran who struggles with a prosthetic leg and a battered Toyota Corolla, was Khalid Abdalla. The actor, born in Scotland to Egyptian parents, first worked with Greengrass when he gave everything in the role of hijacker Ziad Jarrah in United 93. "The first time I heard about 93, I wanted nothing to do with it," Abdalla admits. "I heard it was a film about 9/11, and thought, ‘No, thank you.’ But then I found out it was Paul, and I saw Bloody Sunday and I met him. It was clear to me that he wanted to make a film in the right way, and that he was an extraordinary person I could trust. Working with Paul is like being on a volcanic island, and I absolutely love it."
By tipping Miller to the whereabouts of several high-level Baath Party members Miller has been seeking, Freddy sets the dominoes falling in Green Zone. "He’s one of many Iraqis who was happy to see Saddam gone and willing to trust, at the beginning, that things might get better," says Abdalla. "Freddy is not quite an Iraqi everyman, but he’s a guy off the street, and the main Iraqi we follow in the film."
Freddy eventually becomes MET D translator for Miller’s men. Still, translating the highly technical terms and regional-specific lingo was a challenge for the fluent Arabic speaker. "The world that this film is situated in is very real," offers Abdalla. "You get to see Iraq in a way that most people haven’t. My advisor was brought up in Iraq and was in Baghdad for a good portion of the war, so stories have come to us through him in ways that we didn’t expect."
British performer Jason Isaacs came aboard the production as Lt. Col. Briggs, the Special Forces team leader who is out to rein in Miller. The actor appreciated the disciplined academic work that goes into a Greengrass film. "Paul’s films are meticulously researched," Isaacs reflects. "He has an incredible team around him who gave me a big package of documentary footage, YouTube clips, audio clips and books for my research. Useful as that was, though, it didn’t compare to the human resources on set."
In Green Zone, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army ("wiping the slate clean") is announced at a packed press conference by Kinnear as Poundstone. Featured along with Ryan and dozens of extras playing journalists were Rajiv Chandrasekaran, as well as former CBS newsman and co-producer MICHAEL BRONNER. Both men had attended similar briefings in 2003, and they asked similar questions on screen. Bronner, who had spent time in Iraq during the war while on assignment for CBS News/60 Minutes, joined the production to conduct research for Greengrass.
"I sat through countless press briefings in the Green Zone," Chandrasekaran recalls. "Some of us copied an old nickname the Vietnam War press core used in Saigon - the ‘five o’clock follies.’ The reality that the officials tried to convey from behind the podium in the Green Zone was very different than the reality outside its walls."
Bronner conducted the WMD research for Green Zone. "Every soldier I talked to who was part of these WMD search teams, and every CIA and DIA officer who flew in during the first wave, went in thinking there would be some kind of WMD," he recalls. "I don’t think they believed Saddam would nuke America any time soon, but even I thought he’d at least have some old chemical junk he’d hurl at the troops. They were dumbstruck when they didn’t find it. They had highly detailed intelligence in some cases, and it was wrong. How do you have highly detailed intelligence that’s totally wrong? That’s a strong mystery to motivate a character to keep pushing and try to figure it out."
Assembling MET D: Veterans Join the Production
For those involved with making Green Zone, the opportunity to work with the Iraq War veterans who portrayed MET D soldiers and other military personnel was one of the highlights of the shoot. The former soldiers took to the work like natural performers. For the fastidious Greengrass, nothing less would suffice. "Having the real soldiers was fantastic," he says. "It created a bedrock of believability and gave our central actors - Matt, Brendan, Greg, Amy, Khalid and Jason - the confidence to believe they’re in a very real situation."
As he was a military novice portraying the leader of a number of hard-ass soldiers, Damon appreciated the unconventional casting. "These guys made it very easy for me," the actor offers, "because they know exactly what to do and they make it look like I’m delegating responsibility appropriately. In an ideal world you don’t want to have to explain things to people, you want them to be able to do it naturally. The whole point of these guys being here is that they show up and are who they really are. That’s not something that a group of actors, even with a long time to work, could pull off as well as a group of veterans."
Damon passed muster with his troops as well. "Matt’s just like us," commends first-time performer PAUL KARSKO, who went to Iraq in 2004 with the Air Force Reserves. Stationed in Tikrit, Karsko worked convoy security in Iraq. As Simms in Green Zone, he’s assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD).
Explains fellow soldier EUGENE CHERRY of this detail: "In a civilian world, EODs would be the equivalent of the bomb squad." Cherry, who served as an Army medic with an EOD unit in Iraq in 2005, portrays medic Sandales in the film.
As the production recruited its soldiers, co-producer Michael Bronner reached out to American veterans groups to secure the appropriate people for the MET D team and other military roles. Bronner travelled to California, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Washington, DC, and interviewed vets about their service in Iraq, as well as their interactions with Iraqi civilians.
Marine MICHAEL DWYER, who fought in Fallujah in 2006 and was redeployed to Iraq in 2008, got into the mix by accident. "I just happened to be in the building when one of the casting sessions was going on in New York, and I thought I was signing up for membership in a veterans organization," he laughs. "I filled out a form, and the next thing you know, they say, ‘Mr Bronner will see you now.’ It was a pretty confused conversation." Needless, Dwyer impressed the co-producer enough to be cast as Potts, the gunner who rides atop Miller’s Humvee.
Fortunately, the vets got on with Greengrass as well as they did their new chief, Damon. "They have no tolerance for BS," says the director. "They wanted to make a movie that accurately depicted what they went through. A lot of them wouldn’t unpack their bags until they were satisfied that that’s what we were doing."
PAUL RIECKHOFF, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), portrays General Gonzales in scenes at Saddam International Airport. Producer Levin agrees with the director that casting men such as Rieckhoff was mandatory to the production’s sense of authenticity. "Green Zone is not a documentary, but we’re trying to get to a sense of what it was like to be there," Levin says. "Having these guys who know it inside out was incredibly helpful."
NATHAN LEWIS makes his acting debut as Henne, MET D’s interpreter. Deployed with the Army a few years ago, he was stationed south of Baghdad as part of a field artillery brigade. "They’ve picked guys you’d find in an Army unit," Lewis observes. "All the different personalities and characters are here. You work together, slowly get to know everybody…how they operate, what their interests are. You build the unit cohesion and operate as a group."
Iraq War veterans also portrayed the Special Forces team commanded by Miller’s shadow group leader, Lt. Col. Briggs. "Special Forces have a confidence and a necessary arrogance that is unique. They really are the sharp end of the spear," says Jason Isaacs. "I spent all my time on and off screen hanging out with my squad. They clown around and use a lot of gallows humour, but also have the gravity and sense of unity that comes with having seen and done things I don’t even want to imagine. Their honesty has been very bracing."
To round out the cast, many of the film’s military extras were recruited from the ranks of US servicemen and women stationed at Mildenhall and Lakenheath military bases in the UK.
Of his soldier-turned-performer cast, Greengrass reflects: "I think they all got absolutely swept along with Miller’s story. The fact that Miller turns away from his unit and says, ‘I want to find the truth and I’m going to find it…come what may.’ That’s a great thriller device. It’s a great fictional device because you’ve got your hero active and operating against the odds to uncover the truth."
Ensuring Realism: Advisors of Green Zone
A Paul Greengrass set is a scrupulous world, but not an inflexible one. "The last thing we wanted was a predictable movie," says the director. "Nor did we ever intend to tell audiences what to think or feel. Every day for five months, we came to work hoping to create a visceral experience that would provoke viewers to draw their own conclusions.
"It’s a hell of a rough subject," he continues. "To make any progress, you’ve got to get the facts on the table. We debated it constantly. I’ve seen too many wars to think there’s a simple answer, but I’ve learned that telling the truth, tricky as that can be, is about the best thing you can do. There’s no good second choice."
To ensure as authentic an experience as possible, Chief Warrant Officer 4 RICHARD LAMONT (MONTY) GONZALES, a 20-year veteran of the US Army and former WMD hunter, came on board as the production’s military advisor.
As military advisor, Monty Gonzales brought an innate understanding of the character of Roy Miller. While assigned to the Army’s 75th Field Artillery Brigade (reconstituted as the 75th Exploitation Task Force or XTF), Gonzales was the leader of Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha (MET A). The men of MET A were also seasoned WMD hunters, and they called Gonzales "Chief."
Gonzales was one of a handful of people assigned to lead small mobile exploitation teams at the start of the war. "The year 2003 was the most challenging year of my career, probably of my life, because of the mission we were assigned and the responsibilities put on our shoulders," he says. "But we went in with about 15 guys and came out with the same number, so we did okay."
Survival was one measure of success. The mission was another. "Once the reality on the ground changed from what we expected it to be, to what we discovered it to be, our mission became a search for the truth, rather than a search for weapons of mass destruction," says the chief. "Because it became more and more clear as the operation went on that it was unlikely we’d find anything."
When Gonzales reported for duty on the Green Zone set, he found himself again in the middle of the action. A novice to moviemaking, he spent most of his days huddled at the monitor with the director and star hashing out what a real soldier would do in a given situation.
Authenticity was the mandate, and that extended to events being portrayed, as well as details concerning the soldiers, vehicles, guns and other military elements that would appear on screen. "Making sure Monty and the soldiers felt comfortable with the reality factor was hugely important for us," says Greengrass. "Every single day."
Damon and Gonzales had instant rapport, and the actor quickly saw the value of having "Chief" on the scene. "Every question, from the big to the small, Monty had a very good answer for, based on his experience," said Damon. "That’s really helpful in terms of figuring out what these guys went through. We’re basically replicating a lot their experiences in Iraq. To have the real guy who led one of the MET teams hunting for weapons is everything I could ask for."
The respect and enthusiasm were mutual. "Matt was dedicated to getting it right," says Gonzales. "He was totally focused on making sure that if he’s playing a soldier, it’s the best possible soldier he can bring to the screen."
US Army vet BRIAN SIEFKES portrays Keating, Miller’s right-hand man in Green Zone. In 2003, Siefkes was also a WMD hunter in Iraq, working alongside Gonzales. "What you see us doing in this film is an accurate representation of what we did over there. It’s what we experienced," says the 28-year-old Oregon native.
Deconstructing Chaos: Locations and Design
Paul Greengrass and production designer Dominic Watkins’ team created the look and feel of Baghdad, 2003 - both inside and outside the bubble - on location in Spain, Morocco and England.
Filming began January 10, 2008, at Los Alcázares Military Air Base, situated on the Mediterranean Sea in south-eastern Spain’s Murcia province. It was a relatively easygoing start of production, with well-secured locations and a winter climate much like Southern California’s.
The ramshackle Los Alcázares training facility, operated by the Spanish air force, provided locations for Saddam’s pillaged Mukhabarat intelligence headquarters, as well as exterior scenes at the Republican Palace and a smaller Green Zone palace. Also in Spain, the unit filmed the MET D convoy rolling under a highway overpass and getting stuck in a traffic jam on a four-lane highway as panicking throngs fled Baghdad. The traffic shots were staged on a brand-new Murcia motorway, which had not yet been opened to the public.
Most of Green Zone’s exteriors, however, were filmed on streets in and around Rabat, Morocco, where the company encamped for seven weeks. A coastal city on the Atlantic Ocean, Rabat has served as Morocco’s capital since 1956.
The Bou Regreg river empties into the Atlantic alongside Rabat. Across this estuary, Rabat’s "twin" city, Salé, hosted many days and nights of filming for the production.
The Moroccan portion of the shoot began February 2 in Kenitra, a city 25 miles north of Rabat. Kenitra provided the location for the Diwaniya WMD site. Instead of discovering weapons of mass destruction here, Miller’s MET D convoy arrived to find Diwaniya overrun by hundreds of looters.
The looting sequence was controlled pandemonium, performed with joyful abandon by the Moroccan extras hired to portray the plunderers. Costume designer Sammy Sheldon and her team outfitted approximately 200 male extras for this rubble-strewn shot. "The overview of the movie is that it needs to be grounded in reality for every character involved, whether Iraqi or American," says Sheldon. "Paul likes grimy, sweaty realism. The looters were a mix of young and old guys, very dirty and quite wrapped up so that you wouldn’t recognize them if they were seen on the telly. We went for the older sportswear look mixed with traditional dishdasha [male robes] and head scarves to hide their faces."
Sheldon, the costumers and the webbing team were as grateful as the cast to have former members of the military on the production. "I’ve done other movies of this nature where most of the main team were actors," Sheldon offers. "You put all this kit on them, and when they take a break, they put something down and forget about it. The MET D boys never lost anything," she notes, "and they’ve helped us a lot with how it’s worn."
The MET D convoy’s push through a Baghdad traffic jam was filmed over a two-day period in Kenitra. CBS News had aired footage of a similar Baghdad incident in 2003, shot for the network by British cameraman Nick Turner and then-CBS News producer Bronner. Greengrass and his team used the network’s 2003 material for reference in planning the film’s traffic sequence. Completely by chance, cameraman Turner was part of the CBS News crew that visited the Green Zone set when the traffic jam was filmed.
This sequence, referred to as "bump street" on set, was a big undertaking for action vehicles coordinator ALEX KING and first assistant director CHRIS CARRERAS. Their teams sourced approximately 150 vehicles, which had to be dressed, then dirtied down and made to look as if they belonged in Baghdad. They also had to prepare the cars to be hit by a four-and-a-half-ton Humvee.
Kenitra Military Air Base, a former US Naval Air Station, provided the exterior location for scenes set at Saddam International Airport. The visual effects team completed the transformation of Moroccan locations into Iraqi landmarks, including the airport, Republican Palace and Assassins’ Gate.
With fewer iconic locations, Rabat was appropriately atmospheric. "Rabat was chosen because it best resembled parts of Baghdad," says VFX supervisor Peter Chiang. "The architecture and flat roofs provided a good foundation for our needs."
Night shooting in Salé provoked further déjà vu for Chandrasekaran. Says the journalist: "It looked and felt like a hard-scrabble part of Adhamiya, a Sunni-dominated neighbourhood on the eastern side of the Tigris River."
Salé also accommodated the dust and din of three Special Forces helicopters swooping in and out of a woebegone football pitch (soccer field). The helicopter of choice for Briggs and his men would be the Black Hawk, but ongoing military needs made Black Hawks unavailable. The Huey, a staple of the Vietnam War, most closely resembles the Black Hawk’s shape. Therefore, three Hueys were filmed and transformed into Black Hawks during postproduction.
Not every day in Morocco was so gritty. For several days and nights, an upscale area of Salé depicted Baghdad’s Mansour district, also known as "the Beverly Hills of Baghdad."
Production moved to its London base in mid-March and availed itself of a wide variety of locations. Most of the film’s interiors were shot in the London area and in the neighbouring county of Surrey. Scenes set in the grand rooms of the Republican Palace were filmed at Freemasons’ Hall, an imposing Art Deco landmark on Great Queen Street in London’s Covent Garden. The indoor betting parlour at Sandown Park Racecourse in Surrey underwent a metamorphosis to portray the interior of Saddam International Airport, which was transformed when Coalition Forces set up camp there in 2003.
Updown Court, a never-occupied luxury manor house in Surrey, stood in for a ravaged Green Zone palace, where Miller and the MET D briefly lodged. Green Zone filmed at the Renaissance Hotel, steps away from Heathrow International Airport’s infamous Terminal 5, on the very day that the new terminal so disastrously opened.
Huge construction sheds at QinetiQ, a former tank factory in Surrey, housed another would-be WMD site and a Camp Cropper prison. The interior of General Al-Rawi’s house, mounted on a ton of pneumatically inflated bellows by the special effects team, was also built at QinetiQ. The bellows’ heaving gave the set a violent shake, simulating the effect of bombs falling in the near distance.
Saddam’s long-rumoured maze of underground tunnels and bunkers, also alleged to be rife with hidden weapons, inspired the setting for a climactic fire-fight in Green Zone. The desolate Millennium Mills site in East London’s Docklands was chosen for the sequence. "We researched the tactics Iraqi soldiers would be geared up for, if attacked somewhere like a safe house," offers stunt coordinator MARKOS ROUNTHWAITE. "They would know the place like the backs of their hands, and US troops wouldn’t know where to start chasing them."
Humvees to Helicopters: Weapons and Stunts
Before filming began, SIMON ATHERON and his team of armourers invited the MET D cast into the weapons truck. They chose what they had used in Iraq, and customized their weaponry with sights, strapping and lights.
The weapon of choice for Miller and the MET D team was the M4 carbine. Only Keating, played by army reservist Brian Siefkes, broke from the pack with an M16 203 grenade launcher, which had been his weapon in Iraq. The armourers had practicals, i.e., real guns, for each MET D character, as well as non-practical Airsoft versions. If they weren’t firing that day, the armourers didn’t give them practicals because the Airsoft worked so well. Naturally, practicals were only given to people trained to use them.
The MET D convoy mirrored what Gonzales and his unit had used in Iraq. "The vehicle configuration, the way the people are grouped, the equipment, the organization - everything is almost exactly as it was when we were there in 2003," says Gonzales.
The "hero convoy" included Miller’s lead Humvee, followed by a second Humvee, a large M35 truck, and a rear Humvee. "These were underdog vehicles," notes action vehicles coordinator King. "The production designer, Dominic Watkins, wanted them to look less desirable and under-equipped."
Just as they would have on duty, the MET D boys personalized the interiors with photographs. They gave King practical tips to make the action even more realistic. "They suggested taking all the doors off," he says. "These aren’t armoured Humvees, so the moment you have any contact, the doors do nothing but stop you from getting out fast."
King knew the Humvees’ limits and that they’d be challenged. "We always had to consider the scene where they cross into oncoming traffic and bump vehicles out of the way," he explains. "The Humvee is robust, but its parts will disintegrate if you smash into the back of another vehicle. We saw in the reference images that they usually clamped something on the front as an improvised ramming bar."
Stunt work came naturally to many of the vets. "A couple of the guys have a tremendous amount of experience," offers Gonzales. "When asked to tackle an adversary, take him to the ground, search him, flex cuff him, and do whatever you do with a prisoner, no rehearsal was needed. These guys have done that 100 times. They just do it."
Jason Isaacs had to keep pace with those same guys. "I’ve been hanging out of very old helicopters by what seemed to me a piece of dental floss," he jokes. "Unlike most movies, it would be embarrassing to suggest that somebody else do the stunts, since I’m surrounded by some of the most fearless men I’ve ever met. It turns out they were terrified too, but they figured I must know something they didn’t."