“In the bazaar areas it’s really frightening because you look up and you see guys with machine guns up in the window and everybody’s staring at you,” Christian Johnston recalls of his trip to Kabul, Afghanistan.
At the time, 20% of the people in Kabul were pro-al Qaeda, pro-Taliban and they didn’t want him or the rest of his film crew alive. Topping it off, there was a bounty of $40,000 for every Westerner’s head.
That time was July 2002 and Johnston was in town to make a movie about bounty hunters in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.
“A kid came by and said, ‘There’s a pickup truck with men with machine guns coming to kill you,’” Johnston relates. “At that point our car had left and Wali was talking to a distant cousin in the building and we’re sitting there just telling ourselves, ‘Fuck, what do we do? We can’t go anywhere. There’s a bomb here and there are people coming to kill us.’ This is Day One.”
The film, September Tapes, is about an American journalist looking to take action, driven by a personal motive and burdened by his own sense of mission following the destruction of the World Trade Center. But that’s only part of a story that mixes the structure of a documentary with the sensibilities of a fictional adventure.
Executive producer Brent Henry terms it “reality fiction.”
“It’s so over the top because a movie like this had never been done with real guns and real effects, real explosions,” Henry explained. “People are going to be amazed by how stupid we are.”
The timing of the film company’s exploits was made all the more dangerous by factors surrounding the war on terror and the hunt for Bin Laden. At the time, Canadian troops and an Afghan wedding party had just been bombed by the errant fire of U.S. forces.
Making a tense situation all the more apocalyptic, Afghanistan’s vice president, Abdul Qadir, had just been assassinated as he left his office in Kabul.
That incident nearly sent the film’s star, George Calil, packing for home. With the entire company spooked, Johnston kept the crew under control even as they freaked out due to the unnerving mayhem engulfing them.
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on America, with the hunt for Bin Laden flooding headlines and the posting of a $25 million reward for his head, Johnston became curious about Afghanistan, al Qaeda, and what was going on over there. A seasoned traveler who had been to 30 countries and spoke 10 words of about 20 languages, Johnston remains surprisingly levelheaded while reliving the insanity of making September Tapes.
Amidst all the coverage of a rapidly changing world, Johnston latched on to the possibilities – and the story – of finding Bin Laden. Even without film cameras, the thought of capturing the world’s most wanted man and claiming the bounty was an enticement to Johnston and countless others, most of whom could not or would not act on the opportunity.
As events unfolded, it occurred to Johnston the underlying story is something that Francis Ford Coppola might have done with Apocalypse Now. Watching September Tapes, it is clear how that film and its own source of inspiration, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, influenced Johnston.
At the time, Johnston was waiting for another project to move forward. That production was being filmed with producer Wali Razaqi, an Afghan-American; this auspicious convergence of possibilities laid the foundation for Johnston’s extreme filmmaking idea. Razaqi, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, would go on to produce September Tapes and co-star as the team’s translator.
Considering the controversial nature of the independent project, it was up to the principals to fund the film. Of course, the U.S. government wouldn’t help with entry into Afghanistan and it was determined the best course would be to fly into India then drive into Afghanistan via Pakistan.
But even India proved to be far from a safe haven as the entire region faced a nuclear crisis between India and Pakistan.
Ultimately, they put up 10 pounds each for passage via a private junker that had supposedly been fixed up after a crash landing. Johnston quotes his writing collaborator, Christian Van Gregg, who said, “I’ve had about 40 30-second naps and at this point, with my collected sensibilities, I say we go for it.”
Armed with an expired U.N. press pass, the adventure was on.
Johnston’s movie has had unfortunate comparisons made to another low budget, independent film based on the discovery of “true life” home videos, The Blair Witch Project. While the most basic concepts of the storyline bear some resemblance, Johnston references other source materials. Along with the work of Coppola and Conrad, September Tapes falls into a genre that includes works such as Dispatches, Michael Herr’s collection of reports on the Vietnam War, and the movies The Battle of Algiers and Man Bites Dog.
As nutty as the idea was to go to Afghanistan, Johnston contests that he wouldn’t have been able to show his face in public had he staged the film on the soil of a benign country.
A graduate from the University of Southern California’s film school, Johnston grew up in Evergreen, Colorado, with Henry, a high school pal and business partner.
Henry didn’t go to Afghanistan in order to run the business, keeping two TV shows and another movie rolling along.
Only in their early 30s, the two have formed a production company, Complex, with offices in Los Angeles and Prague, and have built an impressive resume of projects, including programming for MTV, TV commercials for BMW and Puma, and music videos.
The biggest hurdle in getting started was the financing. “The finance people who do this, they want your butt,” Henry said. “It’s pretty much blood money what they get to make these films.” With a business degree from Colorado State University, he keeps a close eye on the bottom line and preferred to take another financial route. Johnston chimed in, “... by putting our asses on the line, everything we worked for.” Financing aside, there were other hurdles to conquer.
“I’m amazed, as kind of an outsider,” Henry said, “the amount of effort and steps you take to get to the position where Chris got. You don’t just suddenly make a film. The ideas and how much work you’ve done to get to that level. People don’t understand how difficult it is.”
But Johnston made a persistent effort to get a handle on the business of film. Spending 7 years covering Sundance for a documentary project, Johnston interviewed powerhouses like Coppola and Ang Lee, taking the opportunity to find out more about how they got in, how they stayed in, and how their movies got sold.
Putting the challenges of getting a film made, Johnston went to school with students carrying last names like Paltrow and Eisner, but they haven’t had a movie made yet.
Out of 150 filmmaking colleagues during college, only four have gone on to successfully make a movie. Among them are Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko, and Catherine Hardwicke, director of Thirteen.
Others have fashioned successful careers as screenwriters, but they’re equally talented people who set out to become directors.
Return to Kabul
Flying under the radar of corporate Hollywood has provided Johnston and Henry with plenty of unique opportunities. “It’s nice being able to just sort of go and do what you want to do, really,” Johnston said. “The biggest thing was financially being challenged with this film; we were mostly paying bribes to the people surrounding us so that they wouldn’t, you know, completely kill us.
“When you’re going into it and nobody’s backing you, you’re thinking, maybe it is the stupidest thing you’ve done,” Johnston said.
With the film behind them and positive receptions at Sundance and Deauville under their belts, Johnston admitted, “Thank God I don’t have to go back to any war zone any time soon.” But that’s only half true. Both CNN and the BBC want to follow him back to Kabul for the premiere of September Tapes. At least this time he won’t be filming.
The crew will also be bringing health supplies to help support those who helped make the film. During his experience in Afghanistan, Johnston realized how much difference one person can make.
At one point during the production, the crew’s car was surrounded by 150 people, watching them with pissed off looks and murmuring to each other. It put a new spin on things for Johnston to realize most Afghans had never even seen an American in person before.
The rarity of outsiders served to highlight the needs of underfinanced agencies trying to supply relief and help refugees. Even though the military and a couple members of the media are there, outside relief efforts are still easily overlooked and taken for granted.
Here Comes the Sun
“It’s been three years, almost three years of just pain,” Henry said. “It was almost like a dark cloud following the film because we had so many tragedies happen and nothing positive really happened until Sundance.”
Considering this was their first feature film, Henry was struck by the complexities of the project. “I was like, I’m never, ever doing this crap again,” Henry said, preferring, at the time, the relative stability of TV, where you completed the project, got paid, and moved on.
With September Tapes, even the film itself was held hostage by the U.S. government as it reviewed 30 hours of footage. Even after its return, some faces had to be blurred during scenes of gun running discussions before the film could be used.
It was a double-edged sword worrying about the film’s delays and the consequences in the event Bin Laden was caught before their film could be released.
Endless problems plagued the crew before, during, and after the filming. Along the way, Razaqi suffered from hepatitis and lost 40 pounds, Johnston lost 12 pounds, and van Gregg passed away after the completion of the film due to an unrelated medical situation.
In addition to the live fire of the war zone, the team had to endure a pyrotechnics person high on chemicals who almost blew up the entire crew a few times.
“Thank God the efforts have gone somewhere,” Henry said.
With September Tapes behind them, Johnston and Henry are busily working on numerous other projects, including a project for Spike Lee’s production company; a forthcoming episode of MTV’s True Life pits rival gang members against forest fires; and, ratcheting up the scale, they’re also working on a film described as “Die Hard at sea.”
Even after all they’ve been through on September Tapes, their next film, another “reality fiction” project about the Russian space program in 1998, was funded with their own money.