On Friday December 4, I had the privilege to interview three of the real-life soldiers depicted in the 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi film on Friday 12/4 afternoon at the Grand Hotel Mpls.
The film tells the true account of the events of September 11, 2012 when Islamic militants attacked the U.S. State Department Special Mission Compound (or simply – the American diplomatic compound, it was not the U.S. Embassy) and a CIA station called The Annex in Benghazi, Libya from the personal stories of five of the surviving American private security operators that were on the ground that day.
Check out the green-band trailer below:
You might’ve seen them being interviewed by major media outlets since the novel the film’s based on, written by NY Times best-selling author Mitchell Zuckoff. As I was waiting for my turn for the interview, I continued reading the novel in the hotel lobby. It’s a real page-turner and full of details of the action of that night, as well as the previous nights before the attack happened.
The three guys featured in the book are:
MARK “OZ” GEIST – Former Marine
JOHN “TIG” TIEGEN – Former Marine
KRIS “TANTO” PARONTO – Ex-Army Ranger
*Oz, Tig & Tanto are their actual radio call signs.
By the time I stepped into the room for the interview, Mark, John and Kris were busy signing the books. They’re friendly and courteous and made me feel comfortable and welcomed right away. Kris ‘Tanto’ Paronto went out of his way from the other end of the room to give me a big bear hug which was very sweet. I asked them to sign my book which they obligingly did. As I sat down, I immediately thanked them for their service to our country and that they’ve risked their own lives to save others.
Q: How did this project come to be? Was the studio aware of the book being written [the book was published in Sept 2014] and wanted to do a cinematic adaptation of it?
MARK: 3 Arts [Entertainment], their literary division was the one who represented us when we did the book. Their primary division is a film production company out in L.A. We initially didn’t know where this would end up, we just wanted to get our story in print and bringing Mitchell Zuckoff as the author, and how he put together the book, the reviews of it, they felt that it would be a great fit for a film. So we went out to L.A. and talked to Paramount, actually we talked to several different groups and Paramount was the one that really, I think it resonated with them and they reached out to us about wanting to do the project and everything sort of fell into place.
Q: The book is a real page-turner, it’s very detailed and very intense. It made me wonder how the film would match the intensity. Since the film hasn’t come out yet, but you guys were there, so based on the footage you’ve seen so far, how realistic is it? Are you happy with the depiction?
KRIS: We’ve seen about 20-25 minutes footage, I think the intensity is there.
MARK: That’s why this is… I think this is made for Michael Bay’s [style]. He’s one of the few directors that I think can match the intensity that came across in the book.
KRIS: We’ve been very blessed that this has been handled by very good people. It shows that they had a sense, a sense to represent us correctly. They truly believe in the story, I don’t think if you truly believe in what happened that night, truly believe in how we are and want to know what actually took place that night and felt in their heart about getting it right, it wouldn’t have come out right.
Q: So they’re respectful about what went through that night? I mean, Michael Bay is known for his use of explosions, but there’s an emotional side to this story as well. I mean, this is obviously a very emotional experience for you guys.
MARK: Things that people will see in the movie, and where he really… and I can’t say that he gets away from everything he’s done in the past in a sense that I mean you’re gonna feel every emotion… just as you read the book, you’re going to feel those emotions and he does the exact same thing, from fear, to sadness to anger. The movie’s not just about the actual event of that night, but it’s about our families too, our wives, our kids and he shows that in little snippets. It relates to how our kids… for example, he shows one scene of one of us with our families and the kid asks his dad ‘Daddy, why he has to go back, can’t you just do this?’ That really resonates with every single one of us, because most of us in the [security] contracting world are a little bit older and most of us have kids, we’re further along in our family life. So the kids are there and they’re talking to us… and that’s when he shows the compassion side of the movie and the troubles that we go through and serve our country the way we do.
KRIS: Michael Bay’s critics don’t see how much he supports vets. The extras you see in the movie, they’re are also military people from special forces and SEAL teams. I don’t think people give him the credit he deserves when it comes to making movies and the fact that he uses real people when he needs an authentic military aspect. The fact that this is a military film and he has the experience because he’s been around military people throughout his film career. There were Seals in The Rock and even in the Transformers movies there were real army rangers who worked as extras and they’re friends of ours who’ve worked with us overseas. So I don’t think he gets the kudos when it comes to stuff like that.
Q: The film was shot in Malta and also Morocco. How involved were you in selecting the location, obviously it couldn’t be shot in Libya but did you have any input in location scouting?
JOHN: No, we weren’t involved in the location as they’d select the location that’d look best to represent Benghazi the way it was. As for input for the set, as far as set design, by the time we got there, they already got the design done so we’re sitting there in front of the set guy. He was telling us what it looks like and how they did it. Well I said, ‘well this is wrong, this wall wasn’t here, this was actually over there…’ and Michael Bay was like, ‘Oh great, you just cost us another hundred thousand dollars’ but they moved it, they did it. Same thing with the actors, I mean one of them took Oz’s (Mark) wife on a date and tried to get into detail how everything was.
KRIS: Best date she ever had, I reckon she said.
Q: Which actor was that?
JOHN: Max Martini. But don’t tell his wife [laughs]
KRIS: Don’t tell Oz, I mean he’s here but don’t tell him.
JOHN: Even on the set, we’re constantly in talks with the actors even before and after we left the set. Like Dominic Fumusa [who played John in the film], I mean he’s emailing me once a week asking me questions.
Q: So John, you have twins don’t you? According to the book, you’ve been there three times?
JOHN: Well I’ve been to Libya four times but three times to Benghazi.
Q: So you did go back to Libya after that?
JOHN: We all went back to work after Benghazi.
MARK: Well not to there [Benghazi] but everybody went back to the Middle East after all. I didn’t because I was injured but we all went back to our security work in different places.
JOHN: Yes, until about mid 2013 when we finally decided to do the book.
KRIS: This wasn’t exactly our idea y’know ‘oh we got in a firefight, let’s go write a book about it’ We all wanted to continue to work. We just saw that the truth kept getting…
KRIS: Exactly, hijacked by both [political] parties, everybody in the media, even by people in general who were writing a book about Benghazi who had no idea what was really going on in there. It got to the point where… first of all, it’s disrespectful to the people who died and disrespectful to those who lived, those who completed the mission and saved lives. I mean, it just wasn’t the truth. So it got to the point where had to vote as a team, as a team we said this is what we’re gonna do, let’s tell the truth… and of course we had to resign and here we are. I mean, I never planned on y’know, when I was younger I never thought I’d write a book that’s gonna be made into a movie, never in my life that I thought that.
Q: Early in the book, I read about how Jack Silva and Rone Woods, the night before the attack, they were talking about the security of the diplomatic compound and the ANNEX building. They were talking about the holes in the defensive system and how it might be vulnerable to terrorist attack and all that. Now in hindsight, knowing all that and this happened. Have you been contacted or are there improvements being made to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Not just in Benghazi but in other diplomatic compounds in vulnerable locations.
JOHN: They’re still trying to fix the holes that they found in the Beirut bombings [in November 2015]
KRIS: The actual training for state department guys…this is just from our friends in the State Department, they’ve made some improvements. Now I don’t know how much more intense they’ve made it thought they told me it’s pretty intense. But as far as from the state department asking ‘hey what are you guys’ take on this? What should we do? What’s the after action?’ No, that hasn’t happened, I think there are still the same problems overseas. And this is just from the guys that… it’s a small community, we still know guys who work as security contractors. They can tell you right now, that some lessons have been learned, but I don’t think they’ve exploited all the lessons they could’ve learned to make improvements that could be made to these diplomatic compounds overseas.
JOHN: Well, there’s really no reason to do the improvements because there’s nobody ever held accountable. Until someone is held accountable, put their feet to the fire, nothing’s ever going to chance.
KRIS: [holding the book] But this helps. The secret soldiers of Benghazi. Hopefully one day they’ll read this or somewhere down the line someone at the State Department or Government will watch it and maybe a light will click on. This will serve as a reminder forever so that’s important. I mean, we did what we had to do. This is out there, we’ve done all that we can do from our point of view. And the State Department know where we’re at and they can reach out to us. If they want to know our assistance, all they gotta do is ask.
Q: I don’t want to make light of this event at all, obviously this was very tough for you guys. But there’s one point in the book where I thought, ‘I wonder if it’s going to make it into the film or not.’ I think in the Overrun chapter, Tanto you said ‘I’m getting too old for this.’ I think it’s when you’re about to climb an 8-foot wall. There’s definitely a sense of humor in the book.
[Everyone laughs as they’re playfully poking fun at Kris]
KRIS: Yeah, people think combat is all serious but we actually had a lot of fun. There’s a lot of jokes, I mean that’s your defense mechanism, it’s how you deal with stress, you tell jokes and you have a good times. And you’re with your buddies and that makes it ten times better. I mean you got bullets zipping by above your head and you hear that snap. You gotta put that on your bucket list, one time you gotta let that happen and you’ll see, you’ll think, ‘man this is kinda fun.’
Q: Oh I don’t know about that. Now, you guys seem very happy and calm now. I mean it’s been three years but how’s life been for you guys? Has the memory of the event still haunt you from time to time?
MARK: I don’t know that it necessarily haunt. I mean we’ll carry this memory forever and I’m proud to carry this memory with me, serving with these guys. Even the memories of Tyrone [Woods, former Navy SEAL, played by James Badge Dale] and Bub [Glen Doherty, former Navy Seal, played by Toby Stephens], they got killed right beside me when I got injured in the same explosion. I’m proud to have been able to fight with those types of guys, it’s a sense of privilege and honor to be able to do that. And it’s unfortunate that people died and get injured in these line of work but we’ve been around long enough and doing this long enough to know that this is one of the consequences. We even rationalized, dealt with that, or compartmentalized this long before it even happened.
Who’s who in 13 Hours:
Featurette on the men who lived the Benghazi attack:
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi opens wide in the US on Friday, January 15
Check out the worldwide release date here
Thoughts on the interview and/or the film? I’d love to hear what you think!