The date of Sept, 11, 2001 is a polarizing day in American history. In a matter of moments our country stopped breathing and moving. Our perceptions changed, and what we knew to be true had to be reexamined. The world became a place many no longer recognized, and the way we lived our lives would never be the same.
As each year passed, the new normal took over. We accepted taking our shoes off to go through metal detectors at the airport, having our bags checked before going into big events and keeping an eye out for one another. Americans embraced it as best we could, even if nostalgic for the days when the world’s evils were not so close to us.
On Sept. 11, 2012, Americans would again experience a moment where our country stopped breathing and moving — but this time because of what was happening half a world away. In the U.S. State Department Special Mission Compound and a CIA Base in Benghazi, Libya, America would once again come under attack.
Without warning, the compound was taken over through a hail of gunfire that would start 13 hours of hell.
Author Mitchell Zuckoff wrote the book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi” recounting events on that Sept. 11th in 2012. In doing so, Zuckoff, along with the Annex Security Team inside the CIA Base, bring the truth straight from those who lived and died to tell this story.
This week, director Michael Bay will bring the book “13 Hours” to the big screen in a film of the same name starring John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Toby Stevens, James Dale, David Denman David Giuntoli, Demetrius Grosse and Christopher Dingli.
I had the humble opportunity to speak with three men from the Annex Security Team, Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paronto and John “Tig” Tiegen, who were not only in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, but have put their heart and soul into both the book and film “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.”
I walked in the door of the interview with my copy of the book filled with slips of Post-it notes bulking out of the top. Having a set of questions ready to go, it would only take moments before I realized these three men were going to speak openly and answer my questions without me having to ask.
Hello gentleman, how are you doing today?
Paronto: We are doing good, thanks.
(At this point Paronto sees my book and the tabs of Post-it notes sticking out, takes it and smiles)
I just write notes when I get involved in a book.
Paronto: Hey, but that’s good! (He opens the book and actually signs it for me, its official, I’m fan struck!) Hi, I’m Kris “Tanto” Paronto, nice to meet you.
It’s nice to meet you all as well.
(Tiegen and Geist are tapping away on their phones as Paronto informs me that they are all social media junkies now.)
Paronto: OK, first question!
Alright, how did the decision to come about to make the film “13 Hours?”
Tiegen: It all actually came about from us doing the book. We were tired of the politics of it all and wanted to make sure the truth was told and the honor was given where it needed to be given. Richard, he heard the story from these guys and knew this was going to be a movie.
Paronto: We really didn’t have to do anything, and to be honest it was meant to be a movie.
It seemed like a fast process from book to screen.
Tiegen: Anyone we’ve ever talked to about this process says exactly that — that this is the fastest they’ve seen a book go to film to theater. Mitch (Zuckoff, writer of the book “13 Hours”) said they were already working on a screenplay before the book was even done.
Paronto: It was almost a one-stop shop with 3Arts (Entertainment), who already had Mitch and Chuck Hogan, who is a screenwriter. They also had Erwin Stoff, who produced “Unbroken,” he executive produced “The Matrix” and “The Blind Side,” so they already had everything lined up. All we did was say “yes.” We did the movie pitch with Jack.
Tiegen: Yes, it was with Jack because I was still working. Once the pitch was done, Paramount was the only one with cojones to stand by us, saying this is a great story.
When the idea of the book came up what was your initial reaction?
Paronto: We were all working and Mark was injured severely. We continued to deploy for almost eight months. There wasn’t any idea to do a book when we came back. That wasn’t our intention at all.
But when the story of what took place on the ground continued to be misconstrued and then utilized by politicians for agendas, it kept pushing us. We’d hear things that were incorrect or people writing books about that night, and they weren’t even there. It just got to the point where our integrity was being tested.
Also, the fact that people were not being honored that died that night, we just came together as a team and decided as a team to do the story and the book. We chose that medium because we figured it was a good way to keep it from being political. You try to go to a news organization and it’s either right or left so that was that. I knew a lady that had written a book before and contacted her in Afghanistan and asked how we could do this. She sent us to 3Arts.
Getting this put down into words in the book before screen, to recount the experience, how was that for each of you?
Geist: We were forced to by Mitchell Zuckoff (all three men break out laughing). What I would do is go drive the dirt roads to a pasture and tape it. Using a digital recorder I would drive around and talk.
Paronto: He gave us a questionnaire, and we would talk into the recorder and send them back to Mitch. It was all separate. We never did it together until we had the first draft down. He wanted to get us all separately to tell our story.
When he found that separately we were saying the same thing, he knew that we were on the level. I think that reinforced for him that he wanted to do a good job and honor us, because I think he realized that we were going through hell with the misrepresentations.
Was there a time you couldn’t speak about what happened in Benghazi as the aftermath was going on?
Tiegen: Yes, and it’s because of who we worked for. The only other people I could talk to was my wife and these guys. We wanted to still work, and didn’t want to talk and tell anyone. I talked to our team leader a couple of times about the frustration of what was happening on television, and there really wasn’t anything we could do about it.
How long between the times you were still working and when you started on the questionnaires?
Paronto: I would say about eight or nine months.
Really? This really was written that fast.
Paronto: Yes, it was incredibly fast. Mitch is so talented and is a workhorse, and was the right guy for the job.
Tiegen: So is Bay. Bay is the same way (referring to director Michael Bay).
Geist: I think that’s when the film writing started with Bay — in May.
Paronto: Chuck Hogan, the scriptwriter, wrote it so fast. They are all rock stars. We really had an all-star team working on this and made it even more meant to be. The right guys were chosen and it was incredible.
When putting the script together, how much input were they relying on you for? I would imagine quite a bit.
Paronto: When Mark and I were doing the pitches, Chuck was there doing the pitches as well, and we were there to put our two cents in. When the script was written and we got the first draft, we sat with Michael and Erwin at Bay’s studio to go over everything. There were things like a scene with one of the guys in a spot, and we knew that wouldn’t work.
We voiced our concerns about it because if you had a guy in the wrong spot, the story wouldn’t work. Bay would say it might look better cinematically, but we’d say, “No, this guy needs to be in the right spot.”
Did he change it?
Paronto: Yes, yes he did.
I imagine that it would be important.
Paronto: It is important. It is to us. He would say it flows with the story better, and I’d say I don’t give a shit — this guy did this act and he needs to be seen doing this act!
When you learned that Michael Bay was going to be a part of this project, what was each of your reaction?
Tiegen: I thought it was great. I love his movies, and he can shoot movies really well.
Geist: There were always reservations about giving up your life rights, because it means you have no control. So it was one of the things we had to be concerned with. We told him from the get-go that this was our issue. Because you can take this and do whatever with it and if you do that then …
Paronto: … we will not promote it.
(The men break out laughing again)
Tiegen: I mean, we wouldn’t want to give up any more time with our families than we already have, so it was important to us to do it right.
The final product in the casting — are you pleased?
Geist: Absolutely. They put together a really great cast. I mean to me, because in the end when we watch the movie I can see Tanto’s and Tig’s mannerisms. All of them brought to it a level of professionalism, and I can’t judge having not been at this level before — but you couldn’t have asked for better or more. The same with Michael Bay, he just approached this from a different level.
Tiegen: It’s like he wanted the movie to be about what really happened. It’s about what happened — not losing it with an A-list actor being more important than the story. There were those actors that were interested, is what we had been told, and people who thought that’s how it should be.
Geist: Bay said no, it has to be about the story. Hey, not that any of these actors are small time, it’s just that they aren’t so big that, well …
… so big that they name takes away from the story of the film.
Do you feel like the film honors the book-to-screen, because that is hard to do sometimes?
Geist: Yes, they did. That was our biggest concern. For me personally, I felt like if they kept the spirit of what was between the covers, then I’d be happy. If they didn’t, then we’d go after Michael Bay (joking of course). He knocked it out of the park, I think at least from our point of view, and our opinion is the only one that matters.
Paronto: Always, that’s what I tell everybody. The other thing is that there were no prima donnas on the set either. I think many of these actors will be propelled even higher, and they so deserve it.
Geist: They absolutely deserve it. It’s the whole “pay it forward” thing. What happened to us, happened to us, and we were blessed being able to have a New York Times bestseller and a movie made by Michael Bay. If people involved can utilize it to help others, then that’s a win-win.
Paronto: I think having Mitch involved with the script and on the set, and having him there having that perspective worked. His name is on the book too. It helped everything keeping the book as close as you can to the movie by keeping it factual and they did.
That’s the thing I was waiting for in reading the book — the political, but it never appeared in the pages.
Paronto: There isn’t any.
Mitchell kept it factual.
Paronto: We don’t know what went on in Washington, D.C., and that’s why we said, “Don’t talk about that.” They didn’t speculate in the book or in the movie either. The information came for us.
Tiegen: It didn’t come from one source either, it came from several. Michael was saying there were a couple of issues about the location of other assets that could possibly have been available. It’s more of an illustration of it, because they throw down a map and circle different places where assets could be and where they were drawn too.
That information didn’t come from us — Michael got that information from other sources. It doesn’t say they were sent or that someone told them to stand-down. In the movie, it’s depicted as this is what could be there.
Paronto: It was correct as well. The Department of Defense had assets getting spun up to come. It doesn’t get to the flights and how they were diverted because that’s speculative and if it’s speculative, then we didn’t want it in the book, and we didn’t want it in the movie and adding that stuff delegitimizes the story.
That’s why I didn’t have you read all those little notes I have stuck to the book. I had so many questions, but by the end of the book I realized those questions didn’t matter. What mattered was your response and that you each are here to tell the truth about what happened. You gentlemen went above and beyond as far as I’m concerned to do the right thing.
Paronto: It’s good that it raises questions because it is supposed to raise questions too.
What finally, gentlemen, what are you doing now?
Tiegen: This is what we are doing, pushing the story to get it out there as much as we can. We want everyone to know what happened. We had the loss of an ambassador of over 30 years. That’s another reason we wanted to make sure it was written down correctly. The book is a history book.
Thank you gentlemen very much for your service and spending time with me today!
Wrapping up the interview, Geist told me that he knew the area from his days at Camp Pendleton. We spoke about Tyrone “Rone” Woods, and the bar The Salty Frog when he suggested to Tiegen and Paronto that they go have a beer for their fallen friend. That solidified what I already knew the moment I walked into the room — these are extraordinary men.
These are the men that helped each and every one of us sleep easier at night because they had the strength and courage to do what was necessary, and are doing so again with “13 Hours.” These men are humble, determined, playful, straight-forward, familial, direct and hilarious. Their friendship turned into a tight and protective family — bonded brothers sharing in an unthinkable experience, and asking us all to listen, learn and, most of all, remember.
Their 13 hour experience is not about politics or finger pointing — it is about the plain truth.