Coming to Netflix on April 21 from screenwriter Chris Roessner, Treehouse Pictures along with director Fernando Coimbra comes a look at the people and place that carry the realities of war with “Sand Castle.”
The film tells the story of Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult), a young man who intended to serve in the reserves to pay for college. When September 11th occurs, he hurts himself hopefully to be sent home.
Instead, he is sent back to his regiment to catch up with Sgt. Chutzky (Glen Powell), Cpt. Enzo (Neil Brown, Jr.), Sgt. Burton (Beau Knapp) and squad leader Sgt. Harper (Logan Marshall-Green). Learning they are all to be sent to Baghdad, Ocre comes in close contact with insurgents and after a firefight moves into an abandoned palace.
After a few months, Pvt. Ocre and the other soldiers will be sent to Baqubah where a water station has been damaged. Their mission is to delivery water to the local residents and find a way to fix the pumping station.
They arrive to the greeting of Special Forces Cpt. Syverson (Henry Cavill) who tells them the villagers don’t want them there and that the danger surrounding them is very real. With a tanker truck to retrieve the water, almost immediately their nerves are tested when dealing with a truck that is eager to run up on them on the dirt road.
Arriving at the pumping station, it is clear that this is not an ordinary fix-it job. Cpt. Syverson and Sgt. Harper meet with the local Sheik (Salim Daw) to ask for help in getting the station up and running. His reply is since Americans destroyed it, they should fix it.
Disheartened by the Sheiks lack of help, the soldier return to retrieving water in the tank. On the way back they are hit by insurgents and the tanker is shot up. Explaining why there is no water to the residents become tumultuous at best. The local school teacher Kadeer (Navid Naghaban) tells Pvt. Ocre that they are asking for help from the wrong people.
Harper tells Syverson about his conversation with Kadeer and believes he is the key to getting help to repair the station. The next day Kadeer shows up with his brother Arif (Nabil Elouahabi) who is an engineer and now they are working together.
Celebrating that night their success in reaching the villagers, it is only met with horror in the morning. Arif tells the soldiers where they can find insurgents and a raid turns up wounded to the platoon. Returning to the pumping station, Pvt. Ocre is more determined to get the job done. They are almost finished until a bomb explodes.
Back in Baghdad, Pvt. Ocre meets with Lt. Anthony, Sgt. Major MacGregor (Tommy Flanagan) and Sgt. Harper to discover that plans have been made about his future.
Chris Roessner is the screenwriter for the film “Sand Castle”. A former soldier who served for six years, he was based in Iraq for twelve months with the 4th Infantry Division which is part of a Civil Affairs unit. He says of his work, “Our job was to interact with the locals; the cliché is ‘win the hearts and minds of the people’.
After leaving the army, Roessner attended USC in their film school writing Sand Castle his final semester. I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Chris to learn about his time in the service, the need to write the script and how long it took to complete.
Jeri Jacquin: Hi Chris, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today about “Sand Castle” and, of course I wanted to say thank you for your service.
Chris Roessner: Hi Jeri, thank you, that’s very kind of you, I appreciate that.
JJ: I am a military mom and my son also served three tours of duty in Iraq.
CR: Well, then please tell him thank you for his service as well and give him a nice firm handshake from me.
JJ: Absolutely, I wanted to tell you that there are a couple of scenes in the film that reminded me exactly of pictures he had shown me, especially the scene inside the palace.
CR: I feel like every young teen that came through that palace thought the same thing, take a picture of it and sliding down the banister.
JJ: I read the notes and it said you were taking from your experiences during the time there, how deep did you go with that? Is it extremely close to being autobiographical?
CR: I went as deep as humanly possible until it hurt a just a little too much. I would say that what is authentic and what I cared about most is the way I portrayed the American soldiers and how I portrayed the Iraqi people. That’s what I cared most about more than anything. I feel that I hit that goal and I feel like the actors hit that goal. Some of the events were lifted from my experience but it was more important to me that the feeling of being at war was translated. Even if that meant I had to change and fictionalize some things. When I sat down to think about it I asked myself what is the feeling of war in one sentence. What would that feel like? I came up with the feeling of pushing a rock up a hill and watching it roll back down. I wanted to portray that feeling. This film is not about a singular mission with success or failure; it’s about the feeling of being at war risking your life, dying, being hurt, and your friends being hurt or killed and for the soul purpose of taking this giant ship and shifting it half a degree. That’s the feeling of war and I don’t think I’ve seen that fictionalized in cinema before. Again, even if the events aren’t entirely true, I think they are truer than true if that makes sense.
JJ: One thing that just really intrigued me is that you wanted to portray the truth of the Iraqi people. I have to go with that because when I was watching the film I don’t think I’ve seen that before in films about the Iraqi war.
CR: Not at all and I am as proud of that as anything else in this movie. Our job was unique but you learn early on that you can not be successful unless you have the inclusion of the Iraqi people — you just can’t. You need interpreters, you need informants and you need people joining the police force or join the Iraqi military so you can train them. To me, if you are going to make a war film you have to find out what is unique about that particular war. How was the Iraq war different from Vietnam? How was Vietnam different than World War II? For me, the center of all of this is that you must work with the local population to be successful. They may get hurt and you feel that emotionally, when you get hurt they feel that emotionally. Your goal is one in the same.
JJ: I’m so glad you put it that way. I think that it is something important; you have to get into a mindset in order for things to work together.
CR: Yes, I think that’s what I learned in my Iraq experience and what I hope the audience learns is that it takes courage to remain empathetic. There are things that happen that are beyond your wildest imaginings, it takes real courage to maintain your value set. It takes real courage to maintain empathy. I feel like that is something getting lost in our culture. Since returning home I feel like people see empathy as a weakness and the opposite is true. It takes real courage to remain empathetic and indeed it’s the only way to win wars like this or even change the tide. We have to remain true to our values and our empathy even in the face of very difficult circumstances.
JJ: When did you decide that you wanted to make this film?
CR: I knew that I wanted to make a film about the Iraq war and I can remember the exact moment it happened. When I was 19 and I was in the presidential palace in Tikrit, Iraq and I was on watch all night in case there was an emergency of some kind. What that usually means is that you are up all night watching movies which is what I did. I put Oliver Stone’s movie “Platoon” into the DVD player at about three in the morning. As I watched it and it was over I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I wanted to try to make a film that was as emotional as that one because I had never seen anything like it. It took me seven years to actually sit down and write it but I think that moment in the palace at 3 in the morning was the start of this whole journey.
JJ: You said it took seven years to put it together, was that due to the writing process for you?
CR: Actually I didn’t try to sit down and write it until I was twenty-seven. I think the seven-year gap after returning from Iraq and sitting down to write it was me not knowing, again, why I would make this film. I didn’t want to sit down and write just anything. That question of what makes this war different and what were my experiences different took me seven years to answer those questions. I was 20 when I got back and had all this stuff in my brain, all these experiences and I was confused. I did a lot of work on myself just like anybody else. I kind of needed to be a kid a little bit because I missed this whole portion of my life with college and the like. I think I just needed that much time to get a little bit of distance so when I did sit down to write it, it wouldn’t hurt so bad. I need that amount of distance from it.
JJ: That actually was what I was going to ask about the process, you kind of have to find your place again to write something like this.
CR: Absolutely, you have to find a new sense of purpose. When you are in the military your purpose is very clear and very defined. You are what I call a single function device and have a clear goal on a day to day basis. You are pointed in a direction and that’s where you go. After living that way for several years and come home at 20 or 21 and that’s gone, you have to find that purpose again. It’s a tough adjustment.
JJ: When that time passed, is there something that said inside you to get this done?
CR: Yes, it was Christmas break in 2011-12 and I was in California going to college and I couldn’t afford to go home for Christmas. I was feeling a little off anyway and thought I’d sit down and write something. I wrote the first draft in three weeks all through Christmas break. I kind of dumped it all out and it was enough for me to recognize that it felt right. It felt like this is what I needed to do. That three week period was exhilarating but then the hard work began. I was ready to do that hard work and felt emotionally fortified like I knew I could do this and come out the other side.
JJ: Tell me what your next step was once the script was written?
CR: Well, I was very lucky because when I finished the script I gave it to a friend of mine who worked for Mark Gordon who is one of the executive producers on this film. He produced “Saving Private Ryan” and is a really great guy. He read it on a Friday night and by Sunday night of that same weekend, my whole life changed. The script was passed around Hollywood very quickly and Mark called me Sunday night and said, ‘This is good but not good enough. I’m going to help make it good and help get this thing made’. It was ten years of not making any money, struggling, getting eviction notices to my life changing.
JJ: When people are watching the story, what would you like them to take away from the film?
CR: A couple of things, first, that we were only successful when working alongside the Iraqi people, that is very important to know. Second, the actors in the film were cast because they were good actors but also because they looked the right age. The average age of a person in Iraq was 20 maybe 22. It’s important that people recognize that. I would say those two things are most important. I would also hope that if their humanity is touched a bit that they realize that patriotism is a very active thing. It is not a bumper sticker or crying every time you hear the national anthem. You have to make sure that the young men and women you serve are taken care of by affording education and affording healthcare. People should consider how to involve themselves in these causes otherwise it is not patriotic. You have to be passionate and involve yourself actively!
JJ: Thank you so much, Chris, for everything — for your service and for your dedication to getting this film made. It means a lot to me not just as a writer but as a Mom, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
CR: Thank you, Jeri, that means so very much to me.
“Sand Castle” is a film that experiences so much human in emotion on both sides of the Iraq war. The soldiers who come to understand they are not wanted in Iraq but have to be there to the villagers that do want help but to do so can decimate families and in between are insurgents who only want to destroy.
The cast, set and cinematography brings realism to viewers and into this important story. I am very sure that former and current military men and women will recognize the dilemmas and emotions of these characters.
Roessner has shared part of himself and that makes all the difference. For me, to make a story such as this portray so much tension, danger, anxiety, sadness and hope — this young screenwriter did not hesitate to include not only the lives of the soldiers, but the Iraqi people.
I encourage everyone to take a moment to view the film “Sand Castle” premiering on Netflix April 21.