Tag Archives: The Long Road Home

Long story

Best known as the scheming Doug Stamper in House of Cards, Michael Kelly heads into battle for his latest role. He tells DQ about how he was inspired to play a real life war hero in National Geographic’s The Long Road Home.

He’s not the first actor to play a real person on screen, but you’d be hard pushed to find someone who felt as much pressure to do justice to his role as Michael Kelly.

The House of Cards star takes the lead in National Geographic miniseries The Long Road Home, which tells the story of Black Sunday, when a small platoon of soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division were ferociously ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad, in April 2004. Eight Americans were killed and more than 65 seriously wounded.

The series, which launches in the US tonight, is based on Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction account of the events, adapted by showrunner and executive producer Mikko Alanne. Kelly plays Lt Col Gary Volesky (now Gen Volesky), the incoming battalion commander who was in his first hours of assuming authority over Sadr City as the battle broke out.

“It’s so fucking stressful,” he admits of playing someone who is still alive, still in active military service and “respected by his men like no one I’d ever seen before. So I felt a serious weight on my shoulders to do it as best I could. The more I learned about Gary and the more I heard about Gary from his men, the pressure became greater and greater.”

Michael Kelly (left) with the real Gen Gary Volesky, whom he plays in the Long Road Home

That pressure weighed more heavily once Kelly met a group of soldiers who had fought with Volesky. “They just looked me up and down with disdain and said, ‘Some tall shoes to fill, buddy. You better be ready.’ I was like, ‘Guys, it’s fucking hard enough. Give me a break.’

“So the pressure grew and grew but, when I met him, I wanted to capture the essence of who he is and why he was a true leader among his men. That was my true goal; I just wanted to capture that guy. I did the best I could. He was incredible.”

Kelly first met Volensky at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, the home of the 1st Calvary Division and where The Long Road Home was filmed, with a training field transformed into the Sadr City set. The actor and the real Volesky walked and talked together for a while until the general was told his car was waiting.

“He put his arm on my shoulder and was like, ‘Come on,’” The actor recalls. “He walked me over to this field and said, ‘What do you want to know? You’ve got to have some questions.’ I was able to ask him some things that I wanted to know. It was great, man. Having met him, I got it. I had him on a pedestal in my mind and when I met him, it got even higher. I understood very quickly what all of those men who served under him meant when they said those were big shoes to fill. I knew it, but then you meet him and you really know.”

The series was filmed on real-life military base Fort Hood in Texas

Kelly had just finished a six-month House of Cards shoot when was offered the chance to play Volesky, moving his family’s spring break vacation to ensure he was available for filming. And his sense of responsibility to play the role the best he could was shared by the rest of the cast, among them EJ Bonilla, Noel Fisher and Jeremy Sisto.

Living together on the base, the cast also bonded during a pre-production training camp, which saw them on set wearing military gear, carrying rifles and learning how to clear buildings.

“We all loved it,” Kelly says. “Everyone felt the same way– let’s get this right. Because it’s a true story and because we lost men over there, let’s tell it the best we can. And Nat Geo gave us that platform and the US Army gave us that platform. Martha Raddatz gave us that platform. Having everything at your disposal to do the best job you can… if you don’t, you’re kind of a dick. You’re a real ass.”

Filming The Long Road Home was “insane,” Kelly adds, recalling one scene where he is in a Humvee rolling through Sadr City, passing a burning automobile and being fired upon by enemy fighters hidden among the rooftops. “Another time, my Humvee got stuck and the insurgents were coming at us,” he says. “There were bed frames and a car and all these things the insurgents had put in the street to try and block our passage, and this Bradley [armoured vehicle] rolls by and just ploughs through all this shit and it’s on fire. Shit just goes flying – it was crazy.”

The Long Road Home also focuses on the soldiers’ families back home

Thirteen years on from the real situation portrayed in the show, Kelly believes now is the right time to tell the story of The Long Road Home, with events far enough in the distance that they are no longer fresh but recent enough to invite reflection upon what happened. “It’s also a good reminder, at least with our story, of the true consequences and casualties of war,” he says, noting the way the series – distributed internationally by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution – not only focuses on the traumas experienced by those on the battlefield but also examines the reverberations felt at home.

“When you see the mum and dad who are never going to see their kid again, or the wife who’s never going to see her husband again, or the unborn child who’s never going to meet their dad – that’s why this series is so special, because you’re on the base with the families and then it cuts right to a guy lighting up shit out of a Humvee. I think that’s what I loved so much about this one.”

Kelly is speaking to DQ during last month’s Mipcom, two weeks before a string of sexual misconduct allegations were made against House of Cards star Kevin Spacey. Netflix subsequently announced the forthcoming sixth season of the political drama would be its last, before suspending production entirely the very next day and then severing all ties with Spacey. The series won’t be back with its former star.

But regardless of when the political drama returns, assuming Netflix doesn’t shelve the final season entirely, it will always be the show that launched the SVoD platform into the original series business and helped to change television – both how it’s watched and how it’s made – forever.

Kelly in Netflix’s House of Cards

Kelly says “not in a million years” did anyone foresee the impact House of Cards would have when it first launched in 2013, admitting that he struggled to understand why they would launch all 13 episodes at once.

“They were like, ‘Yes, that’s how the audience wants to watch television,’” recalls the actor, who plays Doug Stamper, chief of staff for Spacey’s Frank Underwood. “[Director/executive producer] David Fincher showed me a rough cut of episode one and my manager said, ‘How was it?’ I said, ‘We’re making something special. I don’t know if anyone’s going to see it.’ It was so good. It wasn’t like television; it looked like a movie. But I didn’t know if anyone was going to see it, because what was streaming then?

“That was five years ago, now look. I never dreamt it would change so quickly. What it did was create a platform for people to make very filmic production for television – and look at everyone who’s followed suit. It’s just incredible. And National Geographic is doing it, and has done it, with Genius, which was critically acclaimed [and heading into its second season]. I can only hope this one is too. Everyone’s willing to jump in the game wholeheartedly and not half-ass it. It’s a great time to be an actor.”

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The Long way round

The true story of a US Army unit ambushed in Iraq is dramatised in National Geographic limited series The Long Road Home. Showrunner Mikko Alanne discusses adapting Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction novel and filming at the base where the real soldiers were stationed.

When The Long Road Home debuts on National Geographic, it will be the end of Mikko Alanne’s nine-year journey to bring the story of Black Sunday to the screen. During that time, the project evolved from a three-hour movie to an eight-hour limited series that will air in 171 countries around the world and in 45 languages.

The military drama recalls the events that began on April 4, 2004, when members of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division were ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad. Based on Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction account, it crosses between the soldiers fighting for their lives and their families waiting at home for news of their loved ones and fearing the worst.

Mikko Alanne

It was executive producer Mike Medavoy who first sent Alanne the book, which the latter describes as “one of the most incredible, astonishing reports” he has ever read. He was particularly drawn to the equal weight given to the soldiers’ struggle in Baghdad and the plight of the families left behind at Fort Hood military base in Texas.

“It also took place a month after President Bush declared ‘mission accomplished,’ so there was a real sense that this was going to be a peacekeeping mission,” creator and showrunner Alanne explains of the real-life situation.

“Families are always anxious when [loved ones are] deployed to a war zone, but Sadr City had been virtually without incident for the first year of the occupation so was unofficially known as the safest place in Iraq. Then suddenly CNN breaks the story [of the ambush] before the army even has a chance to notify anyone on base, and it throws everyone’s life into chaos. I felt for the first time I really understood what the experience is like for the American military family, and that’s what I wanted to convey.”

Having initially pitched the story as a movie, Alanne spent time interviewing the real people involved. But once Nat Geo came on board, he found he was able to tell a far richer and more detailed story than he ever could have told on the big screen. The series follows events in real time in Iraq and on the home front, with each episode adopting the perspective of a particular soldier.

That’s not the only storytelling flourish in The Long Road Home, however, which attempts to put a wedge between itself and the slew of other military series – CBS’s SEAL Team, NBC’s The Brave and The CW’s Valor – on US television this autumn by also jumping backwards and forwards in time.

The show shifts to moments before the soldiers were deployed, one soldier’s previous tour of Kosovo and the life of the unit’s Iraqi interpreter during the first year of the US occupation, in an episode that is partly filmed in Arabic. “So even as we tell the story in real time, it has a unique structure that will illuminate what the experience is like [in a way] that no one has attempted to do before, certainly for television,” Alanne says.

The Long Road Home depicts the real-life Iraq War events known as Black Sunday

The emergence of limited series in US TV by 2015 – when Nat Geo put the show into development – certainly helped to land a deal for The Long Road Home, while the showrunner believed at that time, four years after the official end of the Iraq War, the US would be ready to re-examine it. To this end, he says the series is a microcosm of the entire conflict.

“All the essential lessons, tragedy and hope are in this story of this one day,” he explains. “This day also marks the beginning of the insurgency in Southern Iraq from which comes the collapse of the Iraqi state and the birth of ISIS. It also sparked the beginning of the modern anti-war movement in America, so it was a unique event – something that really became evident more in retrospect.”

Adapting Raddatz’s book for TV, Alanne’s first challenge was to condense the 60 characters that readers get to know. The early stages of scriptwriting then centred on finding natural break points for each episode, while trying to find a complementary way to pass back and forth between scenes set in Iraq and the US without disrupting the story. But the biggest challenge came when he had to find themes to pull each episode together.

“In looking at what each of these soldiers struggled with and what defined their experience as a soldier, I wanted that to be the frame for that hour,” he says about plotting the series, which is distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution. One episode focuses on staff sergeant Robert Miltenberger (played by Jeremy Sisto), who had a very strong premonition he was going to die in battle.

“So when gunfire started hitting the back of his truck, he just calmly moved and gave aid to his soldiers, saved the lives of three guys and was never touched by a bullet once, even though he was certain he was going to die. So if his hour is thematically about fate, how is that same idea reflected in other characters? That was one of the organising principles I started to think about.”

L-R: Roland Buck, Noel Fisher, showrunner Alanne, Jorge Diaz and Ian Quinlan on set

Another episode focuses on stranded platoon leader Shane Aguero (EJ Bonilla), who stood out to Alanne due to his love of Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars. “It’s just a completely different kind of portrait to what you think a young lieutenant looks like, so I always knew I wanted his point of view,” the showrunner says. “We also feature lieutenant colonel Garry Volesky (Michael Kelly), the battalion commander who led the rescue effort, and captain Troy Denomy (Jason Ritter, pictured top), who physically led the first rescue into the city, so all of these people would give us points of view from different command levels.”

Alanne says it was always his dream to be able to film the ‘home front’ scenes in Fort Hood – featuring Kate Bosworth as Denomy’s wife Gina and Sarah Wayne Callies as Volesky’s wife LeAnn – to ensure the fact-based drama was as authentic as possible. As it transpired, the entire series was shot in Fort Hood, with the production taking over one of the training sites at the military base to turn it into Sadr City.

More than 80 buildings were constructed and 35 redesigned to create the Baghdad district’s main streets, including the alley where the army unit is pinned down by insurgents. Videos and photographs taken by Raddatz and soldiers at the time were used to recreate the location, while each episode also has up to 200 visual effects to create views beyond street level.

“We were filming on the 13th anniversary [of the real events] earlier this year and, as fate had it, we were filming the goodbye scene at Cooper Field [where families say goodbye to departing soldiers],” Alanne recalls. “We invited a lot of veterans to come to filming and see the set, and for both cast and crew it was one of the most meaningful things to have the real people there, many of whom got to meet the actors portraying them. There was something poetic about the fact everyone was anxious to see filming but no one had really wanted to see battles recreated where their sons or husbands were hurt or killed.

“One of the most affecting things for me was when I came to Austin and the costume department had been empty for several weeks. Once I came back it was full of uniforms from 2004, which don’t exist anymore, so we had to make them. I remember it really struck you to see all the characters names [on the uniforms] and it was just a reminder that real people wore these uniforms. For the families seeing hundreds of soldiers in the field and having their farewell ceremony recreated, I can understand why it would feel surreal. It felt surreal to me.”

The entire series was filmed on location at Fort Hood, Texas

With a background as a documentary and fact-based filmmaker (The 33, Voice of Dissent), it’s no surprise Alanne brought some of those techniques to The Long Road Home. He sought out interviews with all the principal soldiers and their families as he wanted to keep dramatisation in the series to a bare minimum, save for universal truths about soldiers or elements that would give the audience a deeper understanding of the characters.

“I have always found that nothing is as fascinating to me as real life,” he admits. “I also know that when people watch films and TV shows based on true stories, they assume they’re getting the true story. We can say there’s dramatisation, but the expectation is that what you’re seeing on screen is true. That’s something I take very seriously.”

Because the series will air on National Geographic around the world from November 7, the showrunner was also keen to look at the Iraqi perspective of events, understanding where the insurgency originated from and how ordinary citizens in Sadr felt about the events portrayed.

“We wanted this to be the definitive portrait in this one day of the war,” he concludes. “When you hear the stories the soldiers tell on screen, they feel real because they are real. It’s a unique challenge to stitch together real-life stories and still make them fit a dramatic frame, but that’s always been the most exciting creative challenge for me in telling real stories.”

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