Interview by Paul Salfen
In KANDAHAR, undercover CIA operative Tom Harris (GERARD BUTLER, Greenland, Angel Has Fallen, 300) is stuck deep in hostile territory in Afghanistan after sabotaging an Iranian nuclear reactor.
His operation is exposed by a whistleblower who details the CIA’s involvement in the mission, andTom has 30 hours to fight his way out, alongside his Afghan translator called Mo (NAVID NEGAHBAN, TV’s Homeland, 24, Legion). But Mo, whose son was killed by the Taliban, despises bloodshed and blames the warlords and the Western forces who keep it going. As various forces, including the assassin Kahil (ALI FAZAL, Death on the Nile), pursue them, Tom and Mo join forces to escape to Kandahar in director RIC ROMAN WAUGH’s (Greenland, Angel Has Fallen) pulse pounding action thriller.
Across the Middle East, the decades of war, inter-tribal fighting, international troop deployment, and covert activity have claimed victims of many types. Some are casualties of the daily bloodshed and battles that regularly pockmark the regions controlled by the Taliban, yet other victims are less visible but still scarred. CIA operative Tom Harris (international star GERARD BUTLER, Greenland, Angel Has Fallen, Hunter Killer, Geostorm, 300) and his new Afghan translator, Muhammad, aka Mo (NAVID NEGAHBAN, TV’s Homeland, 24, Legion), are men whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the terror that’s occurred and what they’ve seen. Now, to escape it, they need each other’s skills and strength.
After Tom’s latest assignment — the destruction of an Iranian nuclear facility called Iran’s “crown jewel” — is exposed in an information leak by a U.S. Pentagon whistle-blower, his cover identity is compromised amid calls by the Caliphate for the public execution of those responsible for the sabotage. As the journalist (ELNAAZ NOROUZI) who received the leaked files about the CIA’s Black Ops is arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Tom is advised by his CIA handler Roman (TRAVIS FIMMEL, Lean on Pete, Warcraft, TV’s Vikings) to drive 400-plus dangerous miles to get to Afghanistan’s Kandahar airport as soon as possible. Mo, an Afghani who was born and raised near Herat Province, helps navigate the escape. But as forces descend on them, Mo is also caught up in Tom’s journey.
Each man has a lot to live for, including Tom’s daughter waiting for him back home and Mo’s sister-in-law, who went missing under Taliban rule. As they try to outrun the I.S.I’s motorcycle-riding assassin Kahil (ALI FAZAL, Death on the Nile, Victoria & Abdul), out-maneuver heavily armed forces, and out-think a duplicitous warlord, time is of the essence: Numerous revolutionary and state-sponsored hunters see Tom as their prey and intend to sell him to the highest bidder — unless Mo can help him get to the West.
Director RIC ROMAN WAUGH (Greenland, Angel Has Fallen) turns this drawn-from-truth story from screenwriter MITCHELL LaFORTUNE into an intense, of-the-moment action-adventure-drama. For LaFortune, the genesis of the story began as he pulled stories from his time as a Defense Intelligence Agency officer who had served multiple deployments in Afghanistan.
“I loved the way Mitch’s script gave a voice to all sides stuck in this constant cycle of war in the Middle East,” says Waugh of KANDAHAR. “To find so much empathy even in those chasing our heroes is a remarkable feat.”
“Action, for me, has to come from an emotional thrust, so that we’re thrilled, scared, anxious or tense just as the characters are, so we experience the rush with them,” says Waugh. “Because the action sequences in KANDAHAR resonate from a character level, and aren’t just for the sake of action, we got to design each one with a specific emotion and point of view.”
“The inspiration really came from the last two deployments I did in western Afghanistan, near the Iran border, operating primarily out of Herat Province, where most of KANDAHAR takes place,” explains LaFortune. “Something that we really strived for with the film was to show as much reality as we possibly could. You don’t have to agree with Iranian foreign policy to understand that those are real human beings that are operating there and doing what they think is in the best interest of their country.”
“Tom and Mo have an equal amount of gravitas within the screenplay to show how these different governments and cultures work together and also work against each other,” says LaFortune. “I spent years in Afghanistan, and I spent years working with a real guy named Mo and being immersed in the culture. So my goal with this film was to make an action movie that’s extremely respectful of the country and to the culture and the people I met there who are trying to make a difference.”
Producer BRENDON BOYEA (Greenland) notes that the story’s connection to the truth, and the complexities of loyalty and nationalism, added to the thrilling mix.
“The second I read the script, I could see the new perspective that Mitchell offered as a writer, as this is based on his own time working with the government and with defense intelligence,” says Boyea. “These characters come from real-life experience in one way or another. He’s melded a variety of true stories into a fictional piece that’s extremely authentic. He brings a viewpoint to all these different warring factions within the Middle East, and you understand where the different characters are coming from.”
“In other movies, we’re used to painting certain people as antagonists,” adds Boyea. “In KANDAHAR, we can relate to different people and what they’re doing, for different reasons.”
Producer ALAN SIEGEL, Butler’s partner at their production company G-Base and his collaborator on Greenland, Angel Has Fallen, and many prior films including Hunter Killer, Olympus Had Fallen, and Machine Gun Preacher, saw how the possibilities in the script were perfect for G-Base’s vision.
“Everyone is used to seeing the ‘action’ in action-adventure movies come first, which of course is a main reason many people go to the movies — but Gerry and I saw that a lot of those movies lack heart and soul,” says Siegel. “When we first read Mitchell’s script, we knew you could see what’s inside these characters, inside Tom Harris, and you take the journey with him. It’s not all about guns and car chases; it’s about humanity. It’s unusual for an action movie to have such three-dimensional characters as these.”
When Ric Roman Waugh came aboard to direct, it would unite him with Butler a third time.
“We shared the KANDAHAR script with Ric shortly after he finished Greenland,” says Boyea. “He fell in love with it right away, and, as Ric does, he immediately started researching everything and was all in from the start.” Adds Lafortune, “I tried to write the most realistic version of a spy film that I could, and Ric’s style of directing has a kind of a quasi-documentary feel to it, which lends authenticity.”
“Mitch LaFortune lived this life in the spy game and military world. That level of authenticity doesn’t come from research, it comes from experience,” says Waugh. “That’s a key to the truth in KANDAHAR.”
Waugh’s rise as a filmmaker is one of the most meteoric in recent Hollywood history. The Los Angeles-born former stuntman helped the action scenes in The Last of The Mohicans, Days of Thunder, Last Action Hero, and Gone in 60 Seconds look thrillingly real. When he began making his own films, Waugh hit the ground running with Felon (2008) and Snitch (2013) — both of which he also wrote — before jumping abord to write and direct Angel Has Fallen (2019) and Greenland (2020), both of which starred Butler.
“Ric’s a great filmmaker,” adds Boyea. “It starts with his work ethic, which is unlike any I’ve ever seen. He immerses himself in the world of a movie completely, so that he can create the clearest, most authentic films. He takes his responsibilities as a storyteller very seriously.”
Says LaFortune, “When Ric wanted to come on board, I knew that he was the right filmmaker, and that he’d really be able to execute the vision. He’s an incredible storyteller. Ric has also had extensive engagement with the military community, and that’s something that he’s really passionate about. The fusion of those two things really work for KANDAHAR. Ric lives and breathes his work ethic.”
CHARACTERS CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE
KANDAHAR is populated by a rich assortment of characters, many inspired by the people Mitchell LaFortune knew during his time serving in the Middle East. As portrayed by Gerard Butler, the CIA operative Tom Harris is the kind of behind-the-scenes figure whose work in “black ops” exists on the knife’s-edge of danger — while Mo, as portrayed by Navid Negahban, has a history that traverses the region’s varied political, religious, and military changes. Each of them represents a vital viewpoint.
“Tom Harris is a combination of a bunch of people that I ran into during my time in the military and at the Defense Intelligence Agency,” says LaFortune. “But Mo is based on a real person: He was a translator that I worked extensively with in 2011 and 2013. He was a man I really wanted to write something great for — I thought that the sacrifices he made as an individual to keep us all safe was so inspirational.”
Gerard Butler’s talents were perfect for the role of Tom. The Scottish-born actor has brought a blend of toughness, humanity, and conscience to action-adventures, historical dramas, and comedies. His early roles in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and The Phantom of the Opera led to star-making turns in 300, Gamer, and The Bounty Hunter. After voicing the role of Viking dad Stoick in the How to Train Your Dragon animated films, Butler starred in the Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, the cult favorite Machine Gun Preacher, and the action epics Geostorm, Hunter Killer, and Greenland. Starting in 2013, Butler played Secret Service agent Mike Banning in the hits Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen, and Angel Has Fallen.
“Gerry is not afraid to show vulnerability in his characters, which was vital to the role of Tom Harris,” says Waugh. “His portrayal never veered into action-star tropes. Gerry made him human and relatable.”
Waugh and Butler’s teamwork infuses KANDAHAR with grit and spirit. “When you’ve been through the fire together, you learn a level of trust and honesty that’s important to collaboration,” says Waugh.
Notes Siegel, “There’s an intensity within Gerry that comes out in such a unique way when he’s on screen. But his joy for life is also evident. And there’s an inner generosity about him that comes out towards other performers. It comes from within him, and audiences feel that.”
Adds Boyea, “This is the second movie I’ve made with Gerry, and he’s such a smart guy. As soon as he read this script, he immediately understood the layers inside it. He really connected to what this story had to say about different types of individuals who are operating in the same country.”
“Gerry and I talked a lot about the character of Tom before we started filming,” says LaFortune. “Gerry has a quiet, powerful intensity about him that’s perfect for the role. He can say so much with his eyes, and there are many moments when Tom is a very quiet character.”
“What drives Tom, at least initially, is that he has become so immersed in his work that he loses a connection to who he was and where he came from. I think that can happen in different walks of life — careers can consume you,” says Boyea. “Tom just happens to be in a career where he’s disconnected from the outside world, so he becomes these undercover personas he takes on, which detaches him even further. And Mo recognizes that. Tom is addicted to the ‘great game,’ as they call it in the Middle East, and he becomes so driven by living that life that it costs him his marriage, and he’s growing apart from his daughter back home.”
In Butler’s performance, audiences see the steeliness and knack for quick-thinking that people like Tom need to survive in hot-button scenarios — as well as the yearning for home that haunts them.
“There are a lot of Tom Harris-type of guys out there, and part of their motivations is patriotism and believing in something greater than yourself,” says LaFortune. “But they’re complicated people; I saw a lot of relationships get shattered because of never-ending deployments to the Middle East. People were separated from their family and friends for such a significant amount of time. At the heart of his character is a man who believes in a greater responsibility, a greater sense of good, and that’s what drives him. But ‘war addiction’ is a real thing —an attraction to danger and adrenaline, and that’s why you have individuals who’ve done 10 or 12 deployments for 20 years. That’s hard to walk away from because it becomes your whole identity.”
Tom needs Mo’s expertise and way of getting through Iran, but mostly, he needs someone to speak with and confide in that he can trust.
“Tom starts off as a stoic character and by the end of the movie he’s opened up, and he needs Mo to find that transformation — he needs to remember what it’s like to be human again,” says LaFortune. “Mo is a softer, loving guy who must overcome his fears of combat and the trauma in his life. They start off at very different places and then intersect and kind of complete each other in many ways by the end of the film.”
“Operatives can’t work in Afghanistan or really anywhere in the Middle East without the help of locals,” adds LaFortune. “We have a serious language deficiency when it comes to our ability to speak Arabic, Pashtu, Dari or Farsi, so we’re reliant upon people from that region.”
Iranian actor Navid Negahban’s extraordinary road to KANDAHAR began as a stunt coordinator and fight choreographer before moving into producing. His mainstream acting career began not long after, on TV shows including The Shield, JAG, The West Wing, Lost, Criminal Minds, Alias, Law & Order, The Closer, and NCIS before going on to multi-episode arcs on 24 and Homeland. On the big screen, Negahban has been seen in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated American Sniper, Mike Nichols’ Oscar-nominated Charlie Wilson’s War, 12 Strong with Chris Hemsworth, and Disney’s blockbuster Aladdin, starring Will Smith. He’s recently been part of TV’s The Serpent Queen and Legion.
“Navid is amazing,” says LaFortune. “He’s an incredible actor, and we were so lucky to have him involved. Tom and Navid, as characters, have a chemistry, and as actors, Gerard and Navid had a way of interacting where they created a great comic timing that helps makes this story come to life.”
“Navid, and many other cast members, had lived this kind of life for real,” says Waugh. “Mostly as kids fleeing war and conflict in actuality, so their performances come from a place of truth.”
“Mo is based on a real person I knew who left Afghanistan in 1979 and returned after Sept. 11, 2001, to work with the Americans,” says LaFortune. “Mo starts off as someone who doesn’t really know his place, and by the end of the movie he finds inner strength. He was a child soldier with the Northern Alliance once. But he’s far removed from that, so in a way he must become a soldier again to help Tom. Mo needs to overcome the pain and suffering in his past, in a country that took so much away from him.”
“The character of Mo is really special,” says Boyea. “He left his country years ago and is now heartbroken by what it’s become. He has a unique knowledge of Afghanistan, having lived there when he was younger, yet he feels the country is disappearing before his eyes. He and Tom come from different worlds, and what he offers to Tom is an understanding and a sympathy that Tom’s not used to. Mo forms a bond with him, and Tom feels like for the first time he’s got someone with him he trusts.”
The slick and deadly motorcycle-riding assassin Kahil, whose devotion to his cause is evident in a scene with a young child he speaks to while pursuing Tom and Mo, is a magnetic but malevolent character. He’s played by Ali Fazal, who won over audiences in Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile after appearing in Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul as well as some of the biggest Bollywood films of the last 10 years.
“Ali is a total rock star, and a huge star in India,” says Boyea. “He’s so cool and effortless on camera. Ali really brings the character of Kahil to life instantly.”
The addition of Travis Fimmel — who has stood out in blockbusters such as Duncan Jones’ Warcraft as well as in indies including Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan and the acclaimed Lean on Pete, and gained fans as Ragnar Lothbrok on TV ‘s Vikings — assured another level to the complexity of KANDAHAR.
“We knew Travis would deliver the swagger and style for the role of the CIA handler Roman but also bring it to the next level,” says Boyea. “When he spoke with Ric, right away it led to layers of the character that weren’t there originally. Travis brought authenticity. He was reading up on what these types of guys, these handlers, do. He told us things that made the movie better, so we put them into his character.”
A HISTORIC LOCATION
In addition to being a gripping action drama with characters whose journey resonates on a human scale, KANDAHAR makes history as the first film from the West, and the biggest-budgeted film ever, to shoot entirely in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The city of Al’Ula, in the Medina region of northwestern Saudi Arabia, became home base for the KANDAHAR production team.
“That was an exceptionally unique place to film and live,” says Butler. “From the second I arrived there, I knew it was special. I’d seen photos of the area of course, and I knew it looked amazing, but just the energy there is what really takes you by surprise.”
“I loved being in Al’Ula and discovering Saudi Arabia,” adds Butler. “In my time off, I spent time just seeing the history, the nature. But in terms of a canvas to film on, there’s so much personality there, and it’s so dynamic. The location adds a whole other character in the movie.”
“To be the first film to shoot in locations where the last film to do that was Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, was extremely, truly special,” says Waugh. “We brought cast and crew from 25 countries to Saudi Arabia, and everyone had the experience of a lifetime.”
“Making films is always a collaborative experience for me, but this one took on a new level,” adds Waugh. “Being in the Middle East helped us deliver an authentic film that gave a three-dimensionality to all aspects of the film,” says Waugh.
The geographic beauty and landscapes provided the filmmakers with a myriad of opportunities.
“Afghanistan, where much of KANDAHAR takes place, is geographically one of the most extreme places you can imagine,” explains LaFortune. “It has snowcapped mountains and giant forests of pine trees, and deserts and moon-like landscapes and urban centers. Because of all that, it’s a hard place to replicate, but the area of Saudi Arabia we filmed in has given us so much that we can work with.”
Says Boyea, “With the locations, we were carefully weighing our options across the board, and Saudi Arabia offered locations that have never really been captured on camera before. It felt special to try and show something unique that is the Middle East.”
“Among the twenty-five-plus countries that are represented on our crew, all kinds of languages were spoken on set every day,” adds Boyea. “It’s pretty amazing to watch these different people from different parts of the world come together.”
“Part of the reason this film was exciting to do, from a production viewpoint, was the immense challenge in it,” says producer SCOTT LASTAITI. “For myself, I’ve had a few ‘first-shoots’ in countries that no one else had filmed in, and it’s exciting to say, ‘No one’s done that there before.’ You have a sense of pride. I think our entire crew walked away with a degree of pride — not just the industry veterans but also the local people that have never worked on a movie before. And 10 or 15 years from now, when Saudi Arabia is an industry powerhouse, they can say, ‘KANDAHAR was there first.’”
HAIFA ALMAHRI, of Film Al’Ula’s Marketing & PR department, says that the initial objective of Film Al-‘Ula “was to be a film-friendly destination. We’ve welcomed local and international artists to Al’Ula and have worked to cater to many different kinds of cinema. When it comes to locations, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has everything from volcanos to mountains to sand dunes. I really believe that as a destination, it offers something extraordinary.”
Adds KHALIL NABELSI, Director of Film at The Royal Commission for Al’Ula, says, “I have always felt that Saudi Arabia, and the whole region, is a very rich area, and the international media and film industry have barely scratched the surface of what we have here in terms of locations,, culture, art, and stories. People need to do a deep-dive and and extract those treasures nobody has experienced before. In addition, we’re very happy to see the the participation of Saudi youth from all different areas of Saudi Arabia. At Film Al’Ula, we work to help and support young men and women to learn on film sets. I think that’s the best way to learn and be part of a growing film industry.”
“Given the size and the magnitude of KANDAHAR, we’re certainly the biggest film that’s ever shot here,” says Siegel. “Al’Ula offered us physical beauty, and we had such great support from the Saudi government, the RSA — the Royal Saudi Air Force — the production company MBC Group, and absolutely everyone there. We felt very loved and taken care of.”