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SXSW '08 Interview: "Full Battle Rattle" Directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss

by William Goss

The "Full Battle Rattle" Pitch: "In California's Mojave Desert, the US Army has built a 'virtual Iraq' - a billion dollar urban warfare simulation - and populated it with hundreds of Iraqi role-players. [FBR] follows an Army battalion through the simulation, as they attempt to quell an insurgency and prevent Medina Wasl, a mock Iraqi village, from slipping into civil war."

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.

Jesse: Full Battle Rattle is the story of a fake town and a real war. It's a feature documentary about life inside the US Army's Iraq Simulation in California's Mojave Desert.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience?

Jesse: I participated in the festival in SXSW 2003 with my documentary, "Speedo". It was my world premiere, and I remember the man sitting next to me fell asleep during the screening. That said, it was a great experience, and I'm excited to return this year. Both Tony and I have been to other festivals; most recently, we had the world premiere of "Full Battle Rattle" at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. We also met at a festival, Full Frame, so "Full Battle Rattle" is festival progeny of a sort. Of course we're thrilled to present the film to an American audience, and our film subjects will be seeing the film for the first time in Austin. We made the film independently, so the whole distribution game is always nerve wracking, but we're optimistic.

Tony: This is my first SXSW. My last feature, "Side Streets", played Venice and Sundance. My favorite festival experience of all times was the Calcutta Int'l Film festival. The absolute best part of any festival experience anywhere in the world is meeting other filmmakers. We share the same madness.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be "When I grow up, I want to be a..." what?

Jesse: I never said I wanted to be a filmmaker. In fact, my brother was the one making Super 8 home movies. I just acted (badly) in them.

Tony: I wanted to be a major league relief pitcher or an underground resistance fighter with one shot at killing Adolph Hitler.

Not including your backyard and your dad's Handycam, how did you get your real "start" in filmmaking?

Jesse: I moved to New York in 1996 and went to work for a great documentary filmmaker named Christine Choy. This was after taking a public access television class about documentary production in Washington, D.C. and producing a 1 minute experimental film about Lenny Bruce.

Tony: I made 16mm films for experimental theatre performances in New York City that played venues such as the Kitchen, La Mama and PS 122.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it's on "the festival circuit?"

Jesse: Of course, it's validation of our work to see it supported by SXSW, but we've always believed it would find its audience.

Tony: I believe that you don't really know your film 'til you share it with an audience. So, in spite of the fact that we've worked for two years on "Full Battle Rattle", I feel as if we are just getting to really know the film now. Berlin was a magical experience, a great
festival. The film created quite a stir.

During production, did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

Jesse: Festivals were as far as I could go. I never thought about reviews or customers. It's a mistake to let these concerns guide your choices. Make the film you believe in. That's the lesson I learned from "Speedo".

Tony: We made "Full Battle Rattle" through a process of such deep immersion that it was very hard to day-dream about the finished film's reception. We did the majority of shooting ourselves and grew very close to our subjects and remained in e-mail contact throughout their 15-month tour in Iraq. The experience of making the film was such a profound, life-altering experience, that, in some ways, being in the act of making it was itself a gift. I'm a little sad to be finished.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

Jesse: Tony and I had been discussing collaborating on a film together. The simulation had come to our attention through a shoot Tony had done with the Army. We didn't think we would get access, but we tried, and here we are two years later. Production was completed in August 2006. Editing took 14 months.

Tony: We were blessed to find private investors who believed enough in our passion and vision to write a check. The money came in fits and starts, but having private equity backers allowed us to function without the editorial supervision that goes with a typical television commission.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

Jesse: After producing and directing my own films, I learned how rewarding a directing partnership can be. "Full Battle Rattle" is not a film I could have made by myself.

Tony: Amen to that. I would add the lesson of trusting and listening.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

Jesse: In making this film, we talked a lot about the war films that had an impact on us. The best, it seems, were those that approached war from an unexpected angle and allowed room for humor and pathos without lecturing, films like Altman's "MASH" and Ashby's "Coming Home". Also, we're admirers of "Dr. Strangelove", and Peter Davis' "Hearts and Minds". We also talked about the film of Emir Kusturica. There was a very specific scene in "Coming Home" we talked about. It's a scene about a toaster.

Tony: I would add that Herzog's notion of the 'ecstatic truth' also had an impact on us.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell "This! I want something JUST like this, only different."?

Jesse: See above. We also watched most of the documentaries made about the war. Most of them are pretty conventional and pretty disappointing. The exception is Laura Poitras' "My Country My Country". That's a great film, lyrical and profound.

Name an actor in your film that's absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.

Jesse: There are no actors in our film, only 'role players.' Seriously, we think Bassam Kalasho, an Iraqi American who 'plays' the Deputy Mayor of Medina Wasl, a fictional village in the Army Simulation, has a real future as an actor.

Tony: Lt. Col. Robert McLaughlin has the presence of a movie star. We imagine Ed Harris would play him in the fictional version of "Full Battle Rattle".

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd almost definitely be...

Jesse: A journalist.
Tony: A photojournalist.

Have you 'made it' yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say "Yes, wow. I have totally made it!"?

Jesse: We'd like to see "Full Battle Rattle" released theatrically in the United States, and we hope the film provides a forum for people to come together and talk about the war in Iraq, something it seems we have a hard time doing these days.

Tony: I believe that it's important to strive, but I will say with
conviction that most filmmakers whom I would define as having 'made it' would beg to differ. Find joy in the act of creating and figure out how to make a living. That is success.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?

Jesse: Enormously important as taste makers and champions of difficult films.

Tony: Film critics in America used to have more influence (for better or worse.) Blogs are changing everything.

What's your take on the whole "a film by DIRECTOR" issue? Do you feel it's tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film - or do you think it's cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?

Jesse: I think 'a film by' is an authorial signature. I don't have an issue with it.

Tony: I prefer 'directed by.' I am a great believer in collaboration and I believe that it is the director's job to bring out the best in all

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?

Jesse: "Full Battle Rattle" is a film that will make you laugh and cry. If you're trying to make sense of the big fucked-up war we're in, and you care about this country, then go see this movie.

Tony: Amen.


Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss' Full Battle Rattle will play as part of the 2008 South By Southwest's "Documentary Competition" slate. For more information, click here.

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originally posted: 02/21/08 12:55:36
last updated: 02/21/08 13:03:33
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