Joe and Anthony Russo might have chosen to rest on their laurels for the rest of this year, having turned Avengers: Endgame into the highest grossing movie in cinema history. Instead, they continue to develop projects at their new studio, AGBO, which is financed to tell the kind of stories they have always been attracted to: disparate narratives of many different sizes and scales, but all of them connected to the human experience.
The first such project to release since the madness of Endgame’s launch will be Mosul, which makes its world premiere in Venice this week. Directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the film is based on a New Yorker article—aptly called “The Avengers of Mosul” when it appeared in print—about an elite Iraqi SWAT team who fought back against the rise of ISIS, with each of their number having faced loss or injury at the hands of the terrorist group.
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It is, then, a revenge story, and one told squarely through the eyes of Iraqi citizens determined to put an end to the oppressive battery of their homes and loved ones. Carnahan made the call that the film should be shot in the Arabic dialect spoken in Iraq, to further punctuate the documentary-like approach to the story.
Mosul is also a road movie, headed up by a stunning and Oscar-worthy performance by Suhail Dabbach as Colonel Jasem, and a star-making turn by Adam Bessa as a fresh young recruit to the unit. As the team pushes forward in their attempt to gain inches of ground over their ISIS foes, the truth behind their relentless pursuit of justice strikes an especially human note. With spare use of dialogue, the profound grief of the men for their missing loved ones is felt at all times.
For the American team behind the movie, it was a story that urgently needed telling, even as the Russos were busy crafting two giant Avengers blockbusters. The original article was published in January 2017, but they knew they couldn’t wait to get the movie onto screens. And it was essential to them that it involve as many talented actors from the region as they could find. Assisting them in that task was Iraqi executive producer Mohamed Al Daradji, who consulted on finding the cast, and lent his own experience of life in post-Saddam Mosul to the quest for authenticity.
Mosul might be one of the most powerful reframings of the West’s widely accepted narratives about the conflict in Iraq, as the withdrawal of U.S. forces has made the war there feel ever more distant. As well as marking an ambitious and impressive directorial debut for Carnahan, better known as a writer on projects like The Kingdom and World War Z (he also wrote AGBO’s other upcoming project this year, 21 Bridges), Mosul is a commanding statement of intent on the part of the Russos about where their post-MCU attentions will turn.
Uniting via video conference just days before their Venice Film Festival premiere, the Russos, Carnahan, and Al Daradji discuss the path to Mosul.
DEADLINE: Anthony and Joe, what struck you about the New Yorker article when you first read it?
JOE RUSSO: Well, initially it was Stephen McFeely who brought the article to our attention while we were working on Infinity War. Steve, of course, is a partner of ours at AGBO, along with Christopher Markus. Markus McFeely wrote Infinity War and Endgame, and they now are partners with us at our new studio.
The mandate of the studio is that we’re all looking for things that we are passionate about. Steve said he read this article in The New Yorker and it was devastating; emotionally devastating. He thought that it was a very, very important story that needed to be told, gave the article to us, and it’s perhaps the best piece of journalism we’ve ever read. I can’t remember a time in my life where I read an article and cried at the end of it, but I did with this article.
ANTHONY RUSSO: For the past 15 years, ever since trouble in the region began again and got intense, it has been a really hard situation for me to understand. I’ve never been to that region. I’ve never been in war. But what was happening there, it was just dominating the news. Joe and I—and it’s the same with Markus and McFeely—we’re kind of news junkies, we’re always reading the news. We’re always looking at global events or issues, and that’s a lot of the stuff that would inform our work with the Marvel movies that we made.
But just trying to understand what was happening there in Iraq and the Middle East was very difficult, not having any personal experience there. What was happening there was so extreme, it was really hard to understand it on a human level.
I think that’s what this article really broke open for me. I was always looking for ways to understand it on a very human level. And this article made that so simple and so clear and so vivid, and I was really grateful to be able to connect with the situation in that way, on an emotional level, through a human story that I can understand.
The excitement of bringing that kind of experience to more people through a movie, that’s what drove us forward in terms of trying to figure out how make this movie.
It was really interesting, too, because like Joe was describing to you, this was very early days for our new studio AGBO that we’d put together. Really, really early days. This was one of the first things that anybody among our core group brought up that we should possibly make when Steve gave us that article and it just seemed like such a perfect thing for us to make first.
DEADLINE: The story takes place in an Iraq that U.S. forces have left behind. Even during the U.S. engagement, it was very easy for us to treat the conflict as something taking place somewhere else, involving people we didn’t really try to understand. So it’s an especially striking movie for an American filmmaking team to involve itself with.
A. RUSSO: That was exactly the draw for us. I think you’re right about that. Of course, the question is, when you’re looking at something so crudely, when a place is war torn, it’s hard to understand what’s happening there. You’re getting very little information about what’s happening there. The people who are fleeing that part of the world oftentimes don’t want to talk about their experiences there because they were difficult, awful experiences. So, the whole thing becomes very hard to access. But you know that there are people there, and you know that they are living their lives. You know that the full course of human drama is unfolding there, and you just have to tap into it.
Shifting perspective has always been something that’s very important to Joe and me as storytellers. Putting yourself in a place that’s opposite to what your normal orientation may be is so helpful in terms of breaking open ideas, and creativity, and story possibilities. So, fully committing to understanding that the human experience there on the smallest level was really what this project was always about.
And I think that that’s what informed every layer of the project, from the idea of doing the movie in Arabic to being very specific with the casting so that everybody was connected to that part of the world on a cultural level. The entire approach became very specific to designing it around the actual experience there and being as truthful as we possibly could to that experience.
DEADLINE: The rule to join the Nineveh SWAT team was that you had to have either been injured by ISIS—or a related group—or suffered the loss of a loved one at the hands of ISIS. They were on a vengeance mission. Did you see the cinematic potential of that, that this was truly personal for these guys?
A. RUSSO: Absolutely. You know, certainly one of the challenges with a movie like this is, because it’s difficult subject matter and because it’s so far removed from much of the audience’s normal experience, you have to find a way that audiences are going to want to connect with the film. You have to make people want to watch this film. So certainly, that aspect that you’re describing was very riseable on a sort of a traditional storytelling level. It seemed to slide into something that audiences could access and understand and get excited by it.
Now, while there is a little bit of a genre element to what you’re describing, because this was a true story, and because of those experiences that those SWAT members had to have in order to gain access, it’s not a simple cinematic crutch, because the truth behind that idea is so severe and disturbing. It’s actually emotionally shattering, the truth behind that. So, I think, that’s what appeals to us.
Joe and I are always drawn to paradoxes and strange combinations of ideas. And when you can find something that, on one level is a familiar cinematic trope, while on another level is a completely devastating emotional truth, you can combine those two things. You’re in a really good spot.
J. RUSSO: The other thing that’s really compelling about this story is that it’s been a long time since we’ve had war on American soil, and I think it’s hard for us to comprehend the notion that neighbor was fighting neighbor over there.
When you look at the photos of Mosul, it’s so profoundly disturbing as a representation of modern warfare. It is a city totally laid to waste, and residents were turned against each other, neighbors were fighting one another, and people were still trying to live out their everyday lives in this crumbled city. And it’s as tragic a representation of modern warfare as you can find.
MATTHEW MICHAEL CARNAHAN: We talked about this. How do we recreate in filmic form the reaction we had when we read the article? One of these cops carries around the video of his older brother being beheaded, and he watches it when he needs to do awful sh*t. That level of humanity, and that level of inner turmoil, I mean, it’s just, it’s the most human kind of reaction you can have.
Especially in a modern time, to me, it’s just very easy to project myself into the same situation, and think, My God, can I do that? Would I be able to do these things? Wouldn’t I fight down to a nub, to get back to my wife and girls as well? I came away from the article thinking that there so much more that brings us together than pulls apart.
And all this stuff that pulls us apart, by and large, is manmade sh*t. There are, in fact, ingrained human parts of us that cut across every culture, every religion, every creed, you name it. We all feel the same things to the same degree. The idea was, can we capture that on film? I feel, when I watch the movie, that we came pretty damn close.
DEADLINE: You did. But Joe and Anthony, I’m curious. When this project first came up, before you turned to Matt, did you ever consider directing? Did that seem like a far-fetched notion while you were so deep into Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame?
A. RUSSO: Yeah, simply because we still had such a long road ahead of us in terms of finishing and delivering the Avengers movies that we were working on, we knew that if we were going to direct, it was very far out. And we did not want to wait for that. We felt there was an urgency to this story. We felt that the story is still unfolding there in Mosul, and the wider Iraq, and that there’s a chance that this story and the experience of this movie could help that process in many ways.
Because, again, it’s an acknowledgement of what’s happening there. It’s an acknowledgement by people who go well beyond the direct experience. They’re acknowledging, in a very vivid way, what’s happening there. And I think that’s, a lot of times, a very important step towards healing and toward empowering people.
So, I mean, I don’t want to overstate what the potential of the movie is, but I do believe on a very sincere level that the movie can help the process there and help people move through the experience in a way that’s incrementally better, perhaps.
J. RUSSO: Also, Matthew is one of our favorite people in the business and outside of it. He’s such a thoughtful, sensitive individual who’s really obsessed with dignity in the human condition, and he was so moved by the story that he wanted to write and direct it.
This is his first time directing, but we have such confidence in him as a storyteller that we were not only super supportive, but extremely excited by the notion of him telling something that moves him on such a level, because it’s where the strongest story probably comes from.
DEADLINE: Did you know he harbored a desire to direct?
A. RUSSO: Not prior to this, but when this movie came up, he did say that it had been something he’d been thinking about for a while, and that this movie seemed to speak to him in such a powerful way that it seemed like a good candidate for him for that. And we agreed right away.
The thing with Joe and I is, once we saw Matt start to wrap his brain around this story as a writer, he had such a strong connection to the material that we knew he was destined to direct this movie. This movie was motivating him on a creative level in a very, very powerful way. And we wanted to support that as best we could.
DEADLINE: It’s a pretty sizeable challenge to take on your first time out the gate, Matt. What was that draw?
CARNAHAN: I felt like if I was going to put this on paper, then I wanted to kind of see it through. And I felt that in a way that I’ve never felt it on other projects. I mean, I’ve always, in the back of my mind thought, That would’ve been wonderful to try my hand at. But this one… It’s hard to explain.
From the moment I finished the article, I thought, Yes, I’ll write this, if they’ll allow me to direct. And relative to the degree of difficulty, had I not had Joe and Anth behind me, you know, you’re not really walking a tightrope if you have this big, beautiful safety net underneath you. So that was always there. If there was ever any issue, I knew those guys would be there to catch me.
And then they surrounded me with these absolute killer talents, like DP Mauro Fiore, and first AD Bruce Franklin, and production designer Philip Ivey, and all these killers that would protect me from myself. So, I was able to focus on: Can we get the cast as perfect as we can? Can we find that emotion within these guys? And can we do it in their mother tongue, in this Baghdad dialect accent?
I was just able to focus on those most critical things. I just had all this world class ability all around me. So yeah, on the surface, it seems crazy, but it never struck me as crazy, because of who was in the foxhole with me.
DEADLINE: It was Matt’s idea to tell the story in Arabic—and a very particular dialect of Arabic, too.
A. RUSSO: That’s right. I think that was part of his process of trying to make it as authentic to the actual experience as possible. Now look, we all have a challenge. Matt has a challenge; Joe and I have a challenge. We are not Iraqis, so we are quite removed from that experience. So, any opportunity we can find on a creative level—any creative technique that we can employ to get us closer to that authentic story—was really valuable.
The second he brought up doing the movie in Arabic, Joe and I were like, “That’s genius. We have to do it.” Otherwise you would have been just constantly aware of the fact that you’re watching a presentation. An artificial presentation of an experience, simply because the language isn’t organic to the experience. The opportunity to take that away, was what was really exciting.
CARNAHAN: Long before this project ever rolled around, I’d grown so tired of anytime you needed a foreign language, you get an actor from the West End and have them speak in an English accent, and that’s the stand-in for every foreign language.
But I just knew, if we’re going to tell the story of these guys, then we’re in for a penny, and in for a pound. We have to do it in their mother tongue because there’s something to hearing that same humanity in a completely foreign language. It just resonates, it grabs you in a way that an audience can’t kind of rely on the fact that those English speakers feel like them. No, those are Arabic speakers, and this is a group of men that I guarantee you, you didn’t think existed until you watched this movie. So, you have to take them as they come.
And so, I was struck time and again, when you’re watching the movie and you’re reading what they’re saying, it’s so much more powerful to hear that Arabic and read what they’re saying than if they were just speaking English. To me, it proved the point that these things that we have in common are so much more numerous, and of such a higher quality, than the things that separate us.
I couldn’t see clear to doing it any other way. And I think Joe and Anthony, like I said, the moment they didn’t hang up when I said I wanted to do it in Arabic, I was like, All right, I’ve found the two guys that I want to work with for the rest of my time in movies now. They loved the idea, and I think they were thinking the same thing.
So then, let’s go get Arabic actors no one’s ever seen. That’s the only way to do justice to this story. I mean, these guys are dying weekly trying to get back to their families. The least we can do is tell it using actors from their part of the world, speaking their language.
DEADLINE: Let’s bring in Mohamed at this point. Mohamed, you’ve worked extensively in this region. Tell me about your role on this movie.
MOHAMED AL DARADJI: I was approached by Matthew and the team for how I could help in the Arab world. I was fascinated by the script, and how Matthew wrote it, about this band of brothers together in a very difficult area. I had just been in Mosul a couple of months before he sent me the script, and I had been doing some filming there. I felt I had to be part of this project, and try to help come up with ideas for cast, and some of the names I knew in Iraq and outside Iraq.
We actually had issues getting some of the cast to Morocco, where we shot the movie, because of visa issues. Two or three of the cast, we had cast them in Baghdad. I know this cast personally, generally speaking. Suhail Dabbach and I, and some of the other guys, I know going back before The Hurt Locker, in 2006 in Jordan. I was also able to help with Iraqi crew, either from the U.K. or from Morocco, to help the team in Marrakech.
On set, I was there to help make sure the dialogue worked, that the story itself worked, and with the cast, that the Iraqi dialect was correct. It’s been nice, because one of the heads of a festival in the Middle East saw the film, and he told me, “Where the hell did you get all these Iraqi actors from?” It was great for me to hear that, because he’s Iraqi, and he said, “I never saw these actors before in any Iraqi drama.” He believed the dialect.
DEADLINE: The cast all will have spoken Arabic, but did any of them not speak English?
CARNAHAN: No, but two of the three Jordanians, their English was certainly better than my Arabic, but limited. The only key thing was they all spoke Arabic. That was key going in.
And there were just a few who knew the specific Iraqi dialect. So, we had people like Mohamed, and there’s this wonderful professor of languages in Marrakech who advised for us, who was born in Mosul, went to school in Baghdad and is now in Marrakech, and the cast would just throw themselves into the dialect coaching. I mean, every bit as violently and aggressively as they did in the military training.
It got to the point where they would catch their own little gaps, and the differences between the Amman Arabic and this Baghdad Arabic. It wasn’t that deep into shooting where they could catch their own mistakes. To hear that there are Iraqis asking Mohamed where all these Iraqi actors came from, I mean, that truly makes me very, very happy.
DEADLINE: Suhail Dabbach delivers the most extraordinary performance in the film. His personal story is no less extraordinary, right?
CARNAHAN: Yeah, he was a well-known actor in Iraq, and he applied for asylum and he lives in Albuquerque now. He’s a chef at a retirement community. We had dinners where I would start to ask questions about what it was like in Baghdad, pre-Saddam, and right after Saddam. I could talk to that guy for hours on end and never stop annoying the living hell out of him with questions. He fled Iraq because Saddam gave one of his kids control over the arts. That was the moment Suhail got out.
Suhail, by the way, wasn’t how I initially saw the Colonel. I was looking at the Colonel as being more like Major Mezher Sadoon in the original article. He’s this big guy who has got this big kind of gut on him, and he’s been shot in the face, and he continues to fight. He’s just tough as nails, and loud. When he gets angry, he’ll spit on his guys, and none of them take it personally, because they just know this is how he is. And that’s how I was thinking about casting that character, because I just fell in love with Mezher in real life.
And then we saw Suhail’s audition that he did in Jordan, and in the two minutes I was watching his read, I thought, My God, that is a completely different version of this colonel, and it could be so much better for me. He’s just quietly in command.
It’s how Suhail is in real life. People gravitate toward him. He doesn’t yell. He doesn’t get excited. But yet, there can be this coldness about him that gives me chills talking about it. To have that in one character, in one actor, and then let him use that, building that character. I mean, he was one of the great strokes of fortune we had in the whole process.
DEADLINE: Watching him in the movie, it’s like if Tom Hanks just emerged from nowhere tomorrow to give a performance of his caliber, but we’d never heard about him before.
CARNAHAN: Exactly, and that’s the crime of world politics. I think we would have heard of Suhail decades ago, if he hadn’t had to flee his home.
I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face, but if he can have the career he should’ve had decades ago, now, because of this film, then I could die happy. He’s such a lovely guy, and such a marvelous talent. Yeah, I’ll just repeat it, he’s the great stroke of luck in the casting, him and Adam Bessa.
Not to say the rest of them weren’t fantastic. Like Thaer Al-Shayei, the guy who played Hooka, he was a much smaller role, and then the more I talked to him, and the more I watched him interact, the more that role grew.
Joe Russo said, “We’ve got to think of these guys as like the SWAT team players. And as you kind of get to know them, move guys up and pull them back down, put them in roles that they deserve, based on talent and ability in the room.”
I see something new every time I see that movie, and I’ve seen it maybe hundreds of times. I see something else that they did that I had no part in directing, that I’m going to get by proxy credit for. I’ll take it. But Suhail, he set the tone.
J. RUSSO: Suhail’s story is just so fascinating to me, and we’re so proud to have him in the film. There are always stories that exist outside of the stories that we tell, and his story is every bit as powerful as any story I have ever heard. I think that every step of this process has been so culturally rich and just collaborative that it’s probably the most unique project that we’ve ever worked on in our careers.
DEADLINE: How did you find Adam Bessa?
CARNAHAN: He did a reading in… I think it was in his bathroom, and there was a shower behind him.
There were two or three young actors that Mohamed had sent through, who were fantastic, but it became really clear, just a few weeks into pre-production, that we were not going to be able to get anybody out of Iraq. With the travel ban and all that madness, that was still really fresh then, so it kind of became clear to us that we were not going to be able to get anyone directly from Iraq. There was a Golden Division soldier who worked with our TigerSwan guys in Iraq, who was going to be our onsite advisor, and he couldn’t even get out. So, we started looking for, can we find great Arabic acting talent in the diaspora, wherever they may be?
Adam’s read came through and it was, I think, his wife, literally holding the camera. He did this read, and again, it’s funny how quickly you know… it’s like love. It’s there in the first few seconds, or it’s not. And in the first few seconds, I was in love with him.
There was one other actor who was close, but I always decided it had to be Adam. I mean, he was this young kid. He looks young. He looks vulnerable. And yet, when I met him, there’s this toughness about him too. He’s this French Tunisian kid, and he’s had to deal with quite a bit.
But those two, Suhail and Adam, are worth fighting for on any project. They’re just so good.
DEADLINE: The timeline on this is tight. The article was published January 2017. We’re two and a half years on and the film is about to premiere in Venice.
A. RUSSO: A lot of things had to line up in order to move at that pace. The first thing was that there was a real strong passion for the material by everybody involved, and there was a sense of urgency that this is an ongoing problem that needs to be looked at and examined more closely in the spirit that the original article did.
Also, based off of our experience over the past seven years making these four Marvel movies, we were able to establish a well-financed company. AGBO has its own financing. It’s called a studio, as opposed to a production company, because we have the ability to greenlight our own movies. That doesn’t mean we finance all of our movies, but we have the money to get anything going that we really want to get going.
We were able to buy the article immediately. There were no hoops that we had to jump through. We could activate the money that was necessary to get this project moving forward right away. And I think it was a combination between the creative excitement over the project, the sense of social urgency with the project, and the fact that we had the money there to make it all happen.
DEADLINE: But what were the complications of translating this story into a screenplay?
A. RUSSO: Well, it was a little intimidating to think about how to adapt to a script. This is all Matt. So, Matt came up with the entire take on how to do it, and the entire compressed time period. And that really broke the story open, because the thing is, the story is so difficult, so wide-ranging, and it really incorporates enormous pieces of all of these individual’s lives. How do you do justice to that portrait that was drawn in that article?
It’s very difficult and daunting to think about how you translate that to a two-hour movie, but Matt came up with this conceit that really forced everything into a very compressed time frame, so that we’re getting the range of experience and the range of emotions, but we’re doing it in a way where we’re not allowed to diverge, or digress, or take detours. We’re driving through a very, very focused story.
CARNAHAN: I’ve never written anything this quickly in my life. And I don’t want anybody to think that this is the normal way. I mean, I am painfully slow on scripts. This just so happened to be this perfect storm of something I had been fascinated by since I was in high school. That was when the first Gulf War happened, in 1991, and that was my first introduction to Iraq. So, it has been something foremost on my mind for decades now. And this article came to me and showed me a whole piece of this society, really, that I didn’t fathom—that I didn’t realize existed—which says more about me and my blinders than anything else.
And there was that one specific piece of that story that as a father, it grabbed me. This man could see his home and was pretty sure his wife and child were there, but he couldn’t get to it. And at times, he was a couple hundred yards away, but it was on the wrong side of the river, or the wrong side of a frontline, he couldn’t get to it. And that, to me, just gave me a through line that I usually take months trying to figure out.
The script just kind of poured out of me. From the time I read the article, it felt like this was something very different, and very personal. It was this elemental story, where it was all laid out for me, all I had to do was figure out the best way to write a script. I didn’t have to find it.
DEADLINE: The key thing will be getting audiences in front of this film. Handily, I hear one or two people went to see Joe and Anthony’s most recent movie…
CARNAHAN: Yeah, they got a nice little turnout [laughs].
A. RUSSO: Look, the movie has challenges, right? In terms of how you market it to someone, because it’s a very unusual film. It doesn’t slide in easily to any other models that I can think of.
The ambition of the film, the uniqueness of the film, we’ve talked a lot about those things, but I think it’s the story behind the film that’s going to draw a lot of people in. The fact that you feel like this movie is important and that people should see it, I think is probably the most important factor in whether or not people are going to see this movie, because the story of this movie needs to be told to people, so that they understand why the movie’s relevant, why it’s important, why they’re going to have an enriching experience going to see it.
CARNAHAN: I’ll echo Anthony, because it’s not like I know more than he does about how to open a movie [laughs]. I try and steer clear as much as I can of the marketing madness, and what’s the audience for this film.
I assuage any of my fears with: Look at all these rogue waves that have happened, when nobody expected them, that came out of nowhere, and there were these hits. To quote William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything about anything.” You make something you’re passionate about, you make it as best you possibly can, and then just hope that it gets seen for what it is and that there is this, hopefully, eternal audience for a really good, compelling, novel movie.
That’s what I tell myself in these moments where I think the only way to tell this is in Arabic with a cast that nobody’s seen before, because if it works, then the audience will come. It may be naïve, but it’s how I continue in this business.
DEADLINE: Mohamed, what are your hopes for showing this movie in Iraq and the wider Arab world?
AL DARADJI: To be honest with you, this film is going to be the first American film to be so positive about Arabic people, about Muslims and about Iraqi citizens. It’s something that you never saw in the films that have come before it. To have them speak the Iraqi dialect, for Iraqi people, when they see it, for the Arabic people when they see it, they will believe this is a film shot in Mosul, shot in Iraq. And also, the style of the film and also the way those actors speak, it looks like a documentary.
From my point of view as an Iraqi, as a filmmaker, I think it will do very well in the Arab world if we market it right. We will have a premiere in the Arab world, and get it in cinemas, let’s say in Cairo or Baghdad or Beirut, but at the same time, we have to screen it somehow in Mosul, because in Mosul, they have no cinema now.
I have a team now shooting in Mosul—we are preparing for a new film there—and then there is no cinema there. We will do some sort of open screen for the people in Mosul, and bring the same team that the story’s about, bring them to see the film with their family.
I have a very good feeling about this film and how it’s going to do worldwide. I can speak with confidence when I say that it’s been given the right voice. I sent an email to Matthew saying to him: “You have given a voice to the Iraqi people that isn’t easily heard by other people on this planet.” This, I think is why the film needs to do well.