October 2nd 2009
In some respects, Susanna White’s experience at the 2009 Emmy awards was very similar to that of every other nominee. There was the time spent on hair and makeup, the mile-long tailback of limousines approaching the Nokia Theatre in LA, and the pleasant evening mingling with celebrities. However, she was the only woman present to have her own military escort.
White was nominated in the outstanding directing for a miniseries category for the David Simon-scripted Iraq war drama Generation Kill. As it turned out she didn’t win. But if she was sanguine about her defeat, the marines who had worked closely as advisers on the show, and who accompanied her to the ceremony, were a little more reluctant to lose out to a Dickens adaptation. “The marines offered to go and take out the cast of Little Dorrit. But we restrained them . . .”
Such a pledge of loyalty, even a lighthearted one, is testament to how far White won the trust and admiration of all the personnel – marines and actors alike – who worked on Generation Kill. Essentially the story of the month Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright spent embedded with First Recon Marine at “the tip of the spear” of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is densely populated with vivid characters and technical vocabulary, all spread across eight hours. White had done extended storytelling before, most notably on adaptations of Bleak House and Jane Eyre. More challenging was rigging and filming explosions, and directing a large male cast, all pumped up from a weeklong “boot camp” training session, for a shoot that would last eight months in Namibia, South Africa, and Mozambique.
“To start with, some of the actors thought, why is the woman who directs women in corsets directing us?” says White. “They got very macho. But that wore off in a couple of days – because what actors want is to play their characters and know the work is going to be good. Once I showed I could do explosions as well as anybody else, it was all right . . .”
“I was less concerned about whether she’d shot action, or shot a war movie, or any of that nonsense,” says David Simon. “I’m looking for stories about human beings.”
What brought White (an English director, with a documentary background) and Simon (the American writer of gritty police drama The Wire) together was a mixture of good fortune, and good budgeting. To shoot Generation Kill in America (as Simon originally planned) would have cost in the region of $120m – a figure HBO found untenable. When HBO learned that the show could be brought in by the English team Company Pictures, filming in Africa, for a comparatively reasonable $56m, Company put Simon in touch with White.
“I’m sure in an ideal world David would have all of his directors from The Wire,” smiles White, over coffee in Working Title’s London offices. “But as it turned out, he and I had all these connections: Hungarian Jewish families, and similar philosophies. We didn’t want to see any acting. What I really liked about The Wire was how they used a lot of real characters: non-actors, acting, and that’s very much where I come from.”
For all these similarities, however, during the six-month casting process, Simon and White still had substantial disagreements. For the part of Brad Colbert (the nearest to a “lead” in this ensemble piece), White wanted Alexander Skarsgård, son of Hollywood actor Stellan Skarsgård. Undoubtedly, he had presence, but Simon was initially unconvinced by the Swedish national’s grasp of an American accent. Ultimately White got her way.
“She saw something in Skarsgård that was essential to the piece working,” Simon concedes. “I’m happy to lose an argument, when losing an argument makes it better. I’m glad that she in no way gave in.”
By her own account, with Generation Kill, White started as she meant to continue. A meticulous researcher (“It’s my way into the process. When I directed Holby City, I went and watched open heart surgery . . .”), she went to Camp Pendleton, in San Diego, where she met US marines up close, and got a flavour of their profession.
“I wanted to get into the heads of the marines,” she says. “I was expecting it to be like the movies, there would be a Sergeant Major shouting,” she says. It was nothing like that – they were the most self-motivated people I’ve ever encountered.
“I watched them training on this assault course, which was like something you’d send a horse over. They then went on a run with gas masks on. Then, after they’d done all that, then they trod water in full gear, holding machine guns over their heads. It was kind of mind boggling: you’re in California, in this beautiful David Hockney swimming pool, with all these guys in camo gear and machine guns.”
White’s experiences at Camp Pendleton fed directly into what she hoped to bring to Generation Kill. The look that she had pitched for the production was one that would contrast the modernity of the conflict with the antiquity of the land on which it was fought. Her experience of the marines in their own environment, meanwhile, ensured the production fully developed another facet of Simon’s writing – the frustration of a high-functioning employee with the realities of the workplace. The result is that Generation Kill is every bit as persuasive as the Kathryn Bigelow-directed film The Hurt Locker.
“I think it is interesting that she and I had a similar take,” says White. “The marines watch a lot of war films, and one of their favourites is another directed by a woman: Beau Travail by Claire Denis, which is about the French Foreign Legion. They watch that over and over again.
“Maybe the adrenaline of war, which features in a lot of films, isn’t satisfying to them,” she says. “I wonder if we’ve found something in the observation of men in those situations that is somehow more truthful.”
“One thing I knew,” Simon confirms, “was that Susanna was not going to become enamoured with the bang-bang. Which is pretty much the problem with men in general. With each successive conflict we are sold a bill of goods about how perfect and pristine our weaponry is. War is never that way, and it never will be.”
Her recent successes notwithstanding, as someone who went to university in the 1980s, and “thought a lot of those battles had been won”, White has been surprised by the degree to which she has felt discriminated against during her time as a film-maker. Twelve years ago, while applying for the BBC directing course, she was asked: “What makes you think you have the authority to direct actors?” (“an extraordinary question”). She also feels mildly aggrieved she’s only now making her first feature film, aged 49 (she is directing Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang). Having been denied some breaks earlier in her career, however, evidently only serves to make Susanna’s achievements with Generation Kill all the sweeter.
“I was slightly in denial about the fact that people saw me as a woman, so I guess it is very satisfying,” White says. “I’ve done this fuck-off, macho piece of work – and people like it.” And if for some reason they don’t, then White knows just the well-trained team of uniformed men who can put them straight.
You must be logged in to post a comment.