I first screened the independent film, The Kill Hole, while at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. As we withdraw our troops from Iraq and move toward an election year, the movie could not have hit home at a more precise time. The film tells the story one of soldier who must face the atrocities he perpetrated during war and adjust to life as a troubled vet. We sat down with Director Mischa Webley and actor Tory Killtes for a behind the scenes look.
In The Kill Hole, Lt. Samuel Drake (Chase Boseman,The Express) is a troubled vet now living out of a run down motel and working as a cab driver on the over night shift while trying to face the war acts he committed while overseas in Iraq working for a private security contractor. Drake recently returned to the states and attends a vet group led by Marshall (Billy Zane, The Phantom, Titanic). Just as he begins to make progress, Drake’s fragile balance is shattered when two executives from the security company track him down and present him with a new mission. He must find and kill Sgt. Devin Carter (Tory Kittles, Sons of Anarchy, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ), a poetic Marin Corps sniper who has gone AWOL and who witnessed Drake’s crimes and is now seeking revenge on the firm’s executives.
The cast also includes veteran actors Peter Greene (Pulp Fiction, The Mask, The Usual Suspects) and Ted Rooney (Leverage, The Weather Outside) and was shot in first-time feature Director Mischa Webley’s home city of Portland, Oregon. Webley began writing the script when he was working as a cab driver in Portland and began by using his own grandfather, a World War II vet, as research. “I was interested in telling a story that took place in the world of returning vets and that looked at some of the issues they’re facing. The film brings up issues surrounding the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars and raises big questions for the country. One, we have a huge influx of returning soldiers we’re really not ready for- resources for veterans are strechted very thin and the needs are great.,” said Webley.
The other main issue this film addresses is the use of private contractors during war times. “The question about private contractors is how to hold employees of a corporation rather than soldiers of a state-backed army accountable for their actions during wartime. The even bigger ethical question is whether establishing a private army to fight our war is a precedent we feel comfortable setting for our country’s future.”
We sat down to discuss these issues and making this film.
PPLA: Tell me about your inspiration to make this movie.
WEBLEY: I was inspired by a short documentary I was doing about my grandfather. He agreed to let me interview him about his experiences as a veteran of World War II and talk about things he hasn’t told anybody his entire life, including my Grandma. He’s getting on in age so I guess he thought it was time to open up. While I was editing that piece and driving a cab in Portland, Oregon, (which you see in the film, both these things came together)…I really wanted to explore the world of veterans. We have so many returning vets now. We had two wars going on and now one less, thankfully, and I wanted to look at that world. I realized that there are so many stories of these men and women coming home that they undoubtably have and want to share. I wanted to find a place for that and so that was the beginning of this film. I really wanted to understand what was going on and I wanted to know more. It was curiosity that inspired me.
PPLA: You touched upon something I was going to ask. With one war ending and all these veterans coming home after almost a decade of service… do you feel like it’s a perfect time to premiere your movie?
WEBLEY: Yes, but you can’t plan on that kind of timing. When I began this process a few years back, you could see some of these things winding down but only just a few months ago, the Iraq war was over officially. So the timing with these characters dealing with PTSD, with looking for some resolutions surrounding events that happened overseas, is ideal. I think a lot of people are looking for an outlet to pose some questions and answers and I hope this film can be that.
PPLA: How did you come together with your cast? Tory, tell us a little bit about your character.
KITTLES: They were seeing people in L.A. first for the role but I couldn’t make it. Unfortunately my grandfather was sick with cancer at the time but he was also a war vet like Mischa’s grandfather. The casting director Adrienne Stern ended up telling him and the production team about me, and Mischa wanted to Skype because I couldn’t get back to L.A. to audition. So we skyped the first day and we kind of just had a very easy bond. We talked about war, we talked about grandfathers, and we talked about some of the things his grandfather told him and my grandfather told me. So we had that shared experience and then we just decided to Skype again the next day and after that I didn’t hear anything (laughs). A couple of weeks later they gave offered me the role and I was doing a play at the time. My grandfather passed away one night when I was on stage and it happened to be the week before I actually started filming this movie. In terms of grounding my role, it definitely became an homage to my grandfather and all vets in general. When you’re dealing with such tricky subject matter you want to respect it but when that happened it just gave me so much more of an incentive to really pay attention and to really do some research and let it affect me. In terms of the character for me, that’s where it began. But I also used to work at this bar and there was this vet that would hang around out front. He was a bit psychotic and he would have these manic episodes and he would ask for cigarettes. If I had one, I’d give him a cigarette and that was kind of his only mechanism from calming down. He would get really mad sometimes and scream and he had so much to say like he was just bottled up. He had no outlet for his feelings. In terms of my character Carter, I feel that’s where he was at. He had so many thoughts and so many feelings, and he was just ready to explode. I think his saving grace in the film comes when he reaches out to Drake and that’s where a beautiful kind of relationship is born.
PPLA: Speaking of real vets, I heard you invited actual veterans to play the soldiers in the counseling group in the film. Can you tell me about that choice?
KITTLES: One of the beautiful things Mischa has done is incorporate actual soldiers into the counseling group led by counselor Marshall who is played by Billy Zane. These were actual guys from Vietnam, from Iraq, from Afghanistan and they are back here now in the states. They opened up for the film in ways they hadn’t opened up for their counselor, or their wife, or their brother, or their sister, in their own lives. But the film- filming The Kill Hole itself- gave them an outlet. They released these emotions for the first time while we were rolling.
PPLA: Mishca, tell me about compiling the rest of the cast.
WEBLEY: Sure. We found Chadwick Boseman much the same way. We had a casting call out in Los Angeles and we met with him and he got the role. You really operate in those situations out of gut, so I just like to meet with an actor first before doing a cold read to get a feel for their personality and their soul and where they’re coming from. I audition them after that. It was easy because he’s an excellent actor, both of these guys are (looks to Tory Kittles). Chadwick has another film coming out opposite Harrison Ford next. At the time, we were looking to fill two more lead roles and the other went to Billy Zane who plays Marshall, the counselor of this group. We’ve all seen him on screen and he’s a great actor too. It was great to have him come play a role that he’s not used to. It’s a very quiet and restrained role. He’s listening as a character and in those scenes he really is listening to those veterans talk. His ability to connect with them in such a humble and warm way gave them permission to open up. Once he was able to do that in those scenes, we threw the conventions away. We had to… there were stories unfolding before us so we threw the camera slate away and stopped saying action and cut. We spent two days in a church basement (that was the location) and just rolled tape all day. We heard sometimes heart-wrenching stories, sometimes very funny, and sometimes just very real stories…all from their experiences in the military. A lot of them were dealing with issues coming back, many about their relationships with children, with wives, and some headed for divorces. You have one life before you go to war …when you come back, it’s the same life but you might be a different person. You’ve seen things and how do you explain that to someone… how do you explain how that’s affected you. You might not understand how it’s affected you yourself and that comes out in different ways- sometimes creative and sometimes destructive. Giving them an outlet and witnessing that was very moving for our crew. There was literally not a dry eye in the room by the end of the day. All of us were profoundly moved.
PPLA: Tell me what the trajectory was like for you, from writing this film while driving a cab to sitting here at the Santa Barbara Film Festival giving this interview.
WEBLEY: This is my first feature film and sometimes when you just make the decision that you’re going to do something no matter what, things fall in place. I connected with the production company that backed the film, Alternate Ending Studios, through an old friend of mine that I used to PA (production assistant) with in New York. They were looking for projects and we connected with them and they really liked our idea and wanted to support it. That was about two years ago this month and we shot that following summer. It was two summers ago now… we shot in Oregon, my home state.
PPLA: How long was the shoot?
WEBLEY: 22 days, it was short and dirty – you just make it work. You ask a lot of people…a lot of your actors and of your crew, but we collected a very talented group based out of Portland that were passionate about the film so they didn’t mind doing what it took to get the film made. We shot for a week at this fire watch tower where Sgt. Carter lives and has gone AWOL. It is literally a mile high above a very primitive road with boulders sticking out. We had to climb up in the morning and down every evening and it was a physically demanding shoot. There was a fight scene and the actors were really fighting, really running through clear cuts, and doing all sorts of stuff, but they gave it their all. It really shows and it is beautiful. The area is beautiful too…being able to shoot in the Pacific Northwest wilderness is something else!
PPLA: How do you feel the film is being received on the festival circuit? Here in Santa Barbara?
WEBLEY: The screening was great, we sold out. We had a great response… one of the best responses we could get was from a veteran of Vietnam who was in the audience. He basically does what Billy Zane’s character does in the film. He’s a counselor for vets and he runs these groups. In our post-screening Q & A, he stood up and gave us what I think is the greatest compliment. He said that we portrayed it truthfully and that we hit home.
KITTLES: He deals with these men all the time so that was special. He said, “a lot of times I see films about the military and about soldiers and they don’t get it right- you guys got it right.’ We hope the film gets distribution so we can reach a wide audience. The more people that can see the film the better, because maybe it will spark a conversation that needs to happen, especially now that we have this influx of soldiers coming back. If the film can in any way spark that conversation that would be amazing. That’s the ultimate compliment.