Filmmakers Risked Their Lives to Shoot 'Restrepo'

Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington
Tim Hetherington

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger survived Afghanistan and then the film business for their documentary, which pays off in award nom.

To get to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, where the bulk of their documentary Restrepo was filmed, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger would fly to Dubai or India, then to Kabul, before taking a car or taxi 90 minutes north to Bagram Airfield.

Sooner or later, the filmmakers would arrive at Camp Blessing, north of Jalalabad, and ride a Black Hawk into the Korengal.

“When I was there in January 2010, I waited for so long that when a supply convoy went in rogue, I went along,” Junger says. “It was a two-day trip, but it was better than waiting another two weeks for a helicopter. That was the trip where I filmed my Humvee going over an IED, getting blown up. I was like, ‘Next time I’ll wait for a helicopter.’”

Going rogue is an apt description for Junger and Hetherington’s journey to complete Restrepo, which chronicles the 2nd Platoon as it battles the Taliban in Afghanistan’s rugged badlands. It’s a journey that began with flak jackets and firefights in the Korengal and ended with the filmmakers in Hollywood, waging battles of an entirely different sort. The result is a bare-bones war doc that provides no easy answers about a conflict that continues to divide pundits and politicians.

STORY: Why Tim Hetherington Risked His Life for His Art

But Restrepo,  which is named after a fallen medic in the Korengal, has hardly divided critics: The film has received a DGA nomination, been shortlisted for the best documentary Oscar, soon will vie for a Film Independent Spirit Award and was honored as 2010’s best directorial debut by the National Board of Review.

Born in Liverpool, educated at Oxford and based in New York, Hetherington is a veteran combat photographer who covered West Africa for eight years. He met Junger in Afghanistan when both were on assignment for Vanity Fair.  Hetherington is tall and square-shouldered, thoughtful and well spoken.

“I’m a left-wing liberal journalist, but this whole notion of imperialism is far more complex than what we imagine it to be,” he says. “The civilian casualties in Afghanistan — the topmost figures since 2001, since NATO’s invasion — are 30,000 dead. But 400,000 died during the previous decade, and 1.5 million died in the decade prior to that.”

Junger, raised in Massachusetts and best known as author of The Perfect Storm, has also spent a good deal of time in West Africa’s war zones. He’s 48, nearly a decade older than Hetherington, and is not quite as tall but solidly built and intense.

“I grew up in the wake of Vietnam,” Junger says. “My impression of the U.S. military was not very positive, but I was really unprepared for the professionalism, dedication and just, sort of, humanity they showed. If I do have an agenda, it’s pretty simple: what’s best for the people of this country.”

As it happens, Restrepo is a nonpartisan documentary, a stripped-down look at the soldiers Junger and Hetherington followed as their unit — Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne — took and built the position it held, at no small cost, for the better part of a year.

Looking back, the filmmakers agree they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

“I really thought this was going to be a pretty quiet assignment,” Hetherington says. “But when we got to Restrepo [the unit’s station] there was so much going on we really didn’t have time to stop and reflect. We were just recording, working, and by the end of that first trip, we both kind of looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to make a film.’ ”

Junger is quick to add, though, that navigating Afghanistan’s terrain was nothing compared to Hollywood’s unforgiving landscape.

VIDEO: See Tim Hetherington's Last Documentary Short 'Diary'

“Korengal was the easy part; navigating the film business … ,” he says before Hetherington finishes the sentence: “It was a freakin’ nightmare.”

The filmmakers took a few meetings with Hollywood producers, but despite having more than 100 hours of war footage in the can, the struggle to get Restrepo made was only beginning.

“We tried to negotiate,” Junger says. “They just refused to have a conversation about editorial control; they weren’t interested in that conversation. And I think they probably felt that we had no other alternatives. Where are two guys going to go who have 150 hours of footage and no network backing? They assumed we were screwed, so we took a deep breath and essentially emptied our bank accounts.”

In all, Restrepo cost less than $1 million to make — pocket change for a Hollywood production but a major investment on the part of two war correspondents.  

Hetherington, however, sees an upside.

“In some ways, pushing ourselves into that corner was a great thing,” he says. “It actually allowed us to really make the film from our hearts that we wanted to make.”

Sgt. E-5 Brendan O’Byrne is glad they did.

“For the rest of my life, I will grasp for words to describe what we went through,” says the 26-year-old O’Byrne, who served in Battle Company when Junger and Hetherington were filming and appears throughout Restrepo. “They took 90 minutes and described what we did in 15 months. They captured what a deployment is — every part, from the feces that we burnt in a barrel every day to the firefights to the boredom — and they hit it, nail on the head. As soldiers, we’d never be able to show the world what that was like — and they did.”