TFF: Gleeson, Molony, Dixon, and Evans on the War Thriller “Tiger Raid”

Shadha (Sofia Boutella) in "Tiger Raid."
Joe (Brian Gleeson) and Paddy (Damien Molony).
Joe (Brian Gleeson) and Paddy (Damien Molony) in “Tiger Raid.

By Danny Peary

Writer-director Simon Dixon’s ambitious, psychological war film, “Tiger Raid,” which is set in the Iraq desert, recently made its world premiere in the “Midnight Section” at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, giving the viewers some powerful jolts and reducing the lengths of their fingernails. TFF programmer Dan Hunt’s synopsis: “While on a covert mission, two cold blooded mercenaries form an unlikely bond as they race across the desert in the dead of night. When their violent and desperate world implodes, past atrocities come to the surface and threaten to tear each of them apart. Brian Gleeson (Snow White and the Huntsman), Damien Molony (Kill Your Friends) and Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond) offer stunning performances as the inhabitants of director Simon Dixon’s dark and arid, seemingly unpopulated desertscape. Dixon surrounds these complex and troubled characters in haunting imagery and immersive sound design. As the true nature of their mission becomes clear, betrayals accumulate; no one emerges innocent in this disturbing action-thriller.”

Gareth Coulam Evans, Simon Dixon, Brian Gleeson, Damien Molony
Gareth Coulam Evans, Simon Dixon, Brian Gleeson, Damien Molony

During the festival I did the following interview with Dixon, producer/coscreenwriter Gareth Coulam Evans, and the two leads, Brian Gleeson (who plays Joe) and Damien Molony (who plays Paddy), making sure no one gave away the ending.

Danny Peary: This film has so many visual elements that I was surprised to learn that it came from a play.

Simon Dixon: We knew Mick Donnellan, who had written a novel and a couple of plays that were really cool. We’d been saying, “We’d like to work with you.” But nothing quite clicked. Then he sent us this document which was about 118 really rambling pages of dialogue. It was an unpublished play about a tiger raid [an abduction to force someone else to commit another crime], but it was called Radio Luxembourg. There was something about the characters and the cadence and language and the savage beauty of the dialogue that we just really connected to.

DP: Is the play set in the desert?

Damien Molony: No, in Ireland. Basically they figured out a way to put these two Irish people in a very unsafe unsettling situation in the deserts of Iraq.

Brian Gleeson: They re-contextualized it. The play was about two guys in the west of Ireland carrying out “a tiger raid.” I don’t think that phrase is used anywhere apart from in Ireland.

DP: Simon, you call Tiger Raid an Irish film. Is it an Irish film?

Shadha (Sofia Boutella) in "Tiger Raid."
Shadha (Sofia Boutella) in “Tiger Raid.”

SD: I think so. It has an Irish heartbeat. The playwright is Irish, it has Irish characters, the Irish Film Board backed it really kindly and was incredibly supportive, it’s an Irish co-production. There’s a lot of things that make it an Irish film. But it’s a combination; it’s both Irish and international. Both Gareth and I have had a conviction that our film should speak to everybody. So I’d like a guy in Mexico or a woman in Sydney to be challenged by it as much as an Irish audience.

Gareth Coulam Evans: It’s a British film and it’s a Jordanian film. Most of the people who worked on it were Jordanian. We felt a lot of love working in a small industry that’s growing, where they take huge pride in their work, so I hope they’ll feel the same kind of ownership with the movie.

DP:, Simon, when you put these two characters from Ireland into the conflict in Iraq, you didn’t make them American but kept them Irish.

SD: That’s a good point. As I said, Gareth and I were very keen to maintain the integrity and the Irish component of the story. Still, we didn’t want to do was double down on the Irish thing. We liked the idea of stretching the concept and moving it to more of an international context. So that’s what we did. We worked and collaborated with Mick to place the story into something much more succinct and diversify the difference between the two characters and make it more muscular.

DP: Paddy and Joe had more in common in the play than they do here?

SD: Potentially. There’s a little bit more overlap. Both men are very brutal and both are very desensitized to the violence and the terrible things they’ve done. By resetting it in Iraq and have them be mercenaries gave a context of where those guys had come from in their training. We liked the idea that there was this constant backwards and forwards of who has the upper hand. As the film develops there is a series of revelations.

DP: Did you discuss before you started shooting which of the two is the hero in the movie and whether there is there a hero at all?

DM: That was one of the things that attracted me to the project. The power balance is changing between the characters all the time and they’re taunting each other and suspicious of each other. In a Hollywood movie, they might be friends but they don’t know each other before they meet in the movie and they don’t particularly like each other. That constantly shifting, volatile terrain that they’re both on was hugely interesting to me, as was seeing the psychological plays each character makes constantly to undermine the other.

BG: We’re so saturated with good-guy-bad-guy narratives, but people aren’t really like that. They aren’t molded in a certain way. Give them a gun or put them in a different context and you’ll see that they’re completely different and will do things you don’t expect. For me, it was less about figuring out whether Joe or Paddy is the good guy or the bad guy–I just wanted to be true to what was written on the page. And do the detective work and go in a find out what the guys are getting at. Sometimes unconsciously, you draw this out from the script and follow your nose and see where it goes. It was just about being true to myself and the character.

DP: Brian, I read an interview you did for Stand By, which was a romantic comedy, and you spoke about the spark that was needed between you and the female lead. What about in this film? What kind of spark and connection was needed between the two actors?

BG: We definitely needed to get on. You don’t necessarily need to be on the same page because you have separate characters but chemistry and being generous with each other’s time makes it easy to work together.

DM: It was so physical and so hot when we filmed during the day that we would go to the gym at night time together and kind of be together all the time. But we both had our own music in or ears and were almost in our separate worlds.

DP: When you went to the gym, did you talk about the film at all? My guess is that you didn’t.

DM: Not really, no. Not over the treadmill.

BG: No. Looking back now, that seems so alien to me–going to gym after work. I’m a couch potato.

DP: It was the lure or air-conditioning. I’d think you two didn’t want to be too chummy at night because your characters are distant from one another. Did you think that there is a rivalry between the two?

BG: There is, yeah. From the beginning, there’s a real rivalry and animosity. I think that’s great. They’re trying to put each other in each other’s place. It’s one-upmanship.

DM: Joe is the old guard. Paddy’s is the new blood. Paddy’s the kind of guy that will walk into a new job and say, “Alright, I’m running the show now.” He has a cocksure arrogance with a huge amount of naivety behind it. What was great about the filming process was that Simon would allow us extremely long takes. We would do the lines and do the scene and then maybe improvise for two or three minutes and then maybe revisit the scene again from that standpoint. So we had a huge amount of freedom to develop the relationship when in a normal movie maybe we wouldn’t necessarily get that opportunity.

DP: In the press notes, Brian said, “The challenge was to unearth their humanity that is buried deep.” You may have wanted their humanity to come out, but to do what they do, don’t they want it to be buried deep?

BG: Humanity to me just means being real as opposed to it being the good aspects of a personality. Just trying to work out the psychology of who you’re playing makes it scarier. When you just paint these guys as monsters, you have too easy an answer.

DM: Obviously when Shadha comes in, she adds a whole new element. She brings the humanity of the characters out.

SD: I think the circumstances has hidden their humanity. The deeds they’ve undertaken and the terrible things they’ve done for money by definition is constantly suppressing an eroding the humanity of both characters. We didn’t want to sensationalize or diminish the violence aspect. We wanted to reach inside them. To find two fully three-dimensional characters, we don’t want to condone their world view but we don’t want to paint caricatures either. It’s the rhythm between two men and how their interplay allows us to look at the dark hearts of men and what men do when they’re subjected to this much violence.

DM: Remember that this is not necessarily a big deal for these guys. This is their day-to-day, nine-to-five job.

DP: You also have to figure out what a mercenary is.

BG&DM: Exactly.

SD: A lot of mercenaries have been painted in this very one dimensional way. Mercenaries do shoot people but there’s more to them. It’s almost as if they were in the wild west. These guys are trained in these heinous and dangerous skills to get to Iraq. It’s to make money. So they’re not really interested in the day to day part, but how they’re going to utilize their skills. In the case of our guys, it’s a tiger raid but their relationship fractures in the middle when they meet Shadha [Sofia Boutella], the female character in the film. She becomes kind of the emotional heartbeat of the film and she opens up the story and changes the Joe and Paddy’s interplay. So it moves from being a thriller and a kidnap film to being a really interesting character study of the guys and it’s less about being a mercenary and more about dealing with the terrible deeds and choices that they’ve made in their lives, particularly Joe.

DP: Filming in Jordan, where did that choice come from? Simon was a first time feature director so I’d think going to Jordan and working in the desert in 115 degree temperatures would be overly ambitious.

GCE: That was the thing we thought least about. The most obvious choice in the world would have been to go to Iraq, but we stopped short of doing that. Going to Jordan was obvious to us, not because it would look right but obviously that afforded us tremendous freedom. We considered shooting in a different country like Morocco but you’d have to fake so much to get that reality, whereas in Jordan we could point the camera anywhere we wanted and it felt like Iraq. Beyond that, there was this tremendous benefit to putting not just the actors but the whole crew on those streets and on that sand that they knew stretched to Baghdad. We might pass a road sign to Baghdad on the way to the set. We would feel the quality of breathing the air and feeling the heat of the Middle East. The world that the characters had walked. Talking to the DP, Si Bell–the crew would be driving back from the set, they’d hear the call to prayer. Your mind changes. I know it inspired everyone to think differently

BG: I think it was the best decision to film in Jordan. It really was. It paid dividends. I just felt so in it. In the movie, in the place, in the environment.

SD: We wanted to be as true as possible to the environment. The film is set in Iraq and of course Jordan borders Iraq. So, any one given day, we were a hundred kilometers from the same sand the men would have stood in.

DP: There had to be a spiritual feel, too.

DM: It’s the cradle of civilization. It’s biblical.

SD: We were in the Valley of Jordan. It’s where Moses stood and looked out at the Promised Land. Regardless of whether you believe those stories, it’s quite an inspiring place. It’s the desert where they shot Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a place that means something. My belief is, the more experiential you can be with something like this and serve the film, the more likely you are to get something valuable. It was about finding the space for the characters to really feel real because we’re dealing with very complex, deep and difficult themes. If we could create an environment where everyone felt they were being challenged on behalf of the film to do something different, I think we’re more likely to make a film like Tiger Raid than just make a good film.

DP: You use the word real. How realistic did you want the film to be? Do you want us to see this as the real Middle East conflict, and that this is history?

SD: It’s not based on any specific incident. Things like the physicality of how to handle a weapon, locations, and other things were left in. There’s a reality to how they would handle a weapon.

DP: Is it 2016?

SD: I think you could take ten years off for argument’s sake. The film is manufactured to create the environment to tell our story and the backdrop just gives a degree of context to give a reason for them to be there. It’s not about Iraq or the Iraq War or even about mercenaries. It’s about the darkness within these men and the things they’ve done and the choices that they’ve made and how it comes back to haunt them and ultimately doom them.

DP: Brian and Damien, do you think you, the actors. knew your characters better than the screenwriters, Simon. Mick and Gareth?

BG: There’s collector’s ownership over everything. There was constant dialogue and finding the story together.

DM: Filmmaking is a collaborative process and we’re giving as much to Garrett and Simon as they are giving to us.

DP: They audience is going to be changing their minds about who’s the hero. Simon, do you feel that as the director you’re manipulating the audience?

SD: Clearly yes. The way I see it is that we start the movie quite broad, and then we develop a context that basically changes. We bate and switch on the audience, deliberately to tease them and toy with them. What I think takes over is your own personal perception of what you’ve been told. So when the audience leaves the cinema, I want them to make their own judgment of what they believe the characters are and their moral standpoints and the various layers that have been revealed. We didn’t want to lead them to the water and say, “This is the answer.” So I think it’s a combination. You need to manipulate to create an exciting environment and an experiential feel for the film, but I think it’s a film that’ll be polarizing and I hope people will debate it. I like the idea that people will talk about it. I think that’s what’s important about cinema.

DM: It will be interesting to see how people respond to it. It’s very exciting. It’s interesting to talk about it and let it settle in our heads as well–because we made this a couple of years ago.

DP: Simon, you’ve said Tiger Raid is not a genre film.

SD: It’s a heightened genre. It has a lot of genre tropes. There’s violence and physicality, but it’s not a sensational film. We didn’t want the thriller aspect to outrun the narrative character and the importance of the story. That was what was important to me.

DP: Talk about being at the Tribeca Film Festival.

SD: It’s a great honor. I used to live in Tribeca many years ago.   There’s kind of a spiritual thing to it and a location thing, the fact that it’s Tribeca in New York. The fact that they honored us with selection is an amazing thing. It’s a festival that champions provocative, challenging, unusual international work. The fact that they’re there and allow people to have a voice I think is an incredible thing. It’s a testament to the team that they allow films like ours to get a voice that maybe they normally wouldn’t get. I feel a great deal of gratitude for that.

This is the link to the trailer for Tiger Raid:

I hope you will order a copy of my new book for you and for every baseball fan that you know:

Be sure to see Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders at the Film Forum beginning next week.

Also of Note: Friday April 29th is Denys Arcand’s Eye of Beauty opens at the Sag Harbor Cinema.