Former Spc. Chris Roessner enlisted in the Army on July 11, 2001, hoping to earn some money for college.
Two years later, he was passing time during charge-of-quarters duty at the presidential palace in Tikrit, Iraq, watching a classic Vietnam War movie, when he decided that one day, he'd like to tell his own war story on screen.
"I put in Oliver Stone's movie 'Platoon,' " Roessner, 33, told Army Times in a Thursday phone interview. "I was so deeply touched by that movie because it was so personal, and it wasn't a war movie in the sense of, 'Take that hill, or kill that bad guy.' It was about young men, who look young. And to watch young men go through a year of the Vietnam War in a way that was specific and was also beautiful -- I really connected with that."
Roessner, a civil affairs specialist, spent three months in Kuwait waiting for the war to get started, he said, and then a year in Iraq that saw a sea change in the War on Terror.
"We moved into the presidential palace, and we had about three months of what I called the 'honeymoon period' – where it felt like my job was basically to shake hands and kiss babies. It felt like I was more in a parade than a convoy," he said. "That lasted for, like I said, a couple months. Then, seemingly overnight, everything changed. There was a lot of insurgent activity. I'm sure people were pouring over the borders from Syria and Iran. And it became pretty violent pretty quick."
Still sorting through his experiences a decade later, Roessner wrote and then signed on to executive produce "Sand Castle," which premieres Friday on Netflix.
The film follows a civil affairs squad, through the eyes of Pvt. Matt Ocre, tasked with rebuilding a destroyed water pumping station in Iraq, and the challenges of winning the locals' trust while butting heads with the pessimistic Special Forces captain trying to root out insurgents among the villagers.
The University of Southern California film school graduate talked to Army Times about his perspective from the Army's nation-building force and trying to tell more authentic stories in Hollywood.
"I'm looking desperately for what I call my 'Coming Home' narrative," he said. "I would really like to tell a story about a bunch of men and women re-assimiliating to life after the war."
Some answers have been edited for brevity.
What is your version of Iraq?
That's actually a really great question, and it allows me to preface it with this: Everybody's Iraq experience is different, and everybody's military experience is different. And if I had a different job, the movie I wrote would be different. And if I deployed to Iraq in '07, as opposed to '03, the movie would be different.
So my experience was, I got to see Iraq in a time when we were very welcomed. At least it felt that way. And then it seemed like I spent the next year of my war trying to get back to that first three.
Is the movie autobiographical?
I would say that my allegiance is to the feeling of war. It is a fictional film, but as has been stated many times by many authors that are smarter than I, fiction can be truer than true. What I tried to do, and what I hoped I succeeded in is, is imparting on the audience the feeling of war – even if I have to magnify things and change things.
To me, the feeling of war is falling in love with something and having it killed in front of you, over and over again. For me, and for all the rest of the filmmakers, one of the things I said to them is, "I don't think we're going to make people feel like they're at war by shaking the camera and shooting it like a documentary." If you want to know what war is like, watch "Restrepo."
What fiction can do is, in a two-hour time period, leave the audience with a complex feeling that doesn't quite have a name. And that's what war is. War is the realization that people have been hurt and people have been killed and at best, you've maybe moved the giant ship a half of a degree. But that's kind of the job.
There's a line in the trailer that starts, "I'd love to say I'm here to fight for freedom…" Did you write that, or was that a re-write down the road?
I didn't write that line, and personally, I hate it. I do. This is the tricky part: Because I'm a veteran, because I wrote a movie, people at large can make the assumption that I had control or I signed off on everything that happened.
I want to be clear that I'm proud of the film in its entirety, but I'd be lying if I said that everything is something that I signed off on, or agreed with or didn't fight adamantly that it come out.
So that line, I don't care for at all. But the core of the question is, did I question why I was there? And I think I certainly did and I feel like most of the people around me did. Again, not because, 'Are we doing good or are we doing bad?'
It was because, wait a minute. I thought we were going to be out of here in six months – that's what we were told. Then it was nine months. Then it was a year. Then, all of the sudden I'm in college and I realize, holy shit, the kids who are in Iraq now were like nine years old when I was there. That's a pretty far leap from, "You guys told us it was going to be six months."
I never thought that I was doing a bad thing. The reality of my experience is, everything that we set out to do was wholly good.
So for example, there was collateral damage at one point. This Iraqi bakery got destroyed. It wasn't our fault or anything like that, but we still took it upon ourselves to fix this bakery because we knew this local business was very important to the population and the proprietor of this bakery was well respected in this village.
So we worked really hard to fix it, and felt a feeling of success when we got it done. But then, I think a few weeks later, it was bombed again – because the insurgents were sending a message that, 'If you accept the help of the Americans, we'll make you pay.'
That's the complexity of the feeling. We did the right thing, we earned their trust, we fixed something that was busted. But you still pay a price for that.
That's what I mean. It's not like I felt ever at any point that, "What I'm doing here is morally wrong." I don't have any of those nightmares about what I did there. But I do know that, just by the nature of being there, no matter what your intentions are, you're going to alter the course of other people's lives.
There are some controversial plot points, like an Iraqi leader telling the soldiers they're unwelcome, and Ocre slamming his hand in a door to avoid deployment. Are those based on true events?
The first part: the Iraqi leader. It is true to form that you will speak to Iraqi leaders who are very happy to have you there, but they know that it is a very dangerous thing for them to do.
But then you also find Iraqi leaders who don't want to help you at all. People who see this as an opportunity to milk the U.S. government for some cash, and they don't want to help their people as much as you would hope. Atypical, but a true experience.
The smashing the hand in the door, that's a scene that sort of happened on set. I never wrote that scene. But I think where it came from was this idea to kind of amplify how that character felt at the beginning of the movie.
That way, by the end of the film, people have an understanding of how far he's coming since the starting point.
Did it gut-check you at all that two Englishmen were cast as the leads?
It didn't, but I will say, there are a few characters in the film that I was adamant must be American. There's a character named Chutsky, who could only be played by American. Because there is a certain American swagger and loudness, that comes with charge. And you can't invent that if you're not American. I don't give a shit if you're Laurence Olivier – you can't play that kind of American if you're not American.
It didn't give me pause at all to have Henry Cavill and Nicholas Hoult, because they were super serious about the movie. And Henry Cavill, by the way – his brother is in the British special forces, and when we had a conversation, he was like, "I take this stuff very seriously." And I was like, "Me too, and that's what I need."
There are only so many actors in the world, there are only so many who will get your movie green-lit, and there are only so many whose schedules will line up at the exact right time. I personally am very pleased by how those two guys, in particular, performed.
Why did you settle on the water pumping station as the core conflict?
The water pumping station evolves from the same place of trying to fix that bakery, right? Trying to do something that is important to the local community. If you make them feel safe, if they trust you, then they will help. And you feel a lot of success in that.
The pumping station is invented, but it's a cinematic way to take that same feeling and turn it up again. What I usually say is that, my experience in the Iraq War felt a bit Sisyphean in that, I would push a boulder up the hill alongside the other men and women that I served with, and then it would roll back down again. And then we would push it up, and it would roll back down again.
You don't get to see that a lot in war movies. It's funny – the current sergeant major of the Army, who is an infantryman, was tasked with fixing a water treatment facility in Iraq when he was deployed, just because that was the most useful thing for them to be doing at the time.
I'm really glad that you brought that up, because this wasn't intentional – if my goal was, how can I translate my experience? You start to hit on some universal themes.
The reason why I'm very proud that this movie got made, and the reason it's a miracle that it got made, is that it takes a look at a war experience in a way that isn't super Hollywood-ized.
The experience of this war is very different than the Vietnam War or World War II. It's the realization that you are doing a lot of nation building and you're entrusting 20-year-old kids to help a town elect a mayor. You're doing a lot of organizing of people and you're trying to get this different culture to understand how to organize institutions that account for their basic needs.
I'm speaking from the civil affairs perspective, so I'm sure people could challenge me and say otherwise. But the challenge for my time in Iraq, and the challenge for the Army as a whole remaining true to our values and remaining deeply empathetic even when you're given reason not to be, that's the real struggle for Matt.
How long will you want to help when people start dying? What I think Matt and the guys realize is, you can't throw up your hands, you can't abandon your humanity, because it is the only tool that will allow you to be successful.
The reason why I'm proud overall of the movie is because it shows, number one, that the goal of the soldiers in the film is not to take the hill or shoot the bad guy. The reason those films are always made is because they're the most entertaining and the most digestible for an audience.
To me, that's always done a disservice to what I felt war was for me. I believe that this film will sit pretty nicely in that gap between action and excitement and night raids, but also is very much concerned with the complex problem of rebuilding a village, of earning trust with a culture you don't know anything about. I think that matters.
I'd rather see a 21-year-old kid rescue his buddy who just lost his arm, because that's real. That happened. I'd rather see that portrayed than Captain America.
You mentioned you want to write a television show or miniseries about returning from war. Do you identify at all with the pop culture, 'dysfunctional veteran' narrative?
Yeah, I hate it. This is the best conversation I've had about this movie in the 50-some interviews I've done. I'm not bullshitting you. This is fantastic. I'm so tired of that narrative, the same way I was tired of the narrative of the American soldier in popular culture.
From what I've experienced, for myself and the guys I talk to -- I do a lot of work with veterans groups. I'm a member of the Pat Tillman Foundation. I do a lot of work with guys who have PTSD and they say some pretty fascinating things.
Something akin to, "When I came back from Iraq, it wasn't the bombs and the bullets and the blood the caused me the most problems. It was this feeling of trying to re-find my purpose."
If this movie doesn't speak to your war experience as a veteran, that's okay. But I hope that you write your movie or you write your book or you go on a speaking tour, because every veteran has a story to tell and it deserves to be heard.
I hope that if people don't see themselves in this movie, that they take a swing at it. Because I want to see their films, I want to read their books.
We're kind of at a time now where, the people who served at the start of the war are in their 30s and 40s, and that's old enough to start talking about what happened. And I think it's time to start making art that relays what we've experienced.
Former Spc. Chris Roessner enlisted in the Army on July 11, 2001, hoping to earn some money for college.