Interview: Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss on “Full Battle Rattle”

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07092008_fullbattlerattle1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

The war rages on, and just when you think you’ve seen every angle explored and exhausted in cinema, in stomps a bizarre new perspective from the desert — and not the one in Iraq, but California’s Mojave. Co-directed by Jesse Moss (“Speedo”) and Tony Gerber (who previously worked together when Gerber executive produced Moss’ doc for AMC, “Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood”), “Full Battle Rattle” takes viewers behind the scenes of Medina Wasl, a fake Iraqi village populated by actual Iraqi exiles that exists as part of the U.S. Army’s billion-dollar simulation, an urban warfare training camp where soldiers spend three weeks before experiencing real deployment. Fantasy and reality intermingle in affecting and often strangely comical ways, and Moss and Gerber’s film captures this dynamic within the intimate stories of the simulation’s players. I spoke with the filmmaking duo about what it took to get insider access, how the participating Iraqis’ psyches are affected, and the Kubrickian qualities of this real-fake-reality.

How did you discover this peculiar backdrop?

Jesse Moss: About two-and-a-half years ago, there were a couple of print news articles about the simulation. As enormous as this facility is, the army had, up until then, operated in secret in the early phases of the war. Tony and I had been talking about collaborating together. So we heard about this simulation, and it just seemed too strange and surreal. Around the same time, the war was going so terribly and was so overwhelming that both of us were trying to make sense of that. In the simulation, we saw an opportunity to tell a fascinating story about the war, but also this place and what it was like.

The military aren’t exactly known for giving access. Were there ground rules while filming?

Tony Gerber: We had to jump through a lot of hoops to get permission to go there. We had to get clearance, first and foremost, from the office in Hollywood on Wilshire Boulevard that governs any representation of the Army in movies — whether it’s a Michael Bay film or a Tony Gerber/Jesse Moss documentary, that office has to approve of you. Then we had to get permission from the National Training Center itself, and we had to clear [the film] with the [Public Affairs Officer] for the incoming brigade, the 4,000 men and women who would be training at the National Training Center. Surprisingly, we were able to enter this world and begin making this film with no limitations on our access. You would think there’d be a minefield of no’s, but it didn’t happen. Largely, I think it’s because we were independent filmmakers and able to fly below the radar. We got in there, and they virtually forgot about us.

One soldier gets a verbal smackdown from a superior for dismissively insulting the Iraqi culture. Did you ever get a sense that people were playing nice for the camera?

JM: I don’t think so. They’re playing by job description, that’s what they do. They’re used to being watched. I was living in the village of Medina Wasl with the Iraqi role-players and the soldiers who play the insurgents, and I wouldn’t say that was the challenge. It was more just getting to know these people in a very compressed period of time. Everybody fronts, whether you’re filming them in the simulation or outside. It’s your job as a filmmaker to get around that and to [find out] who they really are.

07092008_fullbattlerattle3.jpgThe simulation seems less like military preparation than it is a school of manners. Do you think that’s a greater priority beyond the warfare training?

JM: It’s that, and it’s the very best of anti-anxiety medications. A lot of these guys have not left their home state, and they’re going to Iraq to fight a war and they don’t know what to expect. I think that makes them feel like a crazy, unmanageable process might be rational and manageable, when the reality is never that. It makes them feel in control of an uncontrollable process.

TG: Plus, the Army is able to weed out the nutjobs, those guys who are going to snap and really lose it. There were stories about guys getting totally lost in the simulation, and God knows you don’t want that to happen in theater, as they say.

JM: The stakes for this brigade that’s going to Iraq in a matter of weeks couldn’t be higher. It’s life or death. They don’t step out of character. There is no “out of character” for them, and I think you see that reflected in how seriously they approach their mission to save the village of Medina Wasl. Coming into this, thinking we’re going to be watching a theatrical exercise, it’s more real than that. That was part of what drew us there, the combination of realism and hyper-theatricality.

The fact is, they’re playing parts. Is it healthy to treat this as some sort of game? Or more directly, does this kind of training work?

TG: Ultimately, the question of whether the training has an efficacy or saves lives was not our point of interest. We wanted to work inside the metaphor. We were interested in this theatrical idiom and the tension between on-stage and off, what’s real and what’s not. Here’s a documentary film that features role players speaking lines. Is it fiction or nonfiction? The film, we like to think, strikes to the core of this un-realness we find ourselves in. We’re waking up here in America, [under] two terms of George Bush; how did we get into this situation? It’s as if it’s a bad dream, and at some point, as a nation, we weren’t being vigilant about the direction we were being taken.

JM: It was important for us to leave the simulation at the end, wake up to reality, and see that these guys are going to Iraq. They’re going to get on a plane to fly over there, and some of them are going to die. It became clear to us that we had a responsibility as filmmakers to go there and show that it wasn’t just a game for them.

Your film doesn’t editorialize, so what do you personally believe this simulation does for its participants’ psyches, especially the real Iraqis who live there full-time?

TG: I think that case-by-case, it’s different for all of them. In the case of Nagi Moshi — the deputy chief of police who, in the course of our film, is facing an asylum hearing — I think it certainly helped him get his asylum. Some of the Iraqis feel a tremendous sense of pride; they feel like they’re contributing to their new homelands. In other cases, there’s probably an extreme case of schizophrenia. The real Iraq is being destroyed and certainly doesn’t exist in the form that they can reminisce about. In some ways, this simulated Iraq in the desert may be closer to the homeland they once knew than the present reality.

07092008_fullbattlerattle2.jpgHow did you gauge the right balance between a serious subject and its ridiculously droll moments?

JM: We both knew the tone that we respond to in films, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction. The work of Robert Altman was very influential. What appealed to us about the simulation was that it seemed comic, surreal and horrifying, but also very real at the same time. We didn’t want to make a Christopher Guest mockumentary, yet we wanted to allow for moments that were funny to us and the people who were part of them, whether it’s overspending your budget for a village by accidentally paying the grieving widows too much, or guys goofing around while they assassinate a suspected collaborator. This is the black comedy that I see in Kubrick, and it’s how I can connect with a film and still allow for the horror to shine through, if you will.

I also think it’s worth saying that we found these people very sympathetic, and I had never spent time working with soldiers. It was maybe an expectation amongst them or those who come to the film that this may be a hatchet job, but what makes the film more powerful is that they’re very capable. You want them to succeed in their mission of saving Medina Wasl, and yet they fail spectacularly.

You mention Kubrick, but “Dr. Strangelove” is a narrative. We’re talking about nonfiction that encompasses fake deaths, fake funerals, and an all-around fake reality.

TG: It’s a mindfuck, isn’t it?

JM: It’s perverse that the only way we’re going to see dead American soldiers is in a fake Iraq, but that’s the truth because those images are censored. I think we found a way around that in our film. You can show images that are taboo because they’re “fake.” The body parts, the spurting blood, all of it, you don’t seem them. That’s why Americans are disconnected from the realities of the war. In the utter falseness of the simulation, you’ll find something very true and that’s why those moments — the memorial service, the body parts — are so shocking.

Iraq-themed films haven’t done as well commercially, the primary assumption being that audiences prefer escapism over real life. Was that ever a concern?

JM: It’s a reality we’ve had to confront, but we’re optimists. We live in an era where people get their news from a fake news show. Why not get your Iraq from a documentary about a fake Iraq? Hopefully, people will respond to that approach. We’re not trying to spoon-feed them some medicine here. It’s a fascinating, entertaining, provocative film, and I think people always want that, don’t they?

[Photo: “Full Battle Rattle,” The Film Sales Company, 2008]

“Full Battle Rattle” opens in New York on July 9th.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.