Evan Wright was a journalist embedded in the lead Humvee of First Recon's Bravo Company's Second Platoon and based his book Generation Kill on the experience. HBO has turned the book into a miniseries that is a precise retelling of the early weeks of the military campaign from the point of view of the guys on the ground: the non-commissioned officers and platoon-level commanders who led the way to Baghdad.
His new book Hella Nation, was recently released in April of 2009. From his work as a reporter at Hustler magazine, to his National Magazine Award-winning writing for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, Evan Wright has always had an affinity for outsiders-what he calls "the lost tribes of America." The previously published pieces in this collection chart a deeply personal journey, beginning with his stark but sympathetic portrayals of sex workers in Porn Valley, through his raw portrait of a Hollywood überagent-turned-war documentarian and hero of America's far right. His subjects are people for whom the American dream is either just out of grasp, or something they've chosen to reject altogether.
Question: Who was your audience for Generation Kill?
Evan Wright: The book was originally written primarily in my mind for the guys that were portrayed in it. I had been with this Team One, Bravo Second Platoon. We went from Kuwait to Baghdad and I got very close to those guys as a journalist but I also later became close to them as a person, on a different level, and as I...That started to happen when I was writing the book. I was like what’s going to make these guys laugh? The fact that I can... I’m going to render all these things that they said that they probably even forgot that they talked about and all of their complaints and the humor... That... That’s going to be really cool. Of course, I had to put in things that made them very uncomfortable too but part of it was just to let them know that their story was out there.
Question: What is it like watching the book transition to the screen?
Evan Wright: The transition to the screen has taken five years. I went to HBO after I’d written my three-part Rolling Stone series. I think the last article ran in July 2003. The war was new. I wrote a book proposal and got a contract with Putnam to write a book. At the same time I went to HBO and I said, “Hey, we should do a mini series” and... or I said, “You should do a mini series. You can have the rights to my book and I will not write it. I don’t want to be involved. It’s yours.” And they took it and they gave me an option fee which is actually not a big deal in Hollywood and they spent a year with it and really did nothing. And after that time HBO came back to me and they said, “There is a guy in Baltimore named David Simon. He works with Ed Burns, his partner, and they do a show called The Wire.” I had never seen The Wire. I was in Afghanistan when The Wire came out and I kind of missed it and I...but I sat down and I watched the first two seasons one weekend and I thought what an amazing show, and so I flew out to Baltimore, I met with David, and he said, “I like your book. HBO has it. I work with HBO. I would like to adapt this into a mini series but the one catch is I don’t want to do it without you.” And so on the one hand Simon gave me a tremendous opportunity because he became a mentor as a screenwriter. I worked as a screenwriter with him and Ed, but on the other hand I never wanted to be involved so it was a huge pain in the ass so I always... What I like to do with Simon and Burns is acknowledge the great thing that they did by bringing me in and sort of making me into a screenwriter and then I like to complain bitterly about it, but that’s just how I am.
Question: What is it like seeing yourself on a television screen or in a theater?
Evan Wright: It is strange and as a journalist my journalism has always been about not having the journalist in the story, and so I actually didn’t want to have a character portraying me in the mini series. It was David Simon who pointed out, “If we’re actually adapting your book, you were in that Humvee and we’re not going to adapt the story and have an empty seat or put a fictitious marine in that seat. We have to put you there.” What I was happy with is that we wrote my character so that he’s there and you see how this story was acquired but he’s not the focus of the show.
Question: What do you hope people get out of the film?
Evan Wright: My goal in covering the military has always been to demystify it in a sense and I always felt that prior to the war on terrorism as it’s called...or the war on terror...prior to that our country was going through this massive sort of reconnect with the greatest generation and you had all these movies and books where they were just celebrating the guys who fought World War II and.. which is fine. We should celebrate those guys but I think what that missed...It sort of...Because the people who were behind the celebration of the greatest generation were people who generally hadn’t fought in wars and had no experience with war, they came at it
from this sort of misty-eyed, like oh, my gosh, these giants fought World War II, they were fighting a good war, the country came together, what a wonderful, special time in American history, all true but I read greatest generation writers who actually fought in World War II such as Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, even Gore Vidal, and they... their writing on war was never about how glorious and wonderful...Their writing was about how it was dirty, morally ambiguous, and often just filled with horrors. So when I got to Iraq it was interesting. I just wanted to... I didn’t want to write about these guys as heroes or as villains and the upshot is after episode one of Generation Kill aired there were a lot of bloggers and reviewers who said, “A lot of people got it but there are a lot of people who said, ‘Oh, my God. These guys...They... Their talk sounds racist. It sounds homophobic. They talk about killing like they want to kill.’ And they were horrified.” And I think people were shocked that people in the marine corps today don’t talk like Tom Hanks in a World War II movie, and the truth is marines who are 22 years old actually are steeped in the same culture as 22-year-olds who are not in the marines. And if you look at...I was just watching a director or a writer that I really like, Judd Apatow, and his Superbad. The rants that those kids go on in Superbad were to talk... It’s very misogynistic. It’s all about sex and in a very graphic way and marines talk the same way but when it’s marines wearing the uniform people are horrified. And I also hope that as the series unfolds viewers will begin to recognize that in marine culture they have a great liberty to say things that are horribly offensive to one another because they have so much trust in each other. And as they move forward I think viewers will notice that even the guy who’s been described as a racist cracker that his best friend is a Mexican American and that they all depend on each other. So my intent in the show is to try to connect people to- in an honest way to the troops that are fighting, not to glorify them and not to demean them, just show them as they are and hopefully some viewers will get it.
Question: What was the initial response of the men and women in the military to your book?
Evan Wright: There were some marines who read my book and they were like, “This is great,” but there was another smaller group I like to think that hated my book, they thought it aired dirty laundry of the marine corps, that it was too harsh on the officers ‘cause I portrayed... There are a lot of incompetent boobs in the little company that I wrote about. I didn’t choose that company but it... I just happened to be in an area of the battalion that had some really dopey officers and I wrote the book that way. Anyway, that offended some marines and it is true that I went to Camp Pendleton once to greet a marine friend of mine who was returning from a deployment. I was with his wife and some senior NCOs spotted me. They came over. They said, “We don’t like your book.” They handcuffed me. They threw me in to a car and they said, “We’re going to drive you in to the desert.” Then they kind of realized oh, my God, we just handcuffed a reporter. We can’t... Unfortunately, we can’t actually throw reporters out in to the desert in California. And so they had an MP- an MP came and he drove me off the base, and it’s a huge base. It was a 20-minute drive. I am handcuffed in the back of a car and there’s- we’re driving in silence and the MP says, “Hey, I kind of liked your book,” and I was like “Oh, that’s nice,” and then he says- we’re driving and he says, “Hey, do you have a copy that you could maybe autograph for me?” And I was like “Sure, Dude, if you take my handcuffs off.” So I did give him one so that was one response to the book. We screened Generation Kill... We screened the first two episodes at the Pendleton Theater and it was an amazing experience. We’re at the home of the First Marine Division and two to three, four hundred marines. I don’t know how many were in the theater. We started running the show and they were laughing their asses off. They were nodding their heads. It was the best audience we’ve screened it for yet because they totally got it and it was really gratifying to me.
Recorded on: 7/17/08