There are few filmmakers bigger in Hollywood right now than Joe and Anthony Russo. The directors have four massive Marvel movies under their belts, with Avengers: Endgame ranking as the highest-grossing movie ever. Now, they are reuniting with Netflix following the success of Extraction for an Arabic-language, real-life inspired thriller, Mosul, which serves as the directorial debut for screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan.
The story of Mosul started with an article in The New Yorker and centers on a SWAT team in Iraq that takes it upon themselves to fight back against ISIS. With a dozen men and three armed vehicles, the SWAT unit makes its way through the decimated heart of their city. Technically, they are disobeying direct orders, and most people mistakenly believe that all of the SWAT units have been killed, but they move like ghosts through the city, bribing military guards, urging families to safety, and not hesitating to use improvised deadly force at any sign of the enemy.
Matthew Michael Carnahan, brother of filmmaker Joe Carnahan (The Grey) has written huge movies such as World War Z, and real-life tales such as Deepwater Horizon in the past. Here, he’s stepping behind the camera, with the help of the Russo brothers, to bring this tale to the big screen. I recently had the chance to speak with Carnahan about the project. Enjoy.
Just because this is not some enormous summer blockbuster, for the sake of our readers, can you, in your own words as the filmmaker, explain what Mosul is and what it’s about?
Matthew Michael Carnahan: It’s about the Nineveh SWAT team, a group of Iraqi cops in Mosul who are quite literally hour by hour fighting to take back their city. Their wives and children and extended families are still behind enemy lines. They each have lost an unknowable, unthinkable, unfathomable amount from where I sit. Attacks at weddings where half of someone’s family is wiped up. That makes up this SWAT team. There’s a criteria to even be on the SWAT team. You have to know what the hell you’re doing on a battlefield, that goes without saying. But you also must have either been wounded by Isis or lost a loved one to them in order to be on this elite unit. Almost every member of this SWAT team can claim both criteria. So that, in a nutshell, is what the story is. It is a running battle between these Iraqi cops and Isis terrorists who are in control of in many cases, they’re families. Not only running the parts of the city that they were from, but know who they are, know who their families are, and have taken those families for themselves.
That sounds like really heavy material. What’s it like from your perspective taking on something so heavy as your first thing?
Matthew Michael Carnahan: I gravitate toward that subject matter to begin with, real-life stories like that where I can’t help but try and put myself in the shoes of people fighting these enormous forces. You know, my very first screenplay, The Kingdom… to Deepwater Horizon… to Mosul. I’m drawn to these heavy, real-life situations where survival is everything. And there does emerge real-life heroes that I think tend to cut across human experience. You get a sense that, “My God. The things that unite us are so much more meaningful and plentiful in the things that divide us.” In this case, here’s this group of Iraqi men that, I’m embarrassed to say, we’ve been at war with since I was a child. I had never even fathomed this SWAT team and yet, here they are doing what I think any of us would hope we would do fighting hour by hour, losing half their numbers. They literally drive to the sound of gunfire. those are subjects that really kind of latch onto my soul, and sure, they’re heavy, but I also feel they are eminently human… That’s why I think I was so grabbed by Luke Mogelson’s article in The New Yorker. I not only couldn’t see myself not writing it, I couldn’t see myself not directing it. That was kind of good the first time that really struck me that hard.
I’m an enormous, and I’m not just saying this, but I genuinely love Joe and Anthony Russo. I just think they are one of the best things to happen to the industry in a while because they’re so able to balance what people want to see in an interesting way. So how did they get involved?
Matthew Michael Carnahan: You’ll get a straight answer out of them…. Jeremy Steckler… he and the Russos partnered on this article, and I worked with Jeremy before, there was an article about an old boss of mine here in D.C. at a think tank I used to work at. He was trying to get the hostages Isis was holding, the American hostages that they were holding, through very grey legal areas. Work with the government but also go further as a private citizen to get these people out of captivity. And that didn’t work for a variety of reasons. Maybe three months later, Jeremy sent me this article instead. “Joe and Anthony Russo are attached, are partnering on this, will you read it?” I read it and immediately call Joe and Anthony and said, “I’m in. This is what I think it should look like. By the way, I think we should do this in Arabic language with an all Arabic, or all regional Arab speaking cast.” And they didn’t hang up and I realized I was in great hands. The thing I adore about them is that they’re such maestros on this massive scale, and yet this story about this SWAT team fighting for their lives in mobile grabbed them as firmly as it grabbed me. They’re willing to take great risks to tell great stories. If I do every project with them from here on out, I can die a happy man because they’ve just been spectacular. I share your deep admiration for them because they could do so many different things so well.
It’s crazy because even going back to The Kingdom you really, I don’t know if it’s something about your writing but you get these A-list guys that are at the front of your movies. You’ve got Chadwick Boseman. You had Jamie Foxx. You had Brad Pitt. Has that been kind of crazy?
Matthew Michael Carnahan: I just write it off to luck, and I try not to look too hard at it for fear that it dries up. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in the people I’ve come across. To be Joe Carnahan’s little brother was my first stroke of luck. To have Peter Berg take an interest in the very first book I ever wrote. And then he brought me this kind of nascent idea that we developed into The Kingdom. to work with pick and plan B and Marc Forster on World War Z. I had great luck. This little play that I wrote called Lions for Lambs that became a movie with Meryl Streep. And for the longest time I had the little cassette, the voice mail where she called my house and said how much he loved the play and she wanted to be in it. It’s several great strokes of luck. Like I said, I won’t stare at it too long. I won’t get too big for my britches. Keep my head down, keep working.
What would you like people to take away from Mosul?
Matthew Micahel Carnahan: That these people exist and that they are fighting for the very same things we’re fighting for. That we want for ourselves, for our cities, for our families. And again, that notion that you know the things that unite us are so much more meaningful than anything that will divide us. So if people can walk away and be kind of dumbstruck at the fact that, “My God, those people exist and they’re remarkable and I hope they win.” That would be spectacular.
Mosul is set to arrive November 26 on Netflix.