Turning his journalistic tendencies to film, Garrett Scott made compelling and honest documentaries. CUL DE SAC: A SUBURBAN WAR STORY (2002) told the incredible background story of a man who stole a tank and destroyed various San Diego neighborhoods. OPERATION: DREAMLAND (2005, co-directed with Ian Olds) portrays a group of soldiers in Fallujah, Iraq, displaying the complicated situations and ideologies currently taking place. Both films take very sensational subjects and treat them with great humanity and care. The war film just won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary.
Tragically, Garrett passed away on March 2, 2006. He is already missed, as he was an incredibly bright light in this world.
CINEMAD: As we talk now, you are getting ready to release OPERATION: DREAMLAND to theaters.
GARRETT SCOTT: We’re opening in North Carolina to hit the military base where all the guys are at in Fort Bragg. That should be very interesting with a military audience.
Who is distributing it? Michael Galinsky has formed a company called Rumur Releasing, who is gonna start with three films.
I was going through the “25 New Faces” of Filmmaker Magazine in 2002 and it said that you had intended to become an English professor. That’s right.
Was that really gonna happen? I don’t know. I thought it would, but I figured out what a nightmarish industry academia is. Just a lot of brutal politics, tons of people trying to get very few spots. It would have been this idealistic world where you do research and write books. It’s more like you teach like a crazy person, you never know where you’re gonna live one year to the next; if you go to an Ivy League school, maybe in 10 to 15 years, you get a good tenure track spot somewhere, you hope. It was just crazy. I realized that I wanted to continue to write and do the kind of work that I was interested in. In my young mind, I didn’t know you could do that out in the real world.
You mean more like journalistic stuff? I think the problem was that I didn’t have any clear goals about what the object was, like what I wanted to make. The school I was in allowed for a lot of experimentation. I could write about literature and history and culture and whatever, and work it out to my heart’s content, so it was like this wonderful little lab. But at the same time, I was also supposed to be preparing for my career. Going into academia, I realized, wasn’t the career that I wanted. Then I just became completely terrified of how I’d put food on the table for the next five years.
Had you done any films before college? No, no films before school. I think I was completely terrified of writing as a career. There weren’t any writers around, that was like an alien concept. Nobody “made it” unless they worked at the local newspaper or something.
Writing for a living was just something that happens in books, which come from nowhere, I guess. Now, of course, I know people who are able to do it and I know how it works. But back then I didn’t, and I think I was really scared. I figured you could do it in universities, and I was having success with my writing in the university.
But then these images [used in CUL DE SAC] were so amazing that I thought that at the very least you could make something out of all these images. Like all the helicopter footage, because the images are so iconographic and it said so many things. It was just this fleeting thing across a television but it was loaded with so many messages. I thought that if you just combined that with an oral history, which I knew I could do. But instead of using a tape recorder, just have somebody run a camera and don’t try to be too tricky about it. You might be able to assemble something that’s interesting. It turned out to work better than I thought it would.
Did you connect with the subject of CUL DE SAC because it was your hometown it happened in? It was very much about home, in a way, and that was sort of helpful. It was territory that I understood. Because of that, I thought, “Well, oral history is very interesting because if you know the area that it’s taking place in, it’s a hundred times more interesting.
How similar was this part of San Diego to how you grew up? Totally different. I grew up maybe fifteen minutes away geographically, but closer to the water and in an older part of the city, so where I grew up… affluent’s probably not the right word. It’s very affluent now, but it’s right next to a Navy base. It shares an island with a Navy base, but there’s never any unemployment or de-industrialization of anything like that. It’s just a constantly flourishing place.
This other suburb where my Dad’s side of the family grew up was pretty functional until those missile bases closed down. While they grew up in working class homes, it wasn’t that different from the part of town where I grew up in until the ‘80s, and then these noticeable changes appeared. It became more run-down and got this reputation. That’s when I began to notice real class differences, too, like my Mom had aspirations to live in a nicer place. Dad went to college and law school, so we could afford other things. There was never any antagonism, but I didn’t figure it out until after I left California that families go in these two different directions. The big myth about San Diego is that everybody’s middle class and the same, basically. But that’s not true.
Did it take you a while to become friends with some of the interviewees? Definitely. In terms of getting in contact with them, it took me a while to earn their trust. I went to the house where the guy lived because I read about it in the newspaper, and I just went around knocking on doors. The people who lived right next door took me right in. They were really interested in talking. Of course, some of them were high and weren’t interested in talking to anybody.
Still, that’s pretty ballsy. You have to be taken enough by a subject to just show up at their front door. My life was nothing but fear at that time. I was afraid of everything, and that seemed like such a crazy thing to do. Why would they even want to talk to me? And that was a really important lesson in manners and grace, because people in that town actually have a lot of it. Where I grew up, if you just showed up on somebody’s doorstep knocking, they’d probably slam the door in your face. These guys were more like, “Let’s hang out.” It was very communal, and that was like this incredibly wonderful revelation that always comes when you do things that are really risky and you wouldn’t normally do. That said, it did take a while for them to adjust, but they were perfectly willing to hang out and that was really nice.
How’d you start working with (co-director and editor) Ian Olds? I met Ian in San Francisco about four years after I started (CUL-DE-SAC). I think it was in 2000. He was working at a commercial editorial house, they made video game commercials and corporate videos and things. Totally miserable. It’s like the greatest fear of somebody who’s been to film school is to end up in an environment like that. Another friend from high school was living in the Bay Area and I heard Ian could edit, which was this mysterious skill.
At that point, what was the stage of the film? Was it all footage? It was all footage and ideas. I had gotten as far as collecting the archival material, so I had a lot to look at. There was a palette there that hopefully an imaginative person could utilize. But it’s hard finding an imaginative person. So it was really dicey. It took me a couple of years to get the grant money to get all of this stuff together and find somebody who could edit, and then the real truth came out - can you make something out of this film? Ian was interested, and we rented an old Avid, put it in his room, and worked on the movie for maybe four or five months. Had to give the Avid back, got it back a couple months later, worked on it for another month. Then in 2002, we were done.
I guess that’s another version of the lesson that if you take a big risk, something good will come out of it. The whole time, I was so scared that I thought maybe I should stop, but then I knew that nothing would happen, it would be like I never did anything.
At the end of the Filmmaker article, it says, “I think I can hustle myself through one more project.” Dude, I am, barely. Totally hustling.
How did you start OPERATION: DREAMLAND? Did you have an idea or did you just go over there and see what you could get? It was a combination. The invasion broke out, I was stunned… You could see it coming, but it just seemed completely unreal to me. There were all these imbedded reporters and this crazy, crazy media coverage that seemed like it was formed in terms of a sporting event. It was a combination of really amazing access and terrible ideological format. Fox had an eagle that would fly out of their logo and shoot ray beams out of its eyes or something. It was insane, it was so disturbing.
I was freaked out by that and I knew that whatever was happening on the ground would have nothing to do with the way we were seeing it. But it seemed that if all these journalists could get over there, then it would be possible for us to do the same thing, and then once we were there, spend some real time with people, just hanging out. Again, it’s all about the hanging out. So we were like, “Can we hang out with a group of soldiers who are going to be bored out of their minds? That’s the objective. Will that be possible?” And then what will they think of us? It’s like getting into this alien territory that you know nothing about.
Who do you call up to say that you want to do this? We contacted journalists that had been over and said, “How does it work? What’s it like in Baghdad?” The reports were that one, it’s not so difficult to get into Baghdad. You fly to Amahn (Jordan) and you take a cab and it drives you on this straight highway to Baghdad. Takes about six hours, so we were like, “Okay, we can get there.” Talking to the military is easy, you just contact the local guy at whatever base and they have a specific officer assigned to integrate journalists into the unit. It’s all part of the program, so it’s really easy. It’s like getting on a ride – you just ask them when and where to show up and they’ll let you do it.
I went with a writer friend of mine, Christian Parenti, and took a camera just to test it out. I went for two weeks in August of 2003, and it was just like the journalists told me. You go to a hotel where most of the journalists stay, and outside you have this corps of translators and drivers who are trying to get work. So it was pretty easy to choose somebody after they’d been recommended. Then we’d drive around Baghdad for a few days trying to familiarize ourselves, and I embedded with a National Guard unit from Florida for just a night and a day. That’s what was frustrating – there was no way to make anything substantial. I tried, but it was all there was no way to make anything substantial. It was all sample material. But once I got in with these guys, I knew the whole plan would totally work, because these guys were occupying a country and if you’re not attached to the army, they’re really frightening. If you’re only on the journalist side, they’re totally opposing, lethal, scary people. But then if you cut through that, it becomes very surreal, because everybody’s totally friendly and just hanging out if they trust you.
That was a really interesting threshold to cross. I knew if we could bring two cameras and really spend a lot of time and match that intimacy with a long period of experience, you’d get to know these guys but then you’d also have to balance that with what they were doing over a long period of time. I thought that would be very interesting. You’d have to cast a cold eye on things, but then empathize at the same time and perhaps become emotionally involved. That’s a real nice conflict to play with in terms of the story.
Because it’s part journalism, part documentary, all immediately happening in front of you, how do you guys attack the notion of there’s a film director and writers? Like you’re in control of things but you’re still trying to show things as they happened. Well, of course there has to be these roles. But you just as easily say filmmaker or participant, there’s no real clear thing to write or direct, except raw experience as it’s occurring. And the way we like to work, at least in these two projects, it’s very subjective. The methodology is probably, “What is it like from my point of view?” My point of view would be that of a stranger who doesn’t know any of these people or any of these things. And so the audience is forced into this position, I hope. That’s part of being a human – you’re constantly running into new environments and new people that you don’t know anything about. That’s the sort of journey, and then by the end of the film, you know a lot. Maybe it’s not what you thought, maybe it’s very disturbing or it’s more than you wanted to know, but I think that’s the kind of “journey” that I try to make as a writer or director. I think Ian feels the same way. When we enter these foreign environments, that’s the transition that you go through, the arc. It’s going from knowing nothing and feeling nothing except reservation and anxiety to maybe an uncomfortable or sad familiarity in terms of these two movies.
I like the constant vibe of the film, the audience feels that everything is being presented as you see it yourself with the camera. We try to keep that seat open, it’s not like it’s necessarily us watching it. Creating this outside person that’s going to this place. We really try to draw as little attention to ourselves as possible, so lots of people can sit in that seat and experience the subjects of the film.
One frustrating scene has the soldiers trying to communicate with the locals on a regular basis, but there’s no interpretor… Kind of an easy metaphor but its happening just like that. Those are the things that we’re most concerned with. What is the phenomenon in front of you that you don’t understand and you don’t know anything about? If you can strip your self-consciousness away - and again, that’s having this cold eye – if you can take a look around and sum up the circumstances, it’s very rewarding and totally disturbing at the same time. And that’s not ideological. Filmmaking and journalism, they’re trying to aspire to identify things that are happening in the world, and I think that’s really important.
What was important about doing this in Iraq was this one particular situation in Fallujah, was to bring back some account of how business is conducted on a day to day basis. Regardless of what people think about it ideologically, there’s a real phenomenon that occurs there every fucking day. Whether I’m there or not, whether you like it or not, whether somebody else believes in it or not, none of those things matter. What really matters is what’s happening there on the ground. And we see none of that. I think it’s what makes it somewhat easier to bring back in terms of documentary. Regardless of how you feel about it, these things are happening all the time. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, but that’s how you make a historical document, think about this thing as outside of yourself and just try to stay close to it.
Do you have any idea how usual or unusual that city is or the events that you caught? It’s pretty unusual. Fallujah is a special place. I think, broadly, I should say that the things that happen in Iraq, they’re myriad, there are so many of them and each one is completely specific and a lot of it is completely dull and a lot of it is this bullshit like guys getting into four or five firefights over their hour-long episode. It’s completely ridiculous. I’d say, easily, the majority of the people there go through it without firing their weapons. The Iraqis aren’t stupid, they’re not going to come out and engage in open firefights. They’d get slaughtered.
And it’s not a World War II movie. Hell no. Everybody just drives around totally bored and gets blown up by an IED. Fallujah was a very special case, it’s a very special city. It lies on a crossroads and it’s a sort of transit control point. It’s very old, and it’s a tribal center that has controlled the movement on a road that goes west to east from Baghdad to the coast of the Mediterranean. If you want to get from Baghdad to the Mediterranean, you have to go along this route. Just before you get to Baghdad, you hit Fallujah, and then going from north to south, you have this river. So these various tribes that are located in Fallujah have always controlled all the movement going in those four directions. It’s a very independent place. Hussein always had to deal with the Fallujans, he always had this uneasy truce with them. When the army got there, they didn’t foresee that the Fallujans would dislike them. Whenever the army would go into town and get harassed or attacked, they just didn’t know what to do because they thought the war was over and they wanted to keep the peace. But it turns out that the insurgency grew more and more in Fallujah than it did anywhere else. Because one, they’re very independently minded, and also because two, the army would get more aggressive in order to protect themselves and then would kill civilians every now and again in these engagements. People don’t forget that kind of stuff. They just lay in wait for you later. It was a microcosm of the larger problem in Iraq, definitely. But it did only happen in Fallujah for a number of complicated reasons, and I’m not doing a very good job explaining it.
How much do those soldiers get debriefed on these cities and cultures and environments and how much do they learn just by being there? I’d say all the latter. It’s very interesting. People who look at the movie always wonder, “Why aren’t these guys learning more Arabic? Why aren’t they learning more about the local culture?” Things like that. I think those are all reasonable questions, but the answer of course is that if you’re a soldier, your job is not to be a free-thinking person. You’re not supposed to know information about what’s going on. You’re not supposed to be interacting with Iraqis or even guys in other units that much. If you’re the lowest guy, you’re supposed to have one job. Your job is to look in this one direction and if anybody comes toward you, you’re supposed to shoot them or tell people that there’s somebody coming towards you. So information is very, very tightly controlled. They don’t want people thinking about the larger ramifications of what they’re doing in the rank and file. But that tends to be the case higher and higher up, it’s an order-driven culture. It’s ludicrous, but what those guys are good at is killing the enemy, and they’ve honed this sort of training into a fine, fine point in order to do that, but if your goal is to occupy a place or control it or integrate it, then all the other issues come up that they’re not prepared to deal with at all.
It seems like the soldiers talk about their situation a lot and they’re pretty free thinking between each other. Did their thoughts just come out like that or did that take a series of interviews? You were there for, what, like two and a half months? Yes.
That’s still not a whole lot for a situation that huge. And we were only with the army for six weeks, those guys in particular.
So they must have offered a lot up. They did. I mean, we really talked about everything under the sun. My basic preconception was that all these war movies and all these things we know about the military because of their representation have to be bullshit when it comes down to the subject of politics and war. I just felt like, “You gotta be fucking kidding.” You have this many kids in their teens and young men in their 20s, and they all say, “It doesn’t matter why we’re here, we’re just here to fight.” That goes against all the human experience that I’ve ever had before. Of course, they’re all thinking about what they’re doing there twenty-four hours a day, right? But they’re not gonna talk about it in front of journalists.
It’s like the frog in the Warner Brothers cartoon. It sings and dances until somebody else is around. They were pretty cautious around us, but once we got to know them, it became pretty clear what everybody’s politics were. People get really surprised because they see the movie, and the conservative thing to say is that we cherry picked all these disgruntled dudes. But that’s not true, those guys were chosen for us at random. They just threw us in there with them. So you’re seeing a combination of things. You’re seeing people who are really frustrated with the circumstances that they take part in every day, and that’s a result of their personal experience, their personal judgement.
And then there’s the other layer, which is the politics that people brought with them. There was a struggle to suppress open discussions of politics and agreement of the war, naturally, that we didn’t want to press because we were in their house with their rules and we didn’t want to antagonize people and do what we weren’t supposed to do. But it would come up normally, and I was totally paranoid the whole time to ask these questions, too, because I didn’t want to get kicked out or annoy them or get punched in the face or whatever I thought was going to happen.
I said, “Don’t you guys kinda wonder about what’s going on here?” And he looked at me and he just laughed and said, “Buddy, everybody here in this room is thinking about that every second of the day.” It’s the most normal thing in the world, and suddenly, I just looked at everything totally differently.
So anyway, to answer your question, that stuff was out in the open and it would come up occasionally, and it would put these sergeants in charge of the squad in an uncomfortable position and possibly a difficult position in terms of his career. We tried to be sensitive to those sorts of things, because even if everybody has their own opinion, ultimately once this movie gets out, you’ve got a couple of privates saying, “Yeah, I agree with this war,” and the other ones saying, “I disagree with it.” Someone’s gonna hold the whole battalion responsible and the battalion commander might not make general or whatever. It’s totally crazy how it works. But very diverse opinions, far more diverse that I had ever seen.
It appears that even the soldiers who go there and think they’re doing the right thing and they honestly believe they’re bringing in democracy, they’re frustrated as well. The lieutenant in the movie from West Point who’s very gung ho about the war and has very high morale, he got hit by an IED three weeks ago back in the same area. His foot was just hanging, and they reattached it, but they don’t know if it’ll stay put. It’s gonna take like a year to find out. But I know Matt’s like everybody else, he’s like, “What’s the war about? What’s this achieving?” Because it’s a real stalemate and needless risk, I think, in military terms, but at the same time, I think Matt is really dyed in the wool. His politics haven’t changed, but his assessment of the situation is pretty realistic. It seems to me like it’s a difficult tightrope to walk.
But that’s my hope with the film, too. What’s interesting about it is, again, the phenomenon on the ground and everybody, they all see it as the real world and then there’s the politics you attach to it. And a soldier definitely thinks about their experience first and the spin or the slant is the secondary thing. The closer I can get to what they regard as the real thing, the more likely they are to think it’s successful – the movie, that is.
Who in the military has seen it so far? All the guys in the movie have seen it, and they all love it. I think the higher up the chain of command you go, the less enthusiastic they are about it. The battalion commander and the division commander are not happy about it, they’re pretty bummed, I think, because they think it’s a publicity problem and that it makes the military look like it’s not very fun. It’s as difficult and confusing as these things are in real life, and that’s not a message that they want to convey.
Everybody on the ground thinks it’s great because it does reflect their experience so far. I’ve talked to military moms of the some of the people in the movie and I could tell that they weren’t happy about it. They think it’s confusing, that it was deliberately made to look confusing and unsuccessful, it’s slanted. And I know other parents of conservative soldiers in the film who have seen it and they think it’s totally great and fair, but often I think those people have had some military experience and are more familiar with what they see portrayed in the film.
When you left Iraq with your footage, was that the end of the military’s involvement with you? Yep.
That’s pretty brave of them. Crazy, isn’t it? I think it’s just a matter of what they see as their job and what resources they have available. This place is crawling with media, constantly. It’s just nothing that they could get involved in, just as a practical issue, let alone a legal issue.
When people complain about the big networks not reporting the story and aren’t reflecting what’s really going on, is that the military’s fault, the journalists’ fault, or is it something so shady where nobody really knows how to portray it the right way? I think it’s a combination of things. I mean, certainly the military is extremely good at policing its own house and keeping things secret that they don’t want you to see. But that said, they’re very open and willing to throw open the doors. They’re very honorable people in a lot of ways. I was really struck by the dyed in the wool ethic.
I think the other thing is a popularity contest. You see it for instance in the criticism of this television show that came out. All the critics fell in line and said it was the greatest thing, even though it’s a cynical pack of lies, but no American critic or journalist or editor wants to print something that makes the military look shady or horrific. They’re afraid of not supporting the troops because of the popularity contest issue. They don’t want to get branded with the anti-American brush, and we know what happens whenever they go against the administration. So there’s definitely that aspect of it. Nobody wants to print things critical of the nation’s institutions or the military in particular in this administration.
Unless it’s so brutally obvious and everyone’s gonna jump on it, but then they’re still just riding the wave. Then we get these bungled things like, “Oh my God, the soldiers are torturing people! Oh, the Marine executed the guy in a mosque!” And it was so obvious these things were happening. It’s fucking war. Once you let the dogs out, that’s what’s gonna happen, and everybody’s suddenly shocked, with their hands to their mouths. And so of course editors are afraid to print certain things. It’s a practical issue, too, finally, because for television journalism, you have these people extended into this zone in Iraq, and you’re chasing down so many stories. The editor’s gonna pay a guy to go with his little crew for maybe two or three days on one story, follow it up and turn in your two-minute, three-minute format. You’ve got sixty guys doing that and one guy might get on the news or on the front page or whatever.
So there’s no real time to get an understanding of things, it’s just these little events cut out of all context. That’s just how journalism works. Nobody really has the time or the resources, or often the mentality, I think, to cover something in those long and interesting ways, it’s not in the form.
So, especially with so much possible, how did you guys end up with 78 minutes? That’s really tight and efficient and it's a massive contemporary subject. Because of the way it’s structured, the military is an incredibly repetitive life. It’s like everybody says, you’re just living the same day over and over again. Even in the film, there’s three main sections where they go on big raids in the city, and to the audience, it quickly looks like they’re doing the same thing over and over again, even though in a very subtle way, different things are happening in each of those scenes but that’s gonna make a big impression on people. We tried to limit the repetition of things that appear to be the same operation over and over and over again, even though they weren’t.
There were four more guys that we could have covered, and we were thinking that we covered too many people in the movie as it was. They were all very distinct as individuals, so we tried to think about contrast between people that would overcome the sense of similarity and repetition, and then really try to think about how these people distinguish themselves from each other in each consecutive scene, but then also in the long run, can you see any of them going through any big changes from the beginning to the end?
Eventually we just decided to stay with maybe half of the main people that we covered. Because of various events that they encounter, we tried to pay attention to them from the beginning to the end. Just by trying to establish those laws narratively, tons and tons of footage was out immediately. We had to cut out scenes that didn’t seem to go anywhere when they were shown. So after a while it was pretty easy, the movie made it pretty clear what didn’t want to be in it, as much as I wanted it to be in it. We can put that stuff on the DVD hopefully.
Did you look at what other documentaries and war movies have done? Like as far as just trying to reach audiences outside the art houses? Yeah. Well, there’s GUNNER PALACE (2004), which came out earlier this year, and it did pretty badly in theaters, especially in red states. They went for a really wide release, and that’s the example that we don’t want to follow. From that, I take it that we need to be very realistic about what our goals are, they have to be very modest. We want the film to have a pretty good public profile so when the DVD comes out, people won’t just ignore it.
We’re hoping for this little run and get word of mouth, for lack of a better term. That means huge crowds aren’t gonna show up in the beginning, so it’s like, “How the fuck do you get the word out?”
To think that you two guys went to Iraq and you made a documentary about an incredibly unstable region, not just war but this unusual, fucked up war, and now the real problem is trying to get people to look at it back in the U.S. It’s really disturbing. Conventionally, you’d think, “Oh yeah, this is something everybody would be interested in,” but everybody’s just saturated with it, they think they’ve seen it all before. It’s been a total eye-opener. It’s obviously the reason why most Hollywood films are made the way they are, because you want to make something that’s got built-in sales potential. Otherwise it’s like you never even made the movie, there’s no good angle or some bullshit like that.
Hopefully the DVD will get out. Because this is the most mainstream thing I could possibly make. (laughs) It’s fucking hard.
I hope the distribution racket doesn’t discourage you from making more films. You’ll hustle yourself through one more. (laughs) We’ll keep going.