“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is about the evening of the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks, a group of Islamic militants attack the American compound containing the American Ambassador to Libya. A group of six CIA security contractors undertake a desperate attempt to rescue the American Ambassador under overwhelming odds.
“13 Hours” is based on a true story and is taken from the best-selling book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi” by Mitchell Zuckoff. I had the honor of interviewing three of the soldiers that made up the Annex Security Team and survived 13 hours under attack; Mark “Oz” Geist (portrayed by Max Martini), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (portrayed by Pablo Schreiber) and John “Tig” Teigen (portrayed by Dominic Fumusa).
What was your reaction that Michael Bay was going to make this movie?
John “Tig” Teigen: I thought cool; we are going to get to hang out with Autobots.
Were you worried that a director that is known for Transformers and other big popcorn type films was going to do your story?
John: Well you want a big type popcorn movie because then everybody is going to see it. He did a good job. We got to talk to Michael beforehand. He told us what he wanted to do with the film, and we got to tell him what we wanted. We had pretty much the same ideas. Yeah, there are lot explosions, but there are a lot of explosions in combat. Fortunately, none of the guns transformed or anything. He did a good job, and the movie stays true to the book. Some of the characters roles got changed around, but that’s just to make the movie flow because there are a lot of moving parts.
When you watched the final cut, did it take you right back there?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto: Each of us experienced the film a little bit differently. To some degree, you have that feeling of being back there. But to me, it’s a movie and as realistic as it is, it’s still a movie. From a technical aspect, they got it right. I have a new found respect for the actors, the director and the whole crew on how much effort they put in to get it right. I don’t know if it was the subject matter, or if it’s always this way, but they got it right. They gave one hundred and ten percent of themselves in making this movie.
Is it surreal seeing yourselves being portrayed up on the big screen?
Kris: I should have played myself. No, it really wasn’t surreal. But it did add to the realism to the movie because the actors portrayed us so accurately. To be honest, it makes me feel proud that they took the time to get our mannerisms down and get our personalities down. But it wasn’t surreal at all. But it did make me proud, and I don’t get star struck. It’s very heartwarming that the guys would take the time to get this story down and get it exact.
You mentioned that they changed a few things from the book to make it flow better. How accurate is the book to your story and how accurate is the movie?
John: The book is minute by minute. It’s totally accurate. It’s how we lived it and how we saw it. The book is exactly how we saw it go down.
Kris: With the book, Mitchell did it in a way to make sure we weren’t embellishing anything. We all set down separately and filled out questionnaires, telling our versions of what happened. Even though we were separate, we were telling the same thing. All the points of view were telling the same thing. I think it was a way for him to validate the story because I think he was a little unsure. I mean Benghazi has the conspiracy theorists on what went on, but because we told our story to him separately and were telling him the same thing, he realized we were telling the truth. The book is spot on. Now the movie is where you have to meld 13 hours into two hours, so you have to mesh some characters up. We had a team leader that is in the book that is not in the movie. Rone was our assistant team leader, but they meld the two into one character. But the timeline in the movie is good, and the battle scenes are exactly how it was. The battle was confusing. A lot of critics are saying that it is hard to follow because you don’t know who the enemy is but that’s how it was. Not every movie can be…
Mark “Oz” Geist: Black and white.
Kris: Yeah, or a dramatized “Hurt Locker” type of movie, because that was an inaccurate portrayal of how those guys do their job. That’s not what we wanted, and Michael was perfect for the job because he shoots in that documentary style where you feel that you are a bit confused about what is going on. That’s because that is the way it was.
Was there anything that they left out of the movie that you wish they had left in?
Kris: We had pet turtles. That praying mantis, that was real, and he was huge. In that same area, we had some pet turtles. In the book, there is a part where I and Jack (played in the movie by John Krasinski) are leaving for the last time, and we realized we wouldn’t wouldn’t see our pet turtles anymore.
John: This guy is a sap.
Kris: Ha ha. But besides that, I was very happy with how much they were able to get into the movie. 13 hours getting into two is tough. They got the main points that they needed to, and the emotion came across. They got the faith that we had in each other to come across. I am very, very happy with how it turned out.
In the movie, there seemed to be tension between you guys and the CIA chief. Was that just part of the movie or was that really there? What was the reason there was tension between him and you guys?
Kris: Personalities. It was just a clash of personalities. Not every base is like that. There are some good chiefs out there, some outstanding ones. But that was the atmosphere. It was an atmosphere of them and us, not versus them but us and them. That argument I had with the chief in the movie was actually an argument that I had with the team leader. But that’s how it was. I saw the agency as it was turning into the State Department. It was more about diplomacy than doing the clandestine stuff that I saw when I first started working for them. There was a sense of “this is not what I signed up for.” It changed too much, and it created a lot of animosities. That’s how I felt. Plus, It seemed like the case officer was a kid.
Mark: Personally I never had a big beef with the Chief. For the most part, I thought he was a pretty cool guy. He was good at his job. When it came down some security things, he was a little passive aggressive. He did tell us to “stand down.” It happened. Why it happened, I don’t know. It did happen on several occasions. I mean we got stuck at an airport for five hours one time. But on a day to day basis, I liked the guy. He really wasn’t as much an ass as we portray him in the movie but it’s a short time to tell the story. You are going to have conflicts with everybody; it’s a small base. It’s not like you can leave the party and go hang out at a mall. You are going to have conflicts. We have conflicts between each other.
Kris: And they do show him in the movie where he does give the orders to start the evacuation. They do give him a heroic role in showing him doing that. But he was the antagonist of the movie. But he was trying to do his job. But when it came to combat he needed to step out of the way and let the guys that knew what they were doing take charge. I think pride got in his way a bit.
It sounds like you guys were involved in making the film. How much did you get to work with the actors and with director Michael Bay?
John: I think Pablo moved into Kris’s house at one point. I think they even shared the same bed. I’m not saying anything happened.
Kris: Hey, he was trying to get the role down. It’s OK even though he has a restraining order against me. But all kidding aside, they did an awesome job.
John: Dominic called me a lot, trying to get me to tell him my story. They took it to heart to want to get it right.
Did you get to go to the set?
Kris: Yeah, we each got to spend seven to ten days on the set.
John: They kicked us off because we started taking over the shoot.
Kris: We got to be also involved with writing the script and helping with the set design. So we were pretty heavily involved with making the film. Pablo got picked early on, so I got to spend a lot of time with him. We were very involved with the process.
What do you hope that audiences take away from this film?
Mark: You know it’s unfortunate that this country has gotten so polarized, either by our politicians or the mainstream media. But if we really look and talk about things, we would realize that the left and right have more similarities than differences. An example of that is in the movie where the night of the attack, we had two dozen people there of all different views. Instead of focusing on the infighting and differences, we came together to overcome insurmountable odds. We did that because we came together as a team. The people inside the buildings did what we needed them to do while we were fighting at the annex. We didn’t have to worry what they were doing because we knew that they would do what they needed to do. It’s that teamwork that allowed us to survive, and I hope people see that in the movie. This wasn’t about politics. People and politicians have made this political, but it was a good example of people coming together using teamwork, integrity, dedication, honesty to overcome the odds. Everyone can have a little more in their lives. All of us can.
I think one of the great things this film brings out is that there are not only military forces out there protecting us but that there are also guys like you, private security forces out there. It also shows us the great sacrifices that not only the men and women have to do but also how it affects their families.
Kris: Yeah, there is a line that John says in the film: “Every time I go back I say it’s my last trip, and then I go back.” And my character says to him “Warriors don’t retire.” I quit after my fourth year. And then I quit after my fifth year. And then I said I am not doing it anymore after my sixth year. We have all said that at one time. Those lines in the movie really hit home.
Thank you guys so much for talking to us today and also, thank you for your service to this country.
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is currently in theaters nationwide.
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