Matthew Michael Carnahan, writer of Lions for Lambs and The Kingdom, took his filmmaking career to its next logical point this year with Mosul, his feature film directorial debut. The film, which stars an all-Middle Eastern cast and was made in Arabic rather than English, proved a logistical challenge, but it was something Carnahan was determined to take on. Joe and Anthony Russo, the producers best known for directing Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, brought him a pitch to make Mosul a reality, a decision that has tweaked some audiences who wondered why they did not approach a Middle Eastern filmmaker as well -- but Carnahan told ComicBook.com that he did his best to do right by the story at every turn, and to bring American audiences to a universal, human truth about people who are fighting for their homes and families.
Based on an article in the New Yorker, Mosul centers on a group of Iraqis who were fighting ISIS, trying to take back the parts of the city where they and their families lived from ISIS control. He said that while he had no idea that the story was true, he was immediately gripped by it, and knew that he wanted to direct it within reading the first few pages of the script.
“Every guy they kill gets them closer to home, closer to their families, and they sacrifice for each other so that they can reclaim things if and when the war ends,” Carnahan explained. “Until I read that article, that was a huge blind spot. I didn’t know that guys like the Nineveh SWAT team existed in Iraq; it was a country we had been at some state of war with since I was a senior in high school. I consider myself pretty well-read and up-to-date with the news, and until I read that article, I just hadn’t imagined that these guys existed there, and so I was desperate to put this on film, and have people share the reaction I had when I found out about them.”
Carnahan said that the decision to shoot in the local dialect -- which he does not speak, so much of his direction had to go through an interpreter -- was key to the idea of making sure people understood that these were local people defending their own homes. During our conversation, we asked whether the decision had to do with making sure that it was clear these were Iraqis, and not U.S. soldiers or contractors who just happened not to be white guys.
"In a nutshell, that was the thining process," Carnahan told ComicBook.com. "To me, the thing that grabbed me about the article was -- once I got past my blind spot that these guys exist -- is that not only do they exist but they are so much closer to me than I have ever thought or been led to believe. They are doing things, acting and reacting in ways that I pray to God I would be able to do if I ever found myself in that hellish situation. They want their city back, their homes back, their families back, and my God, isn't that what humanity is all about?...Those things that bind us together as human beings are so much more numerous and meaningful than the things that divide us. I wanted to bring that out on film and it just seemed like the best possible way to do that was to find actors from that part of the world and let them speak some language of their mother tongue."
He acknowledged that it would be easy enough to find actors "from the West End, who looked the part, and to have them speak in English accents since that's a stand-in for all foreign languages, but it would be cheap."
Carnahan, who comes from a filmmaking family and has written films like World War Z and Darkwater Horizon, may be a first time filmmaker, but he is not new to Hollywood. Still, having producing partners who are fresh off two of the five highest grossing movies of all time is the kind of resource you can't help to hit up, and Carnahan said he did ask the Russos if they had any advice for him heading into Mosul.
“Joe Russo gave me two great pieces of advice,” Carnahan said. “He said the thing that’s going to strike you first and foremost is that this is blue collar work. Yes, you have to know what you’re doing story wise, yes there has to be emotion, but the thing that’s going to surprise you is just how much of this is moving equipment to get those things to shine. It’s blue collar work, embrace that, and be in really good shape, because it’s grueling, and you can’t be the guy who gets tired first. You’ve got to be the guy who’s there before everyone else is, and who leaves when everyone else is gone.”
Mosul premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. There is no word yet on when it will have a wider theatrical or streaming release.