A hilarious and heartfelt portrait of a woman getting her life together in a global hot spot where everything else seems to be falling apart.
Based on the true adventures of war-reporter-in-the-making Kim Barker — and her acclaimed autobiography The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan – comes Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a hilarious and heartfelt portrait of a woman getting her life together in a global hot spot where everything else seems to be falling apart.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (military code for the letters WTF), is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, from a screenplay by Robert Carlock based on Kim Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle.
Sometimes it takes saying “WTF” to discover the life you were always destined to lead. That’s exactly what happens to cable news producer Kim Baker (Tina Fey) when she realizes her routine existence is lacking in something – and decides to “blow it all up” by taking a crazy, WTF assignment in Afghanistan. There, amidst a mind-boggling array of adventurers, militants, warlords and madcap chaos, Kim finds something unexpected: the strength she never knew she had.
In 2002, reporter Kim Barker arrived for the first time in Kabul, Afghanistan – and she was completely, perhaps even ridiculously, unprepared for what she was about to experience.
Dislodged from her ordinary American life, Kim was now embedded in an out-of-control battle zone rife with danger and corruption by day, and an over-the-top war correspondents’ culture of party-hopping and romantic entanglements by night. It was a sink-or-swim situation … and Barker’s head was barely bobbing above water. But unwilling to give up, Barker made a willful journey from clueless cub reporter to savvy, frontline observer. In the process of trying to make sense of the absurd – both in her personal life and the war zone around her — Barker bumbled right into her true self and calling.
Her story, related in a frank, wisecracking memoir that was like no other account of life in wartime ever written, was lauded by critics. Reviewers and readers alike were lured by the book’s fresh take, no-holds-barred honesty and the incisively comic pairing of a totally inexperienced American woman with an unseen land of veils, secret sex lives and a convoluted global conflict that even the experts couldn’t get a handle on.
As it turns out, Michio Kakatuni’s admiring review of The Taliban Shuffle in The New York Times unexpectedly inspired the film to come. Kakatuni praised the book’s “satiric verve” and the way it managed to be at once “hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating.” At the same time, she wrote prophetically that Barker “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.”
That twining of Barker with Tina Fey hit home with … Tina Fey, who intrigued, took a glance at the book. That look had her hooked. Riveted by Barker’s biting, zinger-filled account of how she learned to navigate the press corps, international politics and one of the world’s wildest social scenes, all while confronting her own constantly up-ended naiveté, Fey was provoked to both laughter and fascination. She loved how Barker arrived in Kabul a hapless rookie — having barely traveled, speaking only English and with no idea what was going on or even how to survive – and dared to figure it all out on-the-fly. Sensing the potential for that rare film that traverses back-and-forth across the borders between comedy and drama, Fey then brought the book to her good friend, Emmy-winning writer Robert Carlock, who worked on “30 Rock” and co-created “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
“It’s shamefully true that I heard about the review of the book and thought I could worm my way into the project,” jokes Fey. She goes on, quite seriously: “But what really attracted me is the story of a woman who arrives in Kabul expecting to spend three months … who ends up spending three years. Kim starts out a novice at reporting and a novice at the kind of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle that reporters lead there. It’s a total awakening for her.”
Fey came aboard as a producer, at the center of a crack trio completed by comedy innovator and “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels and producer Ian Bryce, whose films range from the award-wining comedy “Almost Famous” to the epic “Transformers” series.
She also decided to jump into the role of Kim, perhaps her most ambitious film role to date. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa note that Fey’s decision to play Kim takes her into new territory. She still plays a relatable modern working woman, but one who goes far beyond the office confines of her famed portrait of comedy writer Liz Lemon on “30 Rock.”
“This is definitely not Liz Lemon Goes to War,” says co-director John Requa. “Kim Baker is a really complex character who gives Tina a chance to spread her wings as a wide-ranging actress.”
“Tina is the funniest person I’ve ever met,” adds co-director Glenn Ficarra, “but this movie also allows her to take her skills to a whole new level.”
The real-life Kim Barker was thrilled by the synergy she felt with Fey. “It’s so exciting to have Tina Fey playing me,” she muses. “I think we have very similar senses of humor, but also she really wanted to do the story justice.”
Fey’s biggest qualm about portraying Kim was not their different worlds; she was ready to dive headlong into the reality of a newbie war reporter’s life just as Barker had once done – and to explore the emotional frisson of a woman who moves through states that range from overwhelmed to adrenaline-jacked to desensitized to self-assured. Indeed, she was thrilled. “Helicopters and explosions are not typically part of my day-to-day,” she points out, “so that was interesting to me.”
Instead, Fey’s sole consternation was their mis-matched heights. “My only regret is that I can’t pull off playing Kim at 5’10”,” Fey muses. “In the book, Kim describes how she towered over powerful men who’d proposition her and grab her butt. I’d love to portray that — but I’m only 5’4.””
What’s So Funny About Kabul?
With Fey’s support squarely behind the project, things began moving ahead quickly. The first major crux for writer Robert Carlock was to find a way to transport Barker’s mix of self-discovery, shrewd insight and bawdy hilarity to the screenplay. For amid falling bombs and failed peacemaking, Kim was also discovering a dizzying new life — dating, partying and reporting as a woman in a land where woman aren’t even supposed to show their faces. Carlock honed in on that contrast – the equal power and absurdity of Kim’s mission — and on condensing 400 provocative pages into a taut, lean script that brought out the humor and humanity in her journey.
“I really wanted to hone in on the book’s biggest themes, and the moments of comedy and terror,” says Carlock. “I wanted to capture that combination of living hard and partying hard, of seeing the ridiculousness in everything while being scared for your life. The book has a wonderfully dark humor because that’s how people cope with such situations and that was important to get on screen. I never saw it as a history lesson – it’s the story of a woman who throws herself into a world that changes her.”
In one of his biggest changes, Carlock narrowed the real Kim’s epic travels through Afghanistan and Pakistan to Afghanistan only to keep the story more tightly focused. “Pakistan is a big onion,” explains Carlock. “You can peel it forever; it is endlessly complicated. And we felt that having the film constantly shuffling between Islamabad and Kabul would be too disorienting.”
Adds Tina Fey: “Although Kim’s time in Pakistan was fascinating, it was just too much to cover in one movie. This is a movie based on her life, so we changed her name from Barker to Baker, and Robert also made her a cable news producer rather than a print journalist — who wants to watch people typing? — and amalgamated her friends, colleagues and story subjects in a way that makes the narrative more cinematic.”
The film expressly takes no political stance on Afghanistan or the current wars in the region, but Carlock did want to capture the Catch-22-ness of it all – of reporters deliriously caught in the comic paradox of trying to latch onto some semblance of personal sanity amidst an impossible and insane situation.
Carlock’s greatest pleasure was the intensive research; he probed for months into both the lives of war reporters and the surreal atmosphere of embattled Kabul. “It was an exciting process,” he says.
“Diving in and going off on tangents, I found myself talking to Kim’s friends and colleagues in Jerusalem, fixers in Afghanistan, hooking up with Green Berets at Fort Bragg and meeting with SEALs for dinner. I came away with the feeling that in Afghanistan, everyone had the best intentions in an impossible situation. Our aim on screen was to be respectful to the reporters, the locals, the soldiers and all these people who take huge risks helping to do the work that Kim did.”
The directing duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa – who wrote the devilishly dark, anti-holiday classic Bad Santa and who have directed such films as Crazy, Stupid Love and the recent Focus, could not resist the exuberant wit of Carlock’s adaptation.
“We were amazed that the story was so much about character,” says Requa. “It’s about the journey of a woman and a window into a unique world that Carlock made incredibly entertaining. You don’t get many opportunities to do a movie like — a dark comedy that’s very funny yet also realistic about war, yet doesn’t make direct commentary about war. It reminded us of ‘M.A.S.H.’ and even ‘Three Kings’ to a degree.”
But while Robert Altman’s irreverent comedy was set in a Korean War field hospital, and David O. Russell’s action-packed satire was set at the end of the first Gulf War, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot entered a wholly unseen world: that of the female war reporter in Afghanistan, a conflict not often seen at the movies, let alone in a comedy with a female lead.
“Robert found a way to write Kim’s story so that it gives a fun view into what it is to be a war reporter today,” notes Glenn Ficarra. “In many ways, it’s the relatable story of a woman starting a new career later in life – but that’s set against a very real war, which is the genius of it.”
Fey and co-producers Lorne Michaels and Ian Bryce were excited to bring in a pair of directors already renown for defying genre and conventional notions of film comedy.
“We needed a director who would not only get the specific tone of the comedy, but who could also create a visually beautiful world – and we got two of them,” points out Fey. “’Bad Santa’ was hilarious, so we knew Glenn and John understood comedy, but we also saw that they are art school guys who went to Pratt and have a strong visual sense, so they were a great match.”
Margot Robbie, who first learned about “WTF” while working for the directing duo on Focus, says, “I love their sense of irony and sarcasm, and they do it so well because it’s grounded in characters you truly care about. John and Glenn are like this wonderful married couple. They rely on each other and really flow well together. And they’re hilarious.”
Working with double the usual number of directors was no issue for Fey, who is used to working in teams as a comedy writer and producer. “The more the merrier. A good idea is a good idea, no matter who said it. That said, I only talked to John; I never really met Glenn,” she quips.
In The Kabubble
As soon as she lands in Kabul, Kim is initiated into a ramshackle group of expatriate journalists – her only lifeline in navigating the dizzying culture shock of Kabul as well as the so-called “the Kabubble,” the frenzied, behind-the-scenes social scene forged by journalists, aid workers, diplomats and security contractors trying to survive the city in irreverent style.
Taking Kim under her wing is fellow female journalist Tanya Vanderpoel, a composite character based on several straight-talking, uninhibited reporters. Taking the role of the old Kabul hand who has plenty of advice for Kim on everything from getting stories to handling the local notions of sex life is Margot Robbie (“The Big Short,” “Wolf of Wall Street”).
From the start, Fey was looking for a polar opposite to take the part. “Tina wanted to join forces with someone other-worldly, a different species from Kim, someone confident, tall, blonde, seemingly created for being in front of a camera. I think I got three words into the script before I thought: Margot,” says Glenn Ficarra of the casting.
The lure for Robbie was her character’s fierceness. “She’s wickedly smart, adaptable and very ambitious,” she observes. “But Tanya is also a young, female reporter who people don’t always take seriously so she puts on a façade. She believes in ‘fake it, ’til you make it.’ If you do anything with conviction, people will buy it; that’s her philosophy. What’s interesting is that, in the real world, Tanya and Kim would likely never have been friends, but in the Kabubble, they rely on each other.”
Part of the need for female friendship is that these women are so utterly outnumbered by the opposite sex. “The ratio of male to female reporters in Afghanistan is vast,” notes Robbie. “It’s truly a boys’ club. They’re surrounded by dudes all the time, so they really have to hold their own.”
John Requa was thrilled with the enthusiasm Robbie brought to the role. “Margot is take-your-breath-away talented,” says Requa. “And she’s not hard on the eyes, which is important because Kim needs to be intimidated by her appearance. We also liked the idea of there being an age difference between the characters because Tanya is where Kim wishes she had been at Tanya’s age.”
Screenwriter Carlock took great pleasure in watching Robbie bring out all the brazen confidence he saw in the character. “Margot projects strength and authority. Tanya’s seen it all so she becomes Kim’s guide in this inferno, steering her through the steps of letting go of her former life.”
Robbie was especially fascinated by the way Western women working in Afghanistan have to maneuver a culture where most women are beholden to don the hijab – and are certainly not allowed to fraternize with males, let alone flirt with them. Yet, because of working women’s rarity, there’s also a surreal phenomenon in which female correspondents can draw intense sexual attention unlike anything back home. They dub it the “4-10-4” rule.
“4-10-4 implies that a woman who is a 4 in the U.S. becomes a 10 when in Afghanistan where there are so few available women, but is a 4 again back home,” explains Requa. “It’s completely sexist, but the isolation of women and the bonding they do because of it plays a big part in the story.”
Providing another POV is Lebanese journalist Shakira Khar, another experienced female correspondent portrayed by Sheila Vand, known for her role in Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” Vand says she was drawn to exploring the invisible lives of female reporters. “I think you have to be so to sign up for something like this,” says Vand of her character’s drive to report from Afghanistan. “It’s similar to the lifestyle of an actor because you’re frequently far away from home and have to make sacrifices, especially as a woman. It can be a cutthroat business, but these journalists go abroad to get the stories that get airplay and space; otherwise you’re covering Black Friday at the mall.”
Vand especially was gratified to have the chance to portray a go-getting Middle Eastern female reporter, a character not often seen. She sees Shakira as daring. “Someone like Shakira has had to navigate more obstacles than Kim or Tanya to get where she is,” Vand points out. “There is something fascinating about a woman who breaks away from a conservative culture to do journalism.”
Different as they are from each other, Kim, Tanya and Shakira become an unstoppable triumvirate – and Shakira comes to root for Kim. “Their camaraderie is a necessity,” says Vand, “because if you don’t align yourself with other women in a place like this, you’re really on your own. I think when Shakira looks at Kim, she sees a woman who can blossom like she did. She sees that Kim can own parts of herself that she couldn’t back home because we’re all like queens in Afghanistan.”