Giving a voice to all sides stuck in the constant cycle of war in the Middle East

For screenwriter Mitchell LaFortune, the genesis of the story for Kandahar began as he pulled stories from his time as a Defense Intelligence Agency officer who had served multiple deployments in Afghanistan, telling the story of a CIA Black Ops agent and his Afghan interpreter who must evade deadly forces as they escape Iran after a whistleblower reveals the agent destroyed a nuclear facility.

“The inspiration really came from the last two deployments I did in western Afghanistan, near the Iran border, operating primarily out of Herat Province.,” where most of Kandahar takes place,” says LaFortune, an incredibly high-octane storyteller whose military background includes multiple Army tours in the Middle East with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Mitchell notably penned Burn Run which turned into Kandahar, repping Gerard Butler’s re-team with his Angel Has Fallen filmmaker, Ric Roman Waugh.

Mitchell LaFortune, a Maine native, came from a long line of service. “My grandfather is a World War II veteran and served in the Pacific theater. He was one of those guys who joined before legally being able to. He was 15 or 16 and lied about his age to serve his country,” he shared. “His story was definitely a motivator for me but I also grew up watching 9/11 unfold.”

Director Ric Roman-Waugh (Greenland, Angel Has Fallen) turns this drawn-from-truth story into an intense, of-the-moment action-adventure-drama.

“I met Mitch LaFortune working on Greenland as a writer,” says Waugh. “Thunder Road was a big fan of his. Basil Iwanyk – the owner and producer who did Greenland – and Mitch and I really hit it off. I’m a big veteran supporter, and he’s a vet that had worked in the Army Intelligence for over a decade. And it’s based on a lot of his own experiences, but also inspired by true events of a real CIA operator. And when I read it, it just blew me away. So I wasn’t ever aware of the history of it. To me, it was this new and fresh and exciting thing of coming off of Greenland and wondering what’s next.”

“I loved the way Mitch’s script gave a voice to all sides stuck in this constant cycle of war in the Middle East,” says Waugh of Kandahar “To find so much empathy even in those chasing our heroes is a remarkable feat.”

“Mitch LaFortune lived this life in the spy game and military world. That level of authenticity doesn’t
come from research, it comes from experience,” says Waugh. “That’s a key to the truth in Kandahar.”

“Action, for me, has to come from an emotional thrust, so that we’re thrilled, scared, anxious or tense just as the characters are, so we experience the rush with them,” says Waugh. “Because the action sequences in Kandahar resonate from a character level, and aren’t just for the sake of action, we got to design each one with a specific emotion and point of view.”

 Director Ric Roman-Waugh and Gerard Butler / Copyright Open Road Films

Kandahar is populated by a rich assortment of characters, many inspired by the people LaFortune knew during his time serving in the Middle East. As portrayed by Gerard Butler, the CIA operative Tom Harris is the kind of behind-the-scenes figure whose work in “black ops” exists on the knife’s-edge of danger — while Mo, as portrayed by Navid Negahban, has a history that traverses the region’s varied political,
religious, and military changes. Each of them represents a vital viewpoint.

“Tom Harris is a combination of a bunch of people that I ran into during my time in the military and at
the Defense Intelligence Agency,” says LaFortune. “But Mo is based on a real person: He was a translator that I worked extensively with in 2011 and 2013. He was a man I really wanted to write something great for — I thought that the sacrifices he made as an individual to keep us all safe was so inspirational.”

“Tom and Mo have an equal amount of gravitas within the screenplay to show how these different governments and cultures work together and also work against each other,” says LaFortune. “I spent years in Afghanistan, and I spent years working with a real guy named Mo and being immersed in the culture. So my goal with this film was to make an action movie that’s extremely respectful of the country and to the culture and the people I met there who are trying to make a difference.”

“The second I read the script, I could see the new perspective that Mitchell offered as a writer, as this
is based on his own time working with the government and with defense intelligence,” says producer Brendon Boyea (Greenland), who notes that the story’s connection to the truth, and the complexities of loyalty and nationalism, added to the thrilling mix.

“These characters come from real-life experience in one way or another. He’s melded a variety of true stories into a fictional piece that’s extremely authentic. He brings a viewpoint to all these different warring factions within the Middle East, and you understand where the different characters are coming from.”

Gerard Butler and Navid Negahban in Kandahar

“In other movies, we’re used to painting certain people as antagonists,” adds Boyea. “In Kandahar, we can relate to different people and what they’re doing, for different reasons.”

Producer Alan Siegel, Gerard Butler’s partner at their production company G-Base and his collaborator
on Greenland, Angel Has Fallen, and many prior films including Hunter Killer, Olympus Had Fallen, and
Machine Gun Preacher, saw how the possibilities in the script were perfect for G-Base’s vision.

“Everyone is used to seeing the ‘action’ in action-adventure movies come first, which of course is a main reason many people go to the movies — but Gerry and I saw that a lot of those movies lack heart and
soul,” says Siegel. “When we first read Mitchell’s script, we knew you could see what’s inside these characters, inside Tom Harris, and you take the journey with him. It’s not all about guns and car chases; it’s
about humanity. It’s unusual for an action movie to have such three-dimensional characters as these.”
When Ric Roman Waugh came aboard to direct, it would unite him with Butler a third time.

“We shared the Kandahar script with Ric shortly after he finished Greenland,” says Boyea. “He fell in love with it right away, and, as Ric does, he immediately started researching everything and was all in from the start.”

Adds Lafortune, “I tried to write the most realistic version of a spy film that I could, and Ric’s style of directing has a kind of a quasi-documentary feel to it, which lends authenticity.”

“For the rest of our lives, millions of people will be affected by the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I can’t control anything in regard to U.S. foreign policy. I wish I could reverse a lot of things but I can’t. For me, this is my love letter of thanks to everyone involved,” LaFortune said. “This is a different kind of action movie in terms of authenticity as a spy film. All of the characters are based off of real people I interacted with. I think Afghanistan is going to be represented in a way that’s never been seen before.”

Waugh’s rise as a filmmaker is one of the most meteoric in recent Hollywood history. The Los Angeles-born former stuntman helped the action scenes in The Last of The Mohicans, Days of Thunder, Last Action Hero, and Gone in 60 Seconds look thrillingly real. When he began making his own films, Waugh hit the ground running with Felon (2008) and Snitch (2013) — both of which he also wrote — before jumping abord to write and direct Angel Has Fallen (2019) and Greenland (2020), both of which starred Butler.

“Ric’s a great filmmaker,” adds Boyea. “It starts with his work ethic, which is unlike any I’ve ever seen. He immerses himself in the world of a movie completely, so that he can create the clearest, most authentic films. He takes his responsibilities as a storyteller very seriously.”

Says LaFortune, “When Ric wanted to come on board, I knew that he was the right filmmaker, and that he’d really be able to execute the vision. He’s an incredible storyteller. Ric has also had extensive engagement with the military community, and that’s something that he’s really passionate about. The fusion of those two things really work for Kandahar. Ric lives and breathes his work ethic.”

“I have a policy just to write and envision. I think people know, with my movies, I’m always looking for authenticity, even if it’s heightened. And so I’m always gonna have that lens in mind. But for me, it’s about what tells the story first. And then, yeah, my background in stunts is always going to come into play, where I’m going to understand how I’m going to execute it. So the earlier drafts are much more about the story and the actors understanding where we’re going, then the script evolves into what I call the blueprint. It’s the blueprint of how we’re going to execute the movie. And it becomes a little bit more mechanical in the actual sequences, that has to get the the crew to understand how we’re going to make it.” Director Ric Roman-Waugh

Mitchell LaFortune with Gerard Butler / Photo courtesy of Mitchell LaFortune

“Gerry and I talked a lot about the character of Tom before we started filming,” says LaFortune. “Gerry has a quiet, powerful intensity about him that’s perfect for the role. He can say so much with his eyes,
and there are many moments when Tom is a very quiet character.”

“What drives Tom, at least initially, is that he has become so immersed in his work that he loses a
connection to who he was and where he came from. I think that can happen in different walks of life — careers can consume you,” says Boyea. “Tom just happens to be in a career where he’s disconnected from the outside world, so he becomes these undercover personas he takes on, which detaches him even further. And Mo recognizes that. Tom is addicted to the ‘great game,’ as they call it in the Middle East, and he becomes so driven by living that life that it costs him his marriage, and he’s growing apart from his daughter back home.”

In Butler’s performance, audiences see the steeliness and knack for quick-thinking that people like Tom need to survive in hot-button scenarios — as well as the yearning for home that haunts them.

“There are a lot of Tom Harris-type of guys out there, and part of their motivations is patriotism and
believing in something greater than yourself,” says LaFortune. “But they’re complicated people; I saw a lot of relationships get shattered because of never-ending deployments to the Middle East. People were separated from their family and friends for such a significant amount of time. At the heart of his character is a man who believes in a greater responsibility, a greater sense of good, and that’s what drives him. But ‘war addiction’ is a real thing —an attraction to danger and adrenaline, and that’s why you have individuals who’ve done 10 or 12 deployments for 20 years. That’s hard to walk away from because it becomes your whole identity.”

Tom needs Mo’s expertise and way of getting through Iran, but mostly, he needs someone to speak
with and confide in that he can trust. “Tom starts off as a stoic character and by the end of the movie he’s opened up, and he needs Mo to find that transformation — he needs to remember what it’s like to be human again,” says LaFortune.

“Operatives can’t work in Afghanistan or really anywhere in the Middle East without the help of locals,” adds LaFortune. “We have a serious language deficiency when it comes to our ability to speak Arabic,
Pashtu, Dari or Farsi, so we’re reliant upon people from that region.”

Iranian actor Navid Negahban’s extraordinary road to Kandahar. began as a stunt coordinator and
fight choreographer before moving into producing. On the big screen, Negahban has been seen
in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated American Sniper, Mike Nichols’ Oscar-nominated Charlie Wilson’s
War, 12 Strong
with Chris Hemsworth, and Disney’s blockbuster Aladdin.

“Navid, and many other cast members, had lived this kind of life for real,” says Waugh. “Mostly as kids fleeing war and conflict in actuality, so their performances come from a place of truth.”

“Mo is based on a real person I knew who left Afghanistan in 1979 and returned after Sept. 11, 2001,
to work with the Americans,” says LaFortune. “Mo starts off as someone who doesn’t really know his place, and by the end of the movie he finds inner strength. He was a child soldier with the Northern Alliance once. But he’s far removed from that, so in a way he must become a soldier again to help Tom. Mo needs to overcome the pain and suffering in his past, in a country that took so much away from him.”

“The character of Mo is really special,” says Boyea. “He left his country years ago and is now heartbroken by what it’s become. He has a unique knowledge of Afghanistan, having lived there when he was younger, yet he feels the country is disappearing before his eyes. He and Tom come from different worlds, and what he offers to Tom is an understanding and a sympathy that Tom’s not used to. Mo forms a bond with him, and Tom feels like for the first time he’s got someone with him he trusts.”

“I finished writing the screenplay in 2016. We finally got a shoot schedule for the fall of 2021. All of a sudden it’s August of that year and Afghanistan is collapsing,” he said. “It was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life, watching it all implode. I looked at my boxes of awards or even legacies like being battlefield promoted in Afghanistan and just couldn’t resonate it all. Veterans who fought in this war to save people are watching babies get thrown over fences and people fall to their deaths off a C-130.”

Kandahar was a very special movie. And we use a little bit of reminisces of Lawrence of Arabia, but I really want to make an epic. I want to make a historical epic. And it’s something I’ve never done before. There’s a lot of different ones. I mean, you know, Ridley Scott just did Napoleon. There’s been a lot of different ones. The one thing that I also loved about Kandahar was the fact that it was in six different languages. And it made me want to go look at doing movies in different countries, in different regions of the world, and their own native language and so forth, but I think the one that we’re talking about here for me, it’s going to be a historical,” says Director Ric Roman-Waugh.