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“13 Hours” Producer Erwin Stoff On The New Blockbuster

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Erwin Stoff is one of Hollywood’s most successful producers and he joined me today to talk about the release of the new blockbuster “13 Hours”:




HH: Special show for you today. Of course, the Republican debate will be happening tonight, and I will cover that. I’ll also be on ABC News’ Nightline and Hannity later tonight. A Jakarta terror attack yesterday, a terror attack in Pakistan at a polio clinic, gives context to this hour’s interview. I’m so pleased to welcome, honored to talk to Erwin Stoff, who is the producer of 13 Hours, a fabled film executive whose list of credits include, among others, the Matrix, and the Blind Side, and The Lake House, and The Devil’s Advocate, and Unbroken. But 13 Hours, I think today’s Oscars were announced. A year from today, you’re going to see lots of mentions of 13 Hours. Erwin, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, congratulations on a magnificent film.

ES: Thank you very much. Thank you.

HH: I’ve got to begin by asking you, I saw the film at the Paramount lot in December, and I wasn’t sure, I was sitting with a warrior who told me it was the most technically proficient movie about war that he’d ever seen. And I have seen the reviews, and they all pay homage to that. Are you surprised that you’ve swept everyone’s acknowledgement that you got it right?

ES: I’m actually not surprised. I mean, I’m thrilled about it. But at the risk of not sounding humble, I’m not surprised only because of the amount of effort that went into this insofar as getting it right. If there was one thing that we, that was of greater importance to us than anything else, it was getting it right.

HH: Now I want to walk through the story of how 13 Hours came to the screen. It opens tonight in a few places, and across the United States broadly. It will do incredible business, because the reviews are so extraordinary, and it’s a Michael Bay movie. But I want to begin with the central theme. Thucydides said 2,500 years ago the secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage. This is a movie about warriors and courage, Erwin. And I don’t know if you set out to make that, but that’s what you got.

ES: That is exactly what we set out to make. When I first met these guys, to be perfectly honest, or actually, I’ll backtrack for one second. I was very reticent about doing the movie only because by the time this came about, the sort of political fracas over Benghazi had already started. And I was very reticent about wading into that. Once I was persuaded to meet these guys, and once I met them, there was nothing that was going to keep me from making the movie, only because they are such extraordinary guys. They were so selfless, gave of themselves so much. A couple of them made the ultimate sacrifice. And so to me, it really was from the outset a movie that was going to be about courage, self-sacrifice, and you know, what one is willing to do insofar as giving of themselves for the sake of others.

HH: Now I will tell people, and this is a center-right audience, obviously. It’s carried across the United States. This is not a political movie, though it will have a political impact. It is relentlessly not political in fact, Erwin. Would you agree with me about that?

ES: I would. There’s nothing in this movie that is conjecture. Everything in this movie has been verified by at least two sources. The movie is based on a book by the same title, written by a very respected journalist by the name of Mitch Zuckoff. And he really set out to write a true accounting of what happened that night. And to be honest with you, to make a political movie would be short-changing what these guys did.

HH: Yup. And the chief critic of Variety calls 13 Hours and experiential tour de force, but a contextual blur, a movie that captures the confusion of the events as they unfolded on the ground. And I have told people since December when I saw it, I’m not a warrior. I’m not a soldier, a sailor, an Airman or a Marine, and I haven’t stayed at a Holiday Inn. But I think I know a little bit more about what it’s like to be in the middle of a firefight and a gunfight now because of this movie, and I don’t know that I’ve ever said that about a movie before.

ES: Yeah, again, we had, these guys were intimately involved in the writing of the book. It is their account of what happened on the ground. And they were intimately involved in the actual production of the movie. So again, there is nothing in the movie that didn’t occur. Some of the smallest details in the movie are in fact what occurred on the ground.

HH: I have to tell you a funny story.

ES: There are scenes…

HH: I got a call from USA Today to ask me, they saw that I had seen the movie, and they wanted my opinion of how John Krasinski did as a special operator, and how he held a machine gun. And I said you might as well ask me how he holds a ketchup bottle. I don’t know anything about that. But you obviously had technical advisors of the greatest sort. You had the guys who were there on the ground.

ES: Well, we had sort of two levels. We had the real guys that were there on the ground, and then a lot of the background players who were other SEALs and Delta guys and so on, are all real former SEALs. Michael Bay is a nut for authenticity, and Michael Bay, there’s never been a SEAL or a special operator in any of his movies that is not a real former SEAL or a real former special operator.

HH: Oh, that’s why it has that obvious ability to take an active duty warrior, who I was with, who said wow, they got it exactly right. Now let me ask you how you came to this. You can make any movie you want, Erwin, and we’ll talk a little bit about that. By the way, it’s a sad day, Alan Rickman passing today. Did you ever work with Alan Rickman?

ES: I did not, but I was an enormous fan.

HH: Yeah, as was, I think, all of us. Michael Collins came to mind, but many other fine movies. So you can make any movie that you want. Why did you take on what could become a politically-charged hot potato? You’ve avoided that, but why would you do it?

ES: The reason that I really wanted to make the movie was that when I met the five guys, I just felt so strongly that they deserved to have their story told, because what I thought was so unjust was that their story had been eclipsed by all of the politics surrounding it. And what I felt was it was so unjust that these six guys, one of whom, as I said, gave his life and make the ultimate sacrifice, who were responsible for saving the lives of 30-some odd people, because that’s the story that has not been told. 30-some odd people got to return home to their wives, to their husbands, to their children, et cetera. And 30-some odd Americans today are alive because of what these guys did. And as such, I really felt it was my privilege and it was my honor to tell their story.

HH: Now Glen Dougherty and Ty Woods among the dead, along with Sean Smith and Ambassador Stevens, and they’re all depicted with extraordinary appreciation for their sacrifice. I mean, Chris Stevens’ family, I don’t know if they’ve seen it, I can’t imagine they won’t be happy with the representation of a selfless hero, the Ambassador to Libya, who went into the war zone. I can’t imagine that anyone will be unhappy with this. But you tell me. Have you heard from any of the families of the victims?

ES: Yes, a number of the families have seen the movie. One of the more difficult moments in this whole process was actually watching the movie with Tyrone Woods’ mom.

HH: Wow.

ES: And that was a very tough, that was a tough thing, and I can’t even imagine how tough it was for her. Then, a couple of days ago, we watched the movie together with Glen Dougherty’s sister and brother-in-law. So a lot of the families, the movie has been screened for Tyrone Woods’ wife. And again, I mean, if nothing else comes of it, one of the things she said is when their children, when their child is old enough, she looks forward to being able to show him the movie and go that’s the kind of hero your dad was.

HH: Wow. Now I know Dorothy. I have met Dorothy. So that is the highest compliment you could possibly get.

ES: That’s what I feel. So if nothing else happens out of it, that in itself has been an enormously gratifying thing.

HH: Well, a lot is going to happen. I think you’re going to have a tidal wave box office. I know it is testing well, because your colleagues in the production of the movie who stay in touch with me tell me whatever the quadrant system is that the studios use, everybody loves the movie. Is that still holding to be true?

ES: Yes. One of the really extraordinary things is that when you make a movie, you go and do some market research. And one of the really extraordinary experiences that I’ve had in this movie is that the quadrant, or the group of people whom the movie actually tested higher with were women 35 and above.

HH: That’s so remarkable. We’ll come back and talk about that, as well as some of his other movies and how they compare. I’m a huge fan of Erwin Stoff. One of my favorite movies ever, actually, he produced, maybe I’ll play a clip from that when we come back.

— – – – –

HH: That, of course, is Al Pacino from The Devil’s Advocate, one of the movies of my guest, Erwin Stoff, who is the producer of 13 Hours, which debuts tonight and over this weekend. I thought of that, and it’s one of my favorite sequences in film, Erwin, because you got the best out of Al Pacino in that scene, and you get the best out of John Krasinski and everybody in this scene, and I mean, Michael Bay does. How do you go about staffing a movie about heroes and not pick superstars? John Krasinski, of course, is big, but he’s not Pacino big. What was the choice there?

ES: The reason that we made the casting choices we did was that again, what was most important to us was not to make a Hollywood movie, but what was most important to us was to keep a sense of our similitude. What was most important to us was to keep the audience involved with the real story, and to continue to have the audience feel that they were there on the ground with these real guys. And we didn’t want the audience distracted by movie stars. So we very purposely set about casting the best actors, again, I think we have just a spectacular, spectacular cast, but they are not people whom you have identified with a particular role or a particular set of movies, or anything like that. We really wanted the event and these real guys to continue to feel like they are the stars of the movie.

HH: Now Krasinski was an interesting choice. I got asked by the USA Today person what I think about it, and I said look, I saw him in Away We Go with Maya Rudolph, and I knew he could act in anything other than sitcoms and other big things, but I’d nevertheless, it’s a revelation. But what’s good is most people don’t get this. Special operators come in all sizes and shapes. They don’t come, they’re all not breachers and big behemoth guys. They come in all sizes and shapes.

ES: Exactly. The thing about John Krasinski, and it’s funny, I made a movie about two years ago called Edge Of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise.

HH: Yes.

ES: …and Emily Blunt. And Emily is married to John, so I got to know John in that context. I knew that he came from a military family. I knew this was a world he really understood. And it was pure instinct. I asked John to come in and audition, and in the very audition, he completely knocked us out.

HH: Huh. That is a, I didn’t understand it worked that way. How did you get Michael Bay to say yes, because obviously, he can do whatever he wants to do?

ES: Well, it was interesting. There were a couple of other Benghazi movies that were circling around, but they were not movies, they were not scripts that had this level of truth and reality to them, only because we had the rights to the guys’ stories that were there on the ground. The others were all based on say so. So I had known that Michael had turned the others down. It was a shot in the dark, and I wasn’t particularly optimistic, only because I knew he had turned the others down, and I wish I could say it was particularly hard. We got him the script, he read it over a weekend. The following Monday or Tuesday, I was sitting with him at his house. By then, he had a script that was fully annotated and he had notes written on it, both on the script and the book. And by the end of that meeting, he said I want to make this as my next movie. I want to start it in the spring, which was six months ahead from the time that we sat and met, and we were green lit, as it were, as a movie, within a matter of weeks.

HH: Now I will come back after the break and talk about the actual physical making. But I have a question for Erwin Stoff. We’re about the same age. And so we’ve seen war movie heroes evolve from John Wayne in The Longest Day, to John Krasinski in 13 Hours. And it’s a great change, which you’ve lived as a movie producer. I think it is a tribute to what they do that we actually get the real worldview. Have they told you that?

ES: Yes, completely. Completely. You know, I think what’s happened in the last number of years is because of the media and because of television, the media documentaries, reality shows, etc., etc., etc., we’ve all become much more savvy. And I think whereas John Wayne spoke to a particular tone in the country and so on at that time, I think we know it’s a much more complex and complicated and shaded and gray world today. So I think today, depiction of heroes have to really, those depictions today have to exist in a very real world context.

HH: Erwin Stoff, I also was asked by one of my law partners, Robert O’Brien, who has been on the ground in Afghanistan as part of the rule of law effort there, he’s been all throughout the Middle East as part of the U.N. He was Bolton’s deputy. How did they get the so-called Arab Street? And I said the chaos and the confusion is there from the moment of the first opening. And I don’t know how long it took to get that right, but I’m sure people will agree with me that that is accurately portrayed. Have you heard that?

ES: Yes. Yes, and again, Michael is a master at this. You know, life got much easier for me when Michael Bay came on to make the movie.

HH: I’m sure. I’ll be right back with Erwin Stoff. The movie is 13 Hours.

— – – – –

HH: The score is magnificent. Before I move on to the set, who did the score for you, Erwin? And tell people about how integral that is to this particular movie.

ES: Well, the score was one of the most important, the score was one of the most important elements only because again, what was so important to us was to make an emotionally compelling movie. So the score was done by Hans Zimmer, who’s won I don’t know how many Academy Awards.

HH: Right.

ES: He’s one of the foremost composers in the movie business.

HH: And how long did it take him to do? I’m fascinated by the challenge that this presents, of a real drama with real people and real heroes that is a political hot potato. How long did it take Hans Zimmer to score this?

ES: Oh, again, just because you’re dealing with a consummate professional, it just took a couple of months, only because we were under great pressure to get the movie out. We wanted the movie out tomorrow, so we had an unusually short post-production period. And again, only with a pro like Michael Bay can you get a movie like this out quickly. The movie was started nine months almost to the date before the movie is released.

HH: Why do you want a January release? For years, the cliché is that’s a bad time to release a movie. Why did you want a January release?

ES: Because traditionally, these movies, similarly-themed movies have done very well in January. It’s the window that American Sniper was released in, and it’s the window that Lone Survivor was released in.

HH: A-ha. Okay. Now going back to the sets, because I am blown away by the accuracy of the detail of the diplomatic compound as well as the CIA annex, where did you build these? And who helped you get them built to detail?

ES: Well, again, what we did is we had actual plans and satellite images of the original structures, and we had the guys. So we exactly, we built these, we replicated both the annex and the diplomatic mission exactly to the inch of…

HH: Has that been done before?

ES: Not to my knowledge.

HH: That’s why it’s so, yeah, the loss of Chris Stevens in the safe room is much detailed and is public knowledge. But you don’t really understand how it can happen until you see this movie. That’s what I think a lot of people may have gotten from Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 book. And your writer, Chuck Hogan, gets kind of the chaos and the desperation of it. But you would have had to actually, did they try and recreate the movements as best they knew of the victims?

ES: Yes, absolutely.

HH: Gosh, that is so hard to do. Now Chuck Hogan is your writer.

ES: Yeah.

HH: Mitch Zuckoff is the author of the book. What’s that collaboration like?

ES: It was actually really close. Mitch Zuckoff and I told him, I told him not to get used to having this kind of continued involvement in movies that he makes in the future, because in all of the movies that I’ve ever directed, I never had an author stay this involved with a movie. And while Chuck Hogan certainly had the ability and the freedom, and he availed himself of it, to call the real guys and say I’m writing this scene, where did you walk to, where did you sit, what was exactly the dialogue in the scene and so on. Mitch Zuckoff spent huge amounts of time with these guys. So Mitch was an enormous, enormous asset for us all throughout production.

HH: And so where was the set built?

ES: We built the set on two empty lots. Both sets were built on two empty lots in Malta. And most movies you see now, and for the last, I don’t know, ten, fifteen years that depict the Middle East, most of those will be shot, were all shot in Malta, only because the architecture in Malta is of Middle Eastern origin, but it’s a completely safe environment to work. And so we built the sets in Malta. We shot in Malta for nine weeks. And then we went to Morocco for one week.

HH: And I want to emphasize to everyone, you’ll think you’re in Benghazi, because you’re hot from the moment the movie begins. And what was the temperature at the time of filming, by the way?

ES: It was really hot. I mean, I don’t think we ever had a day under a hundred degrees.

HH: Yeah, I’ve been on Malta, and it’s a lovely place, and it’s a historically significant place, but I wouldn’t want to work there for nine weeks. Honestly, I just wouldn’t want to…I’ll come back. One more segment with Erwin Stoff.

— – — –

HH: I saw it at a screening at the Paramount lot in December. I saw it with a warrior. I saw it with a flack. I saw it with a bunch of career Navy professionals who were there. And we were all blown away. And everyone I’ve talked to who have seen it has said the same thing. It’s an intense experience. You won’t know how long the movie is. I have no idea how long the movie is, because you can’t look up from it. And I’m talking with producer Erwin Stoff, who was kind enough to meet me before and after the flick, and talk a little bit. So Erwin, personal question, does, I don’t know if movies change producers. I really have no idea what your life is like, or if it’s just another movie. But does this movie change you in any way?

ES: Absolutely. The experience of, first of all, the experience of every movie changes you, like every life experience changes you. Getting, first of all, to meet and work with the real guys that, I mean, I should say, the real heroes of Benghazi, the guys that were completely committed to giving their lives to save 34 fellow Americans, that has to change you. So that was one thing. The other thing that changed me was for three months, I was in the company of all of these former SEALs. That’s who I was with all day long, and that, of course, also changes you.

HH: That’s what I want to get to. What is your impression of this select group of special operators? And they’re all retired now, but what do you, what did you learn from that experience?

ES: They’re a breed unto themselves. I found them to be incredibly thoughtful guys. I found them to be not boastful. I found them to be incredibly intelligence, and very, very clear in their view of life, very clear in what they are willing to give of themselves. I mean, for lack of better comparison, you know, it is like meeting John Wayne. I mean, these guys are just extraordinary, extraordinary guys. But they’re real.

HH: Given how many movies you have made, and how much history is in your movies, do you think that the nature or the soul of a warrior has changed much in 2,500 years of recorded human history? Are they the same people?

ES: I don’t. I don’t. I think that they are the same people.

HH: I agree with that, but that’s from reading history, not making movies or hanging out with them. Now let me ask you about Toby Stephens, who played Glen Dougherty, and James Dale, who played Ty Woods. They play two of the casualties. It’s a special obligation. John Krasinski plays a pseudo-anonymous Jack Silva, that’s not his real name, and you make sure that people don’t know that. What did they say about the obligation of these roles to you?

ES: Well, again, they felt, I mean, there’s a real onus and a real sense of responsibility when you’re playing somebody who’s no longer with us, who as I said, made the ultimate sacrifice. And they both did copious amounts of research. They spoke to relatives, friends, etc. And the special operator community and the SEAL community per se is so, is such a small, tight community, that for instance, the guy that John Krasinski played was a student of the guy that James Badge Dale played. So the pseudonym character Jack was taught in the SEALs by Tyrone Woods.

HH: Yeah, see, and they all know their class when they go through BUDS. They know all that stuff.

ES: Yes.

HH: And it’s so obvious that you had folks doing your homework with you. Let me close by asking you about the impression that everyone had that I have seen, and it’s not a political movie. It’s not a political statement. But they all have the same question, which is where was the cavalry? Where were the reinforcements? They didn’t know how long this was going to go on. In fact, the guys on the roof don’t know how long it’s going to go on. And it goes on and on and on. It’s a long 13 hours. Is that a ubiquitous reaction, Erwin?

ES: Yes. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know. That is not a question that the movie tackles. What is clear in the movie is that folks all over the world were watching this from an unarmed drone that was flying overhead, but as far as, you know, I mean, reasons have been given why no one came from outside, other than the small team that came in from Tripoli that night. But the honest to God answer is I don’t know.

HH: Nobody knows. In fact, General Petraeus was in closed session last week for two and a half hours.

ES: Yes.

HH: And he has to come back on this question, because the members of the Benghazi Committee are my friends. And they can’t tell me what goes on inside of the closed session, but they can tell me that they still don’t know the answer to that question. So the movie is not political, because it can’t answer a question that hasn’t been answered, yet.

ES: Correct. And what we try to do is give you the sense of what that was like on the ground.

HH: There is one character who will not be happy with this movie, how they are played and portrayed, and it’s Station Chief. People can see it when it comes down. Have you heard from that individual or that community, yet, as to that representation?

ES: We have not, nor do I expect to.

HH: Yeah.

ES: And look, even he, we try to portray him in a way that I think, that I think, at least, is fair. When, there are two issues that are conflated. One is the issue that no help came from the outside. The other issue is that he gave an order, again, according to our five guys, he was very clear in the order that he gave to not leave the annex to go to the compound. But he gives it for a reason.

HH: Oh, yeah.

ES: The reason is if they leave the annex, they leave the annex unguarded. If they get into trouble, then there is nobody to go rescue them.

HH: It is so fair, and I think the Agency personnel will also applaud this movie, because it salutes their heroism as well as the warrior heroism, and how they operate in the middle of very dangerous circumstances. It’s just a relentlessly fair movie, so my hat is off to you, Erwin.

ES: Thank you.

HH: I don’t think anyone could have walked this tightrope, and I believe that the consensus from the huge crowds that will see it, will be the same. Congratulations, and good luck on this weekend of the opening of 13 Hours. I appreciate you taking the time.

End of interview.


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