Set in Iraq circa 2003, Sand Castle is based on screenwriter Chris Roessner’s experience as a machine gunner in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. The plot centers on Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult), who is part of a mission to repair a broken water system in the dangerous and unstable Iraqi village of Baqubah. While the people of Baghdad welcome the Americans as saviors, the villagers resist their presence and Matt and his unit must try to convince the community that they are part of the solution, not the problem, in order to save the town and get out alive. Henry Cavill plays the special forces captain running the operation in Baqubah. We caught up with Mr. Roessner to ask him about his movie and working with Henry.
Where did the idea for the movie come from?
I served in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Iraq during the initial invasion. This was 2003-2004. I spent a year there and, even before, knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. I remember seeing Oliver Stone’s film PLATOON at 3am. I was in Saddam Hussein’s palace in Tikrit and the film ended just as the sun was coming up. It was a moment changed my life. I thought… I had no idea you could make a film so deeply personal, so poetic, about the journey through war and the search for meaning. It wasn’t a ‘mission’ movie. That is to say it wasn’t a film about one particular goal, but it was more experiential. It was a film about searching, about the struggle for a young man to keep his soul intact even though the war was trying to corrupt it. I wanted to do something akin to that. You could trace this movie back to that moment in 2004.
Tell us about Henry Cavill’s character, Captain Syverson, and his place within the film.
Pardon me if I’m a bit opaque, but I don’t want to give too much away. His character reveal is so exciting that I’d hate to rob the audience of that. What I will say, is that Syverson is a Special Forces team leader who exists as a character foil to our main platoon. Syverson’s business is war. He is not ‘passing through’ so to speak, like some of the other characters. There is no talk of ‘going home’ or what dreams lie ahead for him. Iraq is where he belongs, he’s been there a while, and he takes the job very seriously. One assumes that after the film ends Syverson would be shipped off somewhere else… Afghanistan, Somalia, etc. to solve the same problems. He is smart, tough, the embodiment of human potential operating at its fullest.
I know I speak for the Sand Castle team when I say we were all overjoyed to hear Henry wanted to play Syverson. I’d known that his brother was/is a Royal Marine and I’d heard through the grapevine that Henry takes portraying the military very seriously. Obviously, that serious attitude was shared by all of us. No one was interested in being cartoonish, or displaying chest-beating masculinity without nuance. Henry had the same outlook and that made it a perfect fit. He felt the responsibility that we all felt and we were lucky to have him.
What was it about him that made Henry a good match for the role?
Certainly, what I mentioned above. Beyond that, on a surface level, he sure as hell looked the part. I mean the guy is Superman. You’ve seen the films. He’s in ridiculous shape. And these Special Forces soldiers I know, when they aren’t on missions they’re working out. That’s the lifestyle and the body type follows. So that was clear. Then Henry shows up in Jordan and on, like, Day 1 the guy shaves his head. Now, I’ll echo what our director Fernando has said which is that Henry is virtually unrecognizable. That’s true.
Secondly, I’d say that it’s usually the case that actors who take a role ‘against type’ do so carefully, thoughtfully, and passionately. Henry is a busy man, deservedly so, and taking the time to do our film showed a real commitment to something different. I mean, let’s be clear, there is no monetary incentive for anyone to make a war film independently. You have to be in it for the right reasons, for the story, to push yourself beyond your comfort level, to grow. Henry had that attitude and I think people will be very surprised at the performance he delivers. Get ready for something different.
Any funny or interesting stories about Henry’s time on the film?
Quite a few. My favorite is from the cast dinner, right before production. So, the whole cast is having a banquet style dinner at a nice restaurant in Amman. Henry’s seated across from me, we’d just met and hadn’t really spoken much, so I was expecting it to be a bit awkward. But the total opposite was true. We started speaking about our families, where we’re from, our upbringing, etc. It was refreshing. Now, to put it in context, I’m from the Rust Belt and the South in the U.S. I don’t get star struck by movie stars, but I do get star struck by good human beings with good values. Henry was that guy from word one. Grounded and decent. We talked a bit about our parents, the hours passed, the dinner was over, and I realized we didn’t mention the movie once. It was great.
After dinner, we all started drinking, I was bullshitting with Logan (Marshall-Green) about the theatre and our favorite playwrights, etc. and every few minutes Henry would tap me on the shoulder, hand me a shot of Tequila and I’d drink. This went on for quite a while and I got plastered. In retrospect, I’m not even certain Henry was drinking at all. But who cares?!! Anyone who brings me free tequila is fine in my book.
There’s literally too much great stuff to say. Seriously. Working with this cast was one of the great joys of my life. Hoult, who’d stayed with the film for 2 years before greenlight, really set the tone from day one. He’s a very prepared actor and a light-hearted guy who can create a family feel on set. I mean the guy brought his actual family! His mum and dad. They were lovely, by the way. And that kind of stuff makes a difference when you’re on hour 12 in the middle of nowhere. I should also mention that I gave the guy the journal I kept in Iraq when I was 19. That should tell you how highly I think of him and how much I trust him. Who in their right mind wants to share their deepest, stupidest 19-year thoughts with another human?
Everyone else really bonded with one another, they formed that Platoon-like camaraderie almost immediately; then, when it was time to work that feeling translated to the scene. Keep in mind, these actors were portraying aspects of real-life people, friends of mine whose lives had been ended or changed by the war. The last thing you want is someone showing up and being all uppity and ruining the whole dynamic. I had prepared for that, expected it. Certainly, with a cast this large some actor is gonna be an ass. Nope. Not a one. Friendships were formed, everyone braved the experience together. The good and bad. Shout out also to Neil Brown Jr., Beau Knapp, and Glen Powell. Wait until you see these guys play off each other. They are funny as hell on screen when needed, and then they break your heart when the bullets start flying.
I gotta hand it to our Jordanian crew. They worked tirelessly, were so pleasant, and had plenty of experience from past films in the area (HURT LOCKER, THE MARTIAN). That’s the first thing I want to mention. How much I enjoyed my time with them and how professional they were.
Now, I don’t want to paint a picture with only rose-colored hues. We made a war film independently, half-way around the world, with a tight budget and schedule. There was no world in which this was gonna be easy. It was a lot to ask of anyone to spend that kind of time away from their family and exist ONLY on set or in a hotel room for several months. But, as I said, we were all in the foxhole together. You love people more when you struggle and succeed together… Or maybe we’re all just masochists.
When and where will the movie be released? Will there be a theatrical premiere/red carpet?
I should know the answers to that soon. Those decisions are above my pay grade. I just write the movies. Can’t wait to see how it all turned out and to share it (Ed note: According to Film Music Reporter, the movie will debut on Netflix in 2017).
Photos and videos of making the movie were shared on social media by cast and crew. How has social media changed how a movie gets promoted?
Social media played a huge role during the production of the film and I can’t wait for it to continue after the film is released. Truly, when you’re on set and the days are getting long, it’s fun to snap a few pictures, post them online, and see it get picked up by sites like this. Unlike the theatre, there is no immediate connection to the audience when you’re working. You make a film, a year later it comes out, then you get to have a dialogue with people. The ‘audience’, until the release date, is this nebulous, faceless… thing. But when you get to engage with individuals online, it gives you a jolt to keep going, to work harder, to try and deliver something that’s worth their time and loyalty. I hope that’s what we’ve done.
As for pictures, I’m not allowed to share any at this point in time. But I imagine it won’t be long before the promotional materials are released. Thanks again for your continued support.
Chris Roessner is a screenwriter, US Army Special Operations veteran, and Pat Tillman military scholar. His debut screenplay SAND CASTLE cracked the 2012 blacklist and was made into a film starring Nicholas Hoult and Henry Cavill. He resides in Los Angeles, CA with his wife and TV writer, Sneha Koorse. He is repp’d by UTA and LBI Entertainment. He can be found on Twitter at @CitizenRoessner. We thank him for taking time out of his schedule to chat with us and look forward to seeing the movie when it comes out in 2017.