Director Tom Petch talks Anti-War Films & The Patrol

This Friday, 7 February, sees the UK cinema release of writer-director Tom Petch’s debut feature film, The Patrol. Set in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2006, the film follows an isolated British Army patrol facing problems with their operation which cause the soldiers to question their role in the war.

Flicks And The City spoke to the Tom about the inspiration behind The Patrol, anti-war films, and actor boot camp.

How would you describe The Patrol?

That’s a tough one. It’s been described as an anti-war film, in fact Raindance, which we won, ranked it number one and while Iʼm comfortable with that, Iʼm not a pacifist, and believe sometimes war is necessary to combat evil. I also think war is a car crash, itʼs a last resort, and no one comes out unhurt. So, itʼs the last thing you do, not the first. I say that because my film is definitely not a war film, which has pissed off a few film critics.

War films are very violent, and portray combat as an extreme sport; Lone Survivor being a recent example. The director there is doing a good job, itʼs just not a portrayal of combat Iʼm comfortable with as a former soldier, and someone who is opposed to war as anything other than a desperate measure. So, not a war film, not quite anti-war, maybe ʻwar noirʼ. I mean my influences are things like The Battle of Algiers (1966), which influenced French public thinking about their defeat in Algeria. I think if the stories we tell each other are wrong, then that probably means we are going to reach for the wrong solutions in real life: the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars being two examples.

What was your starting point for the film?

Watching British Paratroopers appearing to reenact the Vietnam War in Helmand Province in 2006. The footage was extraordinary, weʼd had John Reid, the then Secretary of State for Defence tell us we were deploying a few 1000 troops on a reconstruction project, next minute the wheels came off, and we were fighting a full-scale war. I donʼt think we ever recovered from that, and as they rotated in the Marines, then finally the ʻpoor old bloody infantryʼ, I thought someone should say something about this. Iʼd started asking questions, and that became the script for The Patrol. That was my response to what was going on.

How much research did you do?

Loads, and none: I spoke to everyone I could. The British Army is a closed family, but Iʼd been in it, so people coming back spoke to me, and passed me on to others. But at the same time the answers I was given were nothing new. I decided the way to tackle it would be dramatic, perhaps a play, perhaps a film. Some people have said The Patrol is a bit like a play and I guess, with my knowledge of film production, I wrote to the scale of the type of budget I thought the film might have, again it could therefore be a play: self -contained, few characters, focused on their interaction, but whatʼs not new is the territory.

Willis Hallʼs The Long The Short And The Tall was a play, Norman Mailerʼs The Naked And Dead is a novel; you put a small group of men together, place them under enormous pressure, and doubting their cause, and the results will be similar. I wanted to do that, to expose the failings of the 2006 Afghan deployment.

To what extent did your own army experience influence the film?

It influenced everything. I mean I liked The Wire because the language made no concession to exposition, heʼd followed round the Baltimore police for a year, and so, similarly, I wrote The Patrol with the confidence from my Army background that the audience would get it, at least the audience I was interested in, because no one cares what an SA80 (rifle), or WIMIK (Jeep) is, itʼs about the dramatic.

I mean what the hell is a Muggle? Itʼs something in Harry Potter but Iʼve got no idea what it is, but I got through the movie. And in my actual story, the characters, I used my knowledge because I had that at hand, thatʼs my POV, from the soldiers. All the characters are some amalgamation of people I knew. Their experiences are those from Afghanistan, but most of the places they went emotionally are something Iʼd dealt with in the Army myself, first hand.

How did you get the actors ready for filming?

We took them to a boot camp first, but I think something that happens in war films is itʼs all too slick. I mean where do they get all these skills? Most soldiers are not in the Special Forces, their equipment can be pretty ropey, at least in the UK, and their training varies dramatically. So with the cast I took them from basic recruit, to issuing their kit in the desert, and making them look after it, and they improved.

We made them practise their drills, then made them improvise scenes while we were shooting (filming, that is!). All the patrols, all the contact drills you see in The Patrol, I didnʼt block them out first, I just said head that way, something might happen, something might not, and after the first time we opened fire without telling them you see it in their eyes: whatʼs going to happen? That plus the heat, and rough living conditions, but all of that I could only do with this cast, they bought into it, all of it.

What challenges did you encounter during the shoot?

The shoot was physically tough, the heat, conditions, and we shot the film in four weeks, so thatʼs a schedule. But actually it went well. We lived in an oasis, and we kind of bonded; we swam in the water from the well when it was too hot to shoot, played endless table tennis competitions, and occasionally worked like mad in fading light. So it was a bit like a military operation, only without the real bullets. The tough part was raising the money before, and selling the film afterwards.

What do you want audiences to take away from The Patrol?

I donʼt want them to take anything away. Itʼs up to an audience how it responds to a film, to anything. I made The Patrol out of a need, a personal one, to say something about the Afghan War, if it starts a conversation about war on a Friday night, then thatʼs great. Job done.

The Patrol (15) is in UK cinemas from 7 February 2014.