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About The Production (Cont'd)

You own the land, but we own the sky. You want our bombs, talk to me.

"12 Strong" was shot entirely on location in New Mexico, which offered the filmmakers a blend of natural environments that closely resemble those of Afghanistan. The production would ultimately take the cast and crew to some of the most remote and arduous sites in the state, where they would all be tested by the vagaries of nature as well as the toughness of the terrain.

To capture the action, Fuglsig collaborated with cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek, whom he calls "incredibly talented. One of the things Ras and I looked to convey is that when the team first gets off that Chinook helicopter, they feel like they're entering an entirely new world, so the photography of the landscapes became hugely important. We wanted to capture a desolate, barren, and bone-snapping cold visual palette."

"When Nicolai and I first started talking about the look of the film," Videbaek says, "he had a lot of references from photojournalism, as well as cinema. We decided to mix those two approaches-to be very real and intimate with the characters, but then, when they ride into battle, to go for more sweeping shots. So we used handheld cameras to give audiences the feeling of being right there with the guys, but utilized drones and aerial cameras and cranes to cover more epic sequences."

Fuglsig was also intent on taking advantage of New Mexico's natural backdrops, instead of relying on soundstages or green screens. So it was incumbent upon his location scouts and design teams to find locations that worked, however remote they may have been. In some cases, the grip department built special rigs just to cable equipment up mountainsides and hillsides.

On the grounds of a shooting range north of Albuquerque, production designer Christopher Glass and his art department constructed a re-creation of Karshi-Khanabad, or "K2," the military base situated in southern Uzbekistan near the Afghan border. The arrival point for ODA-595, the massive location set included 20 Quonset huts of varying sizes, along with guard towers, fencing and military vehicles. Adding to the realism, powerful Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters kicked up veritable tornados of dust and dirt, providing a dramatic effect for the cameras while invading every crevice of the equipment, not to mention the people.

The helicopters, pilots and crews were supplied by the Army's legendary 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) Airborne "Night Stalkers."

Bruckheimer states, "We were fortunate to work with the Night Stalkers on 'Black Hawk Down.' They are the cream of the crop, the very best helicopter pilots in the service. They had just come back from deployment, so we were lucky the timing was right and we were able to get them."

For real-life Night Stalker Jeff Gladden, piloting the MH-47 Chinook for the filming of "12 Strong" was, he says, "of the utmost importance. The flying scenes that we're doing here are exactly as they would have been done in Afghanistan. And these are the exact kind of aircraft that flew the men to their mission."

In order to replicate K2, Glass and his team had amassed an enormous amount of research. He details, "In 2001, at the time of our story, K2 was very new, so we didn't want it to look as if it had been there for years. At the same time, those we spoke to who were there told us that the camp was very dour, very down and dirty, so we made sure the set reflected that."

Rob Riggle confirms the authenticity of the film's K2, noting, "I walked on the set and immediately felt like I was at the real K2. It felt as if I had stepped back in time."

Accuracy was equally important to costume designer Dan Lester, whose department engaged in extensive research on the uniforms worn by the Green Berets in 2001. He reveals that he also benefitted from the fact that "one of my team is ex-Special Forces, so he had his own roots into getting information. Within a few weeks, we had a pretty good representation of what the basic uniforms looked like, but because they were Special Forces, we could tweak them a bit here and there to individualize their silhouettes."

As ODA-595's mission progressed, their costumes would naturally gather more and more dust and grime, so there were multiples of each uniform to go from beginning to end. "We had an aging department, but in general," Lester notes, "you just never wash the clothes and they work so much better because they've actually lived in them. We also had the actors wear their uniforms through boot camp to get them used to the weight of them and get that natural wear."

After the scenes at K2, the company moved into sand dunes north of Albuquerque-at the end of the appropriately named Lost Horizon Drive-for the freezing cold and windy scenes of the Special Forces being delivered into the Afghanistan wilderness by the Chinook.

"Flying in the Chinook was unbelievable," Michael Pena says. "The pilot hit his mark better than most people do with their feet. So we landed in the spot, the door opened up, and we were all running, and the amount of wind and sand blowing in our face...we were all tearing up. And it was tough because we did it, like, 30 times. There was a lot of adrenaline and everyone had puffy eyes."

It was also in these dunes that Fuglsig directed scenes in the so-called "Alamo," a dusty collection of atmospheric adobe buildings where the men of ODA-595 first meet General Dostum. The ramshackle structures were meticulously furnished by set decorator Wilhelm Pfau with authentic Afghan carpets, teapots, weaponry and ammunition, and even photos on the wall of martyred Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

One of the most remarkable shooting sites was the historic Iron Duke Mine, located more than 200 miles south of Albuquerque and at an elevation of 5800 feet above the desert floor. It served as the ideal stand-in for the Cobaki and Shulgareh cave command posts of General Dostum, with magnificent vistas from the steep cliffsides, of which Fuglsig and Videbaek took full advantage.

"The Cobaki Cave scenes were beautiful," recalls Chris Hemsworth. "But it was freezing cold, and as visceral as it could be. If we had shot in a season other than winter, I don't think it would have been nearly as effective. Our performances were built around the environment."

Glass adds, "When we first scouted the mine from a helicopter, we were blown away by the place. But logistically," he admits, "it was one of the most difficult locations."

Both cast and crew traversed the winding, rocky heights on either tough little Gator four-wheel drive vehicles, or a five-ton military transport truck dubbed "The Beast." Regardless, it was a bone-rattling ride, but worth every bump and jolt to give the film its scale and authenticity.

Michael Shannon comments, "The elevation was hard to deal with sometimes, and we would be out in the elements with the cold and wind and blowing sand. But we never lost sight of the fact that it was nothing compared to what the real guys actually went through."

"We were just actors playing our roles," adds Thad Luckinbill, "but we had so much respect for what these Special Forces accomplished under much tougher conditions than anything we were facing. We each wanted to do our best to honor their story and get it right."

The filmmakers also paid careful attention to representing the people and culture of Afghanistan. "That's where Navid Negahban came to the rescue," asserts Fuglsig. "He and some of the Afghan actors we cast went out of their way to reach out to an incredible community of Afghans across New Mexico and other regions. I was even lucky enough to find some wonderful actors among them."

In addition, Afghanistan native Mir Sharifi, who acted as an unofficial cultural advisor, assisted background casting director Sande Alessi with assembling Afghans living in the area to serve as extras. He and his family are important figures in the Afghan community of Albuquerque and New Mexico, and he had courageously worked with the U.S. Marine Corps as a cultural and language advisor for eight years. Sharifi also advised on the language and regional dialects, as well as consulting with Dan Lester's costume department.

The costume designer went to great lengths to obtain or design the proper dress for the Afghan characters and extras. "I did a lot of research," says Lester, "and I also had people shopping in Afghanistan and they would send me pictures on my phone so I could choose what I wanted."

Lester incorporated different color palettes to create a contrast between General Dostum's militia and their Taliban enemies. "We stayed with warm earth tones for the Afghans, but used cooler tones, mostly grays and black, for the Taliban fighters."

Negahban also received a suitcase full of garments directly from Afghanistan, including a traditional chapan coat, exactly like the one worn by Dostum. The actor is also seen in a Russian jacket, which the general was wearing when capturing Mazar-i-Sharif.

The film's explosive climactic battle was staged amidst the looming cliffs of New Mexico's Thurgood Canyon, found some 50 miles beyond the gates of the massive White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). The location stood in for Afghanistan's Tiangi Gap, the dangerous chokepoint on the road to the strategically crucial city of Mazar-i-Sharif. There-vastly outnumbered, outgunned, and on horseback-the 12 Special Forces operatives of ODA-595 and Dostrom's fighters would engage the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, who were as intent on controlling Mazar-i-Sharif as the American and Afghan fighters were on driving them out.

Fuglsig offers, "The Tiangi Gap is a narrow passageway between the mountains and the only path that leads to Mazar-i-Sharif, which was being used as a Taliban stronghold. They had heavily fortified the entire length of the Tiangi Gap, making it extremely difficult for anyone to pass through." To capture the epic combat sequence, Fuglsig marshaled both the first and second units, the latter under the direction of Mic Rodgers, who also served as the film's supervising stunt coordinator.

With the invaluable cooperation of the military authorities at the WSMR, Glass and his department converted a large chunk of Thurgood Canyon, roughly the size of six football fields, into a battlefield. They then littered the area with the detritus of war, including 55 vehicles, mostly Russian-built, as that nation's spoils of war after leaving Afghanistan were then utilized by all sides of the conflict.

Eight Russian tanks figured into the fearsome array, along with artillery weapons, "Technicals" (pickup trucks jerry-rigged with machine gun mounts), and a BM-21 "Grad" rocket launcher, which fires off a volley of 40 missiles and figures prominently in the battle. Additionally, Glass details, "We had about 13 surrogates, as they call them-fake tanks used as targets for bombing runs at WSMR." Conveniently for the production, many of the vehicles had already been half or completely destroyed, thanks to the fact that they had been used for demolition and bomb testing on the missile range.

Property master Curtis Akin and armorer Cory Wilde had the daunting task of obtaining or replicating the wide assortment of guns seen in the film. "We did a comprehensive amount of research of what was being utilized by the Northern Alliance as well as the Taliban at that time," says Wilde. "Their primary weapons were Russian made AK-47s, along with firearms from age-old conflicts in Afghanistan, including the bolt-action British Enfield. For the Special Forces, their weapon of choice was the M4 rifle. We also had RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), handguns, laser aiming devices, mortars, 50-caliber machine guns and more."

The most important "vehicles" involved in the battle were the horses-both real ones and their realistic-looking mechanical stand-ins-provided by Creature Effects. For any shots in which the horses might be imperiled in any way, the production either called upon the mechanical horses or the visual effects team, supervised by Roger Nall.

The protection of the equine actors even extended to the preparation of the filming sites. Glass explains, "We had to make horse paths that were safe. In the canyon that became the Tiangi Gap, we had to alter some of the landscape in consideration of the horses because they can't just run across fields of rocks. We also had fake debris that looks like metal, but it's actually roofing tar paper and rubber. We cut them up into pieces and threw them around so the horses could run across them without getting hurt. And we also had to think about the riders; if they were to fall off, we couldn't have them getting hurt by something hard or sharp. And, of course, everything was cleaned up when the location wrapped."

As the horses galloped through the canyon in what Mic Rodgers calls "a classic cavalry charge," Rasmus Videbaek incorporated a variety of camera techniques to keep up with them. "We had pursuit cars that could drive super-fast through the terrain with crane arms on top that could keep the image stabilized. We also had drones flying overhead and to the side. The great thing about horses is they are such cinematic animals; they look so great on film," says the cinematographer.

Special effects supervisor Mike Meinardus managed to coordinate the enormous number of physical effects throughout the film-including bullet hits, explosions and bomb blasts-with safety always foremost in mind. For Fuglsig, the realism was irreplaceable. "I've always been a big fan of in-camera effects," he affirms. "It was interesting to try and immerse our actors in situations that felt as real as possible. Everyone's performance became much more intense and we all felt as if we were living and breathing these moments of war."

Over the course of production, filming took place at a number of additional locations. A recreation area in the Albuquerque suburb of Los Lunas became the backdrop for scenes filmed on its 6,000-foot hillsides depicting battles in and around the Afghan village of Bescham. The heart of the historic Laguna Pueblo was converted by Glass's department into the Afghan village of Dehi, and was also seen as a road leading to the all-important city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Rio Grande stood in for Kentucky's Cumberland River, where we see members of ODA-595 up to their chests in the cold water for a training exercise that is suddenly interrupted by the events of 9/11. A former community college building was turned into the Special Forces headquarters at Fort Campbell, including offices and a mess hall, where the stunned military personnel gather to watch television reports of the horrific attacks.

A residential neighborhood in Albuquerque provided the family homes of Mitch Nelson, Hal Spencer and Sam Diller, where we see them preparing to say goodbye to their wives who, as longtime Army spouses, know the drill all too well and bravely accept the inevitable.


I don't care how long you're gone... as long as you come back.

Following the wrap of principal photography, Fuglsig began the process of cutting the film with editor Lisa Lassek. He also collaborated with composer Lorne Balfe, who wrote the score for "12 Strong."

Balfe notes, "When creating the score with Nicolai, we agreed that the music should not be overwhelmingly orchestral. The emotion was in the story and in the performances, and we wanted to be respectful of that, so we went for a hybrid soundtrack, mainly using a smaller ensemble."

Balfe's resulting score accompanies the courageous, emotional, perilous and ultimately triumphant journey of the Green Berets from the home front to the battlefront.

Chris Hemsworth reflects, "I hope the film gives audiences some insight into not only what this team did in those uncertain days after 9/11, but also what all Special Forces teams do every day without fanfare. I want people to come away with more of an understanding of the brave men and women who risk their lives to protect ours."

"There's actually a statue at Ground Zero honoring the accomplishments of these men," Jerry Bruckheimer notes. "But what we learned is that, even though the statue is there, most people still had no idea what it was for or even that this ever happened. I always like to tell stories about real people who did extraordinary things, and what these '12 Strong' achieved and the commitment that they and their families have for protecting our freedom should never be forgotten."

Nicolai Fuglsig concludes, "I hope audiences are inspired by the story of these 12 brave American soldiers. They traveled halfway around the world to join forces with people from a completely different cultural background in order to fight a common enemy we still don't fully understand. They had no idea what they would encounter, yet they still volunteered to leave their families and fight for the safety of their country. That is what truly makes these men heroes and why I believe their story deserves to be told."


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