Q&A with Hyena Road writer, director, star Paul Gross

What does the director of 2008's Passchendaele have to say about his latest film, Hyena Road?

Paul Gross, director of the 2008 film Passchendaele, wrote, directed and starred in Hyena Road, which opened Oct. 9. (Image submitted)

Paul Gross, director of the 2008 film Passchendaele, wrote, directed and starred in Hyena Road, which opened Oct. 9. (Image submitted)

Marlys Klossner: After making Passchendaele, which was an arduous process, you said that you’d never make another war movie again, and then you visited Afghanistan and made another war movie. What happened?

Paul Gross: War films are so phenomenally complicated to do, and they cost an enormous amount of money, so I just thought I’d try and do something different. But then I went to Afghanistan for the first time, as a group who went to visit the troops, and I was absolutely thunderstruck by this place. I don’t know exactly what I expected to encounter, but it wasn’t that.

It was so complicated, so busy, so lethal, so opaque, and seemed to bear no relationship at all to what I’d been led to believe by the government or the media for the most part. We did have some good correspondents, but largely I think it was not a terribly well-covered endeavour. I thought that at the very least I should go back with a camera team and try to understand it a little better and photograph it, because at that time they were already pulling out of combat.

I went back a few months later, and spent a couple of weeks outside the wire. It was in that trip that I talked to soldiers and was meeting Afghans who worked with us as informants or liaison guys, so I got a pretty good sense of what we were doing there. I filled up a bunch of notebooks with extraordinary anecdotes and stories from soldiers of all sorts of ranks.

When I got home, looking through all of it, I could see lines in there. I called my old friend and producing partner and I said “Gosh, I think there might be a movie here.” I could practically hear his head fall into his hands.

Four years later we finally came out with this movie. I really didn’t want to do another one, I really wasn’t planning on it, but being there I thought, this is kind of important that we try and do something with this.

MK: What is it about Canadian war dramas that gets you thinking “people need to hear this story”?

PG: I think it’s about war dramas in general. It’s one of the constants of human history. Someone said to me, and I can’t confirm it, but they said that there’s only 29 years that there was actually peace and a war is not being fought somewhere.

In terms of this specific war, I think Canadians had a pretty poor understanding of it. I don’t think I was alone in my ignorance. I think a great swath of us didn’t have any sense of what was really going on, what was expected of [the soldiers]. I think at the very least, if, as a country, we say to our fellow citizens and neighbours “would you please go over there and fight on our behalf” we ought to understand what it is we’re asking them to do.

Furthermore, I think the state of the world right now is extraordinarily unstable, and it seems unlikely that we won’t be engaged in another conflict in the not too distant future. It would be good for all of us in this country to have an idea of what it is we mean when we say we would like you to go into this country.

MK: Who are the three characters we follow in Hyena Road?

PG: The main character is Ryan, he’s a master sniper. We know what snipers do. In the military they call it the kinetic war, the shooting war. He is relatively morally clear in that there are lots of rules to follow and if they are broken, then he can engage. To some extent the kinetic war is very clear, which I couldn’t understand until I was there.

My character is an intelligence officer. He works in what you might call the field of hearts and minds. That seems to have a great deal more weight to it, however it’s much murkier than I was initially aware of. It’s a lot of maneuvering people in positions of power, say pushing someone acting against our interests down in the pecking order.

It was funny, early when I was there, this intelligence officer said “We work in the field in Psy Ops [psychological warfare],” so I said, “You work in the field of hearts and minds.” He said “Yeah,” and I said “So you build schools and irrigation projects.” He kind of made a face and said, “You know, mostly what we do is give people a lot of money to induce them to do things that are otherwise uncomfortable.”

I had no idea that that’s what that was, so that became part of the film. Those agendas, the kinetic side and the non-kinetic side don’t always agree, they’re not always compatible.

Then you introduce the Afghans themselves, with whom we were in partnership. We weren’t fighting with them, we were trying to build a country with them. Their character is known as the ghost. He’s a real guy, I met him when I was there. He was Mujahid [an active Jihadist] in a war against the Soviets and he kind of emerges out of obscurity. His agenda is unknown to the Canadian soldiers, but for a period of time they work together, and that culminates with unforeseen results.

Hyena Road PosterMK: You got to work in two amazing places for this film: Jordan and the Canadian Forces Base Shilo, north of Winnipeg. What was filming there like? Did it add another level of difficulty?

PG: Not really. Jordan’s a great country with a fairly robust tradition of film. A lot of movies are shot there. The Martian came and shot a week after we left. They’re used to having film around. Obviously, they’re in a terrible neighbourhood. There’s problems going around all of their borders, but Jordan’s quite stable for now which is remarkable considering what all its neighbours are like.

It is obviously a completely different culture. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East, so I’m quite used to it, but for most of our actors and a big chunk of our crew it was a really alien world to go into. For the actors it was perfect because I really wanted them to be somewhere where it didn’t feel like home. They had to be constantly feeling like they were in a strange place, as they would if they were in the armed forces. The Jordanian aspect of the shoot was terrific.

Equally the Shilo part because there were lots of soldiers around so everybody had access to soldiers in terms of advice and council, like with costume design and props. The film has a really high degree of authenticity and accuracy.

MK: Was it at all nerve-wracking having these troops around while you made a project about them?

PG: It wasn’t so much nerve-wracking. I mean everyone wanted to honour what they had been doing as far as trying to do it properly. What I did find, was that if I wrote something, and I didn’t really know what I was talking about, let’s say an ambush on Khandahar City, lots of times a soldier would say “that’s not actually how we would do it, we’d do this and that.” Usually what they had come in to tell me was better than anything I had written, so I would immediately switch it. It worked largely to our benefit almost all the time.

MK: What was the technical preparation for Hyena Road like?

PG: There’s a huge amount of props to assemble. The designing itself was very complicated because we didn’t have a lot of money. Arv Greywal, our production designer, was a magician. He was able to do a lot with very little. We had to build an entire Afghan village in Jordan. We had to build a big chunk of a forward operating base at Shilo.

In order to accomplish that we had to figure out ahead of time what I needed to see in cameras. We weren’t building unnecessarily big sets that I wasn’t going to photograph, but that were also big enough to keep a level of reality. And then trying to figure out how to shoot a film as complex as this in 30 days was really tricky.

The head of photography [Karim Hussain] is a lunatic and a genius and he and I spent hours and hours going through every scene. In order to be able to do a fairly ambitious film like this with very little money you have to have every little thing planned out. Of course, none of it ever happens the way you planned it, but you can shift quickly because you thought it all through.

MK: With Hyena Road as well as your past films Passchendaele and Men With Brooms, which you wrote, directed and starred in, have you ever considered hiring another person and giving yourself a break?

PG: [laughs] I do all the time, it just never seems to fall out that way. The thing is for the most part these jobs don’t all happen at once. The writing ideally is finished by the time you get to starting the shoot. The acting, I guess because I’m recognizable in Canada, the distribution company wanted me in it. As far as the direction goes, I sort of felt that if a director had not been to Afghanistan, it would be very difficult for that person to have a sense of what they needed to capture, what the atmosphere was like. I don’t know any other directors that have made that trip.

Plus I have a little bit of ADD. If you’re just acting you spend a lot of time just sitting around, but if you’re doing two jobs, you’re always busy, and I like it that way. I’m just trying to control my own problems by being busy.

MK: What’s your status on war movies now, would you make another one?

PG: Oh God, I hope not.

MK: That’s what you said last time.

PG: I know. I don’t suppose I will. I’ve been in there long enough. But it was interesting to do Passchendaele and then do this one. Passchendaele takes place at the formation of modern Canada. You could argue that Canada came into itself, came to be a separate country in the course of that dreadful war.

There is a direct line between the Canadian expeditionary force in 1914 to the soldiers in Afghanistan. I see it as a kind of a bookend, where we came from and where we are now.

MK: Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

PG: I’ve got a couple of things on the go. I’m doing a play with my wife in Toronto. We start rehearsing end of October and go through until Christmas.

Next year I’m either going to do a tiny little feature I have, which does not involve warfare, or I’ve got a couple of television pilots which may get picked up, in which case I’ll probably be getting ready for those.

Hyena Road opened in theatres around the country on Oct. 9.