Tom Petch

Tom Petch

Tom Petch made his feature film directorial debut last year with British war movie The Patrol: a film that won over critics and triumphed at the Raindance Film Festival.

The movie is now coming out on DVD, and we caught up with the director to chat about the project, the challenges, and what lies ahead.

- The Patrol is about to be released on DVD, so can you tell me a little bit about the film?

The film is the first British feature film about the war in Afghanistan. It features a small army patrol in about 2006/7, which was a time when the British army - in my opinion - found themselves quite stretched: we went over to Afghanistan to support was supposed to be a reconstruction effort.

NATO forces - which included our soldiers - were deployed to support rebuilding the country. Actually, what happened was there was a big Taliban insurgence, which we end up fighting up until now. We never really got the reconstruction that we thought we would be creating.

My film is about that very early part of the war when the soldiers are struggling. It features a very small seven-man patrol, who are struggling to come to terms with the difference between what they were told they were going to be doing, and what they actually end up doing.

- You are in the director's chair for this film and have penned the screenplay, so what made you want to explore the war in Afghanistan?

I was a soldier myself; it was a long time ago as I left in 1997. I didn't serve in Afghanistan. I got frustrated by watching it on TV, and then hearing first hand from some of my connections in the army.

I started writing it back in 2009/10, and I had been thinking about it for a while. I thought that it wasn't getting any coverage - or the right sort of coverage.

There was no commentary on what was actually happening out there, in terms of 'is this the right thing to be doing? Is this the right strategy?' There was a bit about the guys not having enough ammunition and equipment, which did come out in the press. However, no one really challenged the strategy, and what we were actually doing.

That frustration and being a former soldier inspired me to sit down and write the script. The film has a message, and that is why I did it.

- You were in the military but I was wondering what kind of research you did to get a real understanding of this conflict and what the soldiers are feeling on the frontlines?

It is a film, so it has to be a drama. It is not a documentary. In terms of the film and the story side of it, I was quite inspired by the film The Battle of Algiers: which is about the French and Algeria. I was also inspired by British plays such as Journey's End.

Being ex-army, I am still in that network. One of the things about my position, which might be different to someone who had never been in the army, I can have access. Soldiers don't like talking to the press: that was my advantage because I had the access.

I could talk to the soldiers coming back, hear first-hand what their experiences, as well as my own views on what was going on. There was nothing overtly in the press, but it was getting covered: you can go on to YouTube and see the level of combat and what is going on.

- You have penned the screenplay, so how did the story and character change from the initial idea to the final film that we see?

Most of my time was spent in the thinking about it stage and the research stage. I actually thought, because of the nature of the British film industry and because of the subject, if it would ever be made into a film.

In a way, a lot of the structure of the story is a bit like a play: I didn't write it as a play, but I did think that it could be a play, or something else.

For me, what was important was getting the story out there, rather than how it was going to come about. I spent a long of time looking at what was going on and talking to people, but when I sat down to write the script, that happened very fast. I don't think the script has changed significantly since that first draft.

I always seemed to be the right way to go as it was focusing on the soldiers and it was a small story. What changed was where we were going to shoot it and how we were going to shoot it. Once I started talking to people about the script, they were like 'I don't want to touch that. That is far too political. Nobody wants to say anything bad about that'.

I have my own small production company and I just thought that we could do it ourselves: providing that we did it at the right level. Which is what we eventually did.

- We have seen many movies tackle the 'war on terror' theme over the last few years, some were successful and some not so much. Did you look at any of these films during the writing and pre-production? Or did you just decide to stay away from them?

I didn't really look at them. Most of the films that have looked at this topic are America. What is interesting is that if you look at British war films, there aren't any: I discovered that when I was doing my business plan for the film. I looked at the other film in terms of 'this is done well' and 'this is done badly' but they didn't really influence my story.

Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker have done quite well, while others have done not so well. What I would say about that is that the films that have done better don't label a point.

If you are going to make a film, it has to be a film. You are not making a documentary and you can't go out there and bash people's heads saying 'this is my message'.

The ones that were successful - like my film - focuses on the characters and what they are experiencing, rather than labelling any point about it.

- Owain Arthur, Nicholas Beveney, and Daniel Fraser are just some of the names on the cast list. Can you talk a bit about the casting process and what you were looking for in your actors?

I was looking for a young, unknown cast; obviously, a good cast. I have a very good casting director called Jeremy Zimmermann, who got on board very early. We were always going to put them through it: it was going to be a deliberately tough shoot and they were going to go on a boot camp to learn how to be soldiers. We then took them to the desert and issued them with their own equipment.

Therefore, I was looking for actors who were going to step up: it wasn't just about the acting as it was going to be physically demanding as well. They were going to have to be really realistic as soldiers, because I wanted it to be real: I think that we achieved that. So that was what I was looking for.

I think all of them did and they all performed amazingly well. They got a lot better as soldiers as we filmed (laughs). There was one point when I was looking at them in the desert and thought 'that is a passable British Army unit' - it wasn't like a good one, but they are actually doing things the right way.

Rather than strictly blocking out all of the action sequences, we would go and do things with them. So we would tell them 'you will drive down that road and at some point something is going to happen, and you have to react to it.'

I think that worked really well because they never quite knew what I was going to do (laughs). It was interesting.

- How did your own army experience not only influence the film, but also the filming process? You use a lot of army jargon during the film and you don't patronise the audience.

Exactly. That was always the way that I wanted it. Soldiers would never explain what was going on or explain every piece of equipment: I don't like it when films do that, as it is completely unrealistic.

I think there has been a move generally in drama with things like The Wire, which is very realistic. When you watch it, half the time you have no idea what these people are saying, but it doesn't matter because you get the drama of it.

I just wanted the audience to become immersed in the story and never question that this was real.

In terms of my own experiences, I could really draw on those: in some ways, most of the things that occur in the film I had seen first-hand.

I had used a lot of my own experiences when I was writing the story. On set, we had soldiers who had been in Afghanistan and myself, and I think that I did help with the officers a bit.

- Can you talk a bit about the challenges that you faced while making this movie? I read that you did shoot it in just four weeks.

We actually shot it in eighteen days, which I think must be some kind of record. It wasn't eighteen consecutive days, as we did have a day off in between. That wasn't the challenge because we always knew that it was going to be that kind of shoot.

Once we had structured it and gone to the desert, which worked really well. Though the shoot was physically challenging - we were shooting in August in Morocco, which is phenomenally hot and we were living in the desert - strangely, all that worked really well for the shoot. That all went really smoothly.

The bigger challenges were getting the film off the ground, raising the money, and trying to convince people that a small budget film about the British Army in Afghanistan, which wasn't positive about the war, would actually find an audience and a market. That was the biggest challenge, and has always been the biggest challenge for film.

We were lucky as many people did get behind us and believed in the story. Once we had got the money together and the crew together, I just thought 'we can do this now'.

We still didn't have a distributor: we really were a strictly independent film. Weirdly, we did pick up a sales agent at Cannes. They were American and understood that this sort of film had a market. In the UK, we got nowhere, until we won the Raindance Film festival.

When people saw the finished film, they were like 'wow, that is what he has been talking about.' It is very hard from a script to visualise things sometimes. Since then, things have got easier.

- How have you been finding the response to the film, it does seem very positive?

It has been very positive and very interesting. What has been interesting with the demographics is that it has done very well with a female audience.

I always hoped that there would be a crossover and we wouldn't just be a film that ended up on DVD with an SAS badge on it. They call it war porn: there is a certain market for all things military.

I always thought that we would have more to us, because of the type of film that it is. When we looked at the demographics, we have 70% pick-up amongst a young female audience. When I saw that, I just thought 'wow'.

- This movie marks your feature film directorial debut, so how have you found the transition away from shorts?

I found it ok (laughs). What I found strangely ok was the scriptwriting, as I had done a couple of those already. I found the actual shooting quite easy because I do a lot of shorts and TV commercials.

What I never anticipated was having shot it, how long it would take us to finish the film in post-production. Once you have shot a film, you have thousands of decision to make.

It should have taken us twelve weeks to finish the film, but we all have day jobs and had to edit around that. In retrospect, what I might do next time is block out a couple of months after the film to sit there and work on it (laughs). It is a major undertaking.

- Finally, what is next for you?

It is going to be more of the same but different. The next film will be a war film, but it won't be about Afghanistan.

It will be a war genre film: I like to think that it won't be a war genre film with lots and lots of shooting (laughs). Eventually, I will get out of that genre.

The Patrol is released on DVD 21st April.

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