Two things immediately struck me when researching the life and career of journalist Kim Barker, whose experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid- to late 2000s are the basis for the new film WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, in which she is portrayed by Tina Fey. Firstly, she and I went to the same journalism school, from which she graduated only two years after me, which means we were actually there at the same time. Second, the events shown in the film are versions of those detailed in her 2011 darkly humorous memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” a war correspondent’s tale from her time as The Chicago Tribune’s South Asia bureau chief. This means that I probably read her work for years before seeing this movie.
Barker is currently a reporter for The New York Times’ Metro desk and does primarily investigative pieces and profiles. Before that she was an investigative reporter for ProPublica, where she landed not long after the Tribune stint. When we sat down a couple weeks ago, I was curious how she handled having her detailed account of her time in the Middle East turned and reworked into a Hollywood production, complete with a few rounds of creative-license changes courtesy of comedy writer Robert Carlock (“Friends,” “30 Rock,” “Saturday Night Live,” and most recently “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”).
The film also stars the likes of Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, and Billy Bob Thornton, and it’s a smart, darkly funny look at being a modern war reporter and a Western woman attempting to work in parts of the world under the threat and partial control of the Taliban. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that it was an absolute honor to talk to Barker. With that, please enjoy my talk with Kim Barker…
Capone: I’m always curious about this, when someone has their book made into a film and from the research I did I can see the things they’ve changed your story to make it more cinematic, was that process in any way painful? Did they talk to you about changes or consult you in any way?
Kim Barker: Oh no, I’ve had friends who’ve had their books optioned for movies. I don’t know if it was Faulkner who said this, but if you sell something to Hollywood, basically you drive to the border of California, drop it off, turn around ,and don’t think about it again. They’re storytellers and they tell a story in a different way than I do. I had no illusions that they were going to do a documentary on Kim Barker, because not that much happens [laughs]. So I was under no illusions. I knew they were going to change it. Of course you worry. It’s like, you’re sitting there, I’m a journalist, this thing is totally out of my control. What’s going to happen?
But I met many times with Robert Carlock, who’s the screenwriter, and he said to me in the very beginning, “Look, I don’t want to get your hopes up. This might not happen, because Hollywood is this fickle thing.” He told me about how many screenplays he had optioned, and they’d been cast and still they had not gone through. So he was always very sort of honest with me about the process. He wanted to make me feel comfortable about the process just by saying “I want to be honest to the story that you told. We’re going to change things.” I think one time I said to him, “So you’re going to probably make it just in Afghanistan, right? Because an hour and 45 minutes going back and forth to Pakistan, that’s not going to work.” And he’s like, “You’re okay with that?” And I said, “I am okay with that. I understand why you would do that.”
I had a feeling they would make it be a romantic relationship between me and the journalist [played by Martin Freeman] who was kidnapped by the Taliban. Both Sean—his name in real life—and I knew that and we were okay with that, because it makes it a better movie. It’s not like I felt this movie was going to be the true story of Kim Barker in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I’m okay with that.
Capone: Were there any things you pleaded with them to remain faithful to?
KB: No, because I talked to friends who had this happen to them.
Capone: Because your heart would be broken.
KB: Yeah, yeah. You can’t get that wedded to it. When you sign an option and you take money for that, I feel like your job is to what they ask you to do and trust that they know what they’re doing, and the team they have knows what they’re doing. I think they know if they made something…for instance if this is like ANCHORMAN in Afghanistan, I would have a very hard time selling that movie, and I would talk about that. But I saw this movie, and it captures the narrative arc of my book. I like to say there’s a truthiness there about the absurdity about the life that we live there, about this war that still very much is going on, even as we’ve drawn down much of our troops and we declare that the combat phase is over. At least for people who live there, it’s still very much going on. I felt like it nodded to the hopelessness of it and the long, long war that we’ve had over there. So, I’m okay with it. I really do appreciate the fact that Robert did walk me through this. Then came the time when he told me [the character] was a TV reporter [Barker was, in reality, a newspaper reporter], and I was like, “Okay, I get it. I guess it’s not that interesting watching me do my job. I guess it’s not that interesting.”
Capone: That hurt the most, didn’t it?
KB: [laughs] I went out with folks from the Chicago Tribune last night. They saw the screening. And they’re like, “It’s interesting watching us do our job! Look at THE KILLING FIELDS. That was a good movie.” They were naming all these war movies. “SALVADOR, that’s a print reporter.” It’s fine, but it’s more interesting to watch it, so they feel like maybe I sold them out a little bit. They very much would like it to be a print reporter. But again, they sent me the script, but it’s not like I helped write the script. They didn’t help ask me write the script. This was Robert’s job to write the script, and when they sent it to me they said, “This is just for your information, but you can’t make any changes.” So my feeling was “Then why am I going to read it if I can’t make changes?” I very much believe in controlling what you can control, and what I can control is the stories I’m working on now. So I didn’t really even know what the movie was until I saw it 10 days ago.
Capone: When I realized you weren't actually a broadcast journalist, I knew that was going to be a sticking point for some people, but in cinematic terms, it makes sense because it gives your character a reason to talk, to essentially narrate the news part of it for us.
KB: Yeah, when she’s doing interviews with Marines, which is like I thought was hilarious. Because at first I’m watching it and I hear her say, “So what about the Afghani people?” and I cringed! I was sitting in my seat and I cringed. But then the Marine corrects her and says, “Actually, Afghani is the money. It’s Afghans.” I was like, “That was great.” There are some smart things in there. There are even jokes that only people who’ve been in Afghanistan are going to get, because Robert talked to a lot of folks who had been there, not just me.
Capone: At the same time, you had to be encourged by the people you were handing this over to, who are all folks who have made smart comedy over the years, from the producing standpoint, the writing standpoint and the acting. Tina Fey cares about the news to a certain degree. That had to be some comfort as you were waiting to see how it turned out.
KB: Totally. They are smart, funny people. I liked “30 Rock” and I think she is smart and she is funny. So, the whole idea when you sign away the rights you basically, as part of the contract, have no control over how you’re portrayed, and I felt like there’s no way they’re going to portray my character in a bad light. It wouldn’t make much sense. I just like gave it over and hoped for the best.
Capone: Is the part about this being the first war you ever covered accurate?
KB: I went to Afghanistan and Pakistan before I went to Europe. So that’s totally accurate.
Capone: After years of being a war correspondent, you seem to have made the definitive decision that you were done with it. Was that a product of becoming numb to things that no one should become numb to, or was it that you hadn’t become numb to it?
KB: That’s a good question. There are several reasons to why I came back and stayed. The reason I came back in the first place—I did not want to come back at all. I didn’t. But The Chicago Tribune and the Tribune Company was changing the way they did foreign news and they were consolidating. So they called quite a few of us back to Chicago, so I was going to be coming back for that, then I decided “I’m going to freelance in Afghanistan.” That’s how deep in it I was; I was going to live in Afghanistan, I was going to write this book proposal because it would be quiet to write there. It actually is remarkably quiet to write a book proposal in Kabul, because you don’t have the destruction of being able to go outside or the internet, because you don’t really have really good internet there. So, I did write the proposal there.
Then I ended up getting this fellowship with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and I planned to go back. I very much thought I would be going back to Afghanistan. I came back for good in August of 2009 to come back for this fellowship, and I remember covering a suicide bomb and going to see the suicide bomb that happened that month, and it was in the run up to the [Afghanistan] presidential election, the second one when Karzai got re-elected. And there were all these new reporters and photographers I hadn’t seen before, because they were coming in for the election. It was their first time, and I’m hearing them go back and forth, “Did you get the shot? Did you get the guy? Did you get the guy who was killed? Did you get the car on fire? Yeah, I got the car on fire.” And I really just had this sense of “Wow, is this what I sounded like?”
Yeah, you’re trying to do your job, but I had already taken this dispassionate step back from covering it, because I didn’t have The Chicago Tribune. I wasn’t their person anymore. I was just freelancing there and writing this book proposal, and also trying to see things so I could include it in the book. And then I came back. I planned to go back there. I left a trunk of all my stuff there—all my gear, all my Afghan shirts, all the stuff I planned to come back to after the fellowship and after I finished writing the book, because I just wanted to come back. I wanted to see how the story ended—as if the story was going to end. And I had this thought “Oh, yes. Everything’s going to be great.” I don’t know what I was thinking.
Through the writing of the book, though, and being in New York towards the end of my fellowship, I was just really was thinking “Do you really think it’s a good idea to go back?” I got two job offers. One was being in Kabul and running a bureau, and the other was working for ProPublica in New York, and that’s what I opted to do, and I will be forever grateful to ProPublica. It’s not an easy thing to come back. It took me probably about two years to readjust to living in the U.S. to not be such an asshole to people. No, it’s true.
I have this friend who I will be grateful to for life, he also went to Northwestern, he’s a lawyer, and his name is Bob. I came back from overseas and I felt like I lost a lot of friends who I knew before, because they would go out with me and I think they would find me difficult to deal with because I would just talk about Pakistan and Afghanistan, or I would complain about how Americans don’t know anything about foreign policy. Yeah, I was that person at the party. Really fun! And Bob went and he just read about what happens to people when they come back from those situations and he read everything he could about Pakistan and Afghanistan. So we would go out together, and he would just ask me about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Is that not like the kindest thing a friend could do? And he would start working things into the conversation and really, it was one of the kindest things that anybody has ever done for me was that. They had to be the most boring conversations for him. [laughs] I would get in arguments with doormen about it— it’s ridiculous.
Capone: I read an interview with you when you were starting up your book tour that the idea in your book proposal was to update “M*A*S*H,” which means you’re using humor to talk about some truly horrible things sometimes. It seems like being in that place with all those other journalists was hilarious sometimes when it wasn’t terrifying. Talk about the use of humor to talk about subjects like this.
KB: I mean, it’s a situationally humorous book. It’s not like me going along and making jokes like “Ha, ha, ha.”
Capone: There are no punchlines.
KB: Exactly right. “Ba-dum-dum.” It’s more very much about me going along and absurd things happen, and they happened to all of us, and putting them together in a dryly humorous way. I grew up with a father who’s very, very darkly comic. He turned me on to “M*A*S*H” when I was a little kid, and I always hated watching it. When you hear that theme music, I was like, “Oh, god. Not again.” I think some part of me just absorbed that humor. Some of the first book, I read “Catch 22”; I don’t even know how old I was when I first read Joseph Heller and I read Kurt Vonnegut.
So I found the ability to mix dark humor with really awful things to be really challenging as a writer, and I wanted to see if I could do it, because when I was doing dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Tribune, there were occasional stories where they would just let me write them because they’re really funny, right? I thought what if you could combine that way of writing—a very conversational style—with seeing some really horrible things and see somehow if that juxtaposition would work. There will be people who don’t think it’s funny at all, because that’s comedy. Some people aren’t going to like it, and they’ll see nothing funny about war, and I can appreciate that, but if they were to go there, they would start to see it., the absurdity at least.
Capone: Did you keep a separate set of notes for the book?
KB: It’s funny, because I really didn’t think about writing a book until about halfway through my time there, and then I really thought about it in the last year. But always, no matter where I was, I would write things that I found funny on the covers on my notebook. I remember when I saw the kid, I think it was in the airport in Karach, Pakistan, and I saw like this woman in a full black abaya, and she’s walking along in the airport and she’s holding hands with her little boy. He had to be about nine or something, and he’s got jeans on and a t-shirt that says “No Money, No Honey” and that’s just hilarious. And that’s Pakistan. Scene. Out. So I would write that stuff or take pictures of this stuff, then I would write emails home and I’d be like “I saw this today.”
A lot of writing the book was going through those emails and seeing the email I sent to folks about when I went to Farouk’s wedding, and Farouk [her local helper, interpreter, driver in Afghanistan] tells me—I go, “What do I have to wear?” And he says, “Whatever you wear during the day is fine.” I’m like, “Are you sure I don’t have to buy anything?” “No. You’re fine the way you are.” And so I don’t, and I go there, my hair’s crazy, I’ve got a head scarf on, I’m wearing like a green shirt that goes to here, and baggy black pants and hiking boots. And like everybody is done to the nines. They’re just done up, and I was just like, “Farouk. How dare you.” And he’s like, “I didn’t want to put you out and make you feel like you had to go buy something.”
Then they made me dance by myself. They did this thing where this woman brought me out there, then she lets me go, and they do this with women, and you’re supposed to dance and do the Afghan-style dance, and it’s elegant and graceful, and everybody knows how to do this elegant, graceful dance in the middle of these women who are clapping, and there are these men videoing it inexplicably, and then I’m like “Great. This is going to be memorialized forever. I don’t know how to dance like this.” So I just jump around like I’m at a punk rock concert. Farouk would always threaten to show me the video. He’s like, “You want to see your video?” I’m like, “Fuck off.” There was a woman there who was dressed like a man. There really was. She started cutting apples for me and feeding them to me. I was just like, “What is going on? I can cut my own apples.”
Capone: They nailed that scene pretty well.
KB: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: Thank you so much, Kim. It was really wonderful to meet you.