Primetime: NatGeo's <I>The Long Road Home</I>
Issue: December 1, 2017

Primetime: NatGeo's The Long Road Home

Several years after 9/11, with troops deployed in the Middle East, The Long Road Home tells the story of an eight-hour battle in Sadr City, Baghdad, on April 4, 2004 (“Black Sunday”) that followed the ambush of a newly-arrived American platoon. The story is told in realtime, through the eyes of young soldiers in combat for the first time, as well as their families, who are anxiously awaiting news on the home front, and ordinary Iraqis trapped in the chaos of war. The goal of the eight-part series, from creator Mikko Alanne for the NatGeo channel, is to give viewers an intimate and memorable look at what it's like to go to war.

Based on Martha Raddatz's acclaimed New York Times-bestselling book, the series is completing its run Tuesday night, closing with its “Always Dream of Me” episode, and undoubtedly looking to some Emmy recognition in the year ahead. The cast includes two-time Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kelly (House of Cards), Emmy-nominated actor Jason Ritter, Kate Bosworth, Sarah Wayne Callies, Noel Fisher and Jeremy Sisto.

Shot on location in Fort Hood, TX, on Arri Amira cameras and edited in LA at Wild Fire, the series was shot on all practical sets with very little visual effects work, other than some set extensions.

Post recently spoke with New York-based director and Emmy Award-winner Phil Abraham ( Madmen, Orange is the New Black, GLOW and Masters of Sex) about his work on the series, what it was like to share his duties with director Mikael Salomon, and what some of the challenges were of bringing this highly-praised story to television.

Why did you want to work on this project?

“Truthfully, I was looking for more long-form projects I could really immerse myself in for a period of time, instead of jumping from episode to episode. That’s what I’ve been doing for a number of years, which is great, but I was thinking the mini-series is making a bit of a resurgence, and that’s interesting to me. I started reading the scripts and I read Martha’s book and I knew this was the one. It grabbed me right out of the gate — and the fact that this was a true story. I’ve never done a project that was based on a true story, so I thought that was really interesting as well. It had a combination of great script and finding me at the right time when I wanted to do something like this. I was immediately drawn in by it.” 

You directed five out of the eight episodes — is it difficult sharing directorial responsibilities with someone else on a project?

“In truth, when I was first approached the project, I wanted to do all eight. But it just proved sort of impossible because of when they wanted to actually start. I met with Mikko [Alanne] I think the very end of October last year and I was already booked through the middle of January, so I jumped on this immediately after and they wanted to start shooting in March. It was impossible for me to know that I could prep all eight episodes in time (we had all eight scripts) and then once we started shooting, just go. I thought I really couldn’t do that. First, the budget required us not to be able to do that. So, in order to make it work budget-wise, we had to use a lot of tandem units. So, Mikael would be shooting his episode in the same day I would be shooting my episode, two different crews, two different units, two different parts of the set. So, the practicality of it was it couldn’t be done as a one-director project. I understood that, so I ended up doing five of the eight episodes, which still completely immersed me in the project.

“Is it hard to do that? Yes and no. You have all the material in front of you…it’s hard to do it if they’re still writing the scripts, I’d say it’s impossible to do it if they’re still writing the scripts, but with all the scripts there, it’s just a matter of prepping it, planning it, breaking it down, scheduling it, figuring it all out and working with the production designer. It’s really like a movie — in a way — like a five or eight hour movie that we’re doing in half the time it would take to do a two-hour movie (laughs).” 

Going back to what you said earlier, there were a few DPs on the project and three different editors. Tell me how that worked?

“Because of what I just described, the two teams, Mikael had Jeremy Benning as his DP on all of his episodes and I had Yasu with me for my five episodes. When they weren’t shooting, they were prepping and when we weren’t shooting, we were prepping. Also, I had Bill Turro and Jordan Goldman as my editors [both of whom he’s worked with on prior projects], while Mikael had Scott Vickrey.”

Did you feel any extra pressure on this production because it was based on a true story with many of the characters still alive, and because it was also by a novel by Martha Raddatz, a well-known journalist?

“Oh yeah, completely. It influenced everything that we did — every decision — everything was rooted in the tenet that we wanted to be as truthful as humanly possible in terms of the details. Really, in terms of everything. It’s interesting, because we had access to veterans who were actually there and very much part of this story and people remember things differently. It’s not radically different, but you’re left to be the person who sifts through these fragments of memory and you try to portray it in the most interesting way. That was something Mikko was very much engaged in and passed the baton to me once we got up and running and shooting. 

“There were details, like the initial ambush in Episode 1 — the way it was written was very hard for me to understand — mechanically. I wanted to understand it so I could stage it. I wanted it to make sense. So, Sgt. Eric Bourquin, who was portrayed in the show, was a soldier in part of this story and was with us the entire time. He was a tremendous resource for me to sort of pose my questions. He actually tried to break it down with me and figure out [how the initial ambush happened]. 

“It’s crucial that we were as truthful as possible in our presentation of it because this is a real event with real names of people who were injured or killed in that place. It’s very different for me as a director. These are not fictional characters, so to be as truthful to them and to those events is extremely important to me and getting the story right is a way of honoring those real people who sacrificed.”

What were some of your biggest challenges?

“My goodness, the whole thing was a challenge. First, there was the setting of our story — at least the battle portion — Sadr City. We needed to figure out where and how we were going to portray that locale convincingly. Then there was all the scripted action and a good amount of it took place in vehicles and on the move. How were we going to do that?

“Initially, it was our hope to be able to stage some of these scenes in a distant location — such as Morocco or Jordan or some place that was more convincing — but then budgetary wise that proved not to be tenable. It made sense for us to be rooted in Fort Hood because the army was giving us access to a lot of hardware and that hardware was right there with us. They gave us access to a site that they used for training and, in fact, this was a site that soldiers from our story actually used to train in for their deployment to Iraq. So, the army decommissioned it and we took this site, built it out as much as we possibly could in terms of the geography of our city and we relied on set extensions and visual effects to expand beyond the scene of what we were doing.

“Part of that challenge was, there’s a tremendous amount of battle scenes and action and a tremendous amount of driving. All of the rescue missions were on the move to rescue our guys — they were being diverted and put down different roads — so, putting the puzzle together in terms of, ‘Okay, this is our floor plan, this is our set, where and how do we cheat various places for other places? How do we turn things around and make it look differently?’ And, all our driving was done practically. So again, as a function of trying to put the actors in as real a situation as I could, I chose not to do any greenscreen or rear projection, none of that stuff, so all the driving that you see in the show, is actually being done by the actors — free driving the whole time. They were never towed.

“Also, you run out of space. You have a two-page script and these guys are driving and all of a sudden, you don’t have two pages of set. It required a lot of figuring out. It was a huge challenge. It was a puzzle.

“If you were going to mount a scenario for a television show, this would not be it. We had no standing sets, we were shooting basically entirely on-location, we were dodging weather, we built all interiors on-location.

“A lot of times when you put these sorts of things together, there’s always a puzzle component to it, but this was really very intricate. It was fun also. I think that all of those decisions have led to the feeling that one gets when seeing the show, because you feel very immersed in it. You feel that the characters are in it because they are — as much as we could portray it.”

How involved in the post process were you and how did the post process work?

“I was in Fort Hood shooting while Bill [Turro] was editing. I would send him notes. Honestly, because I am a New Yorker and I shoot these shows all over the place, I was actually never in a room with Bill prior to this show. As a New York director, I find that I do a lot of my editing work through notes and cuts. I’ll download my notes. Bill and I have a relationship that way. Is it ideal, no? Far from it, but it takes a certain amount of discipline. You only have four days for each episode, and you have to make sure your notes are flushed out as possible. It wasn’t locked until we finished production. And I worked in the room with both Bill and Jordan [Goldman] for the editing.”

Any scenes in particular you feel most pleased with how it came off?

“Yes, I’m happy with a lot — these kinds of things are always tricky. Episode 6 really stands out for me because of the story and Noel Fisher’s amazing portrayal of Tomas Young. It’s also the only episode that has a flash forward, where we see life after the incident. The structure of the show has a lot of flashbacks and present day, but this episode has flash forwards. There was something very compelling about that structure and I think it turned out very well.”

Did the series turn out the way you had hoped?

“Yes, I’m very happy with it. Like anything else, hindsight is always 20/20. There are things you’d like to do differently, if you had another crack at them, but the whole project was so challenged in terms of time and all of those things knowing what we were up against, it came out as good as it possibly could have. I’m very pleased about that. It took a tremendous effort across the board by everyone involved with this — because it was a very condensed scheduled — especially for something as complex as this. I’m also very pleased with the casting because I think the show really comes alive with the group of actors we put together. There really wasn’t a weak link in the bunch. We were incredibly lucky.”