Wide Angle

Desert Storm

How Three Kings almost fell apart.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

This essay is excerpted from Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, out now from Simon & Schuster.

As Operation Desert Storm wound down, parts of the region were in disarray, and millions of dollars’ worth of stolen Kuwaiti valuables and gold remained hidden in Iraq. That residual chaos was of great interest to John Ridley, a novelist, stand-up comedian, and writer on such sitcoms as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. A few years after the end of the war, Ridley—who’d been inspired by the 1948 Humphrey Bogart caper The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—began work on a story about soldiers looking for gold in postwar Iraq. “I wanted to see how fast I could write and sell a screenplay,” he said. “So I came up with the most commercial and visually interesting story I could think of.” He wrote The Spoils of War in a week and sold it less than a month later to Warner Bros.

David O. Russell was intrigued by the description of The Spoils of War. The director had been working as a ticket-taker at Sundance when the United States began hurling missiles into the desert. The war was a television event, with networks such as CNN broadcasting the sights of night vision firefights and grainy missile attacks. “I was watching the rockets and thinking ‘Why are we going into this war for a country I’d never heard of?’ ” says Russell, who was 32 at the time and had been making short films. “It made no sense to me.”

A Desert Storm drama such as The Spoils of War was an unexpected choice for a director known for low-budget, existentially agitated comedies. But Russell “wanted to make something big and muscular,” he says. He spent 18 months turning Ridley’s Spoils of War screenplay—which he claims he “didn’t even really read”—into Three Kings. In doing so, he jettisoned much of Ridley’s original script, which would lead to a public feud between the two writers: Ridley, who’d found out his script was in production via the internet, once described Russell as “a guy who every step of the way has tried to grab credit.” He eventually received a “story by” credit on the film. (Russell says the two have since made peace; in 2014, when Ridley’s script for 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar, he hugged Russell on the way to the stage.)

Even with a completed screenplay, convincing Warner Bros. to make a film about Middle Eastern politics would be tough. Russell’s caustic take on the Gulf War was evident from Three Kings’ opening scene, which takes place in March 1991—the same month a ceasefire was announced. A young Army sergeant named Troy Barlow spots an Iraqi with a machine gun. He’s unclear on the new rules of engagement—“Are we shootin’ people or what?” he asks—and, after debating with another soldier, shoots the Iraqi in the neck, causing blood to gurgle noisily from his throat. The scene starts out flippantly comic, then turns horrific.

It was based in part on Russell’s conversations with veterans who’d returned from the Gulf, not quite sure what they’d been doing there. “They said it was a very strange and confusing period,” says Russell. “They didn’t know if they were supposed to be shooting people. They didn’t know if they were supposed to be eliminating Saddam Hussein. Many Special Forces guys I interviewed said they cried about having to walk away and let Hussein’s brutality take over the country again.”

Despite internal anxieties over Russell’s script, Warner Bros. finally committed to Three Kings, partly for the same reason it had decided to make The Matrix: After years of creaky output, the studio had no choice but to try something new. Russell would receive a budget of nearly $50 million to make his big-screen rebuttal to the Bush era.

Russell spent the summer of 1998 desperately trying to recruit the right actor for Three Kings. The director considered nearly every late-’90s leading man available for the film, including Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson. Many actors and agents simply didn’t know what to make of Russell’s astringent script. “I couldn’t get some people’s attention at all,” says Russell.

There was one actor, however, who was desperate to be in Three Kings. He’d even sent Russell a handwritten note signed, “George Clooney, TV actor.” The ER star, then in his late 30s, had been disappointed with many of the roles being offered to him: Out of Sight had been a rare highlight in a filmography that also included 1997’s dreadfully pun-plundering Batman & Robin. A movie like Three Kings, he said, “was really worth fighting for.”

Russell had been skeptical about casting the ER star as Three Kings’ grizzled, disillusioned Major Archie Gates, who leads the hunt for the stolen Kuwaiti gold. The director changed his mind after catching an early screening of Out of Sight. “That had a big impact,” says Russell. “It showed a new dimension of George.” Warner Bros. was also keen on Clooney, in part because the company produced ER and could arrange for the show’s lead actor—who’d soon be shooting his last season—to shuttle between Los Angeles and Arizona, where Three Kings would be filmed.

Joining Clooney in the desert would be Mark Wahlberg as Troy Barlow, the naive family-man grunt who’s unquestioning of authority and deeply uncurious about the country he’s invading. To play the film’s spiritual, quietly wise Chief Elgin, Russell hired Ice Cube, who’d impressed the director in Boyz N the Hood. Ice Cube had grown up on films such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon. But Three Kings would be far less combat-heavy than other recent war films. “The first thing David said to me,” remembered Ice Cube, “was, ‘Every bullet will count.’ ”

Russell had written Three Kings partly as a reaction to the “gun lust” he’d seen take hold of the culture, and the country, in the ’90s. As a kid, he says, “I’d played army, I’d had G.I. Joes—I did all of that stuff. But because of the Vietnam protests, I’d ended up really, really hating war.”

To remind viewers of the consequences of real-life combat, Russell devised a Three Kings shot in which the camera follows a bullet into a body, tracing its path as it slices up flesh and fills the organs with bile. The scene was gruesome in its physiological details, which Russell had gleaned from a friend of his, an emergency room doctor. And it was a reminder that all of the crackerjack action sequences that followed—helicopters giving chase, cars exploding, an out-of-control van skidding toward a minefield—had potentially lethal results. Russell was reacting, in part, to the consequence-free bloodshed he’d seen in ’90s films and video games. “They were normalizing violence by bringing it into people’s homes and children’s rooms,” he says.

That craving for chaos was personified by Three Kings’ Conrad Vig, a dim-witted Southern soldier who’s anxious to kill somebody, anybody. Russell had battled with the studio to give the role to Spike Jonze, whom he’d befriended while working on adapting Harold and the Purple Crayon. Jonze was hardly the kind of tested onscreen talent Warner Bros. wanted for its pricey heist film. “I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” says executive Lorenzo di Bonaventura. He made Russell audition such actors as Jared Leto and Christian Bale before approving of Jonze after watching his screen test.

In late 1998, Jonze—who’d recently finished directing Being John Malkovich—joined Russell and the Three Kings team at an abandoned copper mine outside Tucson, Arizona. The location was just a short flight from Clooney’s ER set—and, more important, the area was dead enough to double for the harsh terrain of Iraq. “The landscape in Arizona was destroyed,” says production designer Catherine Hardwicke, who’d go on to direct such dramas as Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. “It was a toxic location: All the plants were dead, and there was arsenic in the air.” As if that weren’t bad enough, “The nicest restaurant nearby was an Applebee’s or whatever.”

In Arizona, Hardwicke constructed an entire Iraqi village, despite not being able to visit the country herself. She’d had difficulty obtaining recent pictures of the region, so she’d asked a Christian preacher who’d been traveling the world carrying a giant cross—and who was heading to Iraq—to take some photos for her. She also contacted Iraqi refugees who’d relocated to the United States and went through their family photos, looking for details. The Three Kings producers had recruited Iraqi refugees to appear in the film as extras, and some wound up helping Hardwicke decorate the set. Unlike many Americans, they hadn’t forgotten about the events of the early ’90s. “I hired them to do the graffiti on the walls,” says Hardwicke. “They would get so upset when they saw a huge mural of Saddam Hussein that they would get rocks and start throwing them.”

As filming continued, a thick green dust covered parts of the Arizona location, which was blamed for a rash of strange illnesses. There were also unexpected snow, oppressive heat, and a fast-moving production that required numerous extras, military vehicles, and an exploding oil tanker full of fake milk. Russell sometimes dressed for work in an orange-and-yellow camouflage T-shirt, as if readying for combat himself. (Sofia Coppola, visiting her then-boyfriend Jonze, saw Russell’s shirt and later dressed Bill Murray in a similar one for Lost in Translation.)

Not long into filming, it was clear that the director and his leading-man star were not finding peace in the desert. Clooney described the Three Kings shoot as “insanity.” It “was not well-coordinated, to say the least,” he said. “It was absolute confusion.” The actor was commuting back and forth for days at a time, sometimes leaving the ER set at 4:30 a.m. and flying straight to Arizona for Three Kings, only to find that Russell had rewritten the day’s script. “David’s feeling was, ‘What am I supposed to do? Shoot it the way I don’t like it written?’ And my feeling was, ‘What am I supposed to do? I don’t know my lines.’ ”

The two clashed repeatedly throughout Three Kings, spurred on by the heat, the chaotic surroundings, and their differing work philosophies. “David will get an idea in the middle of rolling,” says Hardwicke, “and will yell out to the cameraman, ‘Let’s shoot this!’ He’s just spontaneously creative. That can rattle some people.” Adds di Bonaventura, “George is a big believer in a benign environment. David is a big believer in getting everything you can get for the movie. Those two things are going to collide.”

In March 1998, with filming almost completed, di Bonaventura got a call from a producer on the Arizona set of Three Kings. “He goes, ‘We’ve got a problem. George is trying to pound David, and David is choking George.’ I’m like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ ” The executive was already nervous about the movie, which had gone from 68 shooting days to 78. “It was one of the few times I was told, ‘This is on you if it doesn’t work,’ ” he says.

The spat between Clooney and Russell—not their first confrontation on the set—occurred during the filming of the movie’s climax, as the soldiers abandon their quest for gold and escort a group of refugees to safety. It was a hectic scene to film, involving a helicopter and numerous extras, as the crew worked under the blistering Arizona sun. And because there were so many onlookers, the exact accounts of what happened between Clooney and Russell vary. The director defers to an account Ice Cube gave several years later: “There was this one extra that was kind of out of position,” Ice Cube said. “David is running across the desert telling the guy, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to be here, you’re supposed to be over there.’ And David’s an intense guy. So he grabbed the guy and moved him where he was supposed to be. And I think George just took exception of David actually putting his hands on the guy.” Recalls Fight Club’s Holt McCallany, who starred as a gruff military honcho in Three Kings: “David said, ‘Don’t tell me what to do on my set,’ and George said, ‘This is not your set.’ And it just went off from there. I literally wrapped David up in my arms and pulled him away, because they were coming to blows.”

However the fight went down didn’t matter to di Bonaventura, who quickly got on the phone with Clooney and Russell. “Guys,” he told them, “you’ve got a week and a half to go. You’ve just got to figure out a way to stay apart.” As Ice Cube noted, their tension during the making of Three Kings was inevitable, given Clooney and Russell’s commitment to making the film in the first place. “They showed that they were both interested in making the best movie they could,” he said. “That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to be in no bullshit. Movies last forever.”

Three Kings would become a hit with critics, who praised Russell’s talent for hot-wiring together dark comedy, breakneck action, and preach-free political commentary. It would make $60 million in the United States, but the real rewards would come with the movie’s home video release: According to di Bonaventura, it made a $30 million profit in DVD sales alone.

Before all that, though, while Russell was still editing Three Kings, he met George W. Bush. It was a late June day in 1999, and the presidential hopeful was meeting the locals at the Bel Air home of Warner Bros. co-chairman Terry Semel. Bush was desperate to make friends in California, which hadn’t favored a Republican president since 1988, when it had helped elect his father, George H. W. Bush.

Russell showed up in that same camouflage print T-shirt. “I went out of curiosity, thinking I was a renegade,” says Russell, who had spent part of the early ’80s in post-revolt Nicaragua and had worked as a community activist when he returned to the United States. To him, the events in the Persian Gulf “felt like an unfinished sentence,” he says.

Russell wasn’t quite finished with the past. Neither was the soon-to-be 43rd president of the United States. “He comes to shake my hand,” says Russell. “And I say, ‘I’m editing a movie right now that’s going to question your father’s legacy in Iraq.’ ”

Bush smiled widely, still gripping the director’s hand. “Well,” he said, “I guess I’m going to have to go back there and finish the job.”

cover of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.
Simon & Schuster