About The Production (Cont'd)
You own the land, but we own the sky. You want our bombs, talk to me.
"12 Strong" was shot entirely on location in New Mexico, which offered the
filmmakers a blend of natural environments that closely resemble those of
Afghanistan. The production would ultimately take the cast and crew to some of
the most remote and arduous sites in the state, where they would all be tested
by the vagaries of nature as well as the toughness of the terrain.
To capture the action, Fuglsig collaborated with cinematographer Rasmus
Videbaek, whom he calls "incredibly talented. One of the things Ras and I looked
to convey is that when the team first gets off that Chinook helicopter, they
feel like they're entering an entirely new world, so the photography of the
landscapes became hugely important. We wanted to capture a desolate, barren, and
bone-snapping cold visual palette."
"When Nicolai and I first started talking about the look of the film,"
Videbaek says, "he had a lot of references from photojournalism, as well as
cinema. We decided to mix those two approaches-to be very real and intimate with
the characters, but then, when they ride into battle, to go for more sweeping
shots. So we used handheld cameras to give audiences the feeling of being right
there with the guys, but utilized drones and aerial cameras and cranes to cover
more epic sequences."
Fuglsig was also intent on taking advantage of New Mexico's natural
backdrops, instead of relying on soundstages or green screens. So it was
incumbent upon his location scouts and design teams to find locations that
worked, however remote they may have been. In some cases, the grip department
built special rigs just to cable equipment up mountainsides and hillsides.
On the grounds of a shooting range north of Albuquerque, production designer
Christopher Glass and his art department constructed a re-creation of
Karshi-Khanabad, or "K2," the military base situated in southern Uzbekistan near
the Afghan border. The arrival point for
ODA-595, the massive location set included 20 Quonset huts of varying sizes,
along with guard towers, fencing and military vehicles. Adding to the realism,
powerful Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters kicked up veritable tornados of dust
and dirt, providing a dramatic effect for the cameras while invading every
crevice of the equipment, not to mention the people.
The helicopters, pilots and crews were supplied by the Army's legendary 160th
SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) Airborne "Night Stalkers."
Bruckheimer states, "We were fortunate to work with the Night Stalkers on 'Black
Hawk Down.' They are the cream of the crop, the very best helicopter pilots in
the service. They had just come back from deployment, so we were lucky the
timing was right and we were able to get them."
For real-life Night Stalker Jeff Gladden, piloting the MH-47 Chinook for the
filming of "12 Strong" was, he says, "of the utmost importance. The flying
scenes that we're doing here are exactly as they would have been done in
Afghanistan. And these are the exact kind of aircraft that flew the men to their
In order to replicate K2, Glass and his team had amassed an enormous amount
of research. He details, "In 2001, at the time of our story, K2 was very new, so
we didn't want it to look as if it had been there for years. At the same time,
those we spoke to who were there told us that the camp was very dour, very down
and dirty, so we made sure the set reflected that."
Rob Riggle confirms the authenticity of the film's K2, noting, "I walked on
the set and immediately felt like I was at the real K2. It felt as if I had
stepped back in time."
Accuracy was equally important to costume designer Dan Lester, whose
department engaged in extensive research on the uniforms worn by the Green
Berets in 2001. He reveals that he also benefitted from the fact that "one of my
team is ex-Special Forces, so he had his own roots into getting information.
Within a few weeks, we had a pretty good representation of what the basic
uniforms looked like, but because they were Special Forces, we could tweak them
a bit here and there to individualize their silhouettes."
As ODA-595's mission progressed, their costumes would naturally gather more
and more dust and grime, so there were multiples of each uniform to go from
beginning to end. "We had an aging department, but in general," Lester notes,
"you just never wash the clothes and they work so much better because they've
actually lived in them. We also had the actors wear their uniforms through boot
camp to get them used to the weight of them and get that natural wear."
After the scenes at K2, the company moved into sand dunes north of
Albuquerque-at the end of the appropriately named Lost Horizon Drive-for the
freezing cold and windy scenes of the Special Forces being delivered into the
Afghanistan wilderness by the Chinook.
"Flying in the Chinook was unbelievable," Michael Pena says. "The pilot hit
his mark better than most people do with their feet. So we landed in the spot,
the door opened up, and we were all running, and the amount of wind and sand
blowing in our face...we were all tearing up. And it was tough because we did
it, like, 30 times. There was a lot of adrenaline and everyone had puffy eyes."
It was also in these dunes that Fuglsig directed scenes in the so-called
"Alamo," a dusty collection of atmospheric adobe buildings where the men of
ODA-595 first meet General Dostum. The ramshackle structures were meticulously
furnished by set decorator Wilhelm Pfau with authentic Afghan carpets, teapots,
weaponry and ammunition, and even photos on the wall of martyred Northern
Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
One of the most remarkable shooting sites was the historic Iron Duke Mine,
located more than 200 miles south of Albuquerque and at an elevation of 5800
feet above the desert floor. It served as the ideal stand-in for the Cobaki and
Shulgareh cave command posts of General Dostum, with magnificent vistas from the
steep cliffsides, of which Fuglsig and Videbaek took full advantage.
"The Cobaki Cave scenes were beautiful," recalls Chris Hemsworth. "But it was
freezing cold, and as visceral as it could be. If we had shot in a season other
than winter, I don't think it would have been nearly as effective. Our
performances were built around the environment."
Glass adds, "When we first scouted the mine from a helicopter, we were blown
away by the place. But logistically," he admits, "it was one of the most
Both cast and crew traversed the winding, rocky heights on either tough
little Gator four-wheel drive vehicles, or a five-ton military transport truck
dubbed "The Beast." Regardless, it was a bone-rattling ride, but worth every
bump and jolt to give the film its scale and authenticity.
Michael Shannon comments, "The elevation was hard to deal with sometimes, and we
would be out in the elements with the cold and wind and blowing sand. But we
never lost sight of the fact that it was nothing compared to what the real guys
actually went through."
"We were just actors playing our roles," adds Thad Luckinbill, "but we had so
much respect for what these Special Forces accomplished under much tougher
conditions than anything we were facing. We each wanted to do our best to honor
their story and get it right."
The filmmakers also paid careful attention to representing the people and
culture of Afghanistan. "That's where Navid Negahban came to the rescue,"
asserts Fuglsig. "He and some of the Afghan actors we cast went out of their way
to reach out to an incredible community of Afghans across New Mexico and other
regions. I was even lucky enough to find some wonderful actors among them."
In addition, Afghanistan native Mir Sharifi, who acted as an unofficial
cultural advisor, assisted background casting director Sande Alessi with
assembling Afghans living in the area to serve as extras. He and his family are
important figures in the Afghan community of Albuquerque and New Mexico, and he
had courageously worked with the U.S. Marine Corps as a cultural and language
advisor for eight years. Sharifi also advised on the language and regional
dialects, as well as consulting with Dan Lester's costume department.
The costume designer went to great lengths to obtain or design the proper
dress for the Afghan characters and extras. "I did a lot of research," says
Lester, "and I also had people shopping in Afghanistan and they would send me
pictures on my phone so I could choose what I wanted."
Lester incorporated different color palettes to create a contrast between
General Dostum's militia and their Taliban enemies. "We stayed with warm earth
tones for the Afghans, but used cooler tones, mostly grays and black, for the
Negahban also received a suitcase full of garments directly from Afghanistan,
including a traditional chapan coat, exactly like the one worn by Dostum. The
actor is also seen in a Russian jacket, which the general was wearing when
The film's explosive climactic battle was staged amidst the looming cliffs of
New Mexico's Thurgood Canyon, found some 50 miles beyond the gates of the
massive White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). The location stood in for
Afghanistan's Tiangi Gap, the dangerous chokepoint on the road to the
strategically crucial city of Mazar-i-Sharif. There-vastly outnumbered,
outgunned, and on horseback-the 12 Special Forces operatives of ODA-595 and
Dostrom's fighters would engage the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, who were as
intent on controlling Mazar-i-Sharif as the American and Afghan fighters were on
driving them out.
Fuglsig offers, "The Tiangi Gap is a narrow passageway between the mountains
and the only path that leads to Mazar-i-Sharif, which was being used as a
Taliban stronghold. They had heavily fortified the entire length of the Tiangi
Gap, making it extremely difficult for anyone to pass through." To capture the
epic combat sequence, Fuglsig marshaled both the first and second units, the
latter under the direction of Mic Rodgers, who also served as the film's
supervising stunt coordinator.
With the invaluable cooperation of the military authorities at the WSMR,
Glass and his department converted a large chunk of Thurgood Canyon, roughly the
size of six football fields, into a battlefield. They then littered the area
with the detritus of war, including 55 vehicles, mostly Russian-built, as that
nation's spoils of war after leaving Afghanistan were then utilized by all sides
of the conflict.
Eight Russian tanks figured into the fearsome array, along with artillery
weapons, "Technicals" (pickup trucks jerry-rigged with machine gun mounts), and
a BM-21 "Grad" rocket launcher, which fires off a volley of 40 missiles and
figures prominently in the battle. Additionally, Glass details, "We had about 13
surrogates, as they call them-fake tanks used as targets for bombing runs at
WSMR." Conveniently for the production, many of the vehicles had already been
half or completely destroyed, thanks to the fact that they had been used for
demolition and bomb testing on the missile range.
Property master Curtis Akin and armorer Cory Wilde had the daunting task of
obtaining or replicating the wide assortment of guns seen in the film. "We did a
comprehensive amount of research of what was being utilized by the Northern
Alliance as well as the Taliban at that time," says Wilde. "Their primary
weapons were Russian made AK-47s, along with firearms from age-old conflicts in
Afghanistan, including the bolt-action British Enfield. For the Special Forces,
their weapon of choice was the M4 rifle. We also had RPGs (rocket propelled
grenades), handguns, laser aiming devices, mortars, 50-caliber machine guns and
The most important "vehicles" involved in the battle were the horses-both
real ones and their realistic-looking mechanical stand-ins-provided by Creature
Effects. For any shots in which the horses might be imperiled in any way, the
production either called upon the mechanical horses or the visual effects team,
supervised by Roger Nall.
The protection of the equine actors even extended to the preparation of the
filming sites. Glass explains, "We had to make horse paths that were safe. In
the canyon that became the Tiangi Gap, we had to alter some of the landscape in
consideration of the horses because they can't just run across fields of rocks.
We also had fake debris that looks like metal, but it's actually roofing tar
paper and rubber. We cut them up into pieces and threw them around so the horses
could run across them without getting hurt. And we also had to think about the
riders; if they were to fall off, we couldn't have them getting hurt by
something hard or sharp. And, of course, everything was cleaned up when the
As the horses galloped through the canyon in what Mic Rodgers calls "a
classic cavalry charge," Rasmus Videbaek incorporated a variety of camera
techniques to keep up with them. "We had pursuit cars that could drive
super-fast through the terrain with crane arms on top that could keep the image
stabilized. We also had drones flying overhead and to the side. The great thing
about horses is they are such cinematic animals; they look so great on film,"
says the cinematographer.
Special effects supervisor Mike Meinardus managed to coordinate the enormous
number of physical effects throughout the film-including bullet hits, explosions
and bomb blasts-with
safety always foremost in mind. For Fuglsig, the realism was irreplaceable.
"I've always been a big fan of in-camera effects," he affirms. "It was
interesting to try and immerse our actors in situations that felt as real as
possible. Everyone's performance became much more intense and we all felt as if
we were living and breathing these moments of war."
Over the course of production, filming took place at a number of additional
locations. A recreation area in the Albuquerque suburb of Los Lunas became the
backdrop for scenes filmed on its 6,000-foot hillsides depicting battles in and
around the Afghan village of Bescham. The heart of the historic Laguna Pueblo
was converted by Glass's department into the Afghan village of Dehi, and was
also seen as a road leading to the all-important city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The Rio Grande stood in for Kentucky's Cumberland River, where we see members
of ODA-595 up to their chests in the cold water for a training exercise that is
suddenly interrupted by the events of 9/11. A former community college building
was turned into the Special Forces headquarters at Fort Campbell, including
offices and a mess hall, where the stunned military personnel gather to watch
television reports of the horrific attacks.
A residential neighborhood in Albuquerque provided the family homes of Mitch
Nelson, Hal Spencer and Sam Diller, where we see them preparing to say goodbye
to their wives who, as longtime Army spouses, know the drill all too well and
bravely accept the inevitable.
ON THE HOME FRONT
I don't care how long you're gone... as long as you come back.
Following the wrap of principal photography, Fuglsig began the process of
cutting the film with editor Lisa Lassek. He also collaborated with composer
Lorne Balfe, who wrote the score for "12 Strong."
Balfe notes, "When creating the score with Nicolai, we agreed that the music
should not be overwhelmingly orchestral. The emotion was in the story and in the
performances, and we wanted to be respectful of that, so we went for a hybrid
soundtrack, mainly using a smaller ensemble."
Balfe's resulting score accompanies the courageous, emotional, perilous and
ultimately triumphant journey of the Green Berets from the home front to the
Chris Hemsworth reflects, "I hope the film gives audiences some insight into
not only what this team did in those uncertain days after 9/11, but also what
all Special Forces teams do every
day without fanfare. I want people to come away with more of an understanding of
the brave men and women who risk their lives to protect ours."
"There's actually a statue at Ground Zero honoring the accomplishments of
these men," Jerry Bruckheimer notes. "But what we learned is that, even though
the statue is there, most people still had no idea what it was for or even that
this ever happened. I always like to tell stories about real people who did
extraordinary things, and what these '12 Strong' achieved and the commitment
that they and their families have for protecting our freedom should never be
Nicolai Fuglsig concludes, "I hope audiences are inspired by the story of
these 12 brave American soldiers. They traveled halfway around the world to join
forces with people from a completely different cultural background in order to
fight a common enemy we still don't fully understand. They had no idea what they
would encounter, yet they still volunteered to leave their families and fight
for the safety of their country. That is what truly makes these men heroes and
why I believe their story deserves to be told."
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