The Bang Bang Club is the real life story of a group of four young combat photographers – Greg Marinovich, Joao Silva, Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek – bonded by friendship and their sense of purpose to tell the truth. These photographers risked their lives and used their camera lenses to tell the world of the brutality and violence associated with the first free elections in post Apartheid South Africa in the early 90s. This intense political period brought out their best work – two won Pulitzers during the period – but cost them a very heavy price.
Based on the book of the same name by Marinovich and Silva, the new film, directed by Steven Silver, stars Ryan Phillipe, Malin Akerman and Taylor Kitsch and explores the thrill, danger and moral questions associated with exposing the truth.
Vimooz.com’s Francesca McCaffery had the chance to hear about their new film from its fascinating stars Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman and Taylor Kitsch, and real-life combat photojournalist Greg Marinovich, (whom Phillippe plays in the film), as they weigh in on the challenges of making such a topical film, the moral dilemmas faced by war photographers, and the beauty of shooting in a place such as South Africa.
VIMOOZ: …About the great risks of combat photography:
Greg Marinovich (real-life combat photographer played by Phillippe in the film): I know it can happen, but I don’t think it’s going to happen to me.
Ryan Phillippe: A cavalier mentality?
GM: More of an idiot mentality! It’s a belief that “I don’t think it’s going to happen to me.” It’s not overconfidence, or hubris.
VIMOOZ: Most Challenging aspects of the role:
RP: Any adaptation of a true story, there are liberties taken with it, and you have to kind of accept that as an actor. Greg and I only spent about a week together before shooting (because of the budget). There was a lot about this time, in this country of South Africa, that I wasn’t aware of, that I feel it’s a neglect in part due to the school system. I mean, I knew apart apartheid, but I didn’t know how the S. African government was stoking, the in-fighting. I did a lot of reading about S. Africa, to learn about what was going on there, politically and socially. It was important to Greg and Jao that their old friends were not portrayed as stereotypes, or as caricatures. I think that’s what we were most concerned about- preserving the memory of these men.
I would equate combat photographer being close to a soldier. There’s something about putting yourself in that situation, the preparedness, the risk, the devotion to what you are doing. There is a lot of risk involved physically. I definitely found myself thinking about what Greg, Joao, Kevin and Ken did. These guys had no protection, no weapons, and they were in the midst of a battled. That concept was so compelling to me. The idea that you would willingly place yourself in such direct potential harm without any kind of protection, is a mentality that I don’t think a lot of people can relate to. They didn’t wear vests because they found them too cumbersome, so they wouldn’t want to wear them. I don’t think in those terms. I’m excited by challenges, and new territory. So trepidation or fear doesn’t really relate in that regard. I think that it was important to Greg and Joao Silva, that their late friends Ken and Kevin weren’t portrayed as caricatures or stereotypes. I wanted to pay respect and honor them. That’s the primary thing we were most careful of essentially, the memory of Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter. It was emotional for Greg Marinovich at times. When we would shoot in the place where the actual events took place, they hadn’t changed drastically. In terms of infrastructure, it looks almost exactly as it did then. I think there was something impactful about that, about how fresh it seemed to be shooting in those locations, where the memories are still so raw for a lot of people.
VIMOOZ: Do you have a newfound respect for the art of photography?
RP: Certainly, yes, in regards to the light that can be shed on certain social situations and political situations, absolutely. Also- this was a period of time before the prominence of the Internet and how immediate the media has become. These photographs really kind of did educate the world in a lot of ways as to what was happening in South Africa at this time. The importance photographically, it still exists to some extent, but I don’t think, now with Twitter and Facebook and social media, we all saw what happened in Egypt and how we were all kept kind of abreast of what was happening there every single second. It wasn’t that way back then, so the importance was even greater at that period of time they were taking these photographs because, “Time” magazine was the world’s window into situations like the fall of apartheid. Now, I think there’s a lot of different ways you can access that information, but I think even though we are talking about it like it’s long past, things have changed technologically so drastically. So I think it was even more important.
GM: I think there’s a kind of democratization of media today that allows voices to be heard that couldn’t be heard previously. One of our issues was trying to get these organizations to tell what we thought was the truth then. There was a newspaper in Johannesburg that was called “Sunshine in Johannesburg.” They would say, “We can’t keep showing the violence,” and I’d reply, “But the violence is still happening!” Their reply was, “Well, we can’t keep showing it to our audience.” For example, those Pulitzer pictures of mine, not of Kevin’s, weren’t widely used. They were widely distributed, but they weren’t widely used (there), because they were thought of as too distasteful, yet that was what was happening. So how did these photos get out? There was no You Tube, or internet. It’s quite interesting. You look back in retrospect. There’s a body of works that tell stories, and I think that’s very important.
MA: We also all took a photography course, so we could learn how to develop film. Taylor took tons of photos.
TK: I definitely got caught up with it all, but I don’t think I’m that good yet! Maybe down the road. I did take thousands of photographs, though. (with his Leica 35 mm camera.)
VIMOOZ: Greg, when did you stop taking combat photos?
GM: When I married that good looking girl back there in the corner there, about 10 years ago. Before that, in 1999, before the American involvement, and we were with the Northern Alliance, I had a bad feeling about it for days, and just wanted to leave. It was kind of disturbing to the people we were with. They wanted to keep going and I did get hit. As soon as I was hit, I said, “That’s it! This is a joke!” You are a freelancer, you spend months recovering. I don’t have Ryan’s teeth. I used to have Ryan’s teeth. I’ve had to get these replacement teeth, and I couldn’t work for months. It’s ridiculous! That’s when you realize, this is stupid, and you just move on.
VIMOOZ: How do you feel about the tragic deaths of the photographer and documentarian (last week) in Libya?
GM: It’s obviously so upsetting. But it underlines the risk of being a photojournalist- and the dilemma concerning how much emphasis should we put, how much sympathy are we to have, when we choose to put ourselves in a combat zone?
VIMOOZ: How did you all prepare for these roles of real-life people?
MA: We had a lot of intimate discussions. Robin Comely is also still a photo editor, so I shadowed her for a day, and sort of figured out what happens at a newspaper throughout the day, and what her role was. We sat down for three hours, and one of the most prominent questions was, how she reacted when Greg and Ken got shot? She was pretty much the mother hen of these boys. She told me she just had to keep it together for those guys. She showed me pictures and told stories, we laughed and cried together. The stories are still raw (for her.) She’s a very sensitive, loving, amazing woman.
TK: We had two great dialect coaches that were on set every second we were working, but I wasn’t too much worried about the accent, there were so many emotional scene to contend with. I wanted to be honest to Kev. (Kitsch lost 30 lbs for the film.) On a personal level, I think if you can pull something like this off, as an actor, or as a person, and just the challenge that it held to me personally- it’s a dream role for me, really. It’s why you get into it- to tell a story. And it being an educational thing as well, the stakes are so high (with this movie.) There’s an emotional ride that you go on with this film, and it’s very effective.
GM: I think Ryan did particularly well on my looks! Seriously, I’d watch him interacting with my old “friends,’ and it was quite disturbing, and quite interesting. It can’t be easy acting when you’re playing in front of two of the real-life people that are there.
MA: The documentary aspect of the film was a huge attraction for me, and that I was going to be able to meet the real life woman that I would be playing, it was such a unique experience for me, and one that was more challenging than any other role I’ve ever done. You challenge yourself, and you do things that scare you, and that’s why you’re in this business.
VIMOOZ: What was it like shooting in South Africa?
RP: I loved South Africa. I loved the food in South Africa. I really loved it. We spent most of our spare time at Greg’s house. Again, it was an independent film, six-day weeks, I was in every scene, so there was not a lot of free time. I got to experience the country from a social standpoint, and I loved interacting with people. I loved the energy. There’s something great about a country that’s reshaping its identity, and there’s something so alive about that for me. I got that from the interaction with people, but there wasn’t a lot of time. I’m going back in July for the premiere of this film, and I’m going to take my children. We are going to go on safari, we’re going to go to Soweto, because I didn’t really have time to do that kind of thing when I was there shooting. It was really run and gun.
TK: Loved it. I loved shooting in S. Africa. We were recreating these scenes that really happened there.
MA: They’re such an amazing, happy, incredible group of people. Anyone who goes there will leave a piece of their hearts there. There was a lot of time we got to spend with the locals. We all had bodyguards, as Joburg is known to be quite dangerous, but it was a bodyguard’s birthday, and he invited me to his birthday. They invited 150 people, it was a block party, and they fed everybody, they had bags full of steaks. It was a full celebration. It was the best party I’d ever been to in my life. And that was the vibe I felt the whole time we were shooting- we were just immersed in the culture.
VIMOOZ: How do you feel about the role of combat photojournalists play in our day-to-day lives?
MA: In my eyes, they’re heroes. They’re putting their lives on the line every day, just like our troops. I certainly feel that it’s one of these films that you walk away with, and it stays with you. I didn’t know who these photographers were before. I knew some of these pictures, but I didn’t know the backstory.
TK: I think we can all take it for granted what these guys do, and what they put out here, everyday. For me, personally, it was pretty much genuine wake-up call.