BASIE DOC A ‘CLEAR’ TRIBUTE TO RBC GRAD
Video footage, shot in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by former Marine lieutenant (and Red Bank Catholic graduate) Mike Scotti, forms the core of SEVERE CLEAR, the documentary feature screening on September 11 at the Count Basie Theatre. It’s a fundraiser for the Reserve Aid organization, as well as a tribute to Scotti’s RBC classmate Beth Quigley, who was killed in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
By TOM CHESEK
Even though it falls this year on an event-packed late summer Saturday, the approach of September 11 can’t help but spur some moments of reflection for anyone who made their home in and around the Red Bank green on that day in 2001.
It’s impossible not to flash back to where you were on 9/11 whether it was the newly opened Riverside Gardens, whose walls and walkways became the area’s unofficial town square for makeshift memorials and candlelit vigils. Or the commuter ferry docks of the Bayshore, where scores of dazed and dust-covered escapees from Ground Zero were hosed down and given a chance to get their bearings. Or particularly hard-hit Middletown, where a walk-through monument garden would sprout up adjacent to the township’s train station.
As a First Lieutenant on active duty with the 1st Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, Mike Scotti remembers quite well where he was as the planes hit the towers and the fact that, as he explains, he was playing craps in a casino in Darwin, Australia, illustrates both the real element of surprise involved and the speed with which the military response was effected.
A native of Colts Neck and a 1994 graduate of Red Bank Catholic High School, Scotti (along with the Weapons Company under his command) was among the first wave of troops into Afghanistan and would later participate in the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Along the way, through firefights and roadside ambushes as well as countless hours of tedium, he’d carry with him a crucial piece of equipment that wasn’t exactly standard issue: a Canon Mini DV camera, with which he recorded dozens of hours of first-person battle footage the basis for the award winning documentary Severe Clear.
Adapted from Scotti’s personal war journals and directed by Kristian Fraga (whose Anytown, USA examined Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan‘s re-election campaign), the doc feature the title refers to unusually high visibility conditions, not unlike the brilliant blue morning skies of 9/11 will be the centerpiece of a special screening event at the Count Basie Theatre on the evening of September 11.
The event is a fundraiser for ReserveAid, a nonprofit financial assistance and counseling organization dedicated to helping recently mobilized military Reservists and their families. In addition, the evening is being dedicated to the memory of Beth Quigley, a fellow RBC graduate who was among the Cantor Fitzgerald employees killed in the World Trade Center attacks.
Scotti, who will be joining members of Quigley’s family on the Basie stage, fielded a volley of questions including a film buff’s lightning round from redbankgreen.
First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, with the Mini DV camera that furnished much of the footage featured in SEVERE CLEAR.
Take us back to the beginning of the project that would eventually become SEVERE CLEAR when 9/11 went down, you were already on active duty in the Corps, correct?
I was on routine deployment, where every six months 2,000 Marines on either side of the country would hop on a plane, switch coasts and go on training exercises. I left in August 2001; I was heading to the Seychelles, to Kenya and I was going to get out right after that.
On 9/11 I was in Darwin, Australia, in a casino playing their version of craps, and watching it all unfold on TV. Within a half hour there were MPs walking through town with bullhorns, telling everybody to get back to the ships.
It became very real at that point. Suddenly I had scores of Marines under my command it was crazy; we took fire on the way into Afghanistan, and I remember my biggest fear was of getting my guys killed.
At what point did you find out Beth Quigley having been killed at Trade Center?
I’d just found out about it when we were flying over there. It really brought the whole thing into perspective; you know, this person that I went to school with has been taken from us. I thought to myself that I was here to defend her honor.
I know that you and Beth were classmates; was there a deeper family connection there as well?
Our dads went to high school together. And even though Beth was a year older than me, we wound up sitting next to each other in the same Spanish class at RBC. After I came home, I wrote a letter to her older sister Suzanne; I contacted her in 2004, during what I call my ‘dark time,’ and we just had this instant bond. The family agreed to let us include Beth in the film, and to me it brought the film to a higher level.
The family has been really great through all of this, and so has everyone from RBC. I gave the commencement speech at Red Bank Catholic this year the whole RBC community has been a real beacon of light.
I’m aware that you originally were planning to write a formal book about your experiences, but that it kind of morphed into a film project when you started shooting footage on the scene. At what point did you get the notion to begin documenting your experiences that way and how were you able to go everywhere with a camera? Was there even any official policy for or against the use of that sort of equipment?
The attitude was that, as long as I never let the camera get in the way of doing my job, it wasn’t a problem to carry it. In my case, the camera substituted for the binoculars that I would otherwise have had with me, and if I wasn’t a forward observer like I was, I never would have been able to get the kind of images that you see in the film.
I told the other guys to go out and buy the kind of mini camera I had about ten percent of the footage in the film was shot by various other guys who were there with me. I told them that the footage they take will become their most cherished possession.
How do you think your footage stacks up against the sort of coverage that we were exposed to here in the States that sort of tightly controlled, “embedded journalist” perspective?
I think that my footage shows the true face of war. A look at the human toll of war; one of my best friends was killed over there in 2006. In fact, I thought for a short time about becoming a war correspondent. I wanted to do it right; be in harm’s way, going door to door. But I doubt that CNN and CBS would put it on. It wouldn’t pass the censors.
Obviously there’s a need for the military and the government to control the message and sometimes the media might have a different take on what the message should be. Back in Vietnam, we crushed the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive but because a few of their sappers were killed trying to occupy our embassy, Walter Cronkite went on TV and said the war was unwinnable. Once you lose public opinion, you lose the will to win.
Well, now that SEVERE CLEAR is entering into a little bit of a wider release, and with so many troops finishing up their missions in Iraq, do you think the public might have a greater appetite to seek out these sort of unvarnished, personalized scenes of the war?
Probably not. The war’s not part of their world even though ninety seven percent of the people say they love and support the troops, they don’t want to see the blood, the stink, the death and darkness.
And the more complicated aspects; the sort of questions that hovered over our being in Iraq in the first place?
I told my guys going in that we were looking for WMDs, and whether in fact what we were looking for existed if it ends up being bullshit, it’s irrelevant to the rest of my life. You want to be proud of what you did over there, in order to live the rest of your life in a healthy and positive way.
You’ve alluded to the fact that you did experience a rough interval upon returning home.
I left active duty in 2003, and I really struggled for about 18 to 20 months after coming home. I spent a summer decompressing in a little mining town called Ouray, Colorado I started writing my memoir, which would eventually become the voiceover for the film.
And while you were writing about your experiences, you went back to school; got a job on Wall Street. Having been through two very real war fronts, what’s your take on the sort of military metaphors that are often tossed around by the boardroom guys in the business press?
Well, the investment banks actually like to hire military veterans from the top schools. The Reserve Aid organization got started with Wall Street people. In 2005, I got accepted to the NYU Stern Graduate School of Business where I founded the Military Veterans Club and I worked for a while with Credit Suisse.
But when I was 32, I left the financial industry to become acting president and CEO of Horizon Foods. It was a situation where I had to shut down two-thirds of the company in order to save it. So there’s a parallel between that and the type of decisions that a company commander has to make in battle.
You mentioned Wall Street people being the driving force behind Reserve Aid, the nonprofit that’s the beneficiary of the fundraiser screening in Red Bank, which kind of runs counter to the image that most Americans have of the financial biz these days.
Wall Street people are not all bad! Of course, they’re not all good either there’s a lot of arrogance, selfishness, hubris there; all qualities that go totally against what the Corps stands for.
I was on the founding board of directors for Reserve Aid, and we’ve gotten a lot of money from Wall Street. All the directors are volunteers; we have one office that was donated to us by a hedge fund in Dallas, and we have one full-time employee. She’s a former machine gunner who doesn’t take any shit from anybody!
When Reserve Aid started, it was mainly about financial assistance to families of military personnel who were on active duty. It later became about things like medical bills for injuries, and about mental health issues. But every dollar we raise is obviously going to help people directly each ticket that we sell buys things like diapers for a family in Ohio.
Kristian Fraga, the director of the film, has been quoted as saying that he’d spent some time searching for a subject for his next project, and when he found out about you and your document, he knew that this would be the one. But when did you come to the realization that Kristian was the guy to bring your experiences to the screen?
When I saw his previous film Anytown, USA, I knew he’d be the one. I knew that the film would be a poem.
It seems that you didn’t have any misgivings over entrusting such a personal endeavor to someone else; a filmmaker who’s credited here as writer and director in fact, it appears that it’s you rather than Fraga who’s become the real public face of this project.
Working with Kristian has been a great experience I’ve seen this film touch veterans in a way that made them teary eyed; family members have told me ‘your film helped me understand what our loved ones wen through.’ I’ve traveled all over the place on behalf of the film Boston, San Diego, L.A., Houston, Dallas. I went to Cannes, where we sold the UK rights and I went to Rome, where we won an award. My parents watched me walk up and accept it!
Alright, as promised, a Lightning Round your gut reaction, please, to these ten movies…
The Hurt Locker: I loved it. They did a tremendous job capturing the chaos and confusion when I saw it in the theater, my heart was pounding; I was clutching the seat.
The Blair Witch Project: We get compared to that one a lot. It scared the crap out of me!
84 Charlie MoPic: Haven’t seen it. Sounds good.
Cloverfield: I love that movie! Very, very well done.
The Tillman Story: My mentor’s seen it, and I’m very curious to see it myself. It kind of ties into the whole McChrystal thing; the cover up, the way the situation was presented to the public.
Avatar: I saw it in fact, I saw it in Vietnam! And it’s obvious that parts of it are about Vietnam in a way; about the Marines but I don’t think it went too far with the metaphor.
Coming Home: Right, with Jane Fonda didn’t see it.
District 9: Another one that I’ve been meaning to see obviously it’s another one of those movies that presents itself like it was a documentary (Scotti laughs when we tell him it plays like a Very Special Episode of The Office).
The Green Berets: You know, I never subscribed to the whole John Wayne ethos he made all these war movies in Hollywood and never got around to serving.
Three Kings: I had a bad taste in my mouth when I saw that one. I’m a middle of the road guy when it comes to politics, but this one just had this liberal thing all throughout I felt that the filmmakers weren’t in touch with the veterans. I felt the same way about In the Valley of Elah. But let me take the opportunity to put in a word for one of my all time classic war movies Paths Of Glory. That and Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick is The Man!
Tickets for the September 11 screening of Severe Clear are priced from $50 to $100, and can be reserved right here.