Recreating famous battles makes for riveting television, as this fall’s highly touted documentary on the Vietnam War makes clear. But another, lesser-seen production on the National Geographic Channel has taken great pains to recreate the look and feel of a more recent battle of the Iraq War.
Based on The Long Road Home, ABC journalist Martha Raddatz’s account of a harrowing 2004 ambush and subsequent battles in Sadr City, a Baghdad neighborhood, a new miniseries strives to transport viewers to both the battlefield, and the family drama at home. For production designer Seth Reed, that meant digging into stories that soldiers often aren’t comfortable sharing, and accurately recreating architectural styles from half a world away.
“You know those stories about how someone’s grandpa may not talk about what they went through during WWII?” Reed says. “Soldiers don’t talk about this kind of stuff. But we needed the environment to be convincing for soldiers and everybody else from the Arabic world.”
It also meant constructing a gargantuan set, one of the largest standing sets in North America. To achieve a high degree of realism, the crew worked with the U.S. Army, building on the grounds of Fort Hood in Texas, as well as working with a pair of public affairs officers. All in all, the crew constructed buildings across 12 acres, creating 85 new structures and modifying 28. Actors were able to drive actual tanks for a half mile down realistic streets seemingly lifted from Iraq.
“Being on the army base, we could shoot scenes all night, blow things up, make a lot of noise,” says Reed. “The Army was happy to have us there.”
Reed’s background, including a degree in anthropology from UCLA, a decade of architectural and contracting experience, and on-set work for the show Cosmos, suggests an inquisitive, detail-oriented mindset. But the challenges of recreating a massive urban battlefield in Baghdad required him to expand his normal research routine.
Like many in his field, Reed always starts with the script. The story of American soldiers ambushed in an attack that came to be known as Black Sunday, the miniseries makes the city itself a key role, due to the tense, claustrophobic nature of urban combat. To be able to accurately portray this landscape, Reed went to Jordan and Morocco to study the region’s architecture, and grasp the intricacies of local design as well as different types of concrete and brickwork.
He also spent extensive time talking with and learn from service members. Since the Iraq War started in 2003, during the beginnings of the age of easy-to-access digital cameras, fighters from both sides have left an extensive photographic record. Reed was able to draw upon these images to recreate precise details, from flags and signs hanging on the walls, to graffiti painted in alleyways (the show hired a consultant from Baghdad to make sure idioms and language in every spray-painted statement were perfect).
The crew spent five months researching the neighborhood and its architecture, and three months constructing sets, overlapping process that ended this past April. Building on the base presented a unique challenge. As a training center, Fort Hood, the largest military installation in the world and home to the 1st Cavalry Division that’s featured in the miniseries, already had a mock village available to the film crew. Problem was, the fake buildings were made up to resemble a generic Eastern European setting.
Reed and his colleagues needed to give it a facelift. By strategically placing new buildings and pasting over others, they turned a block of narrow, winding roads with matchbox windows into wide streets with concrete exteriors, covered in posters of imams and local leaders, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric, as well as flags and funeral banners.
Since the structures were temporary, Reed had to overcome a few tricky building challenges. He couldn’t dig foundations, so to prevent many of the structure from blowing away in the Texas wind, crew strapped giant water containers to the insides to weigh the structures down. Staff built three-fifths of a mile of Sadr City street to film shots of convoys being attacked. To film dramatic scenes on a rooftop, a complete three-story structure was fabricated, with internal stairways and three miles of special effects wiring rigged to blow up parts of the rooftop.
By the time the show premiered earlier this month, Reed had gotten compliments from a very important audience. Soldiers, generals, Gold Star families, and veterans identified with the set. Some were too moved by the accuracy of the recreation and turned away. Some widows thanked him for giving them a chance to see where their husbands spent their final days. In the end, as in the beginning, it was all about the narrative.
“People were glad to have their stories told,” says Reed.