Yesterday, I had the privilege of sitting down with 3 of the real heroes that the new film 13 Hours is based on. John “Tig” Tiegen, Mark “Oz” Geist, and Kris “Tanto” Paronto all stopped in Atlanta to talk about the film, its accuracy, and their experiences in Benghazi in 2012.
When the Annex Security Team found out that the U.S. diplomatic compound was under attack, it was not their job to protect them, but they did. The five members of the Team that survived the attacks in Benghazi co-authored the book, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, on which the film is based.
What was your reaction to hearing that Michael Bay was going to make this movie?
John Tiegen: It’s time to hang out with some Autobots [laughs].
Were you worried that a director that’s known for Transformers and these big gigantic popcorn movies was going to tell your story and this important event in the right way?
John Tiegen: Well, you want a big, gigantic popcorn movie, because then everybody’s going to go watch it. But, you know, he did a good job. I mean we got to talk with him beforehand, and he talked to us about what he wanted to do, doing what we wanted, and we all had pretty much the same idea. Yeah, there’s a lot of explosions, there’s a lot of explosions in combat. Unfortunately, none of the guns transformed into an Autobot, but he did a good job [laughs]. I mean, it stayed true to the book and then some of the characters roles got changed around, but, it’s just to make the movie flow, and keep it going, and that can really confuse everybody. I mean there’s a lot of moving parts, but he did a really good job.
Is it surreal kind of seeing yourselves being portrayed on screen?
Kris Paronto: I should’ve played myself [laughs]. No. No, it’s not. I don’t think it is. Actually, it adds to the realism of the movie, because they portrayed them so accurately, portrayed all of us accurately. But it honestly, it makes me proud, because they took the time to get our mannerisms down and get our personalities exact. So, no, it’s not surreal at all. The word I said is proud for me. And I don’t get starstruck, so it’s very heartwarming, that guys would take the time to get this story down and get it exact as we saw it.
You mentioned that they had changed a few things from the book to make the movie flow better, but how accurate is the book to your story and then how accurate is the film to your story?
John Tiegen: Well the book is minute by minute.
Kris Paronto: Spot on. Yeah, it’s spot on.
John Tiegen: I mean it’s how we lived it and how we saw it, and that’s … I mean I can’t really say exactly if he was telling the truth. But, I mean like he doesn’t know exactly if I was telling the truth, because we told the story how we saw it and how we perceived everything. They put it together and how Mitchell [Zuckoff] put it together, and so I mean the book’s minute by minute.
Mark Geist: You know with the book this was what … And I think Mitchell did it this way to also verify that we weren’t embellishing anything, we all sat out separately, and he gave us sheets. Basically, it’s like doing homework, and we told our versions. Even when we weren’t together speaking, we were all telling the same thing. All this in different points, different times and everything was the same. I think it was a way for him to validate, because he was a little unsure, because when it first came out, you know, Benghazi had the conspiracy theorists and all this is going on. But as he’s going like, “Well, these guys are telling the truth.” These are separate, we’re in different states, talking into the tape recorder, as the transcriber’s going through all of the questions and answers and everybody’s the same, but we’re not sitting together. And I said that’s why the book is spot on.
The movie, you’ve got to melt thirteen hours into two, so you’ve got to take some … You’ve got a mesh of characters. Bob, we had a team leader over there, that’s in the book, a staff team leader. Rone was actually our assistant team leader, but our team leader and Bob were molded into one character. And it was very easy to do, because they really both didn’t do much for us to help that night, at least that’s how I saw it. But really the emotion is captured in the book. Timeline is good, and also the battle scenes, combat scenes, that’s how it is, it’s confusing.
A lot of critics are going to say, we’ve already read a few that, “Oh, I didn’t enjoy the movie, because it was hard to follow. We didn’t know who the enemy was. We didn’t know who was shooting who.” Well, welcome to our world. That’s how’s it’s supposed to be. You know, and I’m sorry, not every movie can be a Hurt Locker type movie… Because that’s completely inaccurate. That’s why we wanted Michael, now Michael’s the perfect one to do that, because he does that documentary style where you feel like, “Well, I’m a bit confused. What’s going on?” That’s what it was, we wanted you guys to feel that way. So it was perfect.
Was there anything that you wish had been put into the movie, that they had to take out or they had to leave out?
Kris Paronto: We had pet turtles. We had that praying mantis. That’s real, it was huge. But we also had pet turtles that were… it was either myself or Jack that looked at the turtles as we’re going out, I was like, “I’m not going to see my turtles again.”
John Tiegen: He’s kind of a sap.
Kris Paronto: I am. I’m a sad guy. No, I was very happy with how much they were able to get in, because it is, it’s thirteen hours, getting it into two is tough. They got the main points that you needed to, and the emotion came across and the faith. Faith in everybody, including God, there’s an underlying tone there. I’m very, very happy with how much they got in.
In the movie there seem to be tension between you guys and the CIA there. Was that just part of the movie? Or if it was real, why the tension was there.
Kris Paronto: No, it was. It’s just personalities. We don’t want you to think every base is like that. There are some good chiefs, I’ve worked with some outstanding ones, Chiefs of Station. But there, that was the atmosphere, and it was an atmosphere of us and them. Not us versus them, but us and them. Those scenes, where I probably get into some argument with the chief… Actually that was the argument with the team leader I had, but since Bob and the team leader are the same, that’s how it was. I saw the agency as turning into the State Department, bureaucrats, instead of us doing this clandestine stuff I remember in the beginning. So there was a sense of me, “This is not what I signed up to do. This has changed too much.” And it did create a lot of animosity between myself and the other guys.
I think one of the great things that this film does is highlight the private soldiers out there that are fighting for us, and also the families that go through an incredible sacrifice for you guys to be able to protect us.
Kris Paronto: In the scene with Jack, played by John Krasinski… we’ve all said this at one point in time that, every time I go back, I think this is my last trip, every time I go. And then I come back, and Ty says to him, you know, “Warriors don’t retire.” We quit, I quit after my fourth year. And then I quit after my fifth year, then I said, “I’m not doing it anymore.” I quit on my sixth year. That hits, it really hit home, because we all have said that at one point in time, and our families do suffer.
What do you hope that audiences take away from this film?
Mark Geist: You know, I think the biggest thing for me is that… it’s unfortunate this country’s gotten so polarized either by our politicians or by the mainstream big media. I think they like it that way, because it keeps their ratings up. But, I think if we look at each other and we really talk about things and focus on the right things, we have more similarities from the left and right than we do differences. An example from the movie is that night we had twenty, thirty people there. They weren’t all of the same political persuasion, ethnicity, religious beliefs, any of that. And instead of focusing on the differences and fighting, we came together and overcome what some people would say are insurmountable odds, and we did that because it was a team.
I mean the people inside the buildings did what we needed them to do, when we got back over to the annex, so we could do what we needed to do outside the annex. And we didn’t have to worry about what they were doing, because they would do what we needed them to do. And, it’s that teamwork that allows you do that, and I hope that people see that this isn’t about politics. People have made this, politicians and people have made this political. Let’s come together. It’s a good example of teamwork, dedication, integrity, honesty, and courage. Everybody can have a little bit more of that in our life. I mean, all of us can.
13 Hours is in theaters now!
Photo Credit: Cooper Neill/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures