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Matthew Michael Carnahan And Suhail Dabbach Talk Mosul - Exclusive Interview

Acclaimed filmmaker Matthew Michael Carnahan has had an incredible run as a screenwriter in the film industry — one that kicked off in 2007 with the action thriller The Kingdom for director Peter Berg and starring Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman, as well as the crime mystery Lions for Lambs, directed by Robert Redford and starring Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise.

In the years since, Carnahan's screenplays have continued to attract A-list actors, including 2009's State of Play (starring Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, and Rachel McAdams), 2013's World War Z (starring Brad Pitt) and 2016's Deepwater Horizon (starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, and John Malkovich). Perhaps most importantly, the scribe's work also captured the attention of blockbuster filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo, the brother filmmakers behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe chapters Captain America: The Winter Solider, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame — leading to a creative collaboration and Carnahan's biggest film assignments yet: as writer and director of the new Netflix original feature film Mosul, as well as work on the Chadwick Boseman crime thriller 21 Bridges.

Based on journalist Luke Mogelson's 2016 New Yorker article "The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS," Mosul tells captivating true story of the Nineveh SWAT Team, a group of Iraqi police officers suffering from deep, personal tragedies who band together to battle ISIS after the militants have ravaged and decimated their city.

The SWAT team's commander, Maj. Jasem, is played by Iraq-born actor Suhail Dabbach, who was one of the country's top actors before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The role proved to be a unique opportunity for Dabbach, in that it was being directed and produced by a group largely made up of American filmmakers, yet the cast was made up of a cast unfamiliar to American audiences and the dialogue was completely in Arabic. As such, Mohamed Al Daradji became key to the production as one of Carnahan's main collaborators on Mosul as an executive producer on the film.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Carnahan and Dabbach talked about the unique creative process that made Mosul a reality.

Building a bridge to a new sort of 'superhero' collaboration

This might be a stretch to start off things, Matthew, but your work with the Russo brothers on 21 Bridges — writing that screenplay, did that serve as a springboard of sorts to the director's chair, or in this case, writing and directing? Because you've been writing for so long and have done so many terrific films, you must feel that at some point you have to get a chance to direct.

Yeah. Believe it or not, I did a pass [rewrite on 21 Bridges], so that screenplay was in existence, and Chadwick [Boseman] had signed on and this was all happened while I was editing Mosul. So Mosul had been shot and they came to me and said, "Can you spare a couple of weeks and punch up the [21 Bridges] script for us?" So, that was actually after they had gone and said, "Yeah, let's do this crazy thing and shoot this movie [Mosul] in Arabic in that part of the world with a cast from that part of the world." So [21 Bridges] didn't have an effect on them in terms of, "Let's give this guy a shot."

I think they were compelled by the idea that there was a different way of telling the story [of Mosul], more so than they were looking "to give Matthew Michael Carnahan a shot at the director's chair." I think the idea of doing the most justice possible to this SWAT team and the lives that they were forced to lead, and doing it in as close to their mother tongue as we could get with a cast from that part of the world, some of whom had lived versions of those events, similar events. That, I think, put the hooks in them, like, "Look, Mogelson's article put its hooks in me."

Matthew, I just talked with the Russo brothers just a little bit ago and I was telling them how it's great that they are using their clout to make a movie like Mosul when everybody's beating on their doors to produce the next superhero franchise. But I look at it like, "You know what? This film, Mosul, is about superheroes, too, and it's about real-life superheroes."

You're so right, and they're just spectacular. I could soak up all our time heaping praise on them. They're just gutsy. They're really smart, and they're fearless. It's one thing for me to read an article and say, "This is how I think we should do it." It's another thing to find people who can actually make that happen and who want to do it in the same way. So yeah. I adore those guys.

Suhail Dabbach says the film has profoundly affected his countrymen

Suhail, you get to be in the unique position to see this guy behind the camera for the first time as a director. And whether it comes down to capturing the intense action or the desperation on your faces, or the uncertainty surrounding your fates in the smaller, quieter scenes, in some ways you must've felt like, "First-time director? This guy has been doing this forever!"

Suhail Dabbach: When I got my first audition, after that, they told me about the movie's story. The casting director, she's from Jordan, and she told me, "This movie is all in Arabic and you'll get to be the main character." I told her, "What's going on? This has never happened." But after that... Matthew, he's a great person first. And he's a great director, and someday, he's going to be maybe on the top 10 or something like that. I wish you all the best, Matthew.

Matthew Carnahan: Thank you.

Suhail Dabbach: All the team we have, from the producer to the small ones, all of them, they're great. And they did a great job and there's something happening now on the social media, we talk about the story. The audience, they have to see it, the real story. I have had a lot of people sending me messages on Facebook, on social media, and there are a lot of them from the army. There's an officer who said, "Thank you so much for you and for the director, for the producers to do this movie, to show us our real story, that we have it come to life. To approve it for the people who all get to share their story with the audience." And yeah, they're very, very happy to see this. A lot of comments. It's all good comments I've received from all people.

Becoming a part of the Russo film family

For both of you, in a way, this movie must feel like a validation of sorts. Like you're truly part of the Russo family now. I mean, the brothers brought in Matthew to do 21 Bridges while making this, and certainly, Suhail, I see that the Russo brothers have you in a part in Tom Holland's upcoming film Cherry. So there must be a great feeling knowing you're part of that inner circle now.

Suhail Dabbach: Yeah. This is the first time I did a movie [Cherry]. And because when you work with people and they like you, they're going to call you again, of course. If they don't like you, how are they going to call you, you know? But it was a very, very nice experience with them. I know it's a small part, but it was a really nice part. I loved it.

Matthew Carnahan: Yeah. I mean, if I can just work with them from here on out, that would be perfect for me. Like I said, they take great kind of artistic risks and they're smart and they know how to kind of make a script work. And like I said, I can't say enough good things about them. I have two more projects that I'm working on, both of which are going to be with them. And they're spectacular. And I have to say, it'll sound like a mutual admiration society, but to see Suhail get some due, too. People have come up to me just after having seen the trailer and ask me, "Who is that guy? Who's the commander, who's the guy who's running the team?" It's been wonderful.

I think once people see that movie and they see just how good he is, because there's a big interruption in his career where he was taking off and then geopolitics and Saddam Hussein intervened. Then he had to defer this dream and this talent. It's heartbreaking. But my God, I think he's going to finally open people's eyes to just how good he is; just how naturally gifted an actor he is. If that happens off this movie, that would just be wonderful.

The Russos' first MCU film influenced the action in Mosul

Matthew, the Russos have had such an enormous impact on the film world, co-directing the Avengers series. I'm wondering if there was a specific scene in any of the films they've helmed that influenced you when you were making Mosul.

Yeah. It was the highway attack in [Captain America:] The Winter Soldier. That scene, when I was thinking about how I wanted to do the action, some of the standout moments of action — the Private Ryan assault on the beach, the Heat shootout, and the shootout on the highway from The Winter Soldier — were top of mind when I was thinking about action.

I also [thought about their work] on a more fundamental level. Having sat with them and breaking down a script, I realized how little I knew about breaking down a script. Joe literally puts it up on a big TV and people sit around and he'll read every word just to make sure that it all works, if something isn't landing, everybody in that room figures out what will. [That way] you solve the problem, and you move on. There's no, "Well, we'll get to it." It's just "Sit down and put it up on the screen and let's figure it out right now." That one scene [in The Winter Soldier] pops to mind, but [I also learned about a] more fundamental way of how you actually make a movie. There's saying you want to make it, and then there's actually making it. And I didn't really understand the difference until I started working with those guys.

Mosul is playing now on Netflix.