© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Dan Krauss Turned His Documentary, 'The Kill Team,' Into A Feature Film


In 2010, five American soldiers in Afghanistan were accused of murdering civilians. News reports at the time described the men as a kill team. They were given sentences ranging from three years to life in prison. Filmmaker Dan Krauss was so fascinated by the story that he made a documentary about it called "The Kill Team" in 2014. Now he's written and directed a feature film by the same name. The central character is a young soldier who tries to report the killings. I asked Dan Krauss what it is about this story that he finds so compelling.

DAN KRAUSS: I'm really drawn to people who are facing unanswerable questions, impossible choices and particularly choices that say something about who we are as a species - what we believe is right and wrong and how we behave when we are forced to make decisions that may result in harm to ourselves, even if it means standing up and doing the right thing. And those competing moral priorities is a subject of fascination for me.

SHAPIRO: Although, in this story, the right and wrong seems pretty black and white. I mean, there is somebody who is murdering civilians. There's not much ambiguity there.

KRAUSS: No, there's not much ambiguity in terms of the crimes themselves, but I think there's a lot of angst, at least from the point of view of this character in the fictionalized version and with Adam Winfield in the real life story - are you willing to risk your own life to defend a principle and to defend another person's life?

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a couple of back-to-back clips here from the two films - first from the documentary. This is Specialist Adam Winfield, who plays a central role as somebody who initially raises a flag and then kind of keeps his head down and reluctantly goes along with the team. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison.


ADAM WINFIELD: I was like, I can make a stand out here and risk my life, or I can just try to stay out of it as best I can.

SHAPIRO: And now here is the actor Nat Wolff playing the role. You changed the name to Andrew Briggman. And in this scene, he's on the phone with his father.


NAT WOLFF: (As Andrew Briggman) I don't know what to do anymore.

ROB MORROW: (As William Briggman) OK. Just tell me what's going on.

WOLFF: (As Andrew Briggman) Do I do the right thing and put myself in danger, or do I just shut up and deal with it?

SHAPIRO: So Dan Krauss, as you were writing this script, did you try to make the fictional character as accurate as possible, or did you see one as an interpretation of the other? How do you approach it?

KRAUSS: More an interpretation. When you make a feature film, your focus is mostly on emotion and character. And the character of Andrew Briggman is, I believe, a fairly accurate representation of the soldier I met named Adam Winfield, who was featured in the documentary. But there are liberties taken in the dramatization of a story, a true story, that are necessary in order to provide thematic and emotional clarity.

What's true to life is the feeling of isolation, the feeling of the walls closing in, the feeling of helplessness, betrayal. All of the things that I learned in speaking to Adam Winfield I tried to incorporate into the fictional character of Andrew Briggman.

SHAPIRO: I understand you worked with the family on the documentary, and the film feels sympathetic to the character. Did you see it as a piece of advocacy?

KRAUSS: Well, I don't want to confuse advocacy and empathy. I'm certainly empathetic to Adam Winfield and his family. I feel like he was put in a situation where there was no possible clean exit. And some might disagree with that. Maybe there was more that he could have done, and he's accepted that responsibility. But I empathize greatly with the situation that he found himself in, which feels to me impossible. He was stuck between his unit, who was openly threatening his life, and of course, the enemy outside the wire. In the blink of an eye, he was forced to decide his loyalty.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about the ringleader of this plot to kill Afghan civilians. In real life, his name is Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. He was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. And he's not in the documentary. But in the feature film, he becomes one of the main characters, played by Alexander Skarsgard. Let's listen to a clip of him.


ALEXANDER SKARSGARD: (As Sergeant Deeks) I'm going to make you a deal. You give me your loyalty, and I guarantee that each and every one of you will have a chance to be a warrior, to actually do something out here, to be a part of history, instead of reading about it in some book.

SHAPIRO: In the feature film, the character is named Sergeant Deeks. Tell me about filling this hole at the center of the story that you told in the documentary.

KRAUSS: When I made the documentary, the ringleader - who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison - became a mythic figure. He wasn't open to speaking with me. I had no access to him. And so he was filled in from the outside, through the voices of the soldiers that I spoke with. And I was very taken with this idea of an enigmatic soldier descending into their ranks and testing their loyalties, much like in a Mafia story.

I actually read a lot of Mafia screenplays and watched mob movies when I was writing the screenplay because, in many ways, this story is the story of a Mafia being created. I was interested in the ways that Deeks would test the soldiers in his charge to find out how far they were willing to go to prove their loyalty.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He planted the IEDs?

SKARSGARD: (As Sergeant Deeks) No, but I bet you a case of Coors he knows who did.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What are we supposed to do with him?

SKARSGARD: (As Sergeant Deeks) Not we - you. We're going to hurt this man.

SHAPIRO: The Afghans in the movie are presented only as victims. We don't see anything really about their lives, their feelings, their experiences. Did you consider showing any part of the story from their perspective?

KRAUSS: Well, the story really is about Andrew Briggman and his - the decision that he is wrestling with. And it always pains me to not be able to explore the characters who appear at the periphery of that point of view. But one rule that really drove the storytelling in this movie was that it was rigorously subjective. We always were rooted in Andrew's point of view. And from Andrew's point of view, he was seeing the Afghan villagers as victims. So in order to protect that, we really stayed within his point of view at all times and tried to create as subjective a feeling as we could.

SHAPIRO: This is obviously a story about individuals, but do you see it more broadly as a story about war in general?

KRAUSS: Yes, I don't buy the bad apples argument. If we look at armed conflict throughout history, we see that war crimes consistently occur. They happen reliably with every armed engagement, whether it's the United States or any other country. So you have to ask yourself, what is it about, you know, the institution of the military, the culture of war, what is it about young people, that allows this dimension of the human psyche to become unleashed? That's my interest in the story. I think it transcends the war in Afghanistan, I think it transcends the U.S. military and has to do very much with the psychology of young people.

SHAPIRO: Have you kept in touch with Adam Winfield and his family?


SHAPIRO: Can you tell us what they're up to these days?

KRAUSS: Yes. Adam is - he's in university. He's studying, I believe, American history. He recently is married. And he is trying as best to move forward with his life.

SHAPIRO: Dan Krauss, thank you for talking with us.

KRAUSS: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: He's the director of the 2014 documentary and now the new feature film "The Kill Team." It's out Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.