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Wednesday 29 Oct 2014

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Occupation: The making of...

l-r: Stephen Graham, Warren Brown and James Nesbitt in Occupation

When Executive Producer Derek Wax floated the idea of him writing a drama about the Iraq war, dramatist Peter Bowker was, at first, reluctant.

"I think it was early 2004 when the war hadn't been going for a year," recalls the award-winning writer of Blackpool, Flesh And Blood and the upcoming Desperate Romantics.

"Derek said he thought Iraq was going to be the story of our generation, and I agreed with him. It is our Vietnam, but at the time I was slightly resistant because already there were a number of very good documentaries about the war. You could access a lot of good reporting coming out of Iraq. But then Derek said something to me which made me think. He said: 'The job of drama is to do something different'."

It was a year or so later, when the invasion of Iraq was over and work had begun on the reconstruction of a country now riven by sectarian warfare, that Bowker began to see a way of writing that "different" drama.

"I read a really good piece by the investigative reporter Ed Harriman. He had looked at audits of the money that had gone to Iraq and found that there were billions of dollars that were unaccounted for," Bowker explains.

As he dug deeper he began to read more about the armies of private contractors, most of them ex-military personnel, who had returned to Iraq to oversee the country's re-construction and were living by their own laws spending millions of dollars on projects that were often never delivered.

"There was an ideology that opened up a mesmerising greed for a couple of years in 2004 and 2005. There was a massive rise in the use of private military companies as a result of the billions of dollars being pumped into Iraq for reconstruction. It was being handed out by America's new Coalition Provisional Authority, but there was very limited oversight into where that money went. And so for many it was an extraordinary temptation, and there was a huge amount of corruption. Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent of the Independent, writes in his book The Occupation about the 'seedy gold-rush atmosphere' of that time," he says.

"As a writer I'm interested in writing about characters that I might not necessarily like, or agree with or who might not hold my point of view. That's kind of what fires me up. Dramatically if you cut yourself off from voices you disagree with then you are only going to write half a drama," he explains. "What was happening in Iraq seemed to offer an opportunity."

Slowly the idea for a drama was born. At its heart was the story of three men whose lives are changed when they enter a block of flats in Basra during the invasion. Deeply affected by the events they experience there, all three struggle to re-adjust to life back in the UK and are eventually drawn back to Basra for very different reasons.

Danny, a seemingly happy-go-lucky soldier with little to keep him in the UK, is drawn into the murky world of the private contractors in Iraq. Lee Hibbs – or Hibbsy – a young soldier who sustains a minor injury in Iraq, leading to a medical discharge, is drawn back by his desire to help rebuild a shattered country; while Mike, a solid, family man, finds his loyalties divided when he meets and falls in love with an Iraqi doctor.

"I was interested in writing about characters in wartime. The small stories told about wartime in a way carry more weight than the massive overarching politics of what has gone on," Bowker explains.

"I also wanted to write a piece about people who you would judge harshly from the outside and explore whether we could get into their heads and stop ourselves from judging them so that we understand entirely the logic of their journey.

"So, for instance, it seems to me entirely logical if you've served in the British Army on what is actually staggeringly low pay, that you might want to go back for six months as a private military contractor to do a job that isn't that different and to do it for your family to earn a lot of money. So rather than say he's a mercenary, let's look at how you get to that point," he explains.

Bowker also wanted to explore the psychological impact war has on the men and women who fight.

"A senior officer I spoke to told me about the problem of re-entry, fitting back into life at home in your family. You are all meant to hug because it's the most fantastic moment of your life and you are safe. But it's not like that," he says.

Researching the drama, Bowker spent time with Combat Stress, an organisation that helps soldiers deal with the psychological damage many suffer in war. He discovered that many turn to drugs and have serious problems re-acclimatising. Many also suffer mental and psychological problems.

"The thing that I was always reaching for was the emotional and psychological effect of warfare on young men who under any other circumstances might be written off by society and wouldn't go near admitting they have a mental illness or psychological damage," he explains.

In addition, Bowker wanted to explore the story from the viewpoint of Iraqi characters. It is very much the story of two cultures.

"When I came to write the Iraqi characters I wanted them to have proper stories and a point of view. I don't believe that human beings are different in kind wherever you go. Obviously your culture and your experience will shape how you act in certain ways but wherever you go you will find entrepeneurs like one of the characters, Yunis, who want to move things on."

Bowker researched the way that Basra was riven by sectarian and religious conflict in the aftermath of the occupation, and in particular how women suffered as a result.

"When we see Mike go back to Basra it has fallen victim to a sort of religious fundamentalism," he says.

"The fact is that there have been 14 assassinations of women doctors by self-appointed religious police just in and around Basra. So how do you dramatise that, have you a responsibility to dramatise that? Well, yes you have... because it's happening and because it's one of the hidden aspects of the war."

From the outset, however, Bowker was determined not to write a polemical or overtly political piece. The fact that Occupation is the first major drama about Iraq to be commissioned by the BBC since the fallout from the Hutton Report had no influence at all, he says.

"I would like to think it's political without having a political agenda. I was not interested in a polemical piece, I would have written this if Hutton had happened or not. It's the major story of our age. I wanted to portray the Iraqi experience as authentically as I could," he offers.

As Bowker completed his scripts, Wax was struck by the emotional power of the writing. ""From the first drafts I read, Pete entered the skin of these men," he says.

"He had done it before when we worked on Flesh And Blood – he writes characters from the inside, so we get a vivid sense of felt experience. With Pete, you never feel the writing is designed to drive a message home. His characters in Occupation are rounded and complex; they set out with a measure of certainty but what happens to them completely trips them up."

Wax faced a series of challenges as he set about bringing the story of Danny, Mike and Hibbs to life. Wax and Laurie Borg, who came on board as producer, were determined to create a drama that gave viewers a sense of the intensity and unsettling chaos of Iraq and its aftermath.

"I felt the glossy mini-series approach was wrong for Pete's writing, we didn't need perfectly composed shots with light reflecting in puddles. We needed something truer, rougher, and more rooted in reality. So I was looking for a director to capture the sense of being there in a way that felt dynamic and authentic. Often it is the directors who have worked in documentaries who have a foot in that reality," explains Wax.

He found what he was looking for in the work of Nick Murphy, a documentary maker who had moved into drama a few years ago and made an extraordinary film about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

"Nick brilliantly avoided the 'disaster movie' cliche, by making the performances chillingly understated and real. We thought Nick could bring something strikingly fresh to Occupation," says Wax.

Murphy was invited to direct the drama, along with veteran cinematographer David Odd as Director of Photography.

Choosing the right three actors to play Mike, Danny and Hibbsy was the next great challenge. Early on Wax, Murphy and Bowker were drawn to Stephen Graham and Warren Brown for the roles of Danny and Hibbs.

"Pete and I had worked with Stephen Graham in Flesh And Blood," says Wax, "and there is nobody who can play the chancer like Stephen, while never letting you forget the vulnerability and damage underneath. Warren was relatively unknown but again his humanity and innocence came through so strongly in the audition."

Patrick Spence, Head of Drama for BBC Northern Ireland, who was involved from the very start of the process, suggested James Nesbitt for Mike, having already worked with him on Murphy's Law and the Sundance Award-winning Five Minutes Of Heaven. Nesbitt, in turn, had worked with Peter Bowker before and was hugely taken by the writing and really wanted to be part of it.

"It's the third or fourth part in a row which Jimmy has taken on recently that has challenged our own notions of what represents his comfort zone, and each time he has delivered in a big way," says Spence. "Jimmy is in the form of his life."

The cast was strengthened yet further when Wax and Murphy enlisted the acclaimed Belgian-Moroccan actress Lubna Azabal to play Aliyah Nabil, the Iraqi doctor with whom Mike falls in love, and Iraqi actor Igal Naor, from the BBC's House Of Saddam, to take on the role of her husband.

For Derek Wax, the other great challenge was finding where to film it. Pete had written an intimate but also epic story that spans five years and we wanted to ensure that we could deliver that story with a budget far less than would be normal for this type of piece.

Luckily, Northern Ireland Screen made a significant financial investment in the project. "They saved the day, really," says Wax.

"We ended up filming the Manchester scenes and many of the interior Basra scenes in Belfast. Belfast can work as Manchester architecturally, and we ended up picking up many of the creative team in Northern Ireland. Belfast is a great city to film in and they made us feel incredibly welcome."

Wax briefly toyed with the idea of shooting the Basra scenes in South Africa, but he and Borg were soon attracted to filming in Morocco, within a few short hours of the UK.

To recreate the war-torn streets of Basra, Wax, Borg and Murphy took the production to the outskirts of Marrakech. During an intense week of filming, the Moroccan streets staged car chases, kidnaps, street shootings and mass demonstrations.

To get the military scenes right, the production engaged a special military adviser who gave his leading actors, James Nesbitt, Stephen Graham and Warren Brown, expert guidance on every aspect of soldiering from how to hold a rifle to the correct procedure for patrolling potentially dangerous streets.

Director Nick Murphy was the man given the task of giving Bowker's drama that authenticity. He did so by placing the camera – and therefore the viewer – at the heart of the fast-moving and sometimes chaotic action. "Naturalism has been the order of the day. Nothing has been too choreographed," he explains.

"It's a bold aggressive visual style where events seem to unfold in front of the camera rather than being teed up for the camera."

Like his producer, Derek Wax, Murphy was drawn to the power of Bowker's central story and the journey that Mike, Danny and Hibbsy go through.

"It's not really a story about Iraq – it sheds light on Iraq but it's about these three men. The reason that holds up is that they are so well drawn. They are not characters who are aware of the profundity of their circumstances they are characters that are just trying to get on," he explains.

"Much like Iraq itself, each of them is struggling to find some measure of control of their lives. That is the struggle from the moment they get out of their Warrior at the beginning of the first episode until the credits roll at the end of the third episode, they have been trying to gain some measure of control of their lives. Much like the fight for control lies at the centre of the Iraq problem. There isn't a goodie and there isn't really a baddie. It's people bumping into each other and trying to make sense of their circumstances."

Producer Wax hopes Occupation will, first and foremost, excite and entertain its audience.

"It's a gripping story, too. We want people to engage with it as a rich, compelling human story – not something that is going to preach at people. It is shining a light on the dilemmas these men face," he says, "but, of course, as we see the way the experiences affect them, it's at times very moving."

He also hopes it will help audiences appreciate the human cost of war.

"You can't send soldiers into places simply expecting them to do a job without understanding that the stresses of that job are going to leave an intense mark on people," he says.

"I would like to feel that we have presented a piece that makes the audience understand a little bit more about what soldiers go through and how a place like Iraq and the experience of Iraq, of being there and fighting there and being part of the reconstruction, how deeply it can affect and disorientate you and leave you utterly changed as a person," he concludes.

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