AT NIGHT, the lights of LA glitter and twinkle, and when viewed from a height resemble a circuit board powered by the dreams of 12 million residents.
On a balmy February evening in 2007 Andrea Calderwood was enjoying the view from a house in the hills of Hollywood, and the warm glow that comes from a dream fulfilled. Earlier, the Scottish producer of The Last King of Scotland had watched as Forest Whitaker had collected the Academy Award for best actor for his terrifying performance as the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.
Over the past few hours she, director Kevin Macdonald and the production team had swept from one glittering party to another where, at one point, security had to be called to escort Whitaker out as the crush to inspect his Oscar had grown too much. Now, looking out at the City of Angels, Calderwood pondered what next – and she decided to go to war.
Within months, the ballgowns and stretch limousines of the Oscars had been exchanged for desert fatigues and the deep rumble of military humvees, as the former head of drama at BBC Scotland took on the role of producer of Generation Kill, the critically acclaimed HBO mini-series written by David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of The Wire. Based on the book by Evan Wright, a journalist with Rolling Stone magazine, who was embedded with the US Marine Corps' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the Iraq war's first phase in 2003, Generation Kill is a bottom-up look at the invasion, which tells with unflinching accuracy and compassion how this elite unit did their job.
So how did a former film and media studies student at Stirling University come to play 'General Patton', marshalling an 'army' of 300 actors and crew through an exhausting six-month shoot in the deserts of Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa (which doubled for Iraq)? The fact is, despite being funded by HBO, the American subscription TV channel that gave a grateful world The Sopranos, Entourage and The Wire, Generation Kill was a largely British production.
After optioning the book and commissioning Simon and Burns to pen the scripts, HBO approached Company Pictures, the British production company behind Shameless, The Devil's Whore and Skins, to make the mini-series. George Faber and Charles Pattinson at Company Pictures initially asked Calderwood's advice on filming in Africa, as The Last King of Scotland had been shot in Uganda.
Then they called back. As Calderwood explains: "They said, would you be interested in producing it? They said it was written by David Simon and Ed Burns who did The Wire, that it was about the American invasion of Iraq, and it was going to be shot in Namibia and Mozambique. It sounded interesting to me. It was incredibly well written and about the biggest story of the last decade."
As producer, Calderwood chose, with Simon and Burns, the drama's two British directors, Susanna White (Bleak House, Jane Eyre) and Simon Cellan Jones (Cracker, Our Friends in the North) with a view to emphasise character over action. "They wanted to do it as a British production and so I was able to approach some of the best British TV directors about," says Calderwood. "We worked with a South African production team as well. David Simon's company was also producing the last season of The Wire at the same time so we worked incredibly closely together on the set up. They choose the directors with us, we did all the casting together. David Simon came out at the beginning and Ed Burns stayed on the shoot all the way through."
Calderwood got on well with the pair, although her Scottish accent proved problematic at first. "There was a fair amount of panic," she recalls. "I would say things, David would hear something completely different and Ed kept telling me to 'speak English'."
The key to the drama's success was authenticity. "The American Marines was a world I never imagined I would find myself in but it was a great opportunity," she says. "The way Ed and David work is that authenticity is the No 1 thing. Ed said we were basically making this show for the Marines and if we hadn't got it right for the Marines we hadn't done our job.
"Susanna and I went to Camp Pendleton, the Marines' base in San Diego. We had one marine, Rudy Reyes, who plays himself and Eric Kocher, a marine who served as the series key military advisor. He was with us on the set and they watched everything we did – they sat at the monitors watching that we got all the military stuff correct. We put all the cast through a boot camp at the beginning of the shoot. It was a great place to find yourself, in the middle of an army in the desert."
Rarely has she felt so powerful than when the production shut down the whole of Moputo, the capital of Mozambique, in order to film the convoy's arrival in Baghdad. But there were many moments of genuine emotion.
"The cast were playing these real people and were aware of that – it was powerful to be a part of recreating this. In episode three there is a sequence where the Marines shoot a child, a camel herder, and it was a very moving moment on set as the guys involved were very ashamed of what had happened. For them to have to re-live it was very powerful. It was sobering moment. It wasn't just a drama, it had actually happened.
"The whole premise was to humanise what you see on the news – they are doing their job to the best of their ability and it's the orders that they are given that are questionable and get screwed up. It's how they deal with that."
Generation Kill was broadcast in the US last year to excellent reviews, but Calderwood's most tense moment came not during the industry screening in Los Angeles, but at a later showing down at Camp Pendleton when the marines themselves saw the finished drama for the first time. Their response?
"They loved it," she says. "That was the most nerve-wracking screening because we had put such effort into getting it right and they absolutely loved it. They got a lot of the insider jokes and recognised themselves; some of them were watching it through their fingers. They were pleased to have themselves represented right. What they are looking for is the chance to do their job well and in a good cause and it's frustrating for them to think they were not fighting for the right reasons. They were pleased that we weren't taking a political slant on it. We were just showing them doing their job to the best of their ability."
After going to war, Calderwood has now returned to the relentless grind of raising funds for a raft of feature films she has bubbling in development with her company, Slate Films. Producing an Oscar-winning film is not as lucrative as many believe – she puts her financial reward for the seven years it took to heave Last King of Scotland on to the big screen as the equivalent of a "good salary for a single year". "As an independent producer you tend to have to have a lot of plates spinning," she says. "That is really what I'm doing now."
• Generation Kill is broadcast on the FX Channel and will be released on DVD on 9 March.
THE IRAQ WAR ON FILM
Three Kings (1999)
IT'S about the first Iraq war rather than the second, but Three Kings remains one of the most provocative films of recent times about America's military involvement in the Middle East.
An audacious black comedy in the spirit of Catch-22, it's about three US solders who try to steal Kuwaiti gold from Iraqi bunkers, then find themselves falling in with a group of Shia rebels.
Encouraged by president George H Bush to rise up against Saddam Hussein, the rebels have found themselves abandoned as the US army retreats, leaving the three unlikely heroes with a tricky moral dilemma.
The Mark of Cain (2007)
A FICTIONAL tale that uncomfortably paralleled real-life events, this provocative 2007 Channel 4 film, inset, tells the story of two young soldiers who take part in the torture of Iraqi insurgent prisoners, and are then turned into scapegoats by superiors to avoid shaming their equally guilty fellow troops. One kills himself, the other is beaten in his cell by other soldiers after refusing to take sole blame.
Lions for Lambs (2007)
WHILE it often comes across like a filmed stage play than a Hollywood movie, Robert Redford's dialogue-heavy film pulls its punches a little less than Battle for Haditha and In The Valley Of Elah.
It is also as topical as Hollywood gets, its fictional Republican senator (Tom Cruise) outlining a new military strategy to journalist Meryl Streep – in a verbal jousting match that's the compelling centrepiece of the film – just as something very similar was happening in the real world.
The operation in question is in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, but the film tackles the whole of America's Middle East debacle, with a subplot in which professor Robert Redford tries to talk a bright young student out of joining the military.