'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' screenwriter Robert Carlock mixes humor with tragedy
He's been Tina Fey's writing partner on "Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." With his new film, which stars Fey, Carlock goes a bit darker than his usual comedic writing.
The war in Afghanistan may seem like the least likely setting for a romantic fling, but the film “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” shows a different perspective of what it was like for reporters and troops after the U.S. invaded the Middle East in the early 2000’s.
The film is based on print reporter Kim Barker’s memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” But in the movie, Kim is a TV reporter and is played by Tina Fey. Like the memoir, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” injects some dark humor in a serious setting — including a ranking system where women become hotter once they land in Afghanistan.
The film was written by Robert Carlock. He’s best known for his work with Fey on “Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt.” Guest host Sean Rameswaram spoke with Robert Carlock about the title of the film, how he mixed comedy and drama, and his close relationship with Tina Fey.
The title of the film is different from the book source, so how did you come up with the title for the movie?
The movie is based on the book called "The Taliban Shuffle," which describes something in the book that doesn't exist in the movie, which is this dual life that the woman, Kim Barker, lived between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the movie just concentrates on Afghanistan. It was a hard movie to name in some ways because it's the kind of movie that doesn't get made a lot. It doesn't fit right into a box of, Oh, this is about robots eating a city, or This is a pure comedy. So naming it was tricky in that way.
We sort of liked "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" because it sounds military, it's a military radio code for WTF, and if you get this next layer, Sean — I should say half-layer, maybe it's about as deep as you can dig — you recognize that it's not simply a war picture and there's a different attitude and angle on this thing that I don't think we've seen about the conflicts we've been engaged with over the last decade and a half.
So this being your first screenplay, you mention that it's sort of difficult — this war-journalism-drama-comedy hybrid. These movies don't get made much. Was that additionally intimidating, in addition to taking on Kim Barker's story and making a movie out of it?
I think I'm too dumb to think that far ahead. [laughs] It was so interesting to me, and her book gave so much permission to approach this subject of Afghanistan and the military life and the expat journalists there and the people at home and the media. It's a lot to try and bite off, and [it's] stuff that we should take seriously.
People who have been in these roles, they all have so many hilarious stories to tell you, some of which are horrifying. It sort of allowed me to think, Oh, this is a thing, or it can be a thing. So I was mostly just intimidated by trying to get my head around this onion that you could just peel forever.
Was there a story you heard from people who have been there that was so darkly funny that you desperately wanted to get in to this, but wasn't sure if it was going to work?
Yeah, it was in the script. The chronological shape of the movie goes from 2003, when everything seems under control and we're gonna go off on our misadventure in Iraq. And that created a vacuum in Afghanistan for people like Kim [Barker]. At the same time, there was a vacuum that started to be created for the Taliban to come back, but as they were coming back, they weren't quite as competent as they became in their ability to wage war against us.
There was a story about them tying explosives to a donkey, and just kind of whipping it up the hill towards the Americans, and on the way, it just [exploded]. So the joke of the donkey-born explosive device didn't work so well.
Your relationship with Tina Fey goes back to when you both worked on "Saturday Night Live." You then went on to work together on "30 Rock" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Having writing for Fey for a while now, do you know what makes her tick and what jokes would automatically kill? Do you know what's a good Tina joke and a bad one?
To an extent. Part of my job is to convince her to do things she hates, but she's kind of always right.
What does she hate?
She hates jokes where the punch line is about a cartoon character. She hates references to the McDonald Land characters, which maybe is an extrapolation of that particular hatred, and you know, sexual innuendo and bodily function stuff.
It's funny because there's a fair amount of that in "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."
Oh, absolutely, and look — the movie is very much about, at the center of this war, is a bunch of dumb westerners who...
Trying to hook up...
Trying to hook up with each other. You know, dumb is unfair. They're really brave journalists and a necessary part of our society, but out of the tension of the life that they're living comes some bad behavior. So that was actually a fun place to go and to — I hate to say — make her go, because that's not true. She knew what she was signing up for, but knowing that different things will be asked of her as an actress, but also as a comic actress. And to do that sex scene with Martin [Freeman], which I could watch forever, was a new place for her. As long as it's necessary, as long as it pushes the story forward, I'm gonna go for nudity for the next thing I write for her.
[Laughs] Full frontal...
Full-frontal. This is really important for the story, Tina. But she's hard to trick.