How a War Reporter's Memoir Became a Big Budget Tina Fey Comedy

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How a War Reporter's Memoir Became a Big Budget Tina Fey Comedy

Kim Barker, author of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, tells us what's it's like to have your experiences in Afghanistan turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.
April 26, 2016, 3:00pm

Kim Barker at maternal mortality class in Ghani Khel, Afghanistan by Kuni Takahashi

Tyrannical despots, vast quantities of narcotics, women seen as second-class citizens: it's hard to imagine how reporting on the war in Afghanistan could have prepared Kim Barker for Hollywood. But since her 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle was adapted for the new Tina Fey movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Barker has been getting a taste of the Hollywood lifestyle.

Barker's book is a frank, funny account of her time as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Chicago Tribune, and is a world away from traditionally macho blood-and-thunder frontline stories. Barker was always an unconventional war reporter, already in her thirties when the 9/11 attacks first inspired her to head overseas. She eventually worked her way up to the position of south Asia bureau chief, reporting on the the resurgence of the Taliban and painting a nuanced portrait of life in the two countries that took her from maternal health clinics to interviewing notorious warlord Pacha Khan Zadran. The book contrasts these scenes with the adrenaline-lust of journalists working in war zones and the manic lives they lead there. She describes wild parties at the "Fun House" where she lived and at the notorious L'Atmosphere bar.

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These debauched nights are exuberantly recreated in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. The film wears a thin veil of fiction: Fey's character is a TV news anchor; her surname is "Baker" rather than "Barker"; Barker's friendship with documentary maker Sean Langan inevitably becomes a romance with a Scottish photographer played by Martin Freeman. But the absurd theater of war it portrays is drawn directly from Barker's real-life journalistic experiences. As it becomes increasingly hard to get editors interested in Afghan stories, we see reporters go to ever more life-endangering lengths in search of an attention-grabbing scoop. It's a comedy with something serious to say about America's lack of interest in how its own wars are fought.

Here, Barker tells us how a prophetic New York Times review hooked Fey, what it's like watching a movie about your life, and what donkey porn can tell us about democracy.

VICE: You've seen unimaginable strife and tragedy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What made you think: 'This war is going to make for a really funny book'?
Kim Barker: I wanted to write something that people would be able to read and not even realize that they were learning anything. I'm not going to pretend it's some great foreign policy book, but I think it gives people a good primer on Afghanistan and Pakistan and how we've got to the place we've got to.

In the book you write about how hard it was to convince editors to keep running stories from Afghanistan. Have we lost interest?
It was disheartening to be writing stories that you felt were really important but losing out to Iraq. You have that sense now that it's "last one out of Afghanistan, turn off the lights."

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Do you think there's a lack of interest because it feels as though any change in the region was temporary?
I'm not saying nothing good has been done. There have been positive changes in Afghanistan. Having cell phones and the internet is a game changer for the media. It makes it really difficult to lock all that stuff out again like the Taliban did. You sense that if it could just get enough stability in time maybe things could change, but I don't know how long the West is interested in staying there. Things aren't going in a great direction. It's Afghanistan—and nobody wants to talk about Afghanistan.

Kim Barker in Kabul in June of 2005, Kuni Takahashi

The internet brought a certain amount of freedom, but you also stumbled across a hitherto untapped interest in donkey porn.
Yeah, when you looked in the internet cafés, the saved sites in the recent history were all porn, and bad porn: donkey porn. Folks who worked in offices had to have awkward conversations with their underlings about how you can't do that at work. People must have just been thinking: 'This exists, it's free, why not watch it all the time?' I did a lot of stories about what happens to a place where the West has been kept out, and the internet has been kept out, and then it all comes rushing in at the same time. In Afghanistan, you had folks equating democracy with freedom, sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, booze, and doing whatever you want, without the more sober parts of a democracy, like voting, or what it means to be representative, or fighting corruption.

A New York Times review of your book said "she depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character." Then Fey made it into a movie. Was it that simple?
Apparently her people saw that mention so they got the book for her. She read it and within two weeks of the review coming out she had pushed Lorne Michaels and Paramount to option the book on her behalf. It really was that quick.

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How involved were you in adapting it?
I met with the screenwriter Robert Carlock a few times, but I didn't get to look at the script. He told me from the beginning, "We've got to make this more Hollywood. It's not going to be exactly what you wrote—you understand that, don't you?"

I said: "Of course! You're probably going to give me a love interest, like make me have a relationship with the Sean character, right?" and he goes: "Yeah, we're going to have that be a romance."

Sean and I knew that if they ever made a movie out of this they would do that. It's fine, we're really good friends. Eventually they sent me the script but they told me I couldn't change anything.

Tina Fey and Martin Freeman in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

That sounds torturous.
Yeah, so I didn't read it! If I can't change it, why would I waste my time and stress out about something that I know is going to be fictionalized? My friend Rachael read it and said: "It's going to be a good movie, but you're not going to like the fact that they make you seem heroic." I'm totally not heroic. I'm anti-heroic, more than anything. I love the fact that the Kim Baker character in the movie runs towards the explosion. I would be going in the other direction, because I want to live.

Were you relieved they didn't make it a straight rom-com?
Yeah. I deliberately wrote a book that is not Eat Pray Love. That comparison pisses me off. Do women not get more than one adventure story? Eat Pray Love is a fine book, but I hate the narrative that you go to find yourself in travel and you find out that what you really need is a man. Love is great, and men are great, and I'm not saying that's a horrible ending to have, but it wasn't the book's ending.

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Did you visit the set?
I went on set for two days. They had me come out for the explosion at the beginning, and it was really tedious. I was saying: "Why didn't I come out for the journalist's party scenes!" I could be an extra. That I can do.

So the partying is pretty true to life?
Well, watching them I was thinking: 'We did not have cocaine out on tables like that. We would not be wasting any booze by pouring it around like that.' Booze was a very precious commodity, so you were always trying to conserve it. A $5 bottle of Jacob's Creek would go for $40 in Afghanistan. Our parties weren't quite that druggy, they probably were that boozy and there were crazy dance parties on Thursday nights. There was definitely one party—no, two parties, maybe three—that were interrupted by bombs outside. Everything just stopped and people said: "Right, time to go to work."

What was it like watching the film for the first time? Were you worried for your journalistic reputation if they made you look like a fool?
Yeah, can you imagine? It was stressful. It took me about half the movie to sink into it and accept it was a movie. Before that I was sat there thinking: 'True, true, partially true, false, that would never happen.' Eventually I got into it. I teared up once. I was happy that it's not just jokes all the time. I think it's Tina's best role. I'm not just saying that because she's playing me.

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It's funny because of the absurdity of the situation rather than just gags.
I'm excited for the film to go to Britain, because there's more of a tradition of understanding the dark humor of war. Americans are a bit more serious: "You can't joke about war. There's nothing funny about war."

I think we're hardened to it because a lot of us were raised on stuff like the Blackadder series where they muck about in the trenches for six episodes and then at the end all go over the top.
Oh my god, I'm going to have to watch that. It's horrible to watch that as a child. We just had M*A*S*H, and none of the main characters died in that except for one of the colonels in a helicopter crash.

What do you want people to take from your book, and now the film?
If there's one thing it's that most people—Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis—just want peace. They want security and for their children to be able to go to school. Whenever I'm asked about my time there I always talk about the hospitality I was shown, even in bad situations. I was taken into cracked-walled homes and offered food and drink during Ramadan, in the middle of the day when they couldn't eat or drink anything. When I think about how we treat people here in my country, and this election season, and the rhetoric that we hear, I wish everybody had seen the people I saw over there and had been treated with that hospitality.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is in cinemas now. Barker's memoir of the same name (originally The Taliban Shuffle) is published by Scribe Books.

Follow Kevin EG Perry on Twitter.