Published on March 4th, 2016 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Kim Barker
In journalistic circles, Kim Barker is best-known as a metro investigative reporter for The New York Times, but she’s also been brought to life on screen by Tina Fey in the new film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which is based on Kim Barker’s experiences in Afghanistan chronicled in her book of the same name.
We wanted to learn more about Kim Barker’s memoir, her thoughts on seeing it brought to the screen, and her opinions on how journalism is portrayed in film and television.
Beyond writing the original book, what kind of influence and involvement did you have in the production of the film?
I had absolutely no influence on anything.
I mean, this is what happens when you’re a totally unknown author and you sign away the rights to your book… I’ve had friends who have gone through the same process. I don’t know if it was William Faulkner, but I think it was William Faulkner who said if Hollywood gets a hold of your book, just go to the border of California and – I could be making this up out of whole cloth – basically give over the book and take the cheque and turn around and go away.
Michiko Kakutani is the chief book critic at the New York Times. I was working at ProPublica at the time and she reviewed the book and she said she loved it. She named it one of her Top 10 of the year. She said it was like I had created a Tina Fey character in the book… So Tina Fey, I don’t know who brought her the book, if her people did or if my agent sent it over, but somehow she got her hands on the book and read it, loved it, and within two weeks of that review, Paramount had optioned the book on her behalf.
So she was pushing Lorne Michaels to do it – like it’s been a long time since there’s been a dark comedy about a war, it’s time. Robert Carlock has been her right-hand guy at many a project – 30 Rock, the Kimmy Schmidt TV show – they’re very much a partnership and he writes her voice very well. So he basically was in charge of writing the script and so he met with me and he was always super honest with me – like who knows if they’re going to make this? It’s a dark comedy about war – let’s see if this gets greenlit. He met with me often, he met with a lot of other folks who had been in Afghanistan and Pakistan – a lot of journalists, people from the military. I think he met with folks who had been in Iraq.
So then he came up with the screenplay based on talking to them and then also using the book as a frame to hang things on. Some of it’s my story – it’s all my narrative arc – but there’s definitely fiction in there… I just decided not to be too involved in it.
What was it like for you seeing Tina Fey and other actors bringing to life people that you knew?
I had lunch with Tina… We had lunch together, talked and of course got along. Then I went out to watch shooting for a couple days last March and that was the first time I actually felt like it was gonna be real.
I just saw a couple of the military scenes filmed and in one, I was complaining to the Pentagon consultant. I was like, “You know, there’s no way that a colonel from the Marines would ever say that to me. Tell them! Tell them!”
And he’s like, “Eh, it’s a movie.”
And I’m like, I guess if like the Marines aren’t worried about it, I guess that I should stop worrying about it, you know? Cause I was just like, “Well they would treat me with more respect.”
And then I was also like, “Look, I was super naïve when I went over there, but there’s no way I would’ve worn high-heeled boots on an embed. That wouldn’t have happened. They’d send you a list and I most definitely brought my hiking boots and I was wearing those. My trouble was in the other direction. I didn’t understand that there was a party scene there and I actually had to have clothes that were reasonably Western.”
Then they changed that particular scene a little bit after I pointed out the boots thing. So that was my big influence in the movie.
When it comes to movies that involve journalists, are there movies that stand out where you feel that they get it right and others where you feel the get it totally wrong when it comes to portraying journalists?
Most definitely Spotlight gets it right – I thought that was a great movie. Look, I saw and I read All the President’s Men when I was a little kid. I think I read that when I was 10 and saw the movie and I was sold. I think there’s a lot of truth. Obviously that’s also got its Hollywood aspects, but I thought it was a pretty good journalism movie.
Some of them are just so bad. It’s just frustrating.
I thought The Paper was pretty funny. Then there was that one with Russell Crowe as a reporter in competition with the online person (State of Play) – I thought that was a little simplistic and the whole idea of the evil online, that was also super simplistic in House of Cards. That I found to be ridiculous – like the whole online vs [print], it was just very simplified.
Also what (Zoe Barnes in House of Cards) would do to get a story and the whole idea that her big scoop on the education bill was going to be front page and everybody would be talking about it? That was hilarious to me.
House of Cards’s portrayal of journalism and women sleeping their way around to get stories – [it’s] offensive and totally wrong. I really hated the House of Cards portrayal of journalism… I think House of Cards was damaging because it’s like this whole idea – and you see this in a lot of movies – where female reporters sleep with somebody or do something really sleazy to get a story. That’s just not the way it works – or you just sort of take one source on a story and you run with it. You can’t do that. You’ve got to vet things if you want to be credible.
What would your advice be for people who want to write a memoir?
I think it’s interesting. I think if women write a memoir, it’s probably different than if men do.
I don’t know if that’s the case but I definitely had some people coming, saying to me, “Well, why are you writing about what you’re wearing or writing about this stuff?” and I’m like, “Because I’m a character. I’m basically like the doorway opening into this other world, so of course I want to give the reader a sense of what I look like.”
I think that men probably wouldn’t get that same sort of scrutiny. Maybe I’m overly looking at that… but I would also say that you should write truthfully. I really tried to show my warts and all in the book. I was not necessarily the smartest person in the room. I was really naïve when I went over there and covering the things that we covered for a really long time, I was not always very likeable. I tried to write the other people who in the book as well – just like honest human beings and real human beings with flaws – and I’m okay with that.
So some people are like, “At certain points in the book, you’re not likeable” and I’m like, “In certain points in real life, I’m not likeable.”
So that’s okay. I could live with that.
So if you’re going to do a memoir, it’s best to be honest – and dark comedy always helps, right?
Are there any authors that you looked to for inspiration or any memoirs that stood out for you that guided you with this at all?
No, not memoirs, but I mean I have most definitely read like Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, and Catch 22 when I was really little. So I think I always loved the idea of blending dark comedy with serious subjects like war. I also really loved MASH, so those sort of comparisons are always welcome to me. I’ll take it.
What kinds of things are you up to these days?
I definitely want to do more books. I’m looking at doing a book, like looking at some of the stuff I’ve worked on in the last year and hanging out with these guys in New York and sort of looking at the other 1%, former addicts and current addicts, how the other 1% lives in a city as expensive as New York. There are other ideas that I have.
But I’m a metro investigative reporter for The New York Times now, so I’m basically also just really swamped with work.
Thanks to Kim Barker for speaking with us!
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is now in theatres!
For more details on the film, please visit the official site at WhiskeyTangoFoxtrotTheMovie.com