While the media landscape is ever-changing, FRONTLINE has retained its status as one of the pillars of excellence in news reporting. The program’s latest deep-dive is THE SECRET HISTORY OF ISIS, a riveting hour-long examination of how ISIS came to exist, written and produced by Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser
Kirk, a Guild member since 1990, and Wiser, who joined the Guild in 2010, have won a combined 13 Writers Guild Awards, most recently for FRONTLINE’s LEAGUE OF DENIAL: THE NFL’S CONCUSSION CRISIS and THE UNITED STATES OF SECRETS.
We spoke with Kirk and Wiser about their latest acclaimed FRONTLINE documentary, their writing process and what else they’re working on at the moment.
Can you tell me about your new FRONTLINE documentary, THE SECRET HISTORY OF ISIS?
Michael Kirk: This is our seventh film about the war in Iraq and its ancillary repercussions. The biggest film was the four and a half hours long BUSH’S WAR. We also made a film called THE DARK SIDE, about Dick Cheney, and another film called CHENEY’S LAW. We’re fairly well-grounded in the Iraq War. We thought at one moment that it would all be over, but then when ISIS emerged in 2014, we made another 90 minute film called LOSING IRAQ, which drew on a film we had made about Paul Bremer called THE LOST YEAR IN IRAQ.
The reason we reopened it this time is we finally had two things we needed. We had CIA officers and analysts who we thought would be willing to finally talk about the creation of what we call a terrorism rock star, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi became a star only after Secretary of State Colin Powell gave that famous speech at the United Nations.
The proposition of THE SECRET HISTORY OF ISIS is that Zarqawi was anointed by Secretary of State Powell even though he really had never done anything significant, because the Bush administration needed a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in the era right after 9/11 and before invasion of Iraq. Zarqawi was that person. As a result of that, he had emerged—to everyone’s surprise—as a great leader, a military strategist and a visionary whose ideas, methods and ideology led to the very foundations of what later would become ISIS. That’s our story. It’s the coming-of-age story of a terrorism movement that fills in the gap about what that insurgency was all about and that the United States kept denying.
The second dimension of the film was an opportunity to take a look at how the American government, in two presidential administrations, overlooked or undervalued what was going on right before their eyes between Zarqawi, and then his eventual heir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to create ISIS.
What was it about Zarqawi’s story that made you want to tell it now?
Mike Wiser: One of the things that was so appealing about this story was that with the rise of ISIS we saw an opportunity to go back and look at things that might have seemed familiar but now see a story that we weren’t able to tell before.
While we had great access in the past, as Michael said, we were able to talk to some of the former CIA officers who were on the ground. We were also able to talk to Colin Powell, who talked to us about the speech he gave at the United Nations. In the midst of the Bush Administration, Powell wasn’t able or willing to speak with us. Now, since we’re a few years away from some of those events, we were able to get access and really tell the inside stories of what had happened.
It was appealing as a story because it was a chance to connect the dots between what had started all the way back in 2002 and what is going on the ground now. That’s a story that is rarely told.
Kirk: We knew there was a through-line from the shock and awe campaign at the beginning of the Iraq invasion all the way to ISIS taking over in northern Iraq again in 2014. We knew that there were two presidencies who had done lots of things that certainly were open to journalistic inquiry. Then we knew we had a kind of two-pronged story that was rich, historical and current. Those are the elements that we feel we need to make one of our films.
How much of the story do you map out in advance of your interviews and how much does it end up changing based on those interviews?
Wiser: We spend a lot of time before we ever sit down to interview people reading everything that we can, talking to people on background and finding all of the right documents. We go in before we shoot the first interview with as good a sense of what the story is as we can have. We try to map out what we think that the story is. Then, as we go into the interviews, we’re testing that story to see if that really is what happened? It’s a combination of going in with a strong sense of what the story is, but then, when we’re in the interviews, also discovering new things that amplify the story and change it.
Kirk: We’ll shoot probably 30 or 35 lengthy interviews, typically running an hour and a half or two hours. Sometimes interviews run as long as four hours as we walk through the narrative that we created.
We built up what we call boxes, which is an act one, act two, act three structure for an hour film. A two hour film may have a four or five act structure. We try to know all the critical moments—where the inciting events are and where the obstacles are. In a way, it’s like building a feature except that it turns out to be true. That’s essentially the way we approach it and we follow it fairly closely.
Of course, things change once we interview people at length. Once we get in the editing room, there’s all kinds of other changes that we bring to it. The difference between what we started with when we began to shoot and what we have when we are at the end is that it’s better and stronger as a picture.
Wiser: Very early on in the process, Michael, I and the others involved in the project will sit around and talk about what the story is. That discussion will include the other producers, Jim Gilmore and Gabrielle Schonder, and our researcher Andrew Helms. We talk about where are we going to begin and who are the main characters.” We’ll map out these boxes in meetings. We’re in that process right now on another project. Michael has a moleskine notebook where he draws boxes of what we think is the story. During the interview, he has those two pages open with all the boxes. We’re constantly testing it and seeing what the interviewees say.
Kirk: Here is the most important thing we do from the very beginning. We know what the public affairs issues are, but we’re extremely firm with each other about the idea that this has to be a story. It has to play in a three act or a five act structure. It has to have characters who evolve and change over time. It has to have a climax. It has to have falling action. It has to have everything that you would expect in a good, character-driven narrative.
In some ways, it makes it a lot easier to do the interviews. It makes it a lot easier to do the first draft that Mike writes. It’s a lot easier to cut in the editing room because we have baked in the structure throughout the process of creating the boxes, doing the interviews and always following the true chronology of the story. Mike is usually writing and figuring out the choice interviews and he then comes to me and I work with an editor, Steve Audette. Our coordinating producer Colette Neirouz Hanna and production assistant Eleni Rodriguez are contributing the footage, images, and archive we need to help tell the story. We rewrite and maneuver the material. We’re all adhering to this idea of a character-driven narrative. What is the character doing? How are we moving scene-to-scene? How is the film picking up the pace? How is the film picking up the ideas that we’re trying to move through each act?
We’ve even gone so far as to have a plumb-bob hanging in the editing room between the editor and me. It’s pointed toward the center of the earth and that reminds me to avoid digressions (even really interesting ones) in order to stay on the plumb line all the way through the movie.
Were there interviews you did for THE SECRET HISTORY OF ISIS that went off your script and maybe moved the film in an unexpected direction?
Kirk: One of the best moments that happened in this film is—we waited years to interview Secretary of State Powell—and we were wondering why did he give that UN speech, which really turned the effort toward war. Colin Powell, at the time, was one of the most respected men in America and probably in the world. To give that speech stating the case for war was something that a lot of us as journalists wondered about. We were eager to interview him about that.
We wanted to know why—given what we knew from the CIA analysts—he was willing to pin a star on Zarqawi. Especially when we knew that they didn’t feel strongly that Zarqawi was the guy that the Vice President was insisting that the CIA and Powell finger to be the terrorist that stood between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
During the interview, Powell, much to our surprise, was wondering why producer Jim Gilmore kept asking about Zarqawi. He didn’t think Zarqawi was a very important part of the UN speech. In fact, he said it was almost a passing reference. We were all shocked, because after Powell says this in the film, we report that Zarqawi was seven minutes of his speech and referenced 21 times.
It’s an opportunity to not only hear from Powell about his side of the story, but then apply facts and journalism. In other words, you can make your judgment about Powell based on his answer and what he looks like as he’s answering it, and then based on the information that we knew. That is something we often try to do in those interviews; we listen carefully and adjust the film and what we know based on what somebody says.
What is your pre-production process? How much do you spend writing before you start doing interviews? Then, how much time is spent doing interviews?
Wiser: It will depend on the film. Sometimes we’re doing a film on a very quick turnaround and we will have only a few weeks between when we start shooting and when we’re doing interviews and editing.
In other cases, we might spend a couple of months in our pre-production phase. It’s at least a couple weeks that are spent reading everything we can and then talking about it amongst ourselves. That includes trying to figure out what the story is and who are the strongest people to tell the story. How will the film look? How will we illustrate the film?
Kirk: There are four of us reading and preparing for what’s going to be in the film. Mike and I receive ideas from each other and the other two producers and then we create the boxes. For example, we did two hours on Netanyahu and Obama last fall. We had two or three months to read in advance of making that two hour film before we started shooting the interviews. We shot interviews for about five weeks. The entire process took about five months. We edit fairly quickly, in 10 or 11 weeks for two hours. We’ll go five or six weeks for a single hour.
On THE SECRET HISTORY OF ISIS, we did four to six weeks of reading in December or early January. We were shooting for 22 days in January and February. Editing for seven or eight weeks in March and April. The program premieres May 17th.
Do your bring story ideas to FRONTLINE or do they bring stories to you?
Kirk: Prospective producers pitch to Raney Aronson, the executive producer, and Andrew Metz, the managing editor. There are all kinds of ways to get a film made at FRONTLINE. In our case we have a contract for a certain number of FRONTLINE films every year. There is an ongoing dialogue with Raney about what is essentially our beat, which is national security, military, the White House and national politics.
Wiser: I would add that there’s a lot of different producers and different styles with FRONTLINE. We found that there’s a certain type of film that we make and that we hope we make well. Those are films about characters. We use a type of historical and political storytelling to understand what has happened. It’s something we’ve been able to apply not just to Washington but to other subjects, like the National Football League in LEAGUE OF DENIAL. There’s a sort of type of film that we tend to be attracted to. But the series initiates lots of other types of films.
Who’s your dream subject that you haven’t been able to get a hold of yet?
Kirk: It’s hard because there’s so many. We have a list that we’ll work our way through over the next decade or so as long as FRONTLINE is alive and thriving like it is right now. We look forward to going after them.
Right now, we’re making a film called THE CHOICE, which weaves together the history and biographies of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, should she be the nominee. Whoever the new president is, I promise you both Mike and I are looking forward to applying our method, both journalistically and in filmmaking terms, to whatever a Clinton or Trump presidential administration does in the future.
Wiser: THE CHOICE is a show that FRONTLINE does every four years on the presidential candidates. It is one of the highlights of the season. It’s an attempt to move beyond the coverage of the horse race that is what politics is so often about now. We try to look deep inside the characters and the background of the candidates to really inform voters about who are these people, where did they come from and how are they likely to be as a leader.
We’re very fortunate to be able to cover politics in that kind of way, especially when so much of the other coverage out there is coverage of what’s the latest thing that’s happened and not necessarily helpful to voters.
Kirk: Our other project, also in production, is four hours on what happened with the Obama presidency, the GOP and bipartisanship over eight years. We have made a number of films during the Obama administration and about congress.
We’re shooting new material to try to understand what happened to the Obama presidency and to the GOP. The programs will air just before the inauguration of the new president.
It’s a little complicated on any given day to shoot both programs but thankfully we’ve been rigorous in our preparation of the narrative boxes for all six hours. We’re telling a contemporary history of the politics of an election and administration that happened and an election that’s about to happen. It’s a fascinating and privileged place to be in broadcast journalism thanks to FRONTLINE.