Interview: A talk with the real men behind “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

The Benghazi attack on September 11th, 2012 has been a subject used by the news media and political figures to frame debates and world issues. Two years later on September 9th, the real events of the Benghazi attack were put to print by Mitch Zuckoff in his book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. A mere year later, the true events of Benghazi are coming to the big screen with Paramount Pictures’ adaptation of Zuckoff’s book. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is written by Chuck Hogan from Zuckoff’s book and directed by Michael Bay. It follows Zuckoff’s book as the true story of a team of CIA military contractors who defended the American diplomatic compound when it was attacked by Islamic militants.

 

With such a serious event being a critical part of their lives, one would think there’d be worry about turning it into a Hollywood action movie. But there was a sense of ease coming from the men behind the story. Zuckoff, Kris “Tanto” Paronto, Mark “Oz” Geist and John “Tig” Tiegen were sitting comfortably in The Eliot Hotel in Boston for a roundtable interview to talk about the book, the movie and their involvement in the entire process. Paronto, Geist and Tiegan are the three surviving members of the CIA security team that defended the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. According to Zuckoff, a journalism professor at Boston University, the plans for the movie adaptation began before he even finished the book.

 

“We were all sort of involved with this agency called 3 Arts and the head of 3 Arts, Erwin Stoff, is the producer on the movie,” said Zuckoff. “And so, almost as soon as we started working together on the book, Irwin decided, ‘We have a movie here.’ So he was talking to Paramount and to other companies even before I finished the manuscript.”

 

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 08: (From left to right) Mark "Oz" Geist, Kris "Tanto" Paronto, John Krasinski and John "Tig" Tiegen deliver the starting command during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 8, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

FORT WORTH, TX – NOVEMBER 08: (From left to right) Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paronto, John Krasinski and John “Tig” Tiegen deliver the starting command during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 8, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

 

Zuckoff met Paronto, Geist and Tiegen around June 2013 and insists that the book wouldn’t have been possible without their presence, literally.

 

“The book is them,” said Zuckoff. “You have five first-person accounts of what happened that night, and we were in contact throughout all the drafts because I wanted to get it right.”

 

“We actually wrote it first, but it was a pop-up book,” said Paronto, an ex-Army Ranger.

 

Zuckoff also pointed out how, despite the screenplay being entirely composed by Chuck Hogan (The Town, The Strain), Zuckoff and the three military men were kept in the loop with updates and read the script, saying that it’s very faithful. Paronto even pointed out how he, Zuckoff, Geist and Tiegen were invited to read the final draft of the script with Bay and Stoff. The group was also aware of making their story into a Hollywood genre film.

 

“We knew it was gonna happen anyways,” said Tiegen, an ex-Marine. “You can’t take 13 hours and move it to two hours without having something change.”

 

“The most important thing is the spirit of the book,” said Geist, another ex-Marine. “It is entertainment, you gotta make it so that people are gonna sit their buts in the seats. But at the same time, keeping in mind that, what the essence of the book is if you can get that across and I think Michael Bay will get that across when we see the final cut. That’ll make us happy.”

 

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 08: (From left to right) Mark "Oz" Geist, Kris "Tanto" Paranto, John Krasinski and John "Tig" Tiegen deliver the starting command during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 8, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)

FORT WORTH, TX – NOVEMBER 08: (From left to right) Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paranto, John Krasinski and John “Tig” Tiegen deliver the starting command during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 8, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)

 

The team was well aware of Bay’s reputation in Hollywood and amongst movie fans as an explosion-obsessed action junkie, but they still support Bay thanks to the respect he showed the team throughout the entire process. Each member of the team was brought out to the set in Malta for about a week. In the case of the military team, they would talk to the actors about how their portrayals measured up to the real deal.

 

“[Bay] always respected what we had to say,” said Paronto. “And he’s a huge veteran supporter. The Rock was the first time actual SEALs or actual veterans were used as extras. Buddies of ours that worked on GRS (Global Response Services) contract, a lot of those guys are rangers in the Transformers movies, those are our friends.”

 

Even Bay’s tendency for explosions fit the environment of the movie.

 

“There was a producer who came up to me while the movie was being filmed, there was some explosions going on…the trees were on fire and he comes up to me and goes, ‘I’m sorry.’,” said Paronto. “I said, ‘Why are you sorry?’ He said, ‘Michael likes explosions, he likes fire.’ I said, ‘You’ve never been in a war before, have you?’ He goes, ‘No.’ I said, ‘This is what it’s like.’.”

 

Zuckoff felt a special purpose in writing the book and adapting it into a movie after the seemingly endless media coverage (good and bad) of the Benghazi attack.

 

“The book is a journalistic exercise of verification,” said Zuckoff. “When the book was published, the thing I’m most proud of is that there has been absolutely no challenge whatsoever to a single fact in the book. It was fact based and fact checked. It was a direct response to the politics. At that point, the story had been so overtaken by politics and the politics had so run away with the story and nobody knew what these guys had done. Nobody knew the heroism on the ground. So it was really designed to be a remedy to that.”

 

For the men who were on the ground in Benghazi, there’s still a sense of struggle in talking about those 13 hours.

 

“No, it’s never relief. To us, we’re just sadomasochists, we’re just adding more onto it, we gotta relive it and relive it,” said Paronto. “You’ll have to ask me 10 years from now if I feel like it made any difference. At least we did it, we’re honorable and we did the right thing.”

 

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi hits theaters January 15, 2016

Jon Winkler is a 22-year-old movie/music nerd in Southampton, NY by way of Merrimack, NH. He loves watching, listening to, dissecting, mocking and talking about movies, television, music, video games and comics. He enjoys a good cheeseburger, believes CDs and vinyl are superior, likes to make people smile if they're having a rough day, and is rumored to be Batman (unconfirmed).