The Real Heroes Behind '13 Hours' Talk Michael Bay, Benghazi, and Being Involved in the Film

The Real Heroes Behind '13 Hours' Talk Michael Bay, Benghazi, and Being Involved in the Film

Shakefire had the honor to sit down with the three Global Response Staff (GRS) soldiers, John Tiegen, Kris Paronto, and Mark Geist, who were involved in the September 11, 2012 Islamic militants attacks at the American diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA Annex in Benghazi, Libya. Their heroic efforts were retold in the book 13 Hours, which director Michael Bay has adapted into 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. The three ex-military soldiers spoke about what it was like working with Michael Bay, seeing their story told on screen, and how true to the events the film is.


Shakefire (SF): What was your reaction to hearing that Michael Bay was going to make this movie?
John Tiegen (JT): It’s time to hang out with some autobots!


SF: Were you worried that a director that’s known for Transformers and these big gigantic popcorn movies was going to tell your story and this important event in the right way
JT: Well you want a big gigantic popcorn movie because then everybody is going to want it. But you know, he did a good job. We got to talk with him beforehand, and he talked to us about what he wanted to do. We told him what we wanted, and we all had pretty much the same idea. Yeah, there’s a lot of explosions. A lot of explosions in combat. Fortunately none of the guns transformed into an autobot, you know. He did a good job. It stayed true to the book. Some of the characters roles got changed around but just to make the movie flow and keep it going and not to really confuse everybody because there’s a lot of moving parts. He did a really good job.


SF: When you watch the final production, did it take you back there? Did it get the adrenaline pumping?
Mark Geist (MG): Each of us experienced it a little bit different. To some degree you have that feeling of being there. But also to me it’s a movie. As good as they got it, to me it’s still a movie. I look at it from the technical aspect of making sure they got it right and things like that. And they did; they got it right. I have a newfound respect for the effort the actors, and directors, the whole cast and crew put into getting this movie right. I don’t know if because it’s the subject matter or if it’s this way all of the time, but they definitely put 110% of themselves into everything.


SF: Is it surreal seeing yourselves being portrayed on screen?
Kris Paronto (KP): I should have played myself, haha. No, it’s not. I don’t think it is. It adds to the realism, of course, in the movie because they portrayed all of us so accurately. Honestly, it makes me proud because they took the time to get our mannerisms down and get our personalities exact. It’s not surreal at all. The word actually is proud for me. And I don’t get star struck so it’s just very heartwarming that guys would take the time to get this story down and get exact as you saw.



SF: You mention that they changed a few things from the book to make the movie flow better, but how accurate is the book to your story and how accurate is the film to your story?
JT: Well the book is minute by minute. It’s how we lived it and how we saw it. I can’t really say exactly if he was telling the truth [looks to Kris and laughs]. I mean he doesn’t exactly if I was telling the truth, because we told the story how we saw it and how we perceived everything and Mitch [Zuckoff] put it together. The book’s minute by minute.


KP: What the book did, and I think Mitchell did it this way to also verify that we weren’t embellishing anything, was we all sat out separately and he gave us sheets, basically we started doing homework and we told our versions. Even when we weren’t together speaking, we were all telling the same thing. All of us at different points, different times, everything was the same. I think it was a way for him to validate, because he was a little unsure. When it first came out, Benghazi had the conspiracy theorists and all that was going on.


That’s why the book is spot on. The movie; you got to melt 13 hours into two so you got to mesh some characters. We had a team leader over there that’s in the book, a staff team leader. “Rone” was actually our assistant team leader. But our team leader, Bob, and him were melded into one character. But really the emotion is captured in the book. The timeline is good, and also the battle scenes and combat scenes that’s how it is. It’s confusing. A lot of critics are going to say, and I’ve already read a few, that “I didn’t enjoy the movie because it was hard to follow. We didn’t who the enemy was. We didn’t know who was shooting who.” Welcome to our world!


JT: Neither did we.


KP: Not every movie can be a dramatized Hurt Locker type movie. Because that’s completely inaccurate as far as how EOD guys do that. Anyway, that’s why we wanted Michael. He’s the perfect one to do that because he does that documentary style where you feel a bit confused like what’s going on. That’s what it was. We wanted you to feel that way. It was perfect.


SF: Was there anything that you wished had been put into the movie that they had to take out or leave out?
KP: We had pet turtles. In the middle thing we had pet turtles. We had that praying mantis. That was real. We actually had one, and it was huge! We also had pet turtles. That was one thing in the book is that it was myself and Jack, we looked at the turtles as we were going out and it was like, “Oh, I’m not going to see my turtles again.”


JT: This guy is a sap.


KP: I am, I’m a sad guy. No, I was very happy with how much they were able to get in. It’s 13 hours and getting it into two is tough. They got the main points they needed to and the emotion came across and the faith, faith in everybody including God, there’s an underlying tone there. I’m very, very happy with how much they got in there.


SF: In the movie there seem to be tension between you guys and the CIA chief there. Was that just part of the movie or was that actually how it was?
KP: It’s just personalities. We don’t want you to think every base is like that. There are some good chiefs. I’ve worked with some outstanding chiefs stationed, but there, that was the atmosphere. It was an atmosphere of us and them. Not of us versus them, but of us and them. And those scenes where it’s an argument with the chief, actually that was an argument with the team leader I had. But that’s how it was. I saw the agency as turning into the state department, bureaucrats. There was a sense of this was not being what I signed up to do. This has changed too much. It did create a lot animosity between myself. The other guys, they have their own, but that’s how I felt.


JT: I personally never had a beef with Bob at all. For the most part I thought he was a pretty cool guy. He was good at his job. When it came down to a couple of the security things he’s a little passive aggressive kinda guy but he told us to stand down regardless but it happened. I mean, on a day to day basis I liked the guy. He wasn’t really an ass, I guess you could say, like a lot of people say we portray him as. But it’s a short movie. Ain’t like we can sit there and go a 30-day movie. You’re going to have conflicts with everybody on a small base. It’s not like you can just walk, party, or go hang out at the mall all the time. You’re going to have conflicts. We have conflicts amongst each other. That’s how it is.


KP: And they gave him in the movie where they show him getting all the CIA people and saying, “What you do right here right now…”. They gave him a leadership. That wasn’t a negative scene. It showed him as doing that. He was trying to do his job. But when it came down to combat he really needed to step out of the way and let the guys who knew what they were doing take over. I think pride got in the way.



SF: It sounds like you guys were really involved in the making of the film. How much did you get to work with the actors and Bay in general?
JT: I think Pablo moved into Tanto’s house, and they shared the same bed [laughs]. I’m not saying anything happened!


KP: He was trying to get the role down! It’s okay. He has a restraining order against me but it’s okay. They did an awesome job.


JT: They did really good. Talking to us. Dominic, he called me and tried to get me to talk as much as he could. But yeah, they were contacting me and I know the guys were contacting them. If they had questions for one of the other guys I’d say, “Hey, Dominic’s got a question for you about this or whatever.” They took it to heart wanting to get it right.


SF: Did you get to go to the set?
KP: Yep, each of us spent seven to 10 days on set. And we got to be involved with the script writing and also the set design. So it was even up until that point we were handling all of the process. We were very involved in the process.


SF: What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
MG: I think the biggest thing for me is that it’s unfortunate that this country has got so polarized, either by our politicians or by the mainstream big media. I think they like it that way because it keeps their ratings up. But I think if we look at each other and we really talk about things and focus on the right things we have more similarities from the left and right than we do differences. An example from the movie is that night we had 20, 30 people there. They weren’t all from the same political persuasion, ethnicity, religious beliefs, any of that. Instead of focusing on the differences in fighting and things like that when things matter, we came together and overcame what some people would say are insurmountable odds. And we did that because it was a team. The people inside the buildings did what we needed them to do when we got back over to the Annex so we could do what we needed to do outside the Annex. We didn’t have to worry about what they were doing because they would do what we needed them to do. It’s that teamwork that allows them to do that, and I hope that people see that this isn’t about politics. People and politicians have made this political. It’s good example of teamwork, dedication, integrity, honesty, courage; everybody can have a little bit more of that in our life.


13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is now playing in theaters everywhere. You can read our review here.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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