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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Three Kings – The 20th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “I’m talking about millions in Kuwaiti bullion. You mean them little cubes you put in hot water to make soup?”. A 20th Anniversary Celebration Of Writer & Director David O. Russell’s “Three Kings”. A Brilliant Combination Of War Story, Heist Thriller, Action, Comedy, Drama, Media Satire, Political Commentary & Stylistic Groundbreaker. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg & Ice Cube Star In What Was Easily One Of The Best Films Of 1999. 

“Three Kings” is the kind of un-typical film you wouldn’t consider a masterpiece, but in actuality it really is. I’m not sure how to describe “Three Kings”, other than being an original and brilliant combination of war story, heist thriller, action comedy, human drama, media satire, political commentary and a stylistic groundbreaker. “Three Kings” is a unique hybrid of all these genres. 

Mixing the genres together in a brilliant way is filmmaker David O. Russell, who went from Indie filmmaker with “Spanking The Monkey” and “Flirting With Disaster”, to becoming a five time Oscar nominated Hollywood moviemaker for his films “Silver Linings Playbook”, “American Hustle” and “The Fighter”. His journey to becoming one of the sought after filmmakers, had all started with his first studio budgeted film, in which we are here to celebrate for it’s 20th anniversary. 

David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” has the freedom and recklessness of Oliver Stone in his mad-dog days. Russell who is the films writer and director, bounces lots of distinct characters against one another and isn’t afraid to punctuate the political commentary, the action scenes and the laughs with moments of real observation and emotion. As I mentioned earlier, this is his first movie with a real studio budget, and it shows in his enthusiasm. “Three Kings” was easily one of the best movies of the 1999 year. 

In one of “Three Kings” most interesting production facts, is that it all started as a writing experiment. The story is based on a draft written by ex-stand-up comic John Ridley who originally wrote a script titled “Spoils of War”. He wrote the script as an experiment, to see how fast he could write and sell a script. It took him seven days to write it, and Warner Brothers bought it eighteen days later.

Once the original posters for the film were released, David O. Russell got full writing credit. It wasn’t until John Ridley took legal action, that he received a “Story by” credit. When the studio showed the “Spoils Of War” script to Russell, he said he was immediately taken by the one sentence description of “heist set in the Gulf War”. Russell’s final shooting script is best compared to one of the best scripts within the last five years before the release of “Three Kings”. That is…Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”, as it thrives as a witty, smart and amusing script.

Although Russell claimed he never read Ridley’s script, so as not “to pollute my own idea”, he admits that “John gets credit where it’s due. The germ of the idea that I took was his”. Ridley maintains that Russell shut him out of the process, saying “I never heard a word while he was shooting the movie. Never saw any of the script changes. And then finally, a year later, I get a copy of the script, and my name isn’t even on it”. Although Warner Bros worked out a deal to give Ridley a “story by” credit, Ridley remained unhappy with the experience, and has blocked Russell’s efforts to publish the Three Kings screenplay in book form.

“Three Kings” revolves around Army Reserve Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and his enlisted men Chief Elvin (Ice Cube) and Vig (Spike Jonze). As the film opens, Troy is disarming and searching the surrendering Iraqi soldiers. While forcibly subduing a resisting Iraqi officer, they find a document hidden in his rectum. The document appears to be a map, and Troy decides not to notify his commanding officer, instead taking the “Iraqi ass map” to Staff Sergeant Elgin. 

While Major Archie Gates (Clooney), a Special Forces soldier in the same camp, who has two weeks until retirement is trading sex for stories with a journalist, Cathy Daitch (Judy Greer), when he is interrupted by Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), the TV reporter assigned to Archie. Adriana tells Archie of the rumors of a secret map. In a wonderfully structured scene and one of the film’s best lines, where Archie convinces the three soldiers that the document is a map of Saddam’s bunkers, containing stolen Kuwaiti bullion. Conrad asks Archie: “The little cubes you put into hot water to make soup?”. As Archie replies: “No not the little cubes you put in hot water to make soup”.

Using the ceasefire orders from President Bush, the Americans raid and secure the bunkers without any bloodshed. There, among other goods from Kuwait, they find the gold. As they leave, they see a prisoner executed by the newly arrived Iraqi Republican Guard troops, and decide to abandon their original plan to “grab the gold and go”. Instead the humanity in them decides to rescue a group of Iraqi prisoners, including a local rebel leader, and start a private war against Saddam’s loyal soldiers.

That’s what is so great about Russell’s film, is that we have not just a surprisingly proficient action picture, but also an enlightening and touching human drama that hits the heart in more ways than one. As writer and director, O. Russell doesn’t neglect the more intimate human drama of the story and the shifting relationships among his four protagonists.

The part of Archie Gates was originally planned for actor and director Clint Eastwood. Also considered were Mel Gibson, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson all turned down the part after Eastwood declined, so director David O. Russell decided to rewrite it as a younger character. When George Clooney had got a copy of the script, he was said to have been “blown away” by it and  jumped at the chance to get involved. At this point in Clooney’s career, he was known for a few film roles, such as his big screen debut in “From Dusk Till Dawn”, “Batman & Robin”, “Out Of Sight”, “One Fine Day” and “The Peacemaker”. 

Although he was best known for his role as Dr. Doug Ross in Michael Crichton’s “E.R.”, one of the best series on television. Clooney who was ready to pursue a role in film full time, had left “E.R.” only seven months prior to the release of “Three Kings”. Unfortunately, David O. Russell seemed unwilling to cast Clooney in the role, but a persistent Clooney sent a humorously self-deprecating letter that he signed “George Clooney, TV actor” to Russell asking for the part, and even showed up at Russell’s New York City apartment to plead his case. Russell still wasn’t satisfied that Clooney could portray the character. 

David O. Russell instead convinced Nicolas Cage to play the role. However, when Cage became unavailable after being cast in Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out The Dead”, O. Russell gave the part to Clooney. Russell later stated after several days of shooting that Clooney “was meant to play the part”. 

During filming, Clooney had caught bronchitis, after exposure to a spiked drink of water and turpentine. He had to wear an oxygen mask in-between takes for five weeks. It didn’t help that O. Russell’s relationship with Clooney was tense during filming. Clooney noted that “there’s an element of David that was in way over his head… he was vulnerable and selfish, and it would manifest itself in a lot of yelling”. When Russell’s frustration would lead to outbursts, Clooney would take it upon himself to defend crew members and extras, leading to increased tensions. 

When an extra had an epileptic seizure on set, Clooney ran to his aid, while Russell apparently remained indifferent to the matter. After the incident Clooney had criticized Russell for ignoring the incident, though Russell later stated that he was busy setting up a shot some yards away from the extra and was not aware that the extra had suffered a seizure. 

Another on-set conflict between the two arose while shooting footage on a Humvee with a camera mounted to it. Clooney recalls Russell yelling at the driver to drive faster. Clooney then approached the director, telling him to “knock it off”. Russell remembers the incident differently, saying: “The camera broke, we were losing the day and I was upset about that. So I jumped off the truck and I was like, ‘F***!’ I was just kicking the dirt and everything like that, and then George had this big thing about defending the driver, whom I hadn’t really said anything to”. 

During the shoot, Clooney was exhausted, as he was still shooting his last episodes of “E.R.” in Los Angeles for three days a week, while working on the film the other four days. Regardless, Clooney was determined to stay with the role. After having several arguments on set, Clooney wrote O. Russell a letter that criticized Russell’s behavior in a last attempt to make peace between him, just a few days before another fight had broke out during filming. 

During the scene they were shooting, the three lead characters were attempting to escort Iraqi rebels across the border to Iran. There were numerous actors and extras in the scene, as well as other elements, such as helicopters flying overhead and landing right in the center of the location shoot. The fight had began after an extra was having difficulty throwing Ice Cube’s character to the ground. After several takes, Russell came up to the extra and put him through the motions of the action. Some individuals present on the set during the incident stated that Russell was simply showing the extra how to convincingly act in the scene. However, Clooney and others thought that Russell had violently thrown the extra to the ground. Clooney recalls: “We were trying to get a shot and then he went berserk. He went nuts on an extra”. Clooney had approached Russell and began criticizing him again, coming to the extra’s defense. The two began shouting at one another before entering into a physical fight. 

Second Assistant Director Paul Bernard was so fed up with the experience when the fight broke out, that he put down his camera and walked off the set, effectively quitting. Clooney concludes, “Will I work with David O. Russell ever again? Absolutely not. Never. Do I think he’s tremendously talented and do I think he should be nominated for Oscars? Yeah”. Russell had offered a different view after the film wrapped, saying “We’re both passionate guys who are the two biggest authorities on the set,” and maintaining that the two continue to be friends. Ice Cube felt the conflict helped the film, saying “It kind of kicked the set into a different gear, where everybody was focused and we finished strong. I wouldn’t mind if the director and the star got into an argument on all of my movies”. 

Though the fight was initially kept under wraps, both Russell and Clooney eventually gave official statements saying that the argument had blown over, and neither harbored any ill will towards the other. However, Clooney continued to describe the event in later interviews, as well as the cover story in the October 2003 issue of Vanity Fair, in which he states: “I would not stand for him humiliating and yelling and screaming at crew members, who weren’t allowed to defend themselves. I don’t believe in it, and it makes me crazy. So my job was then to humiliate the people who were doing the humiliating”. 

Executive Producer and Production Manager Gregory Goodman later stated about Clooney’s comments in the media, “It doesn’t reflect well on Clooney. It’s like some stupid sandbox quarrel”. In early 2012, Clooney indicated that he and Russell had mended their relationship, saying “We made a really, really great film, and we had a really rough time together, but it’s a case of both of us getting older. I really do appreciate the work he continues to do, and I think he appreciates what I’m trying to do”. 

Actor and director Spike Jonze had never acted in a film before and David O. Russell had written the part of Conrad Vig specifically for Jonze. Once casted O. Russell and Jonze had practiced Conrad’s southern accent over the phone while Jonze was directing his first feature film, “Being John Malkovich”. Although Russell had to convince studio Warner Bros., to cast an inexperienced actor in such a large role. Russell said Jonze’s lack of previous acting work was beneficial to the film, citing the “chaos that a nonactor brings to the set…he really shakes things up”. George Clooney had also expressed initial reservations about the choice of Jonze. Clooney had stated “It’s always worrisome when somebody says, ‘I got a friend,’ and you’ve never heard of them. But within five minutes of meeting Spike, you just go, ‘Oh, he’s perfect for the part”. 

“Three Kings” was shot in the deserts of Arizona, California, and Mexico,with many of the extras played by real-life Iraqi refugees. Director David O. Russell has said that he wanted the visual style to be startling and to reflect “the craziness” of the war.  To that extent, the film, lensed by Thomas Newton Siegel, has a unique look that uses a grainy, bleached style that makes the film look like it was left out in a sandstorm. It gives the film a style that’s all its own.

At the beginning of the film, there’s a disclaimer explaining that the strange look of the film was intended by David O. Russell. Much to the dismay of Warner Bros., Russell decided to use a number of experimental cinematic techniques. The handheld cameras and Steadicam shots were used to give the film a journalistic feel. Russell shot a majority of the film on Ektachrome transparency stock that was cross processed in colour negative chemicals, to reproduce “the odd colour of the newspaper images”. Though the process produced a unique quality and look to the film, it was exceedingly unreliable to develop, and many film labs would not provide insurance for the transparency stock if it did not develop properly. 

Russell feared that the scenes would need to be reshot until finally a lab was found that would develop the transparency stock in the negative chemicals. Russell also credited the realism of the firefights to the film’s cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who had shot several documentaries on South American civil wars, saying “he knew what it was like to be in that kind of world”. 

The action in “Three Kings”, grows out of the story, instead of the story being about the action. Russell decided that all of the explosions in the movie were to be filmed in one shot, as opposed to a typical film where each explosion would have been covered by multiple cameras. David O. Russell explained, “to me that’s more real. In one scene where a car blows up the producer says, ‘we gotta run three cameras!’. Where Russell replied “But if I cut three ways, then it just looks like an action picture.” David O. Russell also had the Foley department tone down the sounds of gunfire, saying he didn’t want to “Bruce Willis-ize the film”. 

There are a lot of movies that show bodies being hit by bullets. In “Three Kings” Russell sends the camera inside the body to show a bullet cavity filling up with bile. The idea came from David O. Russell asking a doctor friend about what a bullet does to the body? Russell asked “What’s the weirdest wound?”, after the doctor described that particular wound (which was used in the movie). The doctor told Russell “You can get a wound that doesn’t kill you. A bullet goes through your lung and you can walk around, but the air is leaking out of your lung every time you breathe, so your own breathing can kill you, because your own breathing will crush your organs. It will turn into a balloon in there, and they have to puncture it to let the air out”. Russell said, “God, that’s never been in a movie. I’d like to do that!”. 

During press junkets for the film, a Newsweek reporter interrogated David O. Russell with aggressive questions he didn’t want to answer, so he decided to invent a story about using a real corpse in the bullet scene. Russell had said, “I told the magazine that we used an actual corpse … and we had only one take using a high-speed camera to get that bullet going right through, and the toughest thing was getting a light in there”. The next thing, the studio knows is that the morticians’ association is calling Warner Bros, and protesting the unethical use of a corpse. Russell says “It was kind of fun. Harmless really”. Russell further explained to news outlets that the rumor was false. 

In the director’s commentary of the film on DVD and Blu Ray, Russell revealed that sitting President Bill Clinton, liked the film so much that he had it screened for his staff, friends, and advisors at the White House. While in the editing stages, David O. Russell attended a fund raiser for George W. Bush at a Warner Bros executive’s house. Russell walked up to Bush and said, “Hi, I’m editing a film that will question your father’s legacy in Iraq”. Bush shot back and said, “Well I guess I’m going to have to go back there and finish the job”. 

“Three Kings”, has boasted the largest budget O. Russell has ever worked with at the time. A hit with critics, it was not a huge commercial success, over the years but has developed a cult following. The film’s production process was particularly difficult for Russell, who was taking a variety of risks with what was a $42 million studio film. At the time it was made, Warner Bros. had not financed an auteur film in many years and executives were hesitant to put such money in the hands of a filmmaker who were used to working independently. 

The film’s political overtones also worried the studio, especially with conflict still apparent in the Middle East at the time. As a result, Warner Bros. gave Russell a number of limitations. The shooting schedule was reduced to only 68 days instead of the 80 Russell had initially asked for. The studio wanted the budget to be lowered to $35 million. Executives were also asking for the removal of more violent scenes, such as the exploding cow and the shooting of an Iraqi woman. “Three Kings” final box office grossed $107 million on a $45 million budget. It’s now considered to be a particularly poignant war film, with a strong satirical impulse, which is still relevant.  

“Three Kings” is an original action-drama with serious political overtones. The film keeps changing themes and tones as it goes along. Although it does it, so effortlessly, without jarring or irritating the audience. It’s provocative on several levels, with an exhilaration of pure filmmaking and embodies ideas within its action and characters. Easiest way to put it, “Three Kings” is genre defying. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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