It must be difficult to adapt a nonfiction book into a movie. A good screenwriter would likely try to capture all of the story’s important details while ensuring that all of the real-life figures were portrayed accurately. If that sounds like a difficult task, it must be even more treacherous to adapt a book that some believe people is a true story and others believe is absolute nonsense. That was the assignment given to Gary McKendry and Matt Sherring, who wrote the screenplay for the new film, “Killer Elite.” I recently conducted a phone interview with McKendry, who also directed the film, about his new movie and the story behind it.
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The film focuses on a British mercenary named Danny (Jason Stathham), who retires early in the story. His former partner, Hunter (Robert De Niro), continues to take assignments while Danny lives a quiet life in Australia. However, a year later, Danny discovers that Hunter has been kidnapped. The hostage-taker is a sheik who wants Danny to avenge the death of his three sons who were killed by members of the British Special Air Service (SAS). The sheik has two specific requests: he wants videotapes of the soldiers confessing to the murders and he wants their deaths to look like accidents.
The film is based on “The Feather Men,” a book written by Ranulph Fiennes. The title refers to a group of individuals who work behind the scenes in England and organize assassinations and complete dirty work that the government doesn’t want to be involved in. When the book was released, the British government adamantly denied the story while Fiennes insisted on its veracity.
McKendry himself had a difficult time determining if the book was a true story or not. “I think you would have to be an MI6 to know if this book was true,” he stated when asked. Even Fiennes' publishing company doesn’t seem to know the truth. “I read the first copy of the book and it said it was fact,“ McKendry said before adding, “Then we picked up another copy of the book and it said it was fiction.” To make matters worse, the director also told me an interesting anecdote about Fiennes himself, whose story has reportedly changed over the years. The author, McKendry informed me, once directly responded to the question of whether the book was fact or fiction. His answer: "Yes, it is."
With that in mind, McKendry focused not on whether or not the story actually happened. He focused on whether it could have happened. He noted that he eventually had to go back to the original book. “This [the original book] is the book that appealed to me,” he said, “so I’m going to make the story of this book.” He added that he stayed very true to that original story.
One of the ideas that appealed to McKendry about the story itself was its focus on former military officials after a war. He liked the story of men who were retired from military service after being in the limelight for so many years. McKendry noted that many politicians often focus on military officials only during wartime. He added that "this was a nice film because it was like looking at guys after they'd been used up and no one gave a toss about them anymore; and no one [knew] what to do with them."
He didn't want to paint the SAS officials in a bad light though. “They saved my ass as I grew up in Belfast in the war with the IRA, so I have deep respect for those guys,” he said noting that he used former SAS officials and Navy Seals as some of his advisers on the film.
For action fans or people interested in a controversial story about an elite group of assassins, "Killer Elite" might be worth checking out this weekend. It says it's inspired by true events but the truth seems to be much more complicated than that.