07/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Susanna White on Generation Kill

I am in yet another airport. I have been in several, from my home in London to places as far-flung and disparate as Africa, New York and Los Angeles. This has been a long strange trip but a great one, in the making of "Generation Kill," the HBO miniseries for which I directed the first three and ultimate episodes. The advertising tagline calls it "the new face of American war." Of course, that is an apt description - but for me, the fascinating, fulfilling part was getting to know these "faces" on a deeper level.

On the surface, I realize, I am what they politely call "an interesting choice" to direct these episodes, but truly, "Generation Kill" allowed me to combine all my skills and interests. It's true I am British and this is about Americans fighting, but we all know that Tony Blair brought my country into combat as well. It's true my resume includes the BBC period dramas "Bleak House" and "Jane Eyre" - not exactly action adventure pieces. But, for me, "Bleak House" and "Jane Eyre" were opportunities to explore character-driven stories with large and diverse casts - much like "Generation Kill" in those respects. Furthermore, I began my career making documentaries. So for me, "Generation Kill" was a tremendous opportunity to combine all those aspects of my background.

Yes, well, that all sounds very measured and thoughtful, doesn't it? The truth is "Generation Kill" was one of the most exhilarating, challenging, intense, emotionally charged experiences of my life. Working with the real Marines and finding these characters with the actors made this war in Iraq palpable and personal.

It all began, of course, with David Simon's magnificent script. I was a huge fan of David's show "The Wire," and was excited to be considered for the show. The great thing about David's writing is that he doesn't make concessions; he throws you right into the culture and vernacular of the soldiers. It appealed to me on so many levels, but particularly because I had begun my career in documentaries and it had that sensibility.

As soon as we got the actors in the room, David's words really took on a new resonance and power. Early on, we decided we wanted to work a combination of actors and non-actors. It sort of evolved, but what happened was we ultimately cast some of our technical advisors in the miniseries, either playing themselves or actual characters. For instance, we brought in several people to play Sergeant Rudy Reyes, potentially. Sgt. Reyes, of course, was introduced to readers in Evan Wright's Rolling Stone articles and subsequent book about the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At one point, David and I just looked at each other and said, "Can't we cast Rudy as Rudy?" We both absolutely agreed that was the thing to do. There was no one in the world who could play him. He is a unique human being.

This happened throughout the casting process, in big and small ways. The goal of this was mainly to feed the culture of the Marines to the actors and the project in any way we could.

Of course, there was bootcamp. I know, every military-themed show or movie boasts about the rigors of their bootcamp, but, I have to say, it really personalized the Marine experience for me. And, I confess, I was thrilled to be making an action picture. So to get into the Marines' heads, I thought, among other things, I had to fire an AK-47. I was watching them at bootcamp with the actors, feeling a bit left out but also worried that I wasn't quite getting it. So I asked if I could fire the weapons too. When I did, I suddenly understood an entire layer about what if feels like and who those guys at first are so desperate to get into the action - up until then, I didn't have a real sense of it. The power and lure of those weapons is terrible and extraordinary. I don't mean to trivialize the lethal nature of the AK-47 and all the other weapons, but, for me, it was a way in.

The biggest, most important aid, of course, was the Marines themselves. Early on, as part of this process, I went to Camp Pendleton and talked to the Marines there. I was so impressed by those goys. They were extremely smart. They were great storytellers. They had a fantastic sense of humor, which is one of the ways they get through the war, I think. Above, all they, were supremely motivated individuals and not in a clichéd way. They were not that Sergeant Major you've seen in war films screaming at the troops to exercise. One of the guys I met at Pendleton said his motivation comes from "... achieving your personal best. It's about pushing yourself as far as you can to accomplish that basic goal." I strongly identified with that notion in all of them. So the hope was to show audiences how a group of individuals, striving to be the best they can be in circumstances that are not just dangerous but often never fully clear.

And the truth is they are individuals, which is what I think we often miss in the coverage of the war. "Generation Kill" explores what happens to them as this huge event unfolds but I always wanted to emphasize their distinct personalities. I worked very hard in the casting to do this but we also individualized their looks. There were differences in their uniforms. One character has a bandana; another has a black and white scarf. Even the Humvees were personalized. Rudy's has a hula girl on the dashboard. Other Humvees have trophies the guys have collected - all this based on reality, by the way. I felt the most important thing I could bring to the project as a director was to provide audiences with a very clear sense of character, so you would invest in their journey because you recognized and identified with each person.

I left my children to go off to Africa to do this, which, obviously, is not anywhere near the kind of sacrifices the Marines and their families make. Still everyone was away from home, in a foreign land, so in that sense, creatively, it was a very helpful approximation. I left at the end of episode three and by then people had not only found their characters, they had established an incredible group dynamic. They became very tightly with amazing bonds, not unlike what happens with real soldiers, I suspect. What was exciting was to come back to direct the last episode, when, in essence, the group I "trained" had been to war in the episodes that Simon (Cellan Jones) directed and I got to end the journey with them. The guys knew their characters better than ever and we arrived in Baghdad together in episode seven.

I am very interested to find out how audiences respond to "Generation Kill," particularly the Marines themselves. Television has been an effective means of bringing war into the collective consciousness on a very visceral level because the war is literally there in your living room. The project and the process introduced me to these unique people in a way that was beyond politics and policy - but made the ramifications of those politics and policies much more immediate and personal.