by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-chief
“They sent me the script in February of 2014. I didn’t read it because I don’t have control over this, so why am I going to waste my time over things I have no control over? I just tried to be as Zen as possible about this whole process.” Kim Barker tells me during a recent stop on her press tour for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the newest vehicle for 30 Rock and SNL veteran Tina Fey, based on her real life adventures as a journalist in the Middle East from 2002-2007. “It’s a different story but it tells the same story that my book did, in a way. Although, now it’s much more focused on me.”
The idea for a darkly humorous take on her time in the Middle East during conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan had been something that she had considered for some time prior to putting pen to paper. “I told people that I’m going to write a darkly comic book about being in Pakistan and people here were like, ‘That doesn’t sound funny at all.’ People over there were like, ‘I totally get what you’re doing.’ I decided to try write a book that I felt like would get people to read about Pakistan and Afghanistan, in that it’s funny, it’s got an American protagonist and by the end of it I think you’ll have a primer on Pakistan and Afghanistan and also on the importance of journalism which is a theme in the book. It was cathartic for me. I wrote it super quickly.”
Barker’s book was released in March 2011 to solid reviews. Chief among them, a stellar review from New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani. “She loved it, it was one of her top ten of the year, but in there she had a line that said I had created a Tina Fey character. Within two weeks of this, Tina had read the book and had pushed Lorne (Michaels) and Paramount to option the book on her behalf for her to star in and produce. It’s sort of been driven by her the entire way and by Lorne as well.” Specifically, the line in the New York Times review that caught Fey’s eye was, “She depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.”
Writer Robert Carlock, longtime friend of Fey from her SNL days and showrunner for her hit TV show 30 Rock came on to write the script, not an easy task considering the intricacies of Barker’s story. Barker recalls, “He was pretty honest with me at the very beginning, he said there’s no guarantee it gets made, this is kind of a hard sell. He told me, ‘Look we want to honor your story and what you wrote, but we’re going to have to change things for Hollywood.’ He met with a lot of people, he didn’t just meet with me. He met with friends of mine, people in the military, other journalists, a lot of TV journalists who had been over there. He overlaid some of those stories on top of mine. “
There are a great many departures in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot when compared to Barker’s source material, besides the change from the book’s original title, The Taliban Shuffle. “There’s more explosions, I’m a TV journalist (in the film) much to print journalism’s chagrin,” Barker muses. “But frankly it works.”
Some other big changes to the source material include the portrayal of her boyfriend. In the film’s trailer we see Fey being two-timed by Josh Charles, but the reality is that he moved to India to be with her and things didn’t end up working out. “I guess I would say I’m not thrilled with how they portrayed my boyfriend cheating on me back home.” She laughs and admits, “I still have to tell him.”
When asked about whether she sees any problem with Margot Robbie’s character, Tanya Vanderpoel going from strong female friend to a quasi-enemy at the end of the film, Barker has a more sensible opinion than to rashly brand it anti-feminist (something Fey has been accused of in the past), “I think it’s a device. You need to use foils in movies, I get that. It’s a pretty strong female movie. Both of them going after careers, you know? In a way that you don’t necessarily see in a lot of movies. Margot is going after her career, she’s not going after her man. You know what I mean? You don’t see that. I think that women are a lot more complex than they’re necessarily given credit for in Hollywood. This movie shows that. I thought that they both did such a great job. Who knows if the friendship would have worked out? It’s not like she got the job, she just got a London post. I thought it made a pretty effective thing, the reveal that comes afterward.”
“I didn’t see the movie until a couple weeks ago and it was terrifying to watch it for the first time,” she jokes. “It’s so weird. You just had to look at the people involved. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are smart, funny people. It’s SNL and it’s an unusual SNL movie. Really unusual. I just had to walk away from it and hope that they would not make Tina look bad. It could have been Anchorman in Afghanistan. That was my fear. I loved Anchorman, I thought it was a brilliant movie. But it’s brilliant in that sort of stupid-funny way. That would just be mortifying.”
It’s a scary thing to imagine your deeply personal experiences being adapted for a film with some rather large changes and not having control of that process, but Barker seems to take it all in stride. “When I watched it for the first time I was watching it like a print journalist. ‘True. Not true. True. Twisted. Don’t know where that came from. Not that brave.’ I’m comparing things back and forth, but then half way through it I sank into it, thinking this is actually a movie. It looks like Afghanistan, it looks just like Kabul. That was amazing to me. How did she feel about Tina Fey’s portrayal? “I think it’s her best performance and I’m not just saying that because it’s a character based on me. Barker Chuckles, “I had said to Dean Baquet, the editor of the Times where I’ve worked for the last two years now, ‘What if the biopic about my life sucks?’ and he was just like, ‘Pretty good story.’”
The next logical question, now that her first book has been adapted into a big budget Hollywood film is what comes next? Will there be another book?
“There is a plan for another book. It’ll be nonfiction. I’m not exactly sure what it’s gonna be yet. I spent a lot of time hanging out with these guys that are recovering drug addicts this year, so I’ve thought about doing a book on that. I would want to do it like a dark comic, how the other one percent live and following hustlers in New York. Some people think I grew up so weird, because I did grow up pretty weird. So maybe doing a series of short true stories about my family growing up with hippies in Montana. Something like David Sedaris.”
Hopefully Tina Fey smells a franchise opportunity.