An interview with the real soldiers of Benghazi

By Dan Cava 

January 19, 2016

Shortly before 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi opened, we sat down with three of the soldiers depicted in the film: Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paronto, and John “Tig” Tiegen. All three were a part of the Global Response Staff team that defended the American compound during the attacks on September 11, 2012. The guys were personable and genuine, constantly joking with each other, but it got serious when it came to their passions for the movie’s authenticity and for honoring those killed at Benghazi.

CLTure: How’s the movie promotional tour going?

Paronto: We are busy, but it’s not “bad busy.” We’re doing interviews and I’m sitting in a hotel with you, drinking bottled water. It’s not “bad travel.”

CLTure: Haha! Right. We are in the Ritz-Carlton.

Geist: This is the room that they kept for this interview; they have us in a Holiday Inn!

[LAUGHTER]

CLTure: How long are you guys in Charlotte?

Tiegen: About two more hours.

"13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" - Dallas Premiere
Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paronto and John “Tig” Tiegen. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

CLTure: Well, there’s killer steakhouse downstairs called BLT…

Tiegen: Oh yeah, we had dinner there last night. It was great. Paramount made us pay for it, so…

[LAUGHTER]

CLTure: Tell you what, I’ll go see the movie and you guys can use that money to pay yourselves back.

[LAUGHTER]

CLTure: How did you find out the movie was getting made?

Geist: Three Arts is our representative, and once the book was successful, they reached out and started setting up meetings. Paramount was the one that stepped up and wanted to give us the platform. They believed in the story. We got lucky.

Paronto: Richard Abate, our book agent, had plans for it. We didn’t, but we got lucky. Erwin [Stoff, producer] has a lot of integrity and did it the right way. It could have turned out very badly for us.

CLTURE: You guys are in a unique position, because you’re not just the authors of the books, you’re the subjects of the book. Aside from being “technical advisors,” how much influence could you have in the screenwriting or in choosing a director?

Tiegen: When we saw the first version of the screenplay, they had changed a few things quite a bit. [They] told me, and I said “if they are going to leave it like that, I don’t want to have anything do with it.” And then they went back and changed it to the way it was supposed to be.

CLTure: Oh wow.

Tiegen: The same things with the sets. They’re showing us the computers and the compound, and I’m like “well, this wall is supposed to be here, and this light is actually over here.” Michael Bay is standing in the doorway and kind of crosses his arms and says, “Thanks, Tig, you just cost me another hundred grand!”

[LAUGHTER]

Tiegen: They took our input.

Paronto: That was the question, “Are we going to have creative control?” I’m not Tom Cruise, I never wanted to get into Hollywood, this isn’t my career, and if they’re going mess up it up…

Tiegen: That’s not what he said in his diary last year!

Paronto: Well, it is now!

[LAUGHTER]

Paronto: I told Erwin that if I don’t agree with it, I’m not going to promote it; in fact I’ll do the opposite. But it just hasn’t been that way. And they’ve been great, there’s nothing nefarious. They would never intentionally leave anything out.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 12: (L-R) John "Tig" Tiegen, Mark "Oz" Geist, and Kris "Tanto" Paronto attend the Dallas Premiere of the Paramount Pictures film ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ at the AT&T Dallas Cowboys Stadium on January 12, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures) *** Local Caption *** John Tiegen; Mark Geist; Kris Paronto
(L-R) John “Tig” Tiegen, Mark “Oz” Geist, and Kris “Tanto”  (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

CLTure: So you guys felt a desire to get it as right as the screen would allow.

All: Right!

Paronto: It’s hard to get thirteen hours into two.

Geist: Some theatrical liberties had to be taken to reach out to the viewer. The story does that, but I’m not a producer, I’m a gunfighter. I told Michael Bay, “I wouldn’t expect you to tell me how to do gunfighting, and I won’t tell you how to do moviemaking. But if you do anything that disrespects the four Americans [that died]…but from the get-go there was that understanding. Michael Bay and Paramount wanted to give us this platform and they believed in the story. That solidified it. They picked us, and we picked them.

CLTure: Were there other offers?

Paronto: We pitched it to several studios, but everyone said “It’s too political, we don’t want to touch it.” And Paramount said, “No, we want it now.”

Tiegen: And we were like, “What’s political about it? This is the story!” The only story that’s political is the one the politicians are talking about. This is the truth about what happened to the men on the ground. That’s not political.

Paronto: Bay and Paramount saw it for what it was, a true war story. They’ve earned my loyalty.

Tiegen: But he can be bought. [LAUGHTER] Seventy-five bucks, and he’s good.

CLTure: And some BLT.

Paronto: And BLT! Yeah!

[LAUGHTER]

CLTure: The word “Benghazi” has become a political football. Are you hoping that this movie will reintroduce that word to people?

Geist: We didn’t get out of Benghazi and go, “let’s do a movie, let’s do a book!” That’s not our lives.

Tiegen: We all went back to work.

Geist: After months of seeing the left and the right both spin this story to benefit themselves, the four people that were getting lost in this were Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty. Tyrone and Glen, the explosions that killed them injured me. It was very near and dear to me that they were honored properly. The only way to make sure our version was told was to put it in print. Now it’s a history book. It’s not political.

Paronto: We have people on both sides of the aisle involved in the project. That’s what makes it an apolitical book and an apolitical movie. It’s people coming together, and it didn’t matter what political side they were on.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 12: Mark "Oz" Geist (L) and director/producer Michael Bay attend the Dallas Premiere of the Paramount Pictures film ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ at the AT&T Dallas Cowboys Stadium on January 12, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures) *** Local Caption *** Michael Bay; Mark Geist
Mark “Oz” Geist (L) and director/producer Michael Bay (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

CLTure: Why is Michael Bay the guy to do this?

Paronto: He had a passion for it. In all of his movies from The Rock forward, he has a huge respect for it. But we could see it in his eyes when we met him in Miami. I think if he could do it all over again he might go into the military.

CLTure: His movies do have a real emphasis on “the hardware.” You know, the military and the process and the gears turning.

Geist: Even the Transformers movies are about brotherhood and honor and sacrifice and doing what’s right. Whether it’s Pearl Harbor or Armageddon, or robots.

Tiegen: They’re not robots, they’re Transformers! Robots don’t transform!

[LAUGHTER]

Paronto: But that’s what this movie’s about, and this time Bay didn’t have to make anything up. It’s about honor and integrity and doing what’s right in the face of overwhelming odds.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is now playing in theaters nationwide.

*This interview was edited and condensed from its original form.*

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