Who would play you in a movie? It’s the kind of question that might come up among reporters aiming above their station (or laughingly taking each other down). But for former war correspondent Kim Barker, the answer may have been suggested by a glowing New York Times review of her book about covering the war in Afghanistan, in which the reviewer called Barker “a sort of Tina Fey character.”
Fast forward five years, and Barker’s book, The Taliban Shuffle, has been turned into a movie with none other than Fey in the lead role. Barker was South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009, and in The Taliban Shuffle she recounts the humorous aspects of an otherwise harrowing reporting environment. She spoke with CJR about what it’s like for that book—and a chapter of her life—to become a major motion picture: Whisky Tango Foxtrot, co-produced by Fey and Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live, and featuring Martin Freeman (The Hobbit), Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), and Billy Bob Thornton. The following is an edited transcript.
CJR: It’s incredible that the Times review of your book in 2011 mentioned your similarity to Tina Fey.
BARKER: I know, right? Nice casting, Michiko Kakutani.
CJR: Is that how the book got in Fey’s hands?
BARKER: After the review came out, my agent reached out to Tina Fey’s people and sent them the book along with a copy of the review. I don’t know if they had seen it independently, but within two weeks of that review, Paramount had optioned the book on her behalf.
CJR: Is the movie faithful to the style of your book—a dark comedy that includes some serious commentary about the war in Afghanistan?
BARKER: I’ve seen the movie once. Any journalist can put themselves in the surreal position of writing a book that’s nonfiction and true to your life, and then watching the Hollywood version on the screen. It’s weird hearing Tina Fey being called “Kim.” She’s a TV journalist in the movie, and there’s been artistic license taken with the story. But it did capture a certain truthiness of my narrative arc. I told the story that way because I wanted people to read about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I felt like if I wrote a deadly serious policy book I might get maybe 50 people to read it, but it wouldn’t have the audience I wanted it to get. You watch the movie and I think a lot of that comes through. It’s really not a typical Saturday Night Live movie. It’s not slapstick. There are funny moments, but there are really serious moments as well.
But it’s Hollywood, right? She’s out there with bombs going off in front of her. My experience was not nearly so dramatic. I was not as brave a reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the character Kim Baker [all names were changed] is in the movie. I’m more of a chicken.
CJR: Why is the movie character a TV reporter?
BARKER: I didn’t write the script so I don’t really know, but I think it’s kind of obvious if you think about the dramatic tension of watching a print reporter file a story versus a TV reporter do a story, one’s obviously more visual. It’s just not very interesting to watch me write.
CJR: To what extent were you involved in the production of the movie?
BARKER: Robert Carlock was the screenwriter. He was the showrunner on “30 Rock” and is kind of Tina Fey’s right-hand guy. He’s known for being able to write her voice very well. He was trying to come up with the best narrative structure for a movie that was also true to the book. He read the book early on, and he met with TV reporters who’d been in Afghanistan, folks who worked with the UN there, one guy who was in the military there, Afghans. I met with him once every month or so. There’s definitely stuff from those conversations that made its way into the movie that’s not in the book.
CJR: It’s easy to fantasize about what it would be like to have your book made into a movie by Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels. Have there been any cool perks so far?
BARKER: Not so far. I was able to go on set for a couple days, and I learned that it’s actually super boring and laborious to film a movie. Journalists have short attention spans, and at a certain point I’d be like, “Haven’t you shot this scene like 50 times?” Tina Fey has always been really kind to me and funny on the set. That was great. I’ve hung out with Robert Carlock a few times. I met Billy Bob Thornton on the set and all the actors who were there. They were asking me things like, “Tell me about your bodyguard.” I was like, “I was a print reporter. We didn’t have resources for a bodyguard.”
I get to go to the premiere. I’m pretty adamant about bringing in Farouq, who was my fixer [and translator] in Afghanistan, for the premiere. He applied for a US visa and I think he’ll get it. I would have felt very hesitant about having anything based on Farouq if he were still in Afghanistan, but he’s in Canada now. And the Martin Freeman character is based on a friend of mine, [British filmmaker Sean Langan], who was kidnapped by the Taliban. I think he’ll also be coming in for the premiere.
CJR: When is that?
BARKER: March 1. It’ll be interesting. I’m kind of viewing this whole thing like a [reporter], just trying to observe and take notes on everything. It’s a really rare thing to happen to a journalist, and I’m trying to enjoy it as much as possible, but I’m also trying to remember that I’m just a print journalist and I want to be able to tell the same sort of stories that I’ve always told. I’m a serious journalist, and it was always my fear in going through this: Are they going to make this like an SNL parody? Is this going to be like Anchorman? Because that would be humiliating. But it’s not like that.
CJR: Do you miss being a foreign correspondent?
BARKER: I do. I feel like it’s a choice that you make every day to be here and not in that environment. I loved it. I thought it was an amazing thing to feel like you’re watching world events unfold in front of you. I do believe that when you are covering things that are that tragic, you feel very alive. So I miss that feeling. I miss having dinner parties where we were arguing about the future of a country and how to build a democracy, as opposed to being at dinner parties where you’re talking about, you know, TV shows.
I’m at The New York Times now as an investigative reporter on the Metro desk. I have a great boss and I’m excited about what we’re working on. It’s all about being able to do great journalism. That doesn’t have to be overseas. It’s probably healthier for me to be here right now.
CJR: The book will be reissued on February 23 with the film’s title and Tina Fey on the cover. How does it feel that your book will be forever linked to the movie?
BARKER: Sure, it’s weird, but it’s going to sell the book. I can’t control the movie. When you sell the rights to your book, you’re pretty much signing that away and you’re trusting that whoever you’re giving the rights to will be fair and treat you with respect. But what I can control is the book. The book is done. Was it a bestseller? Hell no it wasn’t. For me, if this can sell more copies of the book, great. If more people are interested in reading about Afghanistan and Pakistan and everything that’s gone wrong foreign policy-wise over there, great.