“I hope James Mattis sees this film,” says Michael Epstein, director of House Two, a feature doc about the Haditha massacre and the subsequent criminal investigation, which was the most expensive in Marine history. “I hope he realizes truly how fucked up it is and goes in and fixes it. Now as Secretary of Defense, he’s in a position to something, he can find out what really happened and hopefully he really will.”
House 2 tells the story of a criminal defense attorney and an NCIS special agent turned whistleblower who seek to exonerate a Marine charged with 18 counts of murder in Haditha, Iraq, and, in so doing, uncover the truth about one of the furthest-reaching cover-ups in U.S. military history.
The documentary, which is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, saw Epstein join the defense team of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, one of eight Marines charged in a civilian massacre in 2005. It sees the director, who previously helmed films including Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company and The Battle Over Citizen Kane, interview and observe Wuterich and his legal team as they prepare for the trial, which ultimately saw no Marines found guilty and saw Wuterich, who the government had charged with eighteen counts of murder, given a plea deal that amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.
The link with Mattis, who was appointed as Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump in January 2017? He was the convening authority on the original decision.
When asked about the failure to prosecute in Haditha, Defense Secretary Mattis previously told the New Yorker that he did not want to “criminalize a mistake”, a broad mistake that is the basis for the nearly two-hour film.
Epstein said that he believes Mattis is a “good man” and says “there’s nothing in his long career to make me believe otherwise”. “The connection to Mattis may seem, in a partisan world, gratuitous but I don’t think it is. We have to hold our leaders to standards and the film holds the Marine Corps to standards they hold themselves to. These are their own rules of engagement,” he adds. “When the whole idea of truth is under assault, I think it’s a very relevant story.”
However, Epstein, who started working on the film shortly after Time Magazine broke the story in the spring of 2006, never intended for it to be a feature doc that aired in 2018.
“I assumed I was going to be making a small behind-the-scenes doc for the BBC or PBS that was 40 minutes, because I assumed it would take about a year and all of the truth was going to come out in trial. I assumed the criminal justice system was going to work as it was supposed to,” he says.
In order to gain access to Wuterich and his legal team, Epstein joined the legal team in order to avoid subpoenas and his payment would be the tapes at the end of it. Having just finished a film about Haditha for A&E Indiefilms, he was in the right place to take on this story. “The US had gone from liberators to occupiers to murderers in the course of two years. The story struck me as wildly important.”
Largely self-funded, Epstein worked with a small team including editors Ed Barteski Jr and R.A. Fedde, and composer Joel Goodman before Tony Wood, boss of British production company Buccaneer Media came on board to help. Wood is best known for scripted television including scripted reality series The Only Way Is Essex and ITV and Netflix crime drama Marcella and helped Epstein craft it into an epic, real-life whodunnit.
“The dynamic changed when Buccaneer Media came on board; Tony Wood not only brought a creative vision because he is a scripted producer, he connected much more emotionally to characters than journalistically,” says Epstein. Wood helped bring on board a number of high-profile exec producers including First Look Media CEO Michael Bloom and Adam Pincus, EVP of Programming and Content for First Look Media, who oversees its Topic Studios banner as well as Josh Braun, Co-President of sales and production company Submarine, who previously exec produced Netflix’s The Keepers.
The latter is currently looking to strike deals for the film to ensure that it reaches a wide audience. “I’m still looking for someone to stand up and say ‘this matters, this is an important story’ and we have confidence it will find a big audience. It’s not going to be the Avengers but I’d like it to be seen and looked at seriously,” adds Epstein.