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Interview: Journalist Kim Barker, the Inspiration for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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Imagine having one of the powerful women in Hollywood buy your book—and want to play you in a movie based on your memoir. Journalist Kim Barker just lived through that experience when her book, The Taliban Shuffle, was bought by Tina Fey’s production company and adapted into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF), starring Tina Fey.

The movie has gone through some big changes worth noting compared to the book. For example, Barker focused on her time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but Fey only goes to Afghanistan in the film. Fey also plays a copy-editor turned TV journalist, unlike the former Metro newspaper journalist who became foreign correspondent for the same paper. But Barker, who now works at the New York Times as a Metro reporter, clearly shares Fey’s fast and sharp wit.

I spoke with Barker about seeing her onscreen character for the first time, the real-life way to become a foreign correspondent, and the sweet but complicated friendship she still cherishes with her fixer that anchors the film.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): After the whole development and production process, what were your first reactions to seeing the movie and hearing actors calling Tina Fey Kim?

Kim Barker: I didn’t see the movie until 3 weeks ago, and I never read the script. They sent me the script a couple of years ago, but I signed away the rights to the book and couldn’t make any changes, so what’s the point of looking at the script? My feelings are, “If you can’t make changes, why worry about it?” because I’m already worried about stuff I can control. So it just seemed unreal for the longest time, until I started seeing trailers for the movie and thought, “That looks pretty funny.”

TMS: You see the trailer before seeing the movie?

Barker: I did. They sent me the trailer and I couldn’t watch it by myself. I sent the trailer to my editor and agent to ask them what they thought about it. And once they told me it was good, then I could watch it. Because I feel, if you don’t have control over something, you just have to let yourself go and trust they’ll do their job.

TMS: Reason not to read comments online.

Barker: Right. You can only control so much and you have to let people do what they’re going to do. So they finally said I had to watch the movie so I could go on the press tour for the movie. And I said, “Can I bring friends” and they told me “no, it’s just you for this first screening, and we’ll do a family and friends screening closer to the release.” And I just started panicking and begging them to let me bring someone that could be an arbiter and judge the movie for what it really was. So they finally said I could bring my brother, who is a lawyer, and he got out of work early to see it with me.

I just watched it with my hands over my eyes, sitting next to the publicist I have during this press tour, and my brother on the other side. And there are only three or four other people in this empty theater. And when you see something in an empty theater, it skews your perspective, because I’m thinking things are hilarious, but no one’s laughing! And I also recognize somethings from my book. Like what they do at the Kabul Zoo. And no one who hasn’t been to Afghanistan would understand why that’s funny. And there are a couple of inside jokes like that in the movie that go by really quickly. So I just started thinking, “please let this be over” so you can think of things from the perspective of, “what is this tour going to be like?” Especially being a journalist and going back to my job as soon as it’s over.

TMS: And the weird experience of talking to journalists and being on the other side of the interview.

Barker: Right. Getting the question, “so what do you think of her being turned into a TV journalist?” And I’m like, “sad for print journalist but hey, it’s more cinematic.” But my brother laughed and the movie is very much in our vein of humor. We grew up with a father who was very funny and had a very dark sense of humor. And we were constantly forced to watch MASH with him. Every time I hear that song I think of my childhood. So my brother said “it’s awesome, it’s like Bridesmaids meets The Hangover meets something sad, only with a moral.” But then he just went back to work and left me alone to think about it. But I started calling Farouq and telling him he had to get a visa to come for the premiere…

TMS: And for clarification, he’s was your fixer in Afghanistan.

Barker: Right, and Christopher Abbott plays him in the movie. And I loved the relationship portrayed in the film by those two. And I called Sean, who the Martin Freeman character is based on, and made sure he would be coming.

TMS: Because you didn’t have any involvement in the script, were you excited to see that those were the two relationships they decided to focus on in the film?

Barker: Sure, but I think Robert Carlock would done that anyway, because my relationship with Farouq is the primary relationship in the book. But I mentioned it to Robert and said, “we’re still friends and he taught me so much about Afghanistan and protected me.” And I wanted that very unique relationship to end up in the movie, because he started out almost like part paid best friend, part baby-sitter. And I remember when I gave him the book, when it was still in rough draft form, I wanted to talk about certain things. Especially the places where he’s portrayed as not so great, and when I’m portrayed not so great. And he would be like “I didn’t know you knew that” or “I don’t want people to know that.” And I’d always say, “You’re a multi-dimensional character. Nothing is black and white, we’re all flawed. We’re all foulable, fucked-up human beings.” And I wanted to come off just as flawed. So he signed off on it of course, but every time he gives a public appearance he says “I’m a multi-dimensional character.” I brought him with me on the book tour, and he would say that constantly.

TMS: He already lived in Canada when you were writing the book?

Barker: Right. And when I wrote an earlier draft of the book, we weren’t sure if he would be allowed to stay. So I wrote it with a synonym for his name. And he was adamant that he was Farouq and told everyone, “I am Dr. Farouq.” And I made sure to cut him out of pictures, because I was concerned about his safety. And I wouldn’t have used certain details about him which would have made him identifiable. Because that was the most important thing in our relationship. We can never do something so stupid that one of us could get hurt. I wrote about the fact that when a journalist gets in trouble, and it happens a lot, the fixers and drivers are the ones that get into trouble. I know that when David and Sean were kidnapped, they were adamant about not leaving without their fixers, and I know they had the opportunity.

TMS: In a situation like that, is it more dangerous for a fixer than for a journalist?

Barker: I think it is, although now everything has changed. If you look at Syria, I don’t know if we can still say that. I don’t know if it is more dangerous for the driver or fixer than for the western journalist. But Syria and Libya changed everything, and I wouldn’t be comfortable going there. I don’t think I could operate there as a journalist.

TMS: If you were in the same situation now that you were in 2003, would you go back?

Barker: I’d go back to Afghanistan. And I’m lucky enough to work for a news organization, and work for one then, who has my back. To have the training and people and infrastructure to be taken care of overseas. It’s like we’re this little egg that lands and gets taken care of, so we can just do our job. But what’s happened now is, there are very few news organizations which have those resources. It’s really expensive to have foreign correspondents and they’ve been replaced with freelancers who are doing everything for themselves on the cheap. And are trying to make a name for themselves. And that is scary to me. I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars. It’s not the kind of journalism I’m comfortable doing, because a story isn’t worth dying for. Not for me, not for a fixer, not for a driver.

TMS: The movie starts with your boss asking for any single, childless reporters that would be willing to go to Afghanistan. Any truth in that event?

Barker: No, that’s just in it because I’m a smart ass and everyone at work knows I’m a smart ass. I was at the Chicago Tribune, and had only been there since January 2001, and there was a group known as the old men of science. They weren’t all science reporters, but we just called them that. And every day for lunch they would walk out together and go to the same diner. And we were all obsessed with getting invited to the old men of science lunches. And sat behind one of the members, Ron Grossman, who asked me to go to lunch one day. And they became mentors to me and asked what I wanted to do, and I said “I want to do foreign, I want to go overseas.” And after 9/11, there was a sense that they needed to start sending more women overseas and testing them out. And that was something the Tribune’s editor Ann Marie Lipinski said, probably off the top of her head, in some meeting I heard about. And the old men of science heard about it and told me at lunch it was my time.

They told me to go to Tim McNulty, the foreign editor, he’s a really good guy and tell him you want to go overseas. Just volunteer. And I’d go over to his desk, but he’d be on the phone so I’d walk away. And I’d go back and he’d be working, so I’d walk away. And the old men of science would just watch and go “what are you doing? Just stand there and tell him.” Foreign is a totally different area of the paper than Metro, and I was awkward because I’d never met the guy, or anyone in foreign. So I finally knocked on the door, and he’s just this benevolent, bearded, fatherly man. And couldn’t be a nicer guy. And I thought, “How can I sell myself?”

I just said “Hi, I’m Kim Barker, I’m a Metro reporter. And I’m single and childless, I’m expendable, and I’ll go anywhere you want me to go.” So that’s how I sold myself. And he started to laugh and asked where I’d been before. And he seemed impressed that I hadn’t been to Europe but I had been to Egypt and Jordan. So he sent me to Pakistan. And they would send reporters out for a couple of months, test how they did and the kind of stories they got, to see who could become a foreign correspondent. But at a certain point the Metro desk asked for their reporter back, and when I came back, the first story they assigned me was teenage binge-drinking. And I thought “are you kidding me! I want to go back right now.”

TMS: When you mention wanting more female correspondents, did it benefit you in Pakistan and Afghanistan to be a woman? Were you given different access or able to find stories which were being overlooked?

Barker: I don’t know if they were being overlooked, and I can’t compare it to being a male journalist. But it did feel like a benefit to be a female reporter, and there are a lot of female reporters over there, because we felt like we had access to the men who were curious about meeting us and most were respectful, but we also had access to the women. I said in the book that we were seen as a kind of third sex that had access to everyone. And that is a pretty powerful position to be in.

As far as the types of stories I covered, I’m not a bang-bang reporter, never have been. I’m kind of a chicken. I did a couple of imbeds, but they weren’t that eventful and always very scary. And I always loved on imbeds that the Army guys seemed to just want to talk to me about their problems, telling me about the guys in the unit that didn’t like them or problems they were having with their girlfriends. It felt like I had the Wonder Woman lasso around them and they would just pour their hearts out. So the stories I would end up telling from embeds were about the effect constant deployments had on their personal lives, rather than gunfire or explosions. And in terms of covering the news in Afghanistan, I’ve always been more interested in covering how people live through war, not how they die in war. I like the smaller stories and the culture clashes, like when the west would come in to flood a place that had been without internet or TV for so long. How did they adapt to that kind of change?

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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