Combat Vet Turned Filmmaker Mat Best on How a Demented Zombie Movie Is Tackling PTSD

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Army ranger turned YouTuber and entrepreneur Mat Best.Photo: Courtesy of Mat Best

Not long ago, a close-knit group of military veterans convened in a hotel room in Durham, North Carolina, to hash out a plan. Between them, they had enough tactical expertise to pull off the bank heist of the century. They’d fast-roped out of helicopters into the mountains of Afghanistan, tangoed with the Republican Guard in Baghdad, led peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, and snatched Al Qaeda operatives off the streets of Mosul. One had even worked for the CIA. But this particular mission required a set of skills none of them possessed. The plan: to make a feature-length film so steeped in blood, guts, and twisted foxhole humor that it would, as one of them later told me, inspire viewers “to never thank a veteran for their service ever again.”

The movie, which was funded almost entirely via Indiegogo and hits theaters nationwide on June 15, is called Range 15. The title is a mash-up of the two military-oriented apparel companies behind the project, Ranger Up and Article 15. The latter was co-founded by a 29-year-old ex–Army Ranger named Mat Best, who stars in the film as a postapocalyptic gunslinger alongside some of America’s most venerated war heroes, including two Medal of Honor recipients and “Lone Survivor” Marcus Luttrell. Still, the film’s tagline reads: “The only thing scarier than the world ending is the team that’s trying to save it.” From what? A horde of brain-hungry zombies, all played by actual veterans, at least a dozen of whom lost limbs while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On a slew of military blogs and veterans Facebook groups, Range 15 is being heralded as the first-ever “for veterans, by veterans” blockbuster film. If that turns out to be the case, Best, whose brawny good looks and combative charm have already helped him amass a sizable YouTube following, could emerge as the first true celebrity combat veteran of this generation. And so it only makes sense that when asked whom he considers his biggest role model, Best names Arnold Schwarzenegger, another unlikely candidate for big-screen stardom who marched into Hollywood without a reliable blueprint for success. “He’s the epitome of what the American dream is,” Best says.

The term post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has become something of a one-size-fits-all label for the sense of alienation many veterans feel when they return home from war. However, Best, who survived five combat tours with the Army before deploying again as a contractor for the CIA, will be the first to tell you that the PTSD label doesn’t apply to him. And he’s become a vocal advocate for a small but fast-growing niche of veterans who also reject the popular idea that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have damaged an entire generation of young American service members. So they’ve flipped that notion on its head. Their rallying cry: Combat veterans are capable of anything. Give them a film permit and a few million bucks, and they can even beat Hollywood at its own game.

In all of its perversity and blood-soaked humor, Range 15 is not for everyone. If anything — anything at all — offends you, or if you’d prefer to spare yourself the image of a man getting his penis bitten off by a zombified little person, you may want to opt for The Jungle Book instead. But the art-house circuit was never part of the plan. Rather, Best explains, the idea is to offer up a counter-narrative to what he and his fellow novice filmmakers see as the endlessly tragic depictions of veterans in the media. Such portrayals, they believe, only perpetuate the problem by establishing a negative and self-fulfilling blueprint for how veterans are expected to behave when they return home from war. In other words, whatever films like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter did for the Vietnam generation, Range 15 is intended to do the exact opposite.

“Across the board in pop culture, you see a drastic misrepresentation of who veterans are,” says Best, who, in addition to Article 15, co-owns a whiskey brand, Leadslingers Whiskey, as well as a small-batch coffee company. “You either have them portrayed as the Rambo characters, or you have them portrayed as these broken, addictive non-contributors to society, and that’s simply not true.”

On the eve of Range 15’s nationwide premiere, Beta Male spoke with Best about what he hopes to achieve with the film, how Hollywood gets portrayals of the military wrong, and why finding a new mission in civilian life is crucial for veterans seeking post-military success.

Why do you think Range 15 has been resonating so deeply with the military and veterans since the project’s conception?
I think we set out to accomplish a goal of representing military culture through the humor. That’s exactly why it’s been resonating, because for the first time they’re seeing all of the jokes we tell and the funny things we do while overseas. The humor is macabre. It pushes the boundaries. It’s not safe. You’re put in all of these crazy situations overseas, and you’re doing all of this wild stuff, and if you can’t really laugh at yourself you’re not going to be successful at any of it.

For veterans, what’s the value in preserving that sense of humor in civilian life?
I think you develop a certain perspective on life just being in the military. And when you’re transitioning out of the military and reacclimating to civilian culture, it’s nice to know that other people share a similar perspective and sense of humor. Otherwise, you can feel isolated and ostracize yourself from civilian people, and then you’re kind of finding yourself in a dark, empty place. So that was kind of the goal of this movie — to reinforce the community and remind veterans that it’s okay to laugh at all of the things we’ve done.

Was making the film in any way therapeutic?
Totally. The ultimate goal was to create the best movie possible, but we reached out to all of these veterans and asked them to be in the film because it was a blast to be around a bunch of like-minded individuals with similar experiences. Everyone was reconnecting, like, “Oh I was in Mosul this year!” and, “I was in this province in Afghanistan!” And then sharing stories. It was a very uplifting environment. So, yeah, it was very similar to what it was on active duty, but we’re using fake guns, not real ones.

Well, they were real guns, right?
True, true. But the prop house made sure they only fired blanks.

What do you think veterans miss most about being in the military?
You have this sense of extreme purpose in the military, and then when some people get out they have issues because they feel like there’s a lack of purpose in their life and they’re not really finding what they want to do. It’s pretty hard to re-create, when you found happiness roaming around the mountains of Afghanistan with 30 other dudes, and now you’re in a city college where nobody understands you.

Do you think society pressures veterans to leave that grunt mentality behind when they return to civilian life?
Yeah. What we really try to advocate for with my company and brands is, always be respectful of your service, and as you’re transitioning and getting out, never close that chapter of your life, just turn the page on it. If you have the ability to do that, you see extreme success from veterans in the entrepreneurial world, because they use the same methods and mind-sets that they used in the military and apply them in a business sense. There are definitely stigmas attached to being a veteran. Sure, we live in a subculture, but we’re Americans first.

In his latest book, Sebastian Junger argues that, in the majority of cases, PTSD is not an accurate descriptor of what veterans struggle with. He believes most actually suffer from a “transition disorder” owing to the shock of going from a close-knit tribal culture to a much more detached civilian setting. What do you make of that?
In the majority of cases, the issues people have departing from the military are absolutely transitional. That’s why, as a brand and stuff, we’re trying to let people know to stop looking at veterans like, “Oh my God, it must’ve been so hard; it must’ve been so bad.” No, it should be, how can we help young men who throughout their late teenage years and early 20s served this country — how do we show them, you have to get out of that whole military mind-set, and let’s put you in the civilian world, and be successful in getting an education, becoming an entrepreneur, or however you want to contribute to society. It’s completely possible. But, like I said before, finding that purpose can be difficult for veterans. If civilians want to help, that’s really where their focus should be — not labeling military people as broken, distraught human beings, because that’s not the case at all.

What do you think civilians can learn from this generation of veterans?
A lot of us, as patriots, just believe in growing our society, continually looking out for what’s best and good in life. Just because someone served doesn’t mean they should be stereotyped. So there’s a takeaway: Don’t judge a veteran. Be open to their ideas, and be open to their character. And don’t judge them based on their service, because that happens a lot more often than people think.

So far the film has only been screened at a few theaters, mainly on military bases. What are you guys hearing from audiences?
The response has probably been a three-part thing. It’s been, this is exactly what the community needed. And then I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s going to be a cult classic. And then a lot of people just enjoyed it. They were like, “This is a crazy, insane movie,” but they laughed the whole way through. As far as I know, this is the first time veterans have written jokes oriented to the military community just to have laughs and have a good time. There are no negative jokes about the culture, like PTSD kind of stuff. It’s all in fun. We did have six people walk out of the screening at the GI Film Festival, but everyone else gave us a standing ovation.

You were counting?
Yeah, we made sure. We wanted that data. I wish I could’ve asked why they left, but they just snuck out. We didn’t hold back. Every joke that you made overseas that people are like, “You can’t say that,” but you and your friends laughed because it helped take a little stress out of the mission — we did those jokes in this movie. And I think that’s what is most important. We stayed true to our Indiegogo campaign. We stayed true to the culture of military people, who want to push the boundaries and who want to laugh.

Do you think a lot of your audience feels ostracized by the media coming out of New York these days?
No, but I think that because New York is such a liberal town, it helps propel a lot of these stereotypes. And unfortunately, that’s not good for veterans. I just think everyone needs to be more open and listen on both sides, because you do have that from veterans sometimes, like, “You don’t understand us!” Well, give us a chance to show that we’re educated, motivated contributors to society, rather than these broken warriors who fought a war that you didn’t support or whatever.

Why did you guys decide to keep Hollywood at an arm’s length with this project?
The movie business is all about making money, so it’s like, how do I make a product and double my money off it, if not more? But with us, we were just like, we want to tell the jokes and we want to tell the story we want to tell, and if we do that the military community will get behind us, and so far that’s what we’ve seen. I think that whole attitude is why it’s been successful. People think we’re saying, “Screw Hollywood.” We’re not.

Adam Linehan is a senior staff writer for Task & Purpose. Range 15 opens in select theaters nationwide on June 15.