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Eastwood's terrorism film: 'He's not going to sugarcoat it'


Published: June 23, 2017

FORMER CARMEL Mayor Clint Eastwood became famous playing fictional tough guys like Rowdy Yates and Dirty Harry. Lately, he’s achieved even greater fame as the director of films about real-life heroes — including Iraq vet Chris Kyle and pilot Sully Sullenberger.

Now, Eastwood is working on his next project, about three friends who stopped a terrorist attack two years ago on a train in France. One of them, a U.S. Air Force enlisted man named Spencer Stone, did something very few people have done and lived to tell about: Without a weapon or anything to defend himself, he charged a fanatical and heavily armed enemy, knocking him to the ground. And then he and his friends, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, disarmed the man and rendered him unconscious, saving dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent lives in the process.

“It was a very important event, because there were so many people on the train, and the guy had hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and he could have done a tremendous amount of damage,” Eastwood said. “And there’s no reason to think he wasn’t going to.”

At his office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Eastwood is busy these days refining the shooting schedule, while his casting directors are choosing the actors, costumers are picking the outfits, and set designers are planning the shots — all routine tasks for a major Hollywood picture. But the film, “The 15:17 to Paris,” which Eastwood says will probably be released later this year, has a story that promises to be unprecedented in its heart-stopping impact, yet which carries a timeless message of people putting their lives on the line to protect others.

“My buddies and I were on a trip around Europe,” Stone told The Pine Cone this week from a family cabin at Lake Tahoe. He’d known the men — Sadler, a student at Sacramento State, and Skarlatos, a member of the Oregon National Guard — since their childhood in a Sacramento suburb. “Anthony and I started the trip in Rome, and then we went to Venice, Munich and Berlin. And then Alek, who was coming off a tour of duty in Afghanistan, joined us in Amsterdam.”

Their next destination was to be Paris, and on August 21, 2015, they boarded a high-speed train set to leave Amsterdam at 3:17 p.m. (15:17 on the 24-hour clock used in Europe) for the French capital. “As we boarded,” Stone said, “we noticed there didn’t seem to be any security — no metal detectors, no bag check. Nothing.”

But they didn’t think much about it, and the men — off duty and in civilian clothes — soon settled into their first class seats, had a meal and a little wine, checked the internet, and promptly went to sleep.

“We were always on the go, and for us, trains rides were a chance to take a nap,” Stone said.

A brief stop at the Gare Midi in Brussels woke them up — but for only a moment, Stone said. They had no idea a 25-year-old Moroccan man, Ayub El Ghazzani, had boarded in Brussels carrying a deadly backpack.

A man running and glass shattering

As the train hurtled through the European countryside, the three friends dozed, and the next thing Stone remembers was being awakened when a train crew member sprinted past him toward the front of the train. Taking off his noise-reducing headphones, Stone says he heard glass shatter behind him, and people gasping and screaming. Turning around to look in the direction of the noise, he saw El Ghazzani, shirtless and with a backpack attached to his chest, bend down at the end of the car and pick up an assault rifle.

“It was an AK-47, and he was trying to load a round, and I immediately knew he was a terrorist,” Stone said.

And this was no movie. Suddenly confronted with what was sure to be a life-or-death situation, the Air Force man hesitated for just a moment.

“I had a million thoughts in my head, but it felt like I weighed all the options very quickly,” said Stone, who was 23 at the time and whose military duty wasn’t combat specialist, but medical technician. There he and his friends were, trapped in a moving metal and glass tube, isolated from any law enforcement, and surrounded by hundreds of defenseless people. As the terrorist worked to get his gun ready to fire, Stone said he decided he needed to make a move “right now.” Otherwise, “it was stay put and wait to get shot.”

Turning to face the rear of the train, Stone crouched in his seat into what he called a “ready position,” and prepared to run down the aisle. Hearing his friend Alek, who was in the window seat next to him, say, “Go, Spencer,” and with most of the other passengers cowering or trying to conceal themselves, he took off for the terrorist, who was at least 30 feet away.

“When I initially got up, I figured he had the gun working by now, and I thought, ‘I’m going to die,’” Stone said. As he charged along the aisle — head down, ready to make a tackle like he learned in high school — he briefly made eye contact with the terrorist, saw him point his assault rifle directly at him, and heard him pull the trigger. But, miraculously, there was no shot.

“And then I hit him and knocked him down,” Stone said. “In the middle of the tackle, he struck me in the face with the AK, and that pretty much blinded me.” 

The men grappled but somehow got back on their feet. As the desperate struggle continued, the terrorist tried to shoot Stone in the head with a pistol he pulled from his clothing, but the magazine had fallen out of the gun, and the pistol also failed to fire.

Responding quickly and using the Jujitsu he learned in the Air Force, Stone, who was 6 foot 2 and weighed about 215 pounds, then took El Ghazzani back down and tried to put him in a choke hold. But El Ghazzani started slashing wildly at Stone with a knife, nearly severing his thumb — an injury Stone didn’t even notice until later.

Meanwhile, Skarlatos and Sadler had joined the fight, seizing the AK-47, wrestling the pistol away from the struggling El Ghazzani, and beating him into submission.

“It was hard to hold him down,” Stone said. “Finally, I was able to choke him into unconsciousness.”

Another passenger, British IT consultant Chris Norman, collected neckties from the train’s crew and used them to hog-tie El Ghazzani. At that point, the attack was over, but the emergency wasn’t. Another passenger, Frenchman Mark Moogalian, had been shot in the neck by the terrorist before Stone and his friends ever saw him. Bleeding from his carotid artery, Moogalian had collapsed and needed immediate assistance, and despite his own severe injuries, Stone again sprang into action.

“When I got to him, I tried direct pressure, but that didn’t do anything, and I was thinking, ‘This guy’s going to die,’” Stone recalled. Reaching his fingers into the man’s neck wound, he felt his artery pulsing, and pushed. “I was surprised because the bleeding completely stopped,” Stone said.

As the emergency progressed, one passenger had pulled the emergency handle, and the train slowed to a crawl, but the three American heroes yelled for the conductor to get it moving again so they could reach a town where there would be a hospital. Finally, 30 minutes later, and with Stone still pressing on the desperately wounded man’s artery, they reached the French city of Arras, where EMTs and police officers boarded and took over.

“They got me on a table, and started an IV, and that’s when I started laughing to myself a little bit,” Stone said. “I was thinking, ‘We just stopped a friggin terrorist attack.’” As El Ghazzani was taken into custody, it turned out he not only had the AK-47, the pistol and the knife, but was carrying almost 300 rounds of ammunition, a hammer and lighter fluid. The lives of almost 500 passengers had been in imminent peril, but thanks mostly to the bravery and fortitude of the three Americans, they were safe.

Innumerable accolades — including from French President Francois Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama — followed, along with a book deal, speaking engagements, talk shows and all sorts of offers. And that’s when Clint Eastwood entered the picture.

 “I met the kids at an awards event last summer,” Eastwood said, referring to the 2016 Spike TV “Guys Choice Awards” — a made-for-TV comedy event that features Hollywood stars who gather to “toast the mega-splendor of all things guy,” according to the cable channel. During the taping of the event last August, Eastwood was on hand to introduce Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler before they received the Hero Award.

“The audience was mostly military, and I just introduced them as guys who represented the American spirit, who were going to go down fighting,” Eastwood said.

“I was flattered when I met him, because when we were on the stage, Mr. Eastwood told me, ‘I don’t usually do this type of stuff, but when I heard who I’d be introducing, I decided to show up,’” Stone recalled.

Backstage, the heroes had a chance to chat with Eastwood, whom they all admired. And they told him they’d be honored if he’d consider directing their movie.

“It was just a brief conversation, but he said, ‘Send me your book,’” Stone said. In December of last year, after they sent the book to Eastwood’s Burbank office, his assistant called them to say he was interested.

“I read it, and I thought, ‘This is something different,’” Eastwood said. “It was an episode people don’t associate with young people today — doing something heroic.”

There was another angle the Hollywood legend thought would also make it a good story for the silver screen.

“When they were kids, they were not at the top of their class,” Eastwood said. “When they were in school, they had gotten into trouble and had to move around.”

Stone confirmed his semi-troubled past.

“It feels like it was what every kid did. We would doorbell ditch people, and TP random houses, and things like that,” he said. “Definitely, I wasn’t focused in school, and I needed extra help.”

“They were just regular guys, but they did very well at the right moment,” Eastwood said. “I loved the book, and I got Warner Bros. to buy the rights.”

Production begins

In January, after negotiations over the book were completed, a writer was brought in to develop the screenplay, and the production process got into full swing.

“They flew us down to Burbank, and we had a chance to chill with Clint in his office, and look at his Oscars, and meet the casting director so he could figure out our mannerisms, and they asked us what kind of clothes we wore that day, and they wanted pictures of us when we were kids, and things like that,” Stone said.

The budget for the film will be $30 million to $40 million, according to Eastwood, with photography getting underway in August — two years after the unforgettable events that happened to three normal guys on a perfectly normal European vacation.

El Ghazzani, who maintained he found his weapons in a Brussels park and only intended to rob people, remains in a French prison, awaiting trial. And with Islamic terrorism increasing around the world to the point where it seems like it’s happening every day, how do the heroes feel about the iconic Clint Eastwood being the person to bring such an immediate and frightening story to life for a worldwide viewing audience?

“We just know 100 percent that he’s going to do it right,” Stone said. “He’s not going to sugarcoat it.”

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