Under the Radar

Novelist & UK Special Forces Vet Duncan Falconer Brings 'Stratton' to the Screen

Duncan Falconer is the pen name of a former British special forces operative who served in the Special Boat Service (SBS). He's made a living over the last few decades in the kind of high-end private security contracting business that remains a mystery to everyone except the few who both need and can afford the service.

Amazingly, he's also had a successful career as a writer. He began with "First Into Action," a 1998 memoir about his service and then a series of spy thriller novels that feature John Stratton, a spec ops wizard who shares skills and personality traits with his creator. Bonus: Duncan doesn't work with a ghost writer.

"Stratton," playing now in a very limited theatrical run but available everywhere to buy or rent on demand, should've been the first in a series of movies based on the Stratton novels. Directed by old hand Simon West ("Con Air," "The Expendables 2" and the underrated "Wild Card"), the film was set to star Henry Cavill but he dropped out right before filming started.

Dominic Cooper (currently starring in "Preacher" on AMC) stepped in at the last moment to take over the role. He's joined by Austin Stowell ("Bridge of Spies") as a Navy SEAL working with SBS agent John Stratton. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy himself) turns up as an agent with questionable motives and the usually excellent Connie Nielsen gets her ass kicked by her attempted upper class British accent as she plays the officer who's overseeing the operation.

The movie gave us a chance to talk with Falconer about his own military career, how he became a writer and what he's got planned next for Stratton after this film.

Tell us about your own military career and what the SBS does for Britain.

I work a lot with the Navy SEALs and they knew what we meant by special forces.  But it really wasn’t until I spent a lot of time in the States working with (inaudible * 0:01:20.1) that I realized that they have a different concept of special forces, they have different levels.

In the UK, when we talk about special forces we’re only talking about the SBS and the SAS and SRR and special forces pilots, et cetera.  So we’re talking about the very top elite.  

Although, technically, they're all marines and paratroopers are special forces.  In the U.S. military, they also designate a lot of units as special forces. For instance, you might speak to some US soldiers and they say, “What do you do?” and you reply, “I’m Special Forces.”  To them, that can mean you're one of about fifteen or twenty thousand people.  

Whereas in the UK, for instance, and in Europe, generally, the French and the Germans and whatever, if you talk about special forces you're actually talking about the equivalent of a Navy SEAL.  You know that small, elite group. 

Duncan Falconer back in his SBS days.
Duncan Falconer back in his SBS days.

There are some people who say that Navy SEALs were inspired by the SBS.

Modern special forces (inaudible * 0:02:50.3) begun the modern concept of it.  If you go back throughout history, you’ll find that there was a great American Special Forces Unit in the Wars of Independence.

But the modern concept starts with the second World War with the long-range desert patrols, which then became the SAS and the SBS. So I suppose the credit for the modern concept does lie with the Brits.  

I do remember being in Fort Bragg and having certain American Special Forces guys refer to the SAS, for instance, as the mother unit.  I don’t think that’s a modern dialogue, but in those days it was, so they would sort of doff their hat to the SAS as the mother unit.  

The SBS was the maritime version going back to the second World War. Britain had a  maritime and then the land version of Special Forces..  So the SEALs adopted the maritime version for US Special Forces.  

The SEALs, as an Underwater Demolition Team, were pretty amazing in places like Vietnam.  After Vietnam, they kind of lost their way a bit because the political appetite for war died down in the US.  As far as the SBS were concerned, they kind of died down a bit.  

The SBS died down a bit in the decades after the second World War but then the North Sea opened up with oil platforms and the threat of terrorism. The PLO reared their head for the first time, and so the SBS reinvented itself in developing maritime counter-terrorism.  And the Navy SEALs started taking an interest in that.  There wasn’t really the same threat against the US, so it wasn’t a huge interest then, but we began to get together.   

When I joined the SBS, we had a Navy SEAL attached to us in Pool and Dorset and there was an SBS guy attached to the Navy SEALs in Norfolk.  And it was the beginning of a very beautiful relationship.  I really loved my time working with the SEALs.  It’s a great organization. 

One of the notable things about the movie is the partnership between the SBS and the SEALs.

The movie was based on my first novel.  In the novel, the preface was set in Northern Ireland against the Irish Republican Army.  Now we, as the SBS, we were working with the Navy SEALs in those days, but a Navy SEAL could never get involved in the IRA Wars conflict.

However, there was a buddy of mine in the SEALs who just really wanted to get involved.  That was never going to happen, but my first novel was based on the what-if factor. If he’d gotten involved, what would have happened?  That was the plot of my book called “The Hostage.”  

Come forward a few years to do the movie.  We couldn’t set it in North Ireland because we wanted to set it in more modern times.  The last ten or fifteen years the SEALs and the American Special Forces and British Special Forces have been working hand in hand. A lot of ops went down in Afghanistan and Iraq and you'd find two Yanks or two Brits together going off and doing the job.  It was very common.

Tyler Hoechlin and Dominic Cooper in "Stratton"

Some friends in the UK have compared the success of your Stratton novels over there to the success of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp novels here in the States. hey hold a similar place in sort of espionage fiction.  What's it been like for you as a guy who worked at the job you're writing about now?  I can't think of anybody else who’s actually become a novelist from where you started.   Fom what I know, all the veterans that my competitors, if you want to say it that way, in writing about Special Forces, they actually all have ghostwriters.  I do believe I'm one of the few who actually writes his own.  I'm sure there are others out there.  

I don’t know how that happened.  I think it was my trip to Hollywood which kicked it off. When I arrived in Hollywood, I was on my way to South America to get involved in kidnap and ransom in the 80’s.  And at that time, you’d make a good living if you could whack these kidnappers and come back with the ransom money.  And it was a place where only Special Forces go.  But the Brits actually, again, sort of really started that off before the Americans. We kind of owned the marketplace on there.  

I was passing through Hollywood and I got stuck there for a few months, so I wrote a screenplay.  I don’t know what the hell I was doing writing a screenplay.  I understand it is mandatory in Los Angeles to actually write a screenplay while you're there.  But anyway, I wrote this thing and Warner Bros bought it.  They never made it, but I thought, wow, I'm enjoying this, so I started writing my exploits.  

Dominic Cooper and Tyler Hoechlin in "Stratton"

Is there another Stratton book coming soon?

Yeah, I had a break for a while, but now I'm working on a trilogy.  I still work in conflict zones a lot and I've been nurturing this idea.  It’s quite a big concept, it’s a Russian ISIS-type story and I really like that it’s so big that it’s gonna take about three novels to cover it.  And it’s got some interest in the Netflix-type TV world.  So yeah, I'm actually penning the outline for that now, writing the first few chapters.  And next thing to do is to see if I can get a publisher.  

I'm looking forward to seeing Jack Ryan return in a series as opposed to trying to fit those stories into a movie.  Your work might benefit in a similar way.

Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. I always used to think in terms of movies and then, in the last year, I sat down and watched some of these shows. And I'd love to see Jack Ryan in a thirteen-episode show rather than just in a movie.  

The thing about writers like Clancy – and I like to think not that I'm anywhere in his department — but there's so much more detail that you want to put into a story that you can't fit in a movie.  You just don’t have the time to put that finer detail, that little character development stuff, what goes on, how these operations actually take place.  But if you have a TV show with ten, thirteen episodes, you can really get into detail.  You can really take people into the land of special forces. I've never seen a show that seemed (inaudible * 0:11:21.4) to do that and I'd love to be able to do that, yeah.  

But first, you’ve got this movie for people to see.

I think it’s a first crack. We had a lot of challenges for various reasons.  What movie doesn’t, from what I know?  But I think we’ve got this one out of the way, but I'd think we’d all love to roll up our sleeves and get into something else now along the same lines and this time really get into it, you know.

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