In a world where every cell phone has camera capabilities, the realities of the world are brought into our homes with relative ease. And for the first time ever this means the realities of war are brought along too. Soldiers, armed not only with guns but very often small, one-chip cameras are documenting their war-torn lives.
Everyone’s a moviemaker. But while these affecting stories are making their way beyond army barracks and war zones via email and other Internet tools, rarely do they reach the masses. Sometimes it takes a skilled hand and a known face, because no matter what critics say about celebrities lending themselves to various causes, it is oftentimes the only way in which the public will discover the truth. Movies aren’t always weekend entertainment; sometimes they serve a social purpose too. That’s where Kimberly Peirce comes in.
The 40-year-old auteur has completed just two feature films since graduating from Columbia University in 1996, but both have challenged and motivated audiences to join and fight for change. Her first film, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, took on the story of transgendered adolescent Brandon Teena, who was raped and killed by peers confused with her sexual preference. The movie landed two Spirit Award nominations for Peirce and an Oscar statue for lead Hilary Swank. Earlier this year Paramount Pictures and MTV Films released the writer-director’s second movie, STOP-LOSS. This time around, she—along with the film’s stars, Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Abbie Cornish—has put a mirror to the government, asking that they see soldiers as more than numbers, but as human beings—with families—deeply and forever affected by their experiences at war.
“In the film, these young men feel a sense of duty and obligation, so they sign up to serve their country,” Peirce explains of the movie’s premise. “But their black and white sense of patriotism and duty is turned upside down when they are faced with impossible circumstances. They end up committing a series of acts that force them, in the deepest sense, to question who they are, what they are and what they believe in.”
When we live in a culture of 24/7 news coverage it’s difficult to imagine there is anything citizens aren’t aware of. But America’s stop-loss policy—first instituted at the end of the draft—and the soldiers and families it affects, managed to slip under the radar of national news coverage, making it a surprise to most people that came to know and face it. Yet, since the release of Peirce’s STOP-LOSS, both major presidential nominees have addressed the topic on the campaign trail, the Canadian Parliament has approved residency for stop-loss soldiers seeking asylum and a stop-loss compensation act is being discussed that would provide money to soldiers called for multiple tours of duty.
Leading up to the movie’s DVD release on July 8, Peirce spent some time speaking with MM about the issues surrounding it and how the efforts made by a moviemaker brought this issue to light in ways no one has ever experienced before.
Mallory Potosky (MM): When the movie first came out in theaters, you did a lot of promotion by going across the country and speaking with veterans, soldiers and their families. Did you find that affected how you saw the movie that you had made? Did you find anything you would have done differently, maybe anything you should have added or left out? Did they present anything different than a regular audience might have?
Kimberly Peirce (KP): Well, they certainly presented something different than a regular audience, in that for them it was personal. They weren’t used to seeing their own reflection in movies. We certainly make war movies and movies about soldiers but we don’t often go as deeply inside the soldier’s point of view, I don’t think (at least from what they said). When they saw the movie, we had a number of soldiers literally stand up and say, “I don’t understand how you were able to get it so accurate. I was over there and this is very much what it’s like.” And I think that was because I interviewed so many soldiers to make it. There was a real appreciation of there being a document of their emotional experience—so that was really moving—and also, the families often say their stories aren’t really being told. I think what the movie really tries to do is mix mass entertainment with my sort of documentary style.
There was something interesting in San Diego. The Wounded Warriors were there—it was a group that unfortunately had lost limbs or been hurt due to warfare—and they were guys who when you asked them, “How do you feel about the war and your experience?” they were like, “Well if I had my limbs, I would go back.” And they said, “Thank you for making it so accurate.” So it was really interesting to see people who were both pro- and anti-war being supportive of the movie; being able to say, “It doesn’t take a side. It really shows it from our point of view.”
MM: Well, that brings me to my next two questions. First is that soldiers said it was emotionally accurate, not just visually accurate. So did you find that anyone really responded to one character or another?
KP: Well, there’s a guy named Colby Buzzell who has a fascinating story. He wrote a book called My War. It was an award-winning book and he had one of the most trafficked Online sites while he was fighting. He had a blog and he got out for three years and he just got stop-lossed recently. He actually got out for three years and now he’s being sent back. We started communicating because he has a very public profile as a soldier. It was very moving to me that he said, “I couldn’t believe, when I was watching your movie, it felt exactly like what happened when I got stop-lossed, which is that I could not believe this was happening to me after I already fought.” So, having soldiers say stuff like that has been the most common reaction. Soldiers who have been stop-lossed say that’s exactly what it felt like.
MM: Second question: How many years did it take you to do all the research for this and why did you choose this angle of the war to cover?
KP: It took me a number of years. In some ways, I started thinking of the movie right after 9/11. I was living in New York and I saw the towers fall and that was devastating because you could see them right outside my balcony and I went with my friends to these vigils for the victims. Then America declared war and I knew I was going to make a movie about the soldiers like, immediately, and started thinking about it. Then my little brother signed up so that made it very, very personal. My family was dealing with it. I would say I radically started entering the research in 2003. Up until then I had been interviewing soldiers, but really started traveling around the country in 2003 and then it moved very quickly—2003 into ‘04 was all this massive research and then in 2005 I hooked up with Mark Richard and we started writing the screenplay. We wrote that pretty quickly and sold it as a greenlit movie off of a spec script because I had put together this script and all these images I had gathered, and videotapes of soldiers—and all this real stuff—onto a five-minute DVD, gave that to studios and financiers and literally, in over a weekend, they decided to greenlight it. We had a bunch of offers. So that happened pretty quickly. By the end of 2005, we were a greenlit movie.
What I think most people don’t realize is that it takes a while—particularly if you’re going to truly cast a movie. Some movies you say, “Okay this movie star, that movie star.” We really wanted it to feel like real soldiers. We had been interviewing real soldiers so we had to go into it character by character and handpick everybody and that takes longer than other casting processes.
MM: With your brother signed up in the armed services, was making this movie a cathartic experience for you? Is making or writing a movie ever a cathartic experience? A form of therapy?
KP: Most definitely. Look at the topics that I choose—and that also choose me—particularly Boys Don’t Cry. That was about a character that I loved, Brandon Teena, and it broke my heart that this person was killed. I simply could not comprehend the level of violence and hatred against Brandon. So in order to comprehend it, I brought Brandon to life as a character and then went and met all the people in his life and studied the violence. It was very traumatic for me to face that level of brutality but in facing it, I began to understand where it can come from, so certainly by doing that I understood it and helped other people understand it. Same thing with this. When my baby brother signed up to fight, it was devastating to think, ‘Oh my god. I brought this person home from the hospital as a baby and now they’re training him to kill. How will that change him? How will that change our family? What will he do? What will he carry on his conscience? What will all the boys that are in our culture do over there and what are they going to bring home—because I think they’re forever changed and we’re forever changed?’ I feel this obligation to study these human dilemmas and to study these people and bring them to life in a way so that we can all learn and become engaged because of it and be entertained by it. Hugely cathartic. Hugely engaging. I emerge from it having gotten to know people and their stories and that’s what most interests me.
MM: But I also notice there’s a level of social responsibility in both of those.
KP: Well, yeah. They’re about my family and they’re about my country.
MM: When you’re making a film like STOP-LOSS and you have this group of pretty big name actors going into it and the topic is so controversial—especially this year, or since the war began—how do you approach writing it? How do you direct it for that matter and decide what to include and what to show audiences? What to leave out?
KP: In terms of?
MM: Well, I found it interesting that you don’t show Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) killing himself.
KP: Okay, that was a really big debate. What I wanted to do was tell a story about this generation of boys and I wanted to make sure that it was basically emblematic. I was reading so many moving stories, most of them coming from places like Texas. That’s where the tradition of the military is very strong—the community is involved—so I knew the boys would be from Texas. They would sign up for all the right reasons, for defending the country and their families, but they were going to get over there and have this profound understanding that the people they went looking for were not there—the enemy, which we all know is true—but they find themselves in a war situation so they’re going to fall back on protecting one another. Well, in urban combat that’s going to be really challenging because you don’t know if the person at the checkpoint is going to shoot your or not; you don’t know if the person in the house is going to be dangerous or not. I keep following the character so I think, ‘Okay, these good American boys signed up for the right reasons and they’re trying to defend one another and they can’t. They’re finding it very difficult or they’re killing innocent people. That weighs on them, so they come home and try to put it behind them and move on with their lives and then he’s going to get stop-lossed.’ So, every step of the way, I just follow the human character.
Now, in terms of Tommy’s suicide, why would we show that? Well, in fact there was a big debate about showing it and we kept writing the scene where he would be doing it. We got very close in a re-shoot of shooting it and there were very strong arguments towards doing it but every time we tried writing it, we just… You move away from it because if it was the main character, you probably would’ve shown it but it’s not the main character and you’re being pulled back to it. It really ran the risk of being gratuitous and that you’d be at the wrong place at the wrong time because you have to break point-of-view. So, that’s one of the things we were debating until the very last moment and I think we made the right choice. But what you do is think about the story and it’s a point-of-view story so it’s Sgt. Brandon King’s (Ryan Phillippe) story. You have to be careful if you cut away from him for anything very significant. Particularly like that, you probably would’ve been stuck there as a viewer.
MM: When watching the movie, I found it interesting how you combined things like the hand-held camera throughout and when they were in Iraq, there was a lot of fast cutting, a very frenetic pace and pulsating music. Why did you choose to distinguish these different sections of the film?
KP: Well, I was very lucky in that having my brother at war, the soldiers would bring back these home-made videos that they were shooting either in their barracks or out on missions. They’d wire the camera to the Humvee or turn it on the sandbag and film their own experience while it was happening. Then they would take it back to the barracks and edit it on their computers, and put it to Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” or rock music like “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.” When I got a hold of them, it was very clear to me that we never saw a soldier in a war experience like this. We’d never been that close to it. I knew to get inside the soldier’s point of view we needed to have these home-made videos of the soldiers that really mark this era of our understanding of soldiers in war. They were so engaging and intriguing, they were like these anthropological finds. So, the minute I saw them, I knew the movie really needed to have them in there.
MM: Do you think that having these young actors, and MTV involved, brought about a different audience for the film? It seems like there was a strategic move to aim the film for a particular demographic.
KP: Well, there was and I’m not sure if it was necessarily the best choice. I think that MTV’s involvement was fantastic and I think bringing in the other audience is excellent. It’s their story and inspired by them, and when I screened it around the country they loved it so that’s been great. I think it’s kind of catalyzed them. I think what’ll be good on the DVD and future stuff about the movie is if we really emphasize the adult audience—the reviews, the fact that it’s a satisfying drama. Both audiences are very important.
MM: Because it is partly a family drama.
KP: I think it certainly appeals to youth and it should but I think people should know it’s a satisfying story, not just a kid’s movie. I think in some ways… I certainly think the trailers showed that but I don’t think it was fully communicated. I think there’s a bigger audience for the movie than those who saw it theatrically. I think DVD’s a good way to go.
To learn more about America’s stop-loss policy and voice your opinion, visit www.stoplossmovie.com/soundoff.