March 11, 2008 – Fiercely passionate, Stop-Loss director Kimberly Peirce may be petite in size but she’s absolutely a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Peirce’s first major film was the critically acclaimed drama Boys Don’t Cry, based on the true story of transgender teen Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank earned her first Oscar for playing Brandon). Now after an eight-year gap in feature film directing, Peirce turns her attention to an equally emotional and hard-hitting story. Stop-Loss exposes a policy employed by the United States government to keep men and women whose tours of duty are over from leaving the military service. Starring two of Hollywood’s hottest young actors – Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum – Stop-Loss focuses on how being forced into another deployment in Iraq affects Sgt Brandon King (played by Phillippe).
REBECCA MURRAY: Did you have any interest in telling a military-based story prior to your brother joining the military?
KIMBERLY PEIRCE: Oh yeah, always. My grandfather was in WWII, I’m very interested in violence, I’m very interested in masculinity, and I’m very interested in shaping a male identity. I mean those are all issues that I dealt with anyway, so the idea of a war movie or a soldier’s story was always compelling. Some of my favorite movies are Best Years of Our Lives, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, Deer Hunter, Patton, All Quiet on the Western Front. I could just go on and on. They’re inherently dramatic, you know what I mean? It’s a life and death situation. It’s passion; it’s like families being separated. I love telling stories about the American family. So, it was in my future to write a story about war and soldiers. It came much sooner than I thought because of 9/11 and the conflicts that we got into.
MURRAY: And that’s why your brother joined the military?
MURRAY: Because of 9/11. Was he satisfied with his military experience?
PEIRCE: That’s really interesting. First of all, because the movie is inspired by all these soldiers, I’ll just say I was in New York for 9/11, the towers went down, and I’m a long-time New Yorker and I was like everybody – I was devastated, like everybody. My friends and I went to the vigils for the victims of the attacks. So, New York was in a state of mourning and then America was gone to war, so that was very tragic and intense. And I knew that we were in a midst of a seismic change. So, at that point I started thinking, ‘Wow, who is this generation of boys who are signing up? What’s their experience and what’s it going to be like for them to come home?’ I wanted to know how is this like or not like World War II or Vietnam? What’s the difference of this kind of modern war, this modern experience? That’s when my brother signed up.
I asked him, ‘Are you signing up because of 9/11?’ He had an interesting response. Now the boys in my movie, they sign up because of 9/11. They wanted to protect their family, their country, their home. My brother didn’t necessarily buy into all of that. He understood it, but I think it was also the right of passage of being a man which is, ‘This is my opportunity to be in combat.’ He had gone to Valley Forge, I believe, I don’t want to get this wrong, but I know he went to military academy and excelled at it. He’s a strong, athletic kid and he goes well with the authority. I think some boys, they do very well with that. So, when I was like, ‘Are you going because you’re a great patriot and you want to get the terrorists?’ He’s like, ‘Not particularly.’ He was like, ‘I want to fight. I want to be a professional soldier. I want to do that.’ That was very interesting to me. And that was definitely one point of view that I found among young men. Then there was more like the boys that we wrote about who were diehard, ‘This was what you do if you’ve grown up in military families.’ They were part of the military culture and this is what you do.
MURRAY: Which did you find more of?
PEIRCE: I found more of what we wrote about. Because I feel like my brother is from an urban setting – he’s from New York – I think he has a different viewpoint than say the kids in the middle of the country, because he wasn’t raised with it. But he went there and those were the people that he connected to.
This is the most important thing that I learned, which is whether you sign up because you want the experience, whether you sign up to fight for your family, your home and your country, almost every soldier I interviewed said when you get over there it’s not about any of that. It’s about the guy to your left and the guy to your right. It’s all about the camaraderie. It’s literally, you go to combat with other people, particularly other men, that those are the most intense relationships of your entire life. So that was the big realization to me. The movie was about camaraderie.
MURRAY: How easy was it for you to get these guys to open up about their experiences, particularly the ones who have now gone AWOL?
PEIRCE: Well, it was very easy getting people to open up, I think, and I think this is true of human nature. I think if you come to people without an agenda and you come with a true curiosity, I think so many people want to be heard and are not heard. I think people are not heard in their families and I think people are not heard in their job. I think people are not heard in their culture, so I think if you come curious and openhearted, they talk.
MURRAY: But you come from Hollywood…
PEIRCE: I’m Hollywood?
MURRAY: You’re a director and you’re doing this for a film. Or were you doing it as a documentary at that point? Had you already decided it would be a feature film when you were conducting the interviews?
PEIRCE: Both. There were times when I was doing it for the documentary and I was filming them saying, ‘We’re collecting these stories and we’re not sure if it’s going to be a documentary or a feature film.’ Once it was a feature film, it was moving at a very fast rate. Then I was generally calling saying, ‘This is our story. This is what we are doing. We need you to tell us more about this particular situation.’ Like, ‘We’re writing a story about this and we need to know exactly what happens when a soldier comes back from battle and he’s checking in his gear. What is he feeling? What are the obstacles? What are his desires? We need to know.’
I mean, we filmed the homecoming of a thousand soldiers from Paris, Illinois, the 1544th. They were the National Guard that had the highest rate of casualty, the highest combat hours. They weren’t supposed to have that much, but because they’re transportation – they were transportation to and from Abu Ghraib for the generals – so they’re being shot at. They were getting in combat, so that was an incredibly moving story. We went to the homecoming. We filmed it and as we were talking to people, we told them we’re either going to make a documentary [or] we’re going to make a feature. But the questions were the same. ‘Tell us about your family history. Who’s been in the military?’ They had all these people in different generations in the military. We were like, ‘How long has your soldier been gone? What was it like for you? How did you spend your days?’
The women told us how difficult it was. They said, ‘Well, we had to put our needs on hold because we’re told by the FRG…’ Family Readiness Group, who help support them, all the wives band together and they try to help each other through it and help each other know what they should send their soldier. ‘We were told to put our needs on hold so that the soldier’s not distracted while he’s fighting.’ So that’s a lot of where the portraits of Michelle [played by Abbie Cornish] and the mother came from. I think that the whole issue of the women’s side of this is fascinating.
MURRAY: How were you able to narrow down the film’s focus to the subject of stop-loss?
PEIRCE: That’s a great question. So as I’m learning all about this, I’m like, ‘Okay, this has to be a movie about camaraderie,’ because that to me is what the universal experience of going to combat for men, particularly for men, also for women, but mostly for these men is that they feel the sense of camaraderie. The second thing is it has to be about a leader. It has to be a guy who signs up for all the right reasons. He wants to lead his men successfully through battle.
What happens, and this is what soldiers told me over and over – ‘Oh, you think you know what war is? You don’t know what war is until you get into it.’ And there’s fear and there’s bravery and there’s pride and there’s hardship in their eyes when they say that. So, I needed to have a soldier who thought he had an understanding of war and being a leader that gets deeply, deeply tested. He gets tested when innocent people are killed and when his men are crippled and killed, because that’s on his clock. That’s what soldiers said to me all the time: ‘That is on your watch. That is on your watch.’
MURRAY: And they never get over that.
PEIRCE: They never get over it. We had a screening here in San Diego that was so moving. We had the Wounded Warriors come and I want to give a shout out to them – the hurt soldiers at this screening. One guy said, ‘I lost a man and I had another man wounded.’ He got wounded and he said, ‘You know,’ and he said this publicly, he’s like, ‘I will never get over that.’ He said, ‘I carry that with me.’ I said, ‘Why do you carry it since you got wounded?’ He said, ‘Well, because the guy who discharged his gun that wounded him and killed this other person,’ he said, ‘I should have been more in control of that guy.’ And isn’t that interesting? So, he’s not angry at that guy, he feels bad that he let that guy hurt somebody. Can you imagine the guy who discharged the gun? Over and over it was like, to me, the heart and soul of this was the responsibility of being a leader which is a reasonability of being a parent, responsibility of anybody in a responsible position. That’s amazing to me.
And then this guy [referring to Sgt Brandon King played by Ryan Phillippe] will come home and he will be trying to take care of the men. He took care of them in battle [and] he’s trying to take care of them now, or take care of Tommy [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] trying to take care of Steve [Channing Tatum]. He tries to take care of them but they’re all kind of spinning out of control, but he’s keeping them together, right? What happens if he gets taken away? So, stop-loss is the complication. By getting stop-lossed not only does he have to go back to battle, which he doesn’t want to do because it didn’t work out the way he wanted, right, but he’s not even around now for the men. They’re calling him and they need him. So, for me Stop-Loss, the movie’s not about stop-loss, the movie’s about the men, the camaraderie, the leadership and what you do in a time like this.
Stop-loss intensifies everything. That’s why stop-loss is so interesting to me. I was so fascinated that, over and over, I was interviewing patriotic soldiers, they were the ones having problems with the way stop-loss is being used now. They were the ones saying, ‘I love my country. I will fight for my country till I die, but this is a misuse of me and of the resources of the men. This is wearing down the military machine.’
MURRAY: What was your approach to writing this?
PEIRCE: I wrote it with my writing partner. He quit his job – he’s got three kids. He had a very well-paying job as an Emmy Award-winning TV writer. He’s a novelist and he was like, ‘This needs to be made.’ I love this guy, Mark Richard, but he’s Texan and he’s religious. He’s a church-going guy. He’s got three kids, he’s got a wife, he’s conservative, he’s just like the best, you know what I mean? He calls me up and says, ‘Are you really serious?’ because we’ve been trying to write on weekends. I’m like, ‘Of course I’m serious.’ He said, ‘I’m thinking of quitting my job.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t quit your job. I can live under the radar, but you’ve got three kids. That’s crazy. I can’t guarantee that we can sell it and make it.’ He calls me the next day, he’s like, ‘I quit my job. We need to write quickly.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He moves in, his wife was a dream, let me live with him, and we wrote the script.
So, two things: number one, we had a written script and we wrote it about this generation. It was going to be a young story that moved. It was going to be a young man’s journey – that already set it apart. It was going to be totally from the soldier’s point of view. We were going to use rock ‘n roll. We were going to use them shooting up presents. We were going to use them drinking in Texas, because Mark is from Texas. We were going to capture a kind of energy that we hadn’t seen before.
The other thing was because I had gone all around the country videotaping with my research partner, Reid, who’s great, we’d gone to the middle of America, we had all of these stories and we cut them together. We took all those soldiers’ videos that I talk about. My brother brought back soldiers’ videos – videos that soldiers shot and edited to rock music – and I was like, ‘This is an anthropological find. We are inside the point of view of the soldier. This is how the movie needs to feel. It needs to be born out of this energy and out of this honesty.’ In some ways, it’s going to be like World War II and Vietnam because it’s a war, but at the same time, it’s going to be nothing like it. We’re seeing it firsthand.
We took those videos and we cut them up. We made a DVD and we had a finished screenplay, and one weekend on a Friday we sent it to the studios, we sent it to the financiers, we sent it to the producers and we said, ‘You have the weekend. That’s it. You call and you tell us who wants it. If you buy it, you make it. And if you buy it and you don’t make it, you pay $5 million. I don’t want the $5 million; I want you to make the movie.’ That’s because, look, the studios by necessity are bureaucracies and they’re businesses.
And, of course, they’re going to buy a lot of scripts, and of course they’re then going to debate whether they really want to make the movie. The studio is the most invested when you greenlight the movie, when you’re in production. That’s where they always say, ‘Get them to spend money.’ A screenplay – I don’t want to get into numbers, it costs something – the movie costs thirty times that, right? When they’re greenlighting the movie, spending the money, is when they’re on the hook. So, we said, ‘You buy it, you make it. We’re selling it as a greenlit movie.’ Four studios wanted to buy it as a greenlit movie, four financiers wanted to buy it as a greenlit movie, a number of producers, and that was how we moved forward.
MURRAY: What did you base your decision on?
PEIRCE: It was very complicated. They all came in at a similar budget. I have long term relationships with studio heads and I had just got Scott Rudin as a producer, who is very smart and has a number of relationships. You just say, ‘Look, this is the kind of movie I want to make,’ and you basically go with the person who it feels like you want to make the same movie. You don’t want to end up in the marriage and be like, ‘We want different lives.’ Basically, you want to marry somebody who essentially has the same values that you have. So, when people say it was amazing you got a studio to make it, the wonderful thing is by the time they came to the table, they knew what they were making. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, it’s a giraffe. Can we make it a deer?’ It’s a giraffe that’s going to be a giraffe. I mean, you can change how many toes it has, but this is what it is.
I think that this movie, I have to say that this is a fresh start for a new year. I think that this is young; I think it’s got a great young cast. They’re amazing. We cast it authentically. We cast it the right age. It’s from the soldier’s point of view. Soldiers worked on this movie from beginning to end. I think the music is different than you’ve ever seen before. So, I just don’t think it has anything to do… I think it is a totally different situation and I think we need to run with the fact that it’s a really, I say it with humility, but it’s a good story. I think it’s satisfying emotionally, because that’s what people tell me. They come up to me afterwards and they’re like, ‘I was a little hesitant,’ some of them are like, ‘I didn’t know what it was going to be. Thank you for telling an emotional story.’
EDITOR’S NOTE: You may also be interested in reading Jennifer Merin’s interview with Kimberly Peirce.