KIMBERLY PEIRCE on Directing Truth-Based STOP LOSS

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Kimberly Peirce’s film, Stop Loss (2008), delves into an egregious and little known policy currently affecting military personnel and their families. Soldiers who’ve completed tours of duty in Iraq are being sent back to the war zone for second and third tours, even if they don’t want to go. The practice, known as stop loss or the ‘back door draft’ prevents servicemen and women from retiring once their required term of service is complete and it is based upon a small print contract clause that’s been invoked by the current administration as a way to keep deployed troop numbers high when enlistment in the volunteer army is decreasing.

At the end of the film, Peirce presents the stats. They‘re shocking, and the numbers keep going up.
Pierce says she learned about stop loss from her younger brother who’d joined the military following the 9-11 terrorist attacks and had served in Iraq. “We became a military family,“ says Peirce, “and I became personally aware of what soldiers were going through. My brother wasn‘t stop loss-ed because of some medical conditions, but his buddies were. I heard their stories and knew I wanted to make a film about them.

MERIN: Why did you choose to make a narrative feature instead of a documentary?

PEIRCE: Actually, when my brother enlisted, I wanted to understand what he was experiencing and started making a documentary about soldiers. And, as I discovered more–particularly about stop loss–the project turned into a narrative feature, telling the stories of several soldiers.

I like documentaries and watch a lot of them, but narrative features are more mainstream, and I wanted this film to have mainstream exposure and a mainstream audience–and, fortunately, I was able to make that happen.

I wanted a cast of actors whose appeal and charisma reach out from the screen and grab you–so you’re caught up in their stories, their situations. What interests me most as a filmmaker is uncovering essential human truths of the story, finding out what happens to and between characters. Making a narrative feature actually gives me more control over the story and how it develops. Writing the script is an organic process–finding the truth is being open to what feels right.

Making a documentary film is like making a narrative feature in many ways. And in the end, they must both present compelling stories that engage the audience, that make people care.

I based the script of Stop Loss on hundreds of hours of interviews with soldiers and their families. The characters in the film are composites of the soldiers I interviewed–their language and experiences are real. We went as far as we could to make the film real–the actors went to boot camp with soldiers who’d served in Iraq and we had military consultants and veteran soldiers on the set while we were shooting. In the combat scenes, we would turn to them and ask whether we were getting it right–or, when they’re in Iraq and chasing the terrorists, I wanted to know what they would say to each other, how they would communicate when and where to fire or not, and the language the actors use is what soldiers said when they were in Iraq in that situation. Another example is the way the soldiers line up, or ’stack,’ as they call it, to protect and cover each other when they’re on a mission or in a possible sniper situation.

We’ve heard from Iraq vets at every screening that we really got it right. That’s the level of truth and reality we demanded of ourselves. And I think we got it right.

MERIN: The footage looks authentic. Did you use any actual combat footage, or was everything staged?

PEIRCE: Everything was staged.

MERIN: That’s amazing. There’s a such a strong cinematic distinction between the combat sequences and the scenes that take place in Texas. How did you accomplish that? Did you have a special crew shoot the combat sequences? Where did you shoot them?

PEIRCE: I’m glad to hear you say that. It’s what we wanted. But we didn’t change our cinematographer to get it. We just had a great Director of Photography in Chris Menges, whose work is amazing no matter what he’s shooting.

We shot in Morocco, but there’s a story about getting there. We were originally supposed to shoot the Middle Eastern exteriors at the Alamo–because it was supposed to save money. I didn’t think the Alamo would work, but I took the suggestion seriously and asked my Production Designer and other crew members to do a budget indicating what it would cost to rebuild and decorate the Alamo to look like a Middle Eastern town. Their budgets showed it could be cheaper to shoot on location in Morocco–so we got to do it there and I’ve been told it’s accurate. That’s what the combat zones look like.

MERIN: In the combat sequences, you really establish the dangers and the closeness of the soldiers and the way they depend on each other. Then you follow them home from their tours of duty and we see the difficulties they’re having readjusting to ordinary life–not to mention the problems they face about the threat that they may be stop loss-ed and have to go back to Iraq. Do your characters’ stories parallel stories you heard when you were interviewing soldiers who’ve actually fought in Iraq?

PEIRCE: I found the story in the soldiers’ interviews, and the conflicts, and also a lot of the background information that explains the way the character behave when they get home. For example, in the Iraq war, unlike previous wars, there’s no ‘green zone,‘ no safe area where soldiers go after completing a mission, where they can feel relatively secure and let down their guard for a while. There’s danger all around them at all times. These soldiers were trained to fight in the desert, but combat actually occurs in towns, in streets and alleys, hallways and kitchens, and they’re attacked from unmarked cars approaching check points. Their quarters are near towns, within reach of incoming mortars. I asked one soldier how you know when a mortar is coming, and he said, “When it lands next to you.“ So, they’re never shielded from danger. The intolerable stress level stays with them when they come home.

They become alcoholics, experience flashbacks, have bouts of violence. All of the characters’ behavior in [I[Stop Loss is genuine, based on my interviews not only with soldiers, but with their families and with experts in and out of the military.

MERIN: So, what elements of the story are true, which are your fabrication?

PEIRCE: Well, in reality, you’d have to say they all are. I made the choices that felt right for the truth of the story–about what characters to include, what happens to each of them and how they resolve their conflicts. The lead characters are composites of various soldiers I spoke with. As a group, they are a typical unit–but I’ve taken liberty in creating their personal histories and relationships to make a better story–for dramatic impact. There’s a Latino soldier–there would have to be, because so many Latinos are enlisting and serving in Iraq.

MERIN: And his comment about if he dies his family gets green cards? Is that true?

PEIRCE: I actually heard that from soldiers. I don’t know if it’s true that they do, but they believe it–which is what was important to me and to the story. I set the soldiers’ home base and homecoming in Texas because there are quite a number of small military towns there, and it seemed a reasonable location.

MERIN: I thought it was because Texas is George Bush’s home turf, and he’s the Commander-In-Chief who’s invoking stop loss…

PEIRCE: That’s true. But that’s more circumstantial than the actual reason why I located the film in Texas.

MERIN: But it does hit close to home. And the film does present information about the war–which seems to be being marginalized by the media, and about stop loss, which isn’t widely known outside the military–so I think it’s fair to ask whether you have a political agenda for this film…

PEIRCE: I’m interested in the human story, in storytelling and I chose this subject because of its dramatic potential. My personal opinion about the Iraq war or the issue of stop loss isn’t the point, and I don’t think that’s what audiences are looking for or what they get from the film. In fact, we’ve gotten positive comments from audiences across the political spectrum, and that’s because the film’s not anti-anything–it‘s pro-soldier, pro-family. Audiences get that–we get positive comments at screenings and on our Website from people whose believes are all over the political map.

MERIN: Without giving away the ending, let me ask you about the decisions that Brandon (Ryan Philippe) and Steve (Channing Tatum) make. Why?

PEIRCE: We considered several alternative endings, and felt that this was truest to character and to what soldiers and their families have told us about options. There can be truth in fiction, too.

MERIN: So far, your films–Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Stop Loss–focus on stories and pressing issues that aren’t well covered in the media. [I[Stop Loss brings questionable governmental policies to light. If, in the future, you take on other such issues? And, do you think you’ll choose to make documentaries about them?

PEIRCE: If it felt right for the story, I would The main things is to tell the story in the best possible way.

MERIN: Women directors have more opportunity to make documentaries–perhaps because they require smaller budgets. It‘s unusual for a woman to get a project like Stop Loss green lit. How‘d you do it?

PEIRCE: With this project, I financed the development myself–and when I went to the studios, it was with a script that was ready to shoot and a reel that showed I could direct it–a testosterone-driven reel with combat scenes that showed I could handle making a war movie. My deal was ‘you buy it, you make it–no development, no sitting on the shelf. And several studios wanted it, so the project was green lit when I sold it–which is rare.

After Boys Don’t Cry, I was in the unusual position of leaving film school with a Hollywood career in place. I went into development on a project I really liked–about a scandal that shook Hollywood. I went into development on it, but eventually found that the studio wanted me to made a 30-million dollar movie for 20-million, and I knew it wouldn’t work. So I dropped the project. That’s why I approached this project the way I did–and sold it green lit already. I want to be independent, to be able to make the films I want to make, films that I feel are worthwhile, whether they’re narrative features or documentaries.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You may also be interested in reading Rebecca Murray’s interview with Kimberly Peirce.

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