After Kimberly Peirce broke out with her sophomore feature Boys Don’t Cry, everyone was pitching her gold. Just imagine having the liberty and the fortitude to turn down the script for Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, on the grounds that the work didn’t resonate enough! With such clarity of motivation, it’s not hard to see why it took her nearly nine years to put out a new feature, and why her newest, Stop Loss, means so very much.
In the film, Ryan Phillippe plays Sergeant Brandon King, a decorated soldier who returns home from Iraq only to be called back for a second tour. Patriotic but not single-minded, King rejects the command and is punished for lack of compliance. The only solution he can come to is to run away. Aided by his best friend’s fiancé (Abbie Cornish), he goes on a headlong hunt for the assistance of a governor who’d previously offered him help. En route, King finds other stop-lossed soldiers whose similar non-compliance has forced them to live like fugitives. Meanwhile he and his fellow soldiers suffer the aftershocks of war and prove their assimilation to the homes they left will not be simple.
We talked to Kimberly Peirce about her nine year journey with Stop Loss, the importance of character and how this is not a message film.
You wrote this script after your brother enlisted. How did this personal attachment affect the tone and temper of the story?
Kim Peirce: I wrote it after he enlisted but I started getting interested in the soldiers before he enlisted.
In making drama I’m always interested in character so I’m always going to try to figure out the story from the character’s point of view. So, if I was going to tell a soldier’s story I want to use as many of their words, their images and emotions as possible. Certainly, having a brother in service only deepened my connection. I would say it brought me more in touch with the soldier’s viewpoint. I was interviewing him but I was also interviewing soldiers throughout the country. Really, it made me aware of what goes on for the families connected to the soldiers; my own mother would call crying about not knowing what’s happening to her son. I don’t know if you know, but if a soldier is injured or wounded there’s a news blackout.
What does that mean?
KP: Right now the way combat is, we IM (instant messenger) with our soldiers every night. I was IMing with my brother and other soldiers and was so used to instantaneous communication. If somebody in the unit gets wounded or killed, they stop all communications between the soldiers and their family or other people. What they don’t want is for your soldier to tell you “Oh my God, there was an ambush and so and so got killed.”
That’s horrible! The lack of information must be excruciating!
KP: Exactly. So my mother would call crying and say, “There’s a news black out.” And she’d say, “You don’t know what fear is until you’ve had a child fired at in a combat zone.” And she said; “Well now I have to basically wait.” That’s why they say no news is good news. She had to wait for them to show up at her door — “God forbid they tell me that he’s been wounded or killed.” She oftentimes would stay late at work [to avoid going home for such news]. It was very trying. You ask me what my personal connection did – it really just heightened my personal connection as a sister and as a family member. As I went around the country interviewing soldiers — in particular I went to Paris, Illinois to interview homecoming of 1,000 soldiers — it was much easier for me to relate to the husbands and wives and the sisters and brothers who were on the other side of the conflict: the people who were waiting.
Did you have to struggle to keep this from becoming a message film?
KP: I didn’t, because I didn’t start out with a message. I started out with a curiosity about the soldiers and that’s really how I approach drama. Who are the people, what do they want? For me it was literally, “What do soldiers do? What do they want?” And if they sign up as my guys [characters] did, for patriotic reasons — to protect their country, their home, their family — then that’s what my guy is supposed to do. Many of my guys did something I didn’t know going into the project. They said, “You might sign up for those reasons but when you’re over there, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about protecting the soldier to your left and the soldier to your right. It’s about survival and camaraderie.” Just an example. If I’d had a message, I would have heard that, but I didn’t. I just went forward looking for them to teach me what their experiences were. That was amazing to me. The heart and soul of a soldier’s experience, generally, is the camaraderie they feel towards other soldiers.
One aspect that struck me as something of a central metaphor for the film is this idea the war’s not fought in the desert but in bedrooms and houses. Is this fact about the current war what drove you towards themes of homecoming, and the battle “off the field” as it were?
KP: Absolutely. Yes. From the soldier’s point of view, what’s so difficult is if they want to save one another — your whole job as a sergeant is to bring your men home safe and sound, and obviously not kill innocent people — but obviously fighting in the bedrooms and hallways versus the desert is incredibly challenging. You don’t know who’s going to be coming in a car to that check point, you don’t know if they’re going to have a gun or not. Clearing a house you don’t know if someone is sitting there holding a gun. You don’t know what’s going on. So yeah, that definitely brings home the idea. So many soldiers told me over and over again, when you’re over there, you just want to come home safely.
Were you ever concerned that in accurately representing the films made by the soldiers you were invoking other movies like Redacted or In the Valley of Elah, both of which were message films that played at the line between fact and fiction?
KP: I wasn’t thinking of comparison. I was doing this way before any of these other movies were on the map. I’m thinking about the soldiers and their experiences. I [also] may have been looking at the videos these soldiers were making with a different eye. Again you bring up this notion of a message. When I was looking at the footage these soldiers had shot and I saw they had cut the footage to patriotic music like Toby Keith’s “American Soldier,” or “Curse of the Red, White, and Blue,” it was heartbreaking because I was identifying with the soldiers’ intent. They wanted to portray themselves in a way that was respectful to the country, the way they would go and do their job everyday. It put me in touch with their point of view. Same way when I saw them cutting rock music like Linkin Park, and “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” and ACDC, to these much more hardcore images, firing guns and everything — that was very different than the patriotic videos — I looked at it with just as much respect. It was an insight into the soldiers. It’s the opposite of a message. These were like culturally anthropological finds. If I’m going to tell the soldier’s story I have to recreate these videos the same way the soldiers made them.
I hear what you’re saying that the film isn’t message oriented, but I can’t help feeling what you’re doing with the film is similar to what your protagonist is doing with his situation. Sgt. King is a patriot and a hero but he goes AWOL. He’s breaking the rules. Do you feel you’re offering a similar dissent with this film?
KP: I agree that the character is breaking the rules. That’s what so emotional about his experience. This is a guy who was captain of the football team. He did everything right. 9/11 happens and he signs up to protect his country. He wants to bring his men home safe; he comes home a decorated hero. Everything right, everything right, everything right. He thinks it’s time for him to get out and the system says he has to go back. Yeah, he breaks the rules but he doesn’t do it with a sense of “Boy, I like breaking the rules” or “Boy, I’m going to go be a political activist.” This is a total patriot who finds himself breaking the rules out of frustration. He finds himself going out of chain of command, leaving the base and going on this mission to the senator. It’s interesting. There was a moment when we asked ourselves, “Would he call himself AWOL?” and so we had a line in the movie where he says, “I’m not AWOL.” He doesn’t want to be AWOL, he doesn’t want to be against his country or the military but sometimes you find yourself against the very things you don’t want to be against when you have to follow what you know is right.
Does Sgt. Brandon Kirk make the right decision?
KP: Well, I think he makes the decision he has to make at every step of the way in the movie. That to me is what a good character is. This is a guy for whom protecting and leading his men is everything. If you notice, he keeps coming back to “What do I need to do as the leader of the men?” and in the end his argument really is “I did what I had to do in the time I had to do it. I don’t wanna lead any more men into a flood; I don’t want anymore men to get hurt. I don’t want to do that.” But then when his best friend tells him, “If you don’t do it more men will be hurt,” that hits the core of his whole value system. He wants to protect the men. That is always his goal. So in the end, it’s about executing his goal. What is the best way to go about it? I think he makes the only choice he can make but I don’t think it’s an easy choice.
I understand you considered making this a documentary. What is it about the story that makes it better as a fiction?
KP: I wanted to tell the emblematic story of these patriots who signed up after 9/11 and were willing to risk their lives for their country, their family, their home, and ended up having this realization — a realization had by every soldier I’ve read about or interviewed — that being over in combat is about camaraderie. It’s about protecting the guy to your left, the guy to your right and bringing them home. So I was getting all these amazing stories. “This was what it was like while I was at the checkpoint and didn’t know if there was a gun in the car,” and, “This is what it was like when I was clearing that house.” “This is what that firefight was like.” These were amazing stories. But every time I heard them I realized it would have been better [for me], as a storyteller, to have been there filming it. Better to bring it to life in the present tense. No matter what, in a documentary, it’s going to be in the past tense…unless I go to Iraq. So this was my way of distilling the underlying emotional truth of this generational story and placing it in the present. I can bring you, the audience, into the firefight. You can be there when he kisses his mother for the first time after he returns home after being away. I can bring you there when he’s dancing on the first night home or when the guys are shooting at the wedding presents. These were all stories I’d heard but they were much more fun as a feature filmmaker for me to recreate [then retell].
MTV produced the film. Does their involvement imply the film’s to be marketed to the same generation that’s enlisting?
KP: Paramount made the film. I sold it as a spec, greenlit screenplay, to Paramount with Scott Rudin. And when I was … screening it during editing, the studio saw it and they were very excited because it was a commercial movie. It appealed to young and old, men and women. MTV is part of Viacom and they felt it was wonderful because it applied to their audience. I was thrilled because, yeah, we cast it age appropriate, which I don’t know if any other film has done yet. Band of Brothers — it should appeal to that age group. They’re the ones fundamentally fighting this conflict.
Give us a taste of the films that influenced you. What are your five favorite films of all time?
KP: The Best Years of Our Lives, Deer Hunter, Godfather (1 and 2), Ugetsu monogatari by Kenji Mizoguchi, and Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo.
Stop-Loss is in theaters today.