In “Stop-Loss,” the unaddressed enemies of the conflict in Iraq are the hidden costs of war the post-traumatic stress disorder, the broken relationships with loved ones, the disconnect with reality at home. While Kimberly Peirce based the film on the experience of her brother’s redeployment to Iraq after fulfilling his initial tour of duty, the “Boys Don’t Cry” writer-director probably never envisioned making a war movie. Little did she know that it would be a fight on many different fronts.
After a nine-year hiatus in which she was asked to direct everything from an adaptation of Dave Eggers’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” to the grand scale “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Peirce is returning to an unforgiving marketplace for complex dramas, never mind films even tangentially related to the war in Iraq. She’s also re-entering the cultural conversation at a time when the Internet is a driving force. But Peirce has embraced all of it, first by incorporating YouTube videos of real soldiers into her story of three enlisted men who respond in different ways to returning home to Texas and subsequently discovering that they have been “stop-lossed” in other words, they must serve another stint on the front. Beyond the production, however, she has engaged in an ongoing exchange of ideas and war stories on the “Stop-Loss” Web site, where she’s fielded questions from Tucson to Tikrit in addition to posting video of her 24-city tour to promote the film. (“Stop-Loss” was in fact initiated from instant message conversations Peirce had with her brother while he was stationed overseas.) The battle-tested director explained to me how the Internet inspires storytelling and why “Stop-Loss” is anything but an Iraq War film.
After all the adaptations that you were offered to direct after “Boys Don’t Cry,” did it make sense that your follow-up turned out to be something personal?
“Boys Don’t Cry” was this huge gift to me. I was in grad school, I fell in love with the story, the character it was personal. I made the movie, was very fortunate, [and] thought, okay, every project I do is going to be this meaningful to me. [I] opened myself up to what was being offered to me in Hollywood and just didn’t find it as deeply moving as something that came from me. Or if I did, I would walk in for the interview [and] it would be like “Wow, you’re great. Your take is really amazing.” And as we’d proceed, [it wasn’t] necessary what they were wanting. I want to get to the heart of it and tear it apart and reveal what’s underneath it and even though you’re offering me millions of dollars and lots of access and I can make a movie, I can’t do it unless it makes sense to me. So that was one reason for the delay.
The second one was that I fell deeply in love with another story, the William Desmond Taylor murder, the greatest unsolved murder of Hollywood. Robert Towne and King Vidor also tried to do movies on it. I cast Annette Bening, Evan Rachel Wood, Ben Kingsley, Hugh Jackman, was on the one yard line, ready to go this was the end of ’03, so we weren’t too far out. The studio ran the numbers and they said, “Wow, we would love to see the $30 million version of this, but we only want to pay for the $20 million version. And we don’t want to see the $20 million version.”
How did “Stop-Loss” come about then?
The day that happened, I had already been working on this as an idea. I made a decision and said, for the next one, I’m not going to accept any development money. I’m going to use all my own money, I’m going to buy the tapes, I’m going to buy the camera. I just followed my curiosity and my passion, as I’d done on “Boys” and as I’d done on “Silent Star.” The difference was that nobody owned the material. I owned it. So I did research all around the country, interviewed real soldiers, interviewed my brother who was fighting in Iraq, interviewed my mother.
I hooked up with Mark Richard, this great novelist from Texas, and we started working. He got a blowup bed, he lived on my floor and we wrote the script for 10 or 11 weeks straight. [Associate producer] Reid Carolin and I cut together footage from interviews with soldiers and the soldier-made videos. We handed a script to Hollywood on a Friday night, and we handed them this trailer, which had the sensibility: it was the YouTube generation fix up a camera, film themselves, film their friends, and put it up on the internet. [These videos] had great music rock and roll, Toby Keith, patriotic music. [They] had young people who were good-looking, charismatic and noble and fighting, bands of brothers. By Saturday morning, we had four studios who wanted to make the movie not just buy the script. I didn’t want to sell the script. I wanted to make the movie.
One of the striking things about “Stop-Loss” is how you mix media to tell the story. The film begins with choppy YouTube footage and by the end of the film, the orchestral swelling is reminiscent of old Hollywood melodramas. Did you feel that you were more free to experiment this time around?
In terms of music, like in “Boys,” I used “Dead Man” as an inspiration: off-key guitar, rough rock and roll, drums, so all that rock music is going into this score. Every now and then, you’ve got your country/western. The counterpoint [to that] is the patriotic processional stuff that Brandon [Ryan Phillippe] hears in his head, calling him back to duty that’s going to be your snare drum and your military-type stuff, pulling Brandon back family, duty and honor versus individualism, striking out, going across the country on a road trip.
The videos do the same thing. Here are boys turning the cameras on themselves, turning the cameras on their friends. That’s going to make it rough, it’s going to be handheld. I think we do that at four or five points in the movie. Then you have your more classical photography that [cinematographer] Chris Menges is doing in 35MM throughout. Hopefully, you’re getting inside and outside their psyche and their experience.
Besides the YouTube-type footage in the film, the marketing campaign for “Stop-Loss” has really embraced the Internet as a forum for discussion, where many real-life veterans have shared their experiences. Has that been as gratifying for you?
I love it. I think my deepest passion is being a director, but my other passion is telling stories and hearing stories. Did you see the post today, the woman who posted her beautiful husband who looks like Matt Damon and her little daughter? She’s like, “He’s done three tours, he’s about to do his fourth. This has to stop.” It’s hugely gratifying. The Internet is transformational to our culture and our society, and I love that it puts the power of communication into the hands of the people. It’s not just people passively looking at a television. It doesn’t have the gimmicks of commercials, it’s just story, story, story.
In some circles, the film has already been dismissed as “just another Iraq War” movie. Have you been affected by that personally?
It’s not an Iraq War film. And certainly people have asked me is this going to be an issue, and I actually write about it on the [film’s web site]. We’ve screened it in all these cities and so many people love the movie and what they say is “Thank you for making an emotional story. Thank you for making a story that’s [about] this generation.” We’ve had vets stand up at nearly every screening, like last night, and say “This is authentic” or “This is the story of my generation.” I mean, look [points at the film’s poster which features stars Phillippe, Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt sitting on the hood of a truck], it’s a band of brothers. You haven’t had that yet. Add Victor [Rasuk, who plays the fourth soldier in the squad who is wounded in battle] in there. You have these young people who are cast age appropriately. They’re energetic. They’re involved in engaging stories. It’s not about the Iraq War. It’s about coming home, connecting with each other and trying to connect with their families. It’s exciting, it’s moving, it’s American.
[Photo: “Stop-Loss,” Paramount Pictures, 2007]
“Stop-Loss” opens in wide release on March 28th.