Director Kimberly Peirce on Stop-Loss: The RT Interview
An exclusive chat with the director on her first film since Boys Don't Cry.
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 fiancÚ (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.