'Stop Loss' Inspired by Real Soldier Stories
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Name a recent film about the Middle East - "Lions for Lambs," "Rendition," "In the Valley of Elah" - and you're talking about a flop. The war in Iraq has been much more popular with filmmakers than it has been with audiences. But that may change this weekend. The film "Stop Loss," made by "Boys Don't Cry" director Kimberly Peirce, has a hip young cast and is making a special push for hip young audiences. It's got heavy promotion by MTV, which co-produced the film.
We'll talk with the director of "Stop Loss" in a moment, but first, Bob Mondello has a review.
BOB MONDELLO: We meet Sergeant Brandon King and his men in camcorder footage that they've shot in Iraq. Average Joes, all from Texas, best friends, clowning around in their barracks and manning a checkpoint.
(Soundbite of movie, "Stop Loss")
Mr. RYAN PHILLIPPE (Actor): (As Brandon King) What's that?
Unidentified Man #1: No, nothing.
Mr. PHILLIPPE: (As Brandon King) Okay, okay. Okay, close.
Unidentified Man #1: Get this guy out of here.
Mr. PHILLIPPE: (As Brandon King) Good to go.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, Sarge, just waiting around to get blown up, huh?
MONDELLO: They soon see more action than any of them wants to, much of it just before they're to ship back to civilian life. But Sergeant King gets most of them back in one piece and comes home himself to a Purple Heart and a surprise when he files his discharge papers.
(Soundbite of movie, "Stop Loss")
Unidentified Man #3: Says here you have orders to report to the First Brigade.
Mr. PHILLIPPE: (As Brandon King) Not me. I'm getting out today.
Unidentified Man #3: Brandon Leonard King?
Mr. PHILLIPPE: (As Brandon King) Yes.
Unidentified Man #3: Out to the First Brigade on the 22nd.
Mr. PHILLIPPE: (As Brandon King) This is a mistake.
Unidentified Man #3: It's all there. You leave on the 22nd shipping back to Iraq. Subsection 12305 title 10 by the authority of the President. You've been stop lossed.
MONDELLO: His family is as shocked as he is.
(Soundbite of movie, "Stop Loss")
Ms. ABBIE CORNISH (Actor): (As Michelle) How can they do this?
Mr. PHILLIPPE: (as Brandon King) They're doing whatever they want to do. With a shortage of guys and no draft they're shipping back soldiers who's supposed to be getting out. It's a backdoor draft is what it is.
Ms. CORNISH: (As Michelle) What about Steve?
Mr. PHILLIPPE: (as Brandon King) Midge, I don't know. Some of us are getting it, some ain't.
Ms. LINDA EDMOND (Actor): (As Ida King) This cannot be happening. No. You almost died over there. What do you want to do? You want me to take you to Mexico until this blows over?
Mr. PHILLIPPE: (As Brandon King) No, no, no. Out of the question, mom. I ain't dragging my tail over to Mexico.
MONDELLO: Where he drags his tail instead is towards Washington on an ill-advised AWOL odyssey, hoping that a senator who called him a war hero will take up his case. That's naive, of course, and the war hero soon finds himself running from the authorities that he'd served with such distinction.
Ryan Phillippe is persuasively conflicted and in an anguishing situation that director Kimberly Peirce has made a little more complex than is probably wise. With a cast this strong - and even the minor parts here are pretty stellar -it's natural to want to tackle a lot but it's hard for any one script to deal with the post-traumatic stress of one character, the jingoistic patriotism of another, the alcohol-fueled dysfunction of a third, and with bar brawls, pistol whippings and rattlesnake shootings without seeming a bit of a laundry list.
Fortunately, Peirce is good at bringing texture to her characters, and nuance to their behavior. And it helps that getting the flavor of small-town America up on screen seems to be her specialty. She's made the men and women of "Stop Loss" richly, complicatedly human, which makes their distress and confusion richly affecting.
I'm Bob Mondello.
SEABROOK: My colleague Jacki Lyden recently spoke with the director and co-writer of "Stop Loss," Kimberly Peirce. "Boys Don't Cry," her earlier film, was about the life and the brutal death of transgender teen Brandon Teena. Kimberly Peirce told Jacki that "Stop Loss" was inspired in part by her younger brother's service in Iraq.
JACKI LYDEN: What were your brother's experiences that engaged you as a filmmaker?
Ms. KIMBERLY PEIRCE (Filmmaker, Director, "Stop Loss"): Well, it's interesting that he was over there and where I am pretty much from the day he landed in Kuwait and then as he moved through Iraq. I think it was that he was talking about the changes that he was undergoing in terms of going around the country doing these house raids. He brought back these soldier-made videos, which were really profound.
Soldiers had actually taken one-chip cameras and, you know, little consumer cameras that you have, and they put them either on a sandbag or in the ground or they wired them into the Humvee or they put them on a gun turret. And they just let the videotape roll.
Then they take that footage and they go back to their barracks and they cut it together to rock music. You know, Drowning Pool's "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" or ACDC or Linkin Park. And when I saw those videos, they bring you, like, heart and soul right inside the soldiers' experience and I knew that's where the story needed to come from.
LYDEN: Speaking of that, my understanding is that you began this as a documentary but this is, of course, a feature film. Why did you choose to make a feature film and not a documentary?
Ms. PEIRCE: It's a good question. One of the ways that I think through things is I videotape. So I generally get drawn to - if you look at "Boys Don't Cry" and you look at this - I choose things that are either inspired by my family, my country, something deeply personal that I need to know the answer to. In this case, who are the soldiers, why are they signing up, what's their experience?
So it was natural that I would go around and record everything whether I was going to turn it into a documentary or write a fiction. And as I look through all the interviews I had done, it became very clear to me that I love the stories. But I found that the best stuff was in the past tense.
For example: a soldier telling me, oh, and so then we took the mats that we slept on and we wrapped them around our arms and we fought with each other in a ring full of guys.
LYDEN: Meaning amongst each other?
Ms. PEIRCE: Amongst each other, yeah. So, that was, like, a great image. Well, I had it on tape of somebody telling it to me or I could recreate it. Same thing with a checkpoint, same thing with a battle sequence. If I look at, like, five different checkpoint scenes, you know what I mean, that I know of in real life, I can take the details that are salient and that tell the story and I can take you on a journey as the audience into - I wouldn't say one is more truthful than the other but certainly in the fiction I can make it really, really truthful by distilling it.
LYDEN: I want to ask you about recent films that focus on Iraq and soldiers coming home. Some of the films, in fact, most of the films that have been at the box office in the last year haven't done very well. "Rendition," 9.7 million in earnings; "Lions for Lambs," 15.1; "In the Valley of Elah," 6.7; "Redacted," just $65,000. Are you worried about reception to this and whether or not people will actually go to see it?
Ms. PEIRCE: Well, look, you're always concerned about that. I mean, you know, I'm an old school entertainer. I want people to go and, you know, love the movie.
LYDEN: But this is war time and it's a different experience, perhaps, to the viewer?
Ms. PEIRCE: Yeah, I really do think it's different. I mean, first of all, I've gone to 22 cities already across America. I've screened the movie, done Q&As. And the amount of people - and I say this with all humility - who love the movie is astounding. And the amount that they're moved by it, and they stand up and say to me, thank you for making a movie that's emotional; thank you for making a movie that's accurate; that's about the relationships between the soldiers, and the soldiers and their family and it's about coming home.
And I think what sets it apart is, you know, it really was born entirely from the soldiers' point of view, and that point of view has a hell of a lot of fun in it. I mean, it has the difficulty, it has the challenges. But, I mean, I think that the movie really works as a very honest, you know, entertaining, emotional portrait and that's what people seem to really love. They want to be engaged in the story of human relationships.
LYDEN: How did soldiers you screened this for feel about Sergeant King's rebelliousness? Did they feel that it was over the top? I mean, because that is a challenge, isn't it, to present the emotional truth of rebellion, something that becomes very difficult for soldiers. And you actually have him expletive the president in front of his commanding officer. Do you think a soldier would really do that?
Ms. PEIRCE: Well, I interviewed a number of soldiers when we were writing that scene, and it was really important to us that it was reflective of what a soldier would feel and do. So, yeah, a number of soldiers said that that was totally accurate, that's why we felt confident to do it.
And we also were very careful that here's a guy who signs up for all the right reasons, he's the golden boy. He comes home and he wants to put it behind him. We want to make sure that in that scene he's a patriot. He's not turning his back on America. He's not turning his back on duty. He's a total patriot, and in that moment he feels that the system that he has given everything to has betrayed him. He is surprised that he says that. And in a way he spends the rest of the movie coming to terms with why he said it and what's really underneath everything that's going on for me.
LYDEN: Just want to ask you before we finish our conversation something about this character and the character that you drew so powerfully in "Boys Don't Cry," Teena Brandon or Brandon Teena. Do you see any similarities between these two people? Both of whom certainly have their outcast moments. Brandon Teena is an outcast and Brandon King is a fugitive.
Ms. PEIRCE: So he's cast out. Well, what's so interesting is they both really want to be loved and accepted in their communities, right. So you look at the extent that Brandon Teena goes to, to get love and acceptance from the woman that he/she loves, and you look at Brandon King who, more than anything, is bonded by the love of his men. He doesn't want to be against the system that he ends up being against. He doesn't want to be a fugitive.
He thinks he's a guy who's tried to solve his problems but in the end what the movie really is about is that the calling of camaraderie is everything.
LYDEN: Kimberly Peirce is the writer and director of the film "Stop Loss," which is in theaters this weekend. And she also wrote and directed the 1999 "Boys Don't Cry." Kimberly Peirce, thanks for speaking with us.
Ms. PEIRCE: Absolute pleasure. Thank you.
SEABROOK: Kimberly Peirce talking with Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.