It's been nearly nine years since Kimberly Peirce directed, produced, and wrote Boys Don't Cry, a story about a transgender boy brutally raped and murdered. The movie, which Peirce began as a short film while attending Columbia University to earn her M.F.A. in film, garnered many awards and praise both nationally and internationally.
Her new movie, Stop-Loss, written by Peirce and Mark Richard, is a drama about soldiers expecting to get out of the service only to find their contracts have been extended. Originally thought of as a drama, it turned into more of a war picture after Peirce's 18-year-old brother enlisted in the Army in response to 9/11. After he returned home with videos — made by the soldiers– of fighting, raids, and riding around in Humvees, Peirce thought of doing a documentary.
"I was wondering what kind of emotional toll this was taking on the soldiers and their families," she said. "So I began to interview soldiers and found some interesting responses. When a Harper's magazine article, "AWOL in America", came out, I searched out those solders."
Surprisingly, the men were willing to talk.
"They were willing to talk but they weren’t being quoted directly and they weren’t on screen," said Peirce. "I tracked down and talked to the ones in America and then Canada. They were easier to talk to because they had gone on the Internet and made their story public already."
The more stories she heard, the more Peirce realized this could become the kind of feature she wanted to make.
"The last thing I wanted to do is have access to a Hollywood-looking actor and do a Hollywood shooting. I didn’t want to make a movie where you sit down and go, 'oh it's a movie star.' What I wanted to do is bring you deeply inside the experience of these soldiers, and I think this is the most cathartic way to deal with their experiences."
One surprising thing Peirce heard again and again was about the men going through stop-loss.
"The procedure has been on the books since Vietnam, but they started using it in 2002. More than 80,000 soldiers have experienced stop-loss. This is a movie about a few soldiers coming home to a heroes' welcome, only they don't feel like heroes."
When the men learn they're to be stop-lossed, the drama increases. The scenarios show that not only does this affect the soldiers, but their families also. Peirce interviewed wives of soldiers as well, and many want to get out of their situations but feel guilty should they desert their husbands.
"I gave cameras to soldiers and their families to shoot real life situations because we're not only telling stories about soldiers but also stories of the family. Particularly the women who are so supportive in having to deal with these absences. They don’t leave, and it’s a heightened crisis. I have one woman who said, 'I love him but I’m 30 years old, I’m not making love to my husband, I’m not seeing my husband, what kind of life is this? I love this man and he’s not here.' That breaks your heart."
Ryan Phillippe plays Sgt. Brandon King, the main character in the film, and Peirce said, "I was lucky I got to do a huge casting process which is unusual for a Hollywood movie. Although it’s not really a Hollywood movie because I wrote it on spec. But I interviewed tons of young men as I knew we needed a young cast that was fresh and accurate. I’m really proud of Ryan. I think it’s a real stretch for him and that he dug deep to play his character."
With all the debate about the war, marketing a film like Stop-Loss has its challenge.
"It’s nice when you’re telling the truth," she said. "Some people come up to me after the screening and tell me they were nervous about coming because they didn’t want to go to a movie that was going to stick them in the war or give them a message. So that’s what you sell, the truth. It's an American story about these kids going over there and fighting. And when they come home they want their lives back. It’s a story of camaraderie, it’s emotional, it’s honest, and it's empathetic to the soldiers. I have no agenda other than telling good stories."