Kimberly Peirce Interview STOP-LOSS

     March 26, 2008

Opening this Friday is the new Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) movie “Stop-Loss” For her follow-up film, she’s decided to focus on the retention of military soldiers beyond their expected term. Using a loophole in soldiers’ contracts to prohibit servicemen and women from retiring once their required term of service is complete, the US government has been doing what’s widely referred to as a “Back Door Draft.”

In simple terms, say your contract with the military is for 2 years. You’re expecting to get out on the day you contract ends. But instead of going home, the government ships you back to Iraq or anywhere they chose. That’s getting Stop Lossed, and it’s what the film is about. Here’s the official synopsis:

Decorated Iraq war hero Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) makes a celebrated return to his small Texas hometown following his tour of duty. He tries to resume the life he left behind with the help and support of his family and his best friend, Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), who served with him in Iraq. Along with their other war buddies, Brandon and Steve try to make peace with civilian life. Then, against Brandon’s will, the Army orders him back to duty in Iraq, which upends his world. The conflict tests everything he believes in: the bond of family, the loyalty of friendship, the limits of love and the value of honor.

Anyway, about a week ago I got to participate in a roundtable interview with Kimberly where she talked about what drove her to make the film and why it took her so long to make another movie after the critically acclaimed “Boys Don’t Cry.”

As always, if you’d like to listen to the audio of the interview just click here. It’s an MP3 and easily placed on a portable player. Finally, if you’d like to watch some movie clips from “Stop-Loss” click here.

Question: Why aren’t there any women in your unit?

Kimberly Peirce: That’s a great, great question. I was interviewing soldiers across the country and I was looking for the emblematic story of what was going on with this generation, which was fundamentally either people who were in the service or who had signed up for patriotic reasons. They wanted to protect their family, their country, their home. They went over there. The most profound realization that they had, and that they share with me, was that once you get over there, it’s not about why you signed up, it’s about survival. It’s about protecting the soldier to your left and the soldier to your right. The whole focus is to bring them home alive. So I wanted to tell that story. As I got into it, I said, “Great, let’s put a woman in here.” But when I would go deeper into interviewing Army guys, not National Guard – okay? – and I wanted it to be Army, that was very important, because there is a difference between the two and I thought that again that was more emblematic – even though I think that there’s a great story in the National Guard. Women are not put into combat in the Army. And the thing is this. That means that if you want that mentality of – I’m going to pick up a gun and I’m going to charge into this situation, I couldn’t do it with a woman. Right? But women are certainly doing combat, and this is very interesting. I went to Paris, Illinois, the homecoming of a thousand soldiers of the 1544th Guard unit, because I am very interested in the Guard, and those women, unfortunately, that unit had the highest casualty rate and the highest number of combat hours. So then you say, “Well how were women getting killed in combat if women aren’t supposed to be in combat?” And that’s because it was a transportation unit. They were driving the generals to and from Abu Ghraib and those kids were getting fired on on the way. So women are fighting, right? But it’s ending up that they’re fighting because they’re driving a car that gets attacked, which is just as valid as what the men are doing. But if I want to tell the story of this band of brothers, then it had to be about the men. And the men said to me, “Look, if we have a woman on our unit, it’s not the same. We’re not going to rely on her the same way.” Now is that right? Probably not. But that’s what most men will confide to you. They’re just like “It’s about the camaraderie between men.” And that’s an issue we need to deal with, but what I didn’t want to do was defuse the power and the authenticity of my male movie with something like that.

Question: You originally wanted to make this as a documentary. How far were you into it when you had this idea of making it into a feature theatrical film?

Kimberly Peirce: That’s a good question. I mean, when I say I was making a documentary, it was that I was doing what I do when I work. I pick up a camera and I go and I am drawn to something that is both personal – my brother was enlisted and my country was at war – and I had been in New York for 9/11, I saw the tower fall, so there’s something personal here, there’s something I have a sense of, but there’s something I don’t fully understand. So for me to go and interview people, I can begin to get inside the story better. I always videotape everything. My house is filled with them. I was thinking this will probably be a documentary. I was also collecting soldier-made videos. The videos that they take with their hand-held cameras. They put them on the gun turret, they put them on the ground, they put them on a sandbag, and they film their experience in combat or their experience in the barracks. And then they go back and they edit it on their little computers and they put it to Toby Keith or patriotic music, Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue, I’m an American Soldier. I mean I love those songs. And they bring you to tears when you watch them because they’re so patriotic and the way the guys cut it together. And also the rock music, Drowning Pool’s Let the Bodies Hit the Floor. So I was collecting all this stuff and I was trying to figure out, because I always let the material speak to me, what is the story here? I was on the verge of making it into a documentary. I was about to buy all these cameras and send them to soldiers. What happened was that I was paying for everything, and I get to a point where I’m like if I know where this is going and I’m going to spend more of my own money, there’s going to be a limit to what I can do. So I actually went to Participant Productions with a proposal. They were the ones who made the Al Gore documentary. And it’s actually so funny, I talked to David Guggenheim and he was like, “I’m making this movie on global warming.” That’s what he was working on. They were willing to give me money and what happened was, I said, “You know what? I don’t want to take it.” It would have been a substantial amount of money to move forward with this soldier-made video project, because I was starting to understand what the emblematic story of the generation was, and I didn’t want to commit to an output of a documentary when I could tell that I was going to make a fiction. And the reason that making a fiction made more sense here is… So here I was listening to all these stories that were so moving about soldiers’ experiences in combat and coming home. No matter what, it was told in the past tense. So if I wanted to bring the audience as deeply as possible into the story, I was better off taking the stories that I was understanding, distilling them down into the underlying emotional truth, creating a fiction, and then I could tell it in the present tense.

Question: In so many areas of the country there’s still a reflexive tendency to react to anything that’s deemed critical of the prosecution of the war. Do you feel that your film can overcome that?

Kimberly Peirce: That is definitely an attitude that is out there. I’ve been very fortunate. This movie is pro-soldier. This movie was born from the soldiers’ experiences literally. My brother fought. I interviewed soldiers. We include their music videos, the videos that they make in the movie. We had soldiers, Iraq vets and Marines from other wars look at every version of the script. They actually ran our boot camp. Sergeant Major Jim Dever, 25 years in the Marines, loves the military. I mean this is his whole life. He’s a total pro. He does all of Clint Eastwood’s movies. He had trained many, many soldiers, and he set up a boot camp that was modeled after the training that he did for soldiers for the actors. We had Iraq war vets in the boot camp because I wanted my boys as they were being trained, I also wanted them to be talking to soldiers all the time. Find out from their perspective, what does it feel like, what does it feel like? And the great thing is we were all coming to the same conclusion. Every soldier says it’s about camaraderie. So I didn’t have to kind of dictate that. The reality was revealing itself. Soldiers have come to all the screenings. Soldiers are in most of the scenes when there are a lot of soldiers. And now I’ve just done this 22-city tour and we go to a commercial theatre and we put people from colleges and people from the community and soldiers. We’ve had vets at every screening, and so often – I’ll give you my website, you’ll see – we’ve got soldiers standing up saying, “Thank you for making a movie that tells it accurately. I don’t know how you did it but you got it accurate. And thank you for respecting us. And thank you for protecting us.”

Question: Pro-soldier but not necessarily pro-system?

Kimberly Peirce: Not necessarily. Yeah, you could put it that way. The thing is it’s pro-soldier. Right? And then, this is the thing, when you tell a drama, which is really my passion — I love great stories, I love great characters, I love human issues, and I love issues that are personal to me — for me, it’s always about the character. Who is that person? How do they live? What would they say? What would they do? That’s what I’m doing every single second of making the movie. So yeah, if the soldiers are having a problem with something, then the character can have a problem with it. Other than that, it really is out of my jurisdiction.

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Question: Can you talk about the casting?

Kimberly Peirce: I was really fortunate to have interviewed so many soldiers, so I had a real feeling of what these soldiers were like. More often than not they were in great shape. They were strapping young men and women, and they were dedicated. They were people who volunteered to serve their country. And I knew that I wanted to find a cast that really, really reflected that. I wanted soldiers to come to this movie and say, like they’re saying, “You got it right.” There was no way I wanted soldiers to say, “This is not authentic.” So I went around and we actually cast the movie. I was very fortunate. Avy Kaufman, who is one of the best casting directors, Scott Rudin’s very smart about casting, and I actually auditioned everybody. So Ryan came in and he was fantastic. First of all, he felt like one of those guys. That was off the bat what you needed — deep voice, handsome guy, he’s strong, but also he has a maturity probably because he’s got two kids and he loves his kids and is raising them, but he also has a sensitivity and an intelligence. And that was important for King, because King not only had to be the guy who’s willing to die for his men, he had to be a great leader. He had to be smart enough to be able to win the guys’ respect. And actually we made Ryan — he had to lead part of the boot camp. He had to lead the missions because that was like — you can’t act like a leader, you actually have to be the leader of the guys. People are going to feel that in the movie. Channing Tatum – he’s gorgeous, hunky, charismatic, he’s the hot-headed guy and he’s probably going to do the thing that will challenge you if you’re the leader. His mother gave me a bunch of pictures of him as a kid. Because you have to create little portraits of the boys. You need Steve Shriver’s pictures — football star, he’s acrobatic. His mother told me she called him Chanimal and it was funny because I found that out after I had called him Manimal, because I was like – you’re my man animal. Channing would just routinely pick me up and put me on top of his head. That was real safe. But he’s lovely and he came into the audition and people haven’t really seen his movies, so for me, when I see an actor who’s brilliant and who’s right, I know there’s going to have to be a little rolling up of your sleeves. So he came in three times. And on the third audition which was in New York — we started out in LA — I said to him, “Look, it’s going to be a little bit of a push but if you were willing to work with me for a few hours and I can make a tape, I can convince them. And he said, “I will do anything for this role. Anything.” So we worked and worked and worked, and we really tapped into his talent and sent a tape to Scott Rudin and I was like, “Scott, this guy is great, and I know it’s going to be tough to cast him.” Scott loved it and we both called the studio, maybe Scott’s call mattered more, but it was great. Scott just said, “Do the right thing, this kid’s great.” Again, I have to thank the studio. For an artist, this is so important for me that I can use whatever talent or awareness I have to find these actors, but then they have to give me the money to make the movie and they have to believe that we can somehow make it back. So when they take a risk like that, that’s amazing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I think one of the best actors of his generation. He’s so astute, he’s so on point. He’s so emotionally connected. He doesn’t give you a false move. He is just a pleasure to work with. So that was the casting of the boys. I love Victor. I know he’s not in the movies as much as the other boys but man, for me, he’s so raw, he’s so honest. He’s got that charm and lightness which was so necessary. I interviewed many soldiers, but particularly the wounded soldiers, and there were ones that just – whether they were holding onto that spirit because that’s what made their life bearable or they naturally had that spirit – but there was a kind of optimism that we had to capture. Abbie Cornish, she’s a wonderful actress and I think we’re going to see so much of her to come. She was my first choice. She was unavailable. And I’m like, “That’s not possible. Can’t we delay the movie?” “No, we can’t. No, we can’t.” So I’m looking at all these girls and they’re very talented but they’re not right. And I’m like, “Can you make it work? Can you make it work?” So I’m delaying. I’m like looking, looking, looking. Then her agent calls up and says, “Abbie read your script. She loves it. She wants to be in your movie.” I was like, “Oh my God, how does this call happen?” And they’re like, “And she wants to audition.” I didn’t say to them “She doesn’t have to audition.” I would hire her anyway because I’ve seen “Candy” and Somersault” and she’s amazing. She flew from Australia all the way to Texas and we did an old-fashioned screen test, and what a joy. I love my cast.

Question: Why nine years between films?

Kimberly Peirce: I think it’s going to be eight when this comes out. First of all, Boys Don’t Cry was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I fell in love with that character, that story. I was in grad school when I made it. It was a huge joy. I was kind of surprised when I came out of grad school and I had this wonderful Hollywood career. For me, it’s about emotional truth. It’s about stories that I love so I knew that was what I wanted to do. I started working on another story. I won’t bore you with the details. It’s a story that will eventually get made, The William Desmond Taylor murder. If you knew the research I did. I went to the King Vidor collection. I got everything that had ever been written on it. We solved the murder mystery. We figured out who did it, how they did it, and how and why it had to be covered up. It was an amazing experience. Hollywood basically covered up this murder along with the government to protect the industry that was about to be erased, and to protect America’s innocence.

Question: How useful was Vidor’s book?

Kimberly Peirce: Very useful. I read Vidor’s scripts too. What was interesting was that Vidor came to a conclusion about the murder in order to protect somebody so we had to read between the lines on Vidor’s research, so I went back to his estate and I got all the… A number of documents had been stolen. But anyway, we’ll talk about that at the next press conference when I make that movie. I’d cast that movie, Annette Bening, Hugh Jackman, Ben Kingsley, Evan Rachel Wood—a dream cast. The studios said, “We love this movie.” I was on the one-yard line. We were going to shoot it and they said, “We would love to shoot a $30 million version of this movie, but we would like to pay for the $20 million version.” I was like, “Should I cut $10 million?” They were like, “No, we want to see the $30 million version, but we want to pay for the $20 million version.” This is the thing that people should understand about directors’ careers. Unfortunately, if you want to do stuff that you really believe in and really love, it can take longer than you would like it to take. I was offered millions of dollars and I was offered a number of projects. As I would go down the road with them, for me, it really is about telling stories that I love and that are meaningful to me. I couldn’t just pick up a script and do it if I didn’t believe in it because every day of my life is living and breathing the movie. It really is. Every decision I make has to do with character. It has to do with story. As long as those characters and those stories are something that I know are solid, that the story comes from the characters, you can throw me in any situation. You can say to me you need to cut that in half. You need to get rid of that scene. You need to do this. I do what I do because it’s based on character so when Hollywood’s offering me these movies, which I appreciate, if they’re not coming from rich characters, it’s not worth it to me. So I lost some time with the William Desmond Taylor story. But I think you never really lose time with art. What ends up happening is I learned a tremendous amount. Literally, the next week, that was the end of ’03, I picked up my video camera and I started interviewing soldiers. And I paid for all the research and I paid for writing the script. So I wrote it on spec which a person in my situation who can get lots of money to work in Hollywood, it’s really unusual. I was friends with a lot of studio heads who said, “Oh my God, these stories about the war are amazing. Do you want us to develop it with you?” And I was like, “You know what, let me just develop it on my own.” Because right now I wake up and I buy a cheap ticket and I go to Paris, Illinois and I interview the homecoming of a 1,000 soldiers, and I don’t have to call somebody and say, “Oh my God, this is interesting.” I just have to say, “Oh my God, it’s interesting. Let me book the ticket.” We gave the financiers and the studios a finished screenplay that we were willing to shoot. Then we cut together the soldier-made videos and images from all over America where I’d interviewed soldiers, gave it to the studios with the rock music and they saw it was going to be a young, hunky cast. It was inherently commercial. I gave it to them on Friday and by Sunday morning we had four studios and two financiers that not only wanted to buy the screenplay but make the movie. The deal was you buy it, you make it.

Question: Ryan said when you first spoke with him, you didn’t think he was right for the role? He had to prove to you he could do it.

Kimberly Peirce: That’s what an actor does in an audition.

Question: Are you going to go back to the William Desmond Taylor project or are you planning on taking a break?

Kimberly Peirce: No. I’m definitely not taking a break. I’m having too much fun working. I love making movies. I will go back to that project. It’s a really valuable lesson that I learned because I do personal, intense, emotional stories, and it’s all about character. They can be wildly commercial. They can be huge audiences but the timing has to be right. So I have to see. If the timing is right, we’ll make that movie. And if the timing is not right, that just means if the world wants it to be made, if not, then I will do another one of the scripts I’m working on. I’m working on two scripts right now. One is a romantic comedy. Everybody’s totally shocked by that. It’s actually a very funny story that’s true. It’s a gender twist on a classic romantic comedy. I’m writing another dark, sexual story. Again, I just have to see if they’re ready to go because you can just feel it. The culture just makes it when they are. I’m also reading scripts and kind of focusing on a political thriller that’s realistic, that’s fantastic, that’s coming out of a studio.

Question: A Canadian question. Did your researchers tell you that it’s possible to get a good-looking Canadian passport for $1,000?

Kimberly Peirce: Yeah. [laughs] Of course, especially the good-looking part. That’s all based on real interviews. There are people who actually help soldiers go over the border. What’s really interesting is during Vietnam, American soldiers, well anybody, could go to the border and you could actually get a passport at the border. If you were on the run, you could get a passport at the border. I think 50,000 or 60,000 American soldiers went over. The laws have changed. So now if you’re AWOL, to get citizenship in Canada you have to apply from the country you’re coming from – well these guys can’t do that—and you have to wait two years. So now we have between 200 and 300 American soldiers up there because I interviewed Josh Key, Jeremy Hinzman, Brandon Hughey, and Michelle Roubidoux. It’s amazing they’re over there, and they can’t get citizenship because …

Question: They’re fighting extradition?

Kimberly Peirce: Exactly. They can’t get citizenship. That’s been rejected. And they can’t get refugee status. That’s been rejected. The Parliament in April is going to be determining whether they let them stay or not, whether they deport them. So it’s a very interesting issue how linked Canada and America are. You can go to Mexico but most Americans are probably going to find the life in Canada more reflective of their life in America than Mexico.

Question: Do they go to military prison if deported?

Kimberly Peirce: What I understand is it’s Iraq or jail but by the time you cross the border and then come back, the only option may be Iraq. We don’t know, because nobody’s been deported. Look to April or May and we’ll get the answer to that. It’s fascinating reading if you look it up.

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