When Kimberly Peirce’s 18-year old brother enlisted in the army after 9/11, she was devastated. Suddenly, Peirce was part of a military family and by 2003 her brother was fighting in Iraq. To better understand what he was going through, the Boys Don’t Cry director began interviewing soldiers, en route to making a documentary about the quintessential soldier experience. Back in Iraq, Peirce’s brother text-messaged her the story of a fellow solider who had been stop-lossed, sent back into combat against his will, even though his tour of duty was up. Peirce was stunned to discover that over 81,000 soldiers had fallen victim to the stop-loss policy, and decided to make it the backbone of her film, which would now become a drama. The result is Stop-Loss, a ragged and demanding film that examines the effects of the current war without exploiting the men and women who experience them. Opening this Friday, it stars Ryan Phillippe as a soldier who returns to his small Texan town, only to discover that he’s been called back and has no choice but to return to Iraq—unless he runs.
It’s the latest in a slew of films about the Iraq war, but Phillippe is quick to note what sets it apart from the others. “The difference between our film and the other Iraq-related films is that ours is strictly from the soldier’s perspective,” he says. “There’s no political agenda and I think it’s a mistake for Hollywood to tell people what to think.” We sat down with Peirce at the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss her sophomore film, the war, and well, every single thing that has happened to her until now.
Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish in Stop-Loss.
BLACKBOOK: Take me through your trajectory as a filmmaker. How did you get to where you are today?
KIMBERLY PEIRCE: You want me to go all the way back to when I was born?
BB: I would, but we only have fifteen minutes. You started in photojournalism, but segued into film because photos weren’t “enough.”
KP: I was living in Japan and photographing a ton. I had a dark room in Kyoto and I was obsessed with character, and people, and place, and colors.
BB: Why Japan?
KP: My step-grandmother is Japanese and my boyfriend was Korean, and he was studying Japanese history. So I quit college for financial reasons, and rather than be poor in Chicago, I decided to do something interesting. It was the greatest adventure of my life.
BB: And how did you get involved in photography?
KP: I actually made Super 8 movies as a kid. Later, I bought my first camera and literally shot everything. It was like shot-shot-shot-shot, develop-develop-develop-develop. Then I went back to school and started studying with a guy named Keith Rankin. He was doing video, and I was doing film, and it became really clear that I enjoyed photography. I would take a series of shots, and create a story for the school newspaper. I was going to go to grad school to become an English professor, but one of my teachers was like, “You know that’s not what you want to do. You don’t want to be a professional academic, you want to be a filmmaker.” And I was like, I do? I didn’t have the confidence yet. And she told me to apply to film school, so I applied to NYU and Columbia and got the biggest scholarships they had.
Channing Tatum in Stop-Loss.
BB: Both schools have great programs, so how did you make the choice?
KP: It was literally the hardest decision of my life. It took weeks and weeks of constant debate, but I ultimately went with Columbia because there was an emphasis on scriptwriting, working with actors, and they were willing to use video, whereas NYU focused on film. That appealed to me because I really had an inherent sense that my job was to become a great storyteller.
BB: Are you at all surprised by your success?
KP: I’m amazed, but I didn’t go into this to get a career. I’m always asked by students, “Should I be at Sundance hob-knobbing with people?” And I say, God, no! Just tell a good story. If you tell a good story people will figure it out.
BB: What is your writing process like?
KP: I co-write. I could probably write on my own, but I’m very good verbally—Frank Capra actually talks about this in his book The Name Above the Title. Have you ever read that?
BB: I haven’t.
KP: It’s one of the most entertaining books of all time. He talks about the wars he and Harry Cohen had at Columbia, and I’m like, how can directors and studio heads fight so much? Well, you make movies and you figure it out. But what’s beautiful is that he talks about the aural tale. When they built comedies, they would tell jokes and try to one-up each other. It was all about verbal telling. So when we were writing Boys Don’t Cry, Andy, my writing partner and I, we would start at Columbia and walk all the way downtown and we would write by telling each other the story.
BB: Some people have accused Stop-Loss of being preachy—
KP: I haven’t seen those reviews.
BB: They came from a few movie blogs after the SXSW screening.
KP: Oh. I just read Peter Travers’ review in Rolling Stone, which made total sense to me. And I’ve had a number of them like Peter’s, and I’ve been in 22 cities around the country, and so many people have come to me and thanked me for not having an agenda and for making an emotionally honest movie, for making a movie about the camaraderie between soldiers, which is what it’s all about. I didn’t find out about stop-loss until quite late.
Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum in Stop-Loss.
BB: So, stop-loss gave the film direction?
KP: What was the emblematic story of this generation? It was people signing up after 9/11 for patriotic reasons—to protect their home, their family, and their country. But they go over there, and they realize, as any soldier will tell you, that it’s not about any of that. It’s about protecting the soldier to your left and the soldier to your right. It’s about keeping them alive.
BB: What was the focus of your original story?
KP: The soldiers in this war face the challenges of urban combat. It’s very hard to protect yourself and not kill innocent people. You don’t know who’s going to be in that car or on the other side of that door. You don’t know who the enemy is. So we have two guys, both patriots, both enlisted together, but who have totally different reactions. One guy says, “I did what I had to do for the time I had to do it, and I’m not going to do it anymore. I can’t have any more of my men killed.” He comes home and that’s fine because he’s done. The other guy says, “I realize I don’t really like being home and I kind of want to go back to war. I feel better there.” So it was a story of these two friends who loved each other and were dependent on each other, being cleaved apart by their different experiences.
BB: Is stop-loss something that you are in outright opposition to?
KP: I listen to the soldiers and they say it’s a backdoor draft, that it’s recycling the soldiers who have already done their job. From their point of view, it seems unfair. Of course I care about it, but my movie always starts from character and my curiosity about humanity. And I was curious about the people who were signing up to fight and their relationships with one another. The movie is about that brotherhood, that’s its heart and soul.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Stop-Loss.
BB: What were some of the revelations you experienced in your research on soldiers?
KP: Soldiers told me that these are the most profound experiences and relationships of their life. They feel emboldened and actualized, so much so that they’re willing to die for another person.
BB: Did you watch other “coming home” movies as inspiration?
KP: Tons. I’m a big fan of war movies. BB: So this a war movie then?
KP: No. Okay, let’s say I’m a big fan of soldier movies.
BB: Did you watch Born On The Fourth of July?
KP: Love that movie! Have you seen The Best Years of Our Lives?
KP: All Quiet on the Western Front?
KP: Apocalypse Now?
KP: Rock on! To watch videos submitted to the Stop-Loss website by soldiers and their families, click here! Photo of Kimberly Peirce courtesy of Jasmine McGlade