After an explosive entry to the cinematic world with the hard-hitting, Academy Award-winning Boys Don't Cry, Kimberly Peirce backed away from the movie spotlight. However, it wasn't a vacation. During her hiatus, she worked on a project that came to be Stop Loss, which hits DVD shelves today. Last week, Cinematical got the chance to talk to the director about the film, how she approaches filmmaking, and what her plans for the future are. It's a great discussion about how her life influences her work, and vice versa, and it's quite interesting when she discusses casting with a military metaphor.
However, her work's not done in the world of stop loss. While the movie is out to audiences, she continues to champion the soldiers suffering due to this practice. She's speaking in Washington, D.C. on the matter, and helping the cause through stoplossmovie.com -- where you can check out a collection of videos made by soldiers and their families.
Cinematical: I read once that you worked as a photographer overseas. How has this helped you as a director, and did this come into play when you traveled overseas to film part of Stop Loss?
Kimberly Peirce: Oh yeah, definitely. I quit college when I was 19. I got my first camera and went over to live in Japan. I lived there for two years, which I think really helped my directing. You spend a lot of time as a photographer looking, particularly when you're in a foreign culture like Japan. Not fully understanding the language, you have to make sense of gestures and what people are doing. You have to kind of understand it by watching, and the great thing about being a photographer was not only was I watching, but I was trying to capture human relationships in a moment. I did that for a number of years, and then I realized that I wanted to move into moving pictures. I mean, I had made little super 8 movies as a kid, but I really took it very, very seriously once I went over to Japan.
Cinematical: You're from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but both of your features have a distinct Southern feel. Is this coincidence, or is there something about that backdrop that particularly attracts you?
KP: I think what you have is a very middle of America feel. It does happen to be in Texas and Nebraska, but I think what I'm really drawn to is a certain social strata. The people that I have written about so far have not been unlike the Peirce boys who were these tough boys in Harrisburg -- working class, kind of middle of America sort of feel. I think, in a way, I've really been drawn towards replicating moments of the early part of my family history. I'm really interested in family. I'm very interested in emotional relationships. I'm very interested in my country. I'm very moved by issues that my country is facing. So I think I tend to find stories that will allow me to work in that milieu because I think that makes ... it's a thing that I can dramatize in very clearly. I studied classic drama; I went to Columbia; I went to Sundance; and I think that those stories allow me to take the best of things.
Cinematical: Both of your features are based in truth, either directly or indirectly. How do you go about researching and developing them?
KP: Well, first, something totally takes over my life. I read about the Brandon Teena story when I was in grad school, and I didn't remember a day after that when it wasn't totally in my life and my responsibility. I just bought a cheap plane ticket and went to the murder trial with a group of transsexuals -- the Transsexual Menace -- and took my video camera and interviewed them, interviewed everybody in the town. I just get very interested in something when I don't fully understand, but I do have inclinations about, and I just record everything and sift through the information. Norman Mailer talks about this he says that at a certain point, when you've listened to enough of the story, even if there are discrepancies or lies you begin to know the fundamental truth.
Same thing with this. I was in New York for 9/11. I saw the towers fall. I've been living there for fifteen years. All my friends came over. We started to go to vigils for the victims. New York was in a state of mourning, and that's really important. I don't know that the rest of the country understood that. And then America declared war. It represented such a seismic change from where I was coming from and it scared me. I know that wars ... I've studied them, and I'm interested in them, and they forever change the people who fight in them. They forever change the cultures that fight them. I knew I needed to make a movie about soldiers, so I immediately picked up my video camera and started interviewing people. I have my own instincts, but I feel that particularly if I'm going to write about something that's happening, I have a responsibility to listen.
But then my own baby brother signed up, and my family was thrust, pretty much front and center, into dealing with the war on a daily basis. And again, I just kept interviewing. And by interviewing soldiers, I began to understand what the emblematic story for the soldiers and for the generation was, and that was where I wrote it from.
Cinematical: You just mentioned the underlying truth to a story. In a movie like Stop Loss, that has more action and cuts, how do you keep focused on that truth?
KP: Well, I think the action, all the movement and all that stuff are wonderful, wonderful elements that we as directors have at our disposal to engage you, to move you, to touch you. But I think that the thing that you're always trying to do... It's interesting you bring that up, because say, when I'm shooting a war sequence, I have four cameras going. That's the only way you can shoot action. I have explosions, and I have bullets, and I have people getting hurt and people running. How do I keep the story going? I always go back to the main character. Who is he, in this case. What does he want? How does he go about getting it? As long as I can keep you situated and in the shoes of the character, the protagonist Brandon King... All he wants to do is protect his men; he wants to bring them home safe; he wants to try not to kill innocent people. You're going to identify with that as a goal because that's a reasonable goal. That's what most of us would want in that situation. And then, as he strives to do that, you're going to identify with him, hopefully. So that's how I keep it organized. It's always about the main character trying to pursue their emotional and physical needs.
Cinematical: How did you go about finding the perfect actors for these roles, like Ryan Phillipe's Brandon King?
KP: I was very fortunate, as I have been in both movies, that I've been able to actually cast the movie. Nowadays, there are these lists, oftentimes in order to get the movie made you have to cast off the list, and it needs to be this person or that person. While I totally appreciate that as a business model, it makes sense, you've created a story about real people -- you want it to be authentic to real people and you want it to be authentic to the material. I've been fortunate that I've been able to cast both movies. Kerry Barden did a great job on Boys Don't Cry, and Avy Kaufman did a great job on this movie. Scott Rudin is also very, very smart about casting.
We just went out and said look, we need young people. They can't be 33 years old. They needed to be accurate to the age. They needed to feel like real soldiers. So, I had real soldiers sitting in on the casting sessions, and literally saying, "I wouldn't go to work with that guy." If the soldier's feeling was "I wouldn't trust that guy as a guy," then we couldn't cast him, because I couldn't have soldiers coming to the movie and saying" I wouldn't go to war with that guy." So it's a very emotional, deep process that I love to do, but you literally go role by role.
With Ryan, I needed a soldier who could be a man's man, who could lead these guys into battle, and seem intelligent enough that they would trust him. He would be a passionate patriot, and would, at the same time when he saw his men getting killed and he saw innocent people dying, start to question whether this was what he wanted to do. When he came home and he wanted to put it behind him, and they stop loss him, he would have a very strong reaction against that. And he would do something that, in a way, was irrational, by breaking out. Well, I needed an actor who could bring you inside of that story. That was most important.
Then, secondarily, there was Steve. I needed the guy who was the strong, tough soldier who would run into that house even though that maybe wasn't the smartest thing to do. But he was the guy ... you would also trust him with your life because he was a little irrational. And that's just what you do. You go person by person, and then you look at everybody and you find the actor that has essentially the life need and the ability to play that role. Then you enlist them, and then you train them, and push them as far as they can possibly go. I mean, I love my cast.
Cinematical: I thought it was very interesting that you included the fallen brother sequence. After all the action in the beginning, you just took a moment to remember/honor the characters we had just gotten to know. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to include that montage?
KP: I'm really happy that we included that. We knew that we were going to use soldier-made videos throughout, that were inspired by real soldier videos that soldiers had been bringing back for me. They would take the video camera and put it on a humvee, put it on a sandbag, or tie it to the gun turret and film their experience, come back, and edit it together -- and then add rock music. So, they would either put it to Toby Keith's "I'm an American Soldier," which is highly patriotic. Or, they'd put it to rock music to express their anger. Some of them put it to rap music like the 4th-25th, which is actually a real unit that we used. Or, some of them would put it to very sentimental music, and it would be in honor of fallen soldiers.
I had all these videos, and I started to figure out what they were because soldiers don't say. Having watched hundreds and hundreds of them, I started understanding, oh they sort of fall into these categories. It wasn't until the middle of editing that we knew that we needed four different videos. We ran the risk of it being repetitive to have another war video, because we had just gotten through the war section, and then it just became so obvious in the editing. We were going to show that Rico had been injured, but he had survived, and that the guys were thinking about him. And we wanted to tie the battle sequence to the coming home sequence. So it just came about in editing. And I really have to credit Claire Simpson, she cut Platoon and Constant Gardener, and she's just brilliant. She's my editor. I'm not sure if it was her idea, or if it came about between the two of us, but she was wonderful with the videos, and so we realized that this was what we needed. There was going to be an acknowledgment of the fallen soldiers, that was going to be forever with them as they came home.
There actually used to be a shot in the movie where you saw a coffin, and when they were on the bus, they saw the coffin and that made them all depressed. Well, in talking to a bunch of military guys, we realized that that was unrealistic. You were not going to see a coffin from the bus. So, that turned into "Oh, we'll have one of these videos, because that would be authentic, and what the soldiers actually do to honor the other fallen soldiers." So it came about very organically from the characters and the story.
Cinematical: You've mentioned the music that these soldiers have used in their own videos. Did that influence your musical choices in the film?
KP: Absolutely. I mean, I did that on Boys and I did that here. When I'm working on a movie, particularly about real people, I gather everything I can about them and music is very important to me. So, every song that you see in the film either was directly from a soldier video that I saw, or it was influenced by a soldier video in terms of the feeling of it. And Toby Keith is HUGE. They would listen to Toby Keith all the time, and the great thing was shooting that opening, we were just improv-ing and Joe Gordon Levitt picked up the guitar and started singing "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue," and the amazing thing was all the other actors knew the words. They all just started singing, and it was really obvious that that was a thing that not only what the soldiers sang, but what my young actors sang.
Cinematical: You've mentioned the inspiration that came from your brother and the other soldiers. How did they react to the film?
KP: Oh, soldiers have loved the movie, which has been phenomenal. We went to 24 cities, I showed it to soldiers who were both pro the mission and anti the mission at this point, wounded warriors, soldier's families, and over and over what I got was: "Thank you for making an emotional movie. Thank you for making a movie that got it right. Thank you for making a movie that's emotionally moving." Because it's very cathartic for them to see reflections of themselves in the movies, and what they said is that people don't always take the time to make it from a soldier's point of view. That's what was really satisfying -- to bring it back to the community of soldiers.
Cinematical: As a female director, how did you go about tackling the masculinity and brotherhood of Stop Loss?
KP: Well, I think that masculinity is something that really interests me, so I started out watching soldiers and listening to them. I have instincts about it anyway. But then, knowing that I needed to get as deeply inside each of these characters and their relationships with one another as possible, the most profound thing that I heard every soldier say was that the most profound experience that they had was the camaraderie that they feel. They get over there, and they don't necessarily feel that they can protect one another, and they don't feel that they can necessarily avoid killing innocent people, and it's really challenging, but the camaraderie is the most important thing they feel.
So, in order to get inside of that? I hung out with the boys a lot, really got them to trust me. I let them treat me like one of the guys -- say whatever they want, do whatever they want. It was really great -- the level of trust that we had, and that they let me be a part as much as possible about how men are together alone, which was really important. That was the main thing, too -- allowing them to teach me when there was something that I didn't know, because it was most important that we capture the camaraderie and the masculinity between the men.
Cinematical: The DVD shows how the actors went to boot camp to get a taste of what it is like to be a soldier. Did you participate in any of that? Or, was it just for the actors?
KP: That was just for the actors. I certainly went and visited, and I talked with Jim Dever about what they would do, but he really is the mastermind behind it. 25 years in the marines, and he's trained soldiers, so it was really his thing. But I would give him things that were important to me -- that I wanted to make sure that physically, they were fully challenged. I put other Iraq war vets into the boot camp with them, because I wanted them to share war stories at night, and that they would learn from them. I had influence on it, and I went and visited a lot, and saw the results, but no, I didn't go to the boot camp. There's so many things that you wish you could do, but when you're prepping the movie, you're just working 24-7.
Cinematical: Many of your actors have noted your ability to pinpoint certain characteristics or feelings to pull out their best performance. How do you hone in on these aspects?
KP: You go back to the original inspiration: the soldiers, my brother. It was understanding what these young men are going through, how they're being forever changed, and how they're coming home and changing the people around them. So, knowing that that's what I'm focusing on, then we design each character to be a representation of a true human being and to advance the story. Then, when it comes time to work with the actor, I understand what the emotional life need of that character is.
For Brandon, it's to bring these men home safe, and to move on with his life. When that gets challenged, the obstacle is urban warfare -- it is so difficult to save his men from danger, or it's so difficult to know who the innocent is and who the innocent isn't. When he comes home, and he gets stop lossed, and he can't be free -- because I know what the character wants, when the obstacle comes in, I feel what they go through.
I have to be an empath during shooting. I intellectually understand that character, and emotionally, I try to put myself as if I'm in the same circumstances. Then, I can help focus them. Like: "Okay, that's what you're being challenged by right now. You're trying to keep your soldier alive. He is bleeding." I remind them of the circumstances because you're making a movie and you can see the circumstances, right around you as an actor, but sometimes you have to be reminded of the wider circumstances. "You guys have been out here for a year. You guys have been fighting. You were about to go home, and you just got hit." A lot of the director's job is to reemphasize what the core nature of the scene is about. Also, in movies you shoot out of order, so the director is kind of the keeper of the narrative, and I think that's really what we do for actors. We clarify what their need is, what their obstacles are, and what their feelings, response, and actions might be. I think that you're really there for them in that way.
Cinematical: I found it interesting when Channing Tatum was talking on the DVD about how he has the sniper mentality, and how everything in his life has to be really specific. It wasn't just his shooting, but also that his actions had to have that sniper quality.
KP: He was also a character who the order of the military gave him a backbone in his life. It gave him a necessary order, which is something I found among a lot of young men. Their lives perhaps lacked a certain order, but the reason they loved the military is that they liked having someone tell them what to do. They liked being really great at a certain job. So, being able to perform the physical activities, being a good sniper, being a good soldier gave him a sense of self worth. And it was interesting that he was getting that from the military. And then of course, you factor in that you're killing people at the same time, and I think that's where it becomes very complicated for these young men.
Cinematical: Now you're working on a new project called Sex, Secrets, and Taboo in Suburbia. What exactly is it about?
KP: You know, in fact, that's a movie that I'm very passionate about, and I'll probably make second to this next movie. I'm writing a romantic comedy right now, which is based on a real-life story that I lived through. It is so hilarious, and I think, so great. But the funny thing is, I never thought...
It is really funny. I tape myself, and I've been writing it, and I said, "Okay, it's a little too wild for Hollywood." But I was out recently with the head of the studio, and said, you know, "Do you want to hear a funny story?" And they thought it was hilarious, and said that I had to make that into a movie. So I said okay. It's been really exciting that something I've just been writing for the hell of it and telling my friends, now I'm going to make. It's a classic romantic comedy, with a big, big gender twist.
Cinematical: So this is just an opportunity to share a story you were writing about. There was no decision to move away from your serious fare and into something lighter?
KP: Well no, because I was actually writing the Sex and Suburbia one, which is dark, and I was also having lived through this very funny one, and I do a lot of performance. I tape myself and I was writing it and I was playing with both of them. But the funny thing is now that everyone wants me to make this romantic comedy, and I'm having such a blast doing it, It may be a reaction to having done such deep dark material. There's certainly something tragic in the comedy, meaning there's something bad that happens that's hilarious. But I am finding it refreshing to just laugh all the time. It also happened to a bunch of my friends, so I'm interviewing them and I can feel the difference -- between the weightiness of the material. I feel that that's sort of the climate of where the culture is. But it's a very human story. It's a great love story that happens to be funny.
Cinematical: When you were working on your dramas, how did you deal with the weight of the material? Did you have to pull yourself out of it at times?
KP: No, I don't feel the need to pull out. I mean, I think if anything, the Boys Don't Cry rape and murder was so upsetting to me that the only way I could move through it was to go deeply into it. But that also had ... I was very charmed by Brandon Teena. I found him hilarious and funny and engaging, so for me, there was another side to it. Same thing with this. To have my brother and my country go to war, and I've just been very upset about the number of Iraqis who have been killed, and very upset about what's happening to our soldiers being recycled. I think stop loss is completely unfair to them, and I think it's a reflection of the fact that the country and the soldiers don't want to be fighting this war. If anything, for me, when something is upsetting I go all the way into it as a way of getting through it. The release happens when I'm done, and then I am set free -- but that's because I've fully explored it as much as I can.
But the thing about Stop Loss -- I'm definitely having a blast working on this romantic comedy, I can't wait for it to come out -- but I'm still doing political work for Stop Loss. Since the release, we've been really fortunate. Nobody knew what stop loss was when I made the movie, and now, a hundred thousand soldiers have been stop lossed and stop loss has been on the front pages of nearly every publication. People now know what the term means. Obama, McCain, Hilary when she was in the running -- they've all come out against the policy of stop loss. It's making its way from the entertainment pages to the news pages and that to me is really, really important -- that we're starting to pay more attention to soldier welfare.
Cinematical: It's a great reward that has come from your film. Did you plan or hope for that when you were making it?
KP: I never could have imagined that it would have this impact. I mean, when I heard about stop loss, I was already writing a story about the soldiers. I cared about that. Then, when I heard about stop loss from a soldier who was in Iraq, on his missions, and he said, "Do you want to hear something fucked up?" He told me that they're recycling soldiers when they should be getting out, and it's a backdoor draft. When I heard that, I was so upset and outraged that I couldn't believe nobody knew about it, so I think that my fantasy was that we'll tell the human story and people will really understand what's happening to people. We'll raise awareness. I could not have imagined that it would become part of the presidential debates, that every one of the candidates would be talking about it, that it would be on the front pages. And it's affected policy in Canada -- they're now allowing our soldiers to stay. I have been invited to go Congress, who is going to have a compensation act for stop loss. I've been invited to speak at a DC press conference about it . I've addressed the national press club. I could never imagine any of that. My heart and soul goes into ... when I perceive something is wrong, I want to fix it. I give myself to it. I don't have any idea if it's going to actually matter.