Photo: Jasmine McGlade
Kimberly Peirce
“I think it is tremendously important to free yourself. I know a number of people who will not work unless they're paid a lot of money to do so, and honestly, I think that kills you. It simply deadens your creativity.”
War, Lies, and Video Tape
Written by Tara de Bach

It took nine years, but writer-director-producer Kimberly Peirce's feature follow-up to the Academy Award-winning Boys Don't Cry, is a topical, poignant, and disconcerting look at America's military underbelly. Her sophomore effort Stop-Loss, scripted with writing partner Mark Richard, digs deep beneath the current administration's policy of retaining soldiers beyond their required term of service and reveals its devastating effect on them, their families, and their communities.

Stop-Loss is a decided departure from her well-regarded debut, but for Peirce, the film is no less personal or heartfelt. She first heard about the policy from her younger brother, who, while serving in Iraq, sent her a text message about a decorated soldier who had been “stop-lossed” by the Army. “The term immediately caught my attention,” Peirce recalls. “'Stop-loss?' What does that mean? The term just really stuck.” Peirce began conducting research and interviewing soldiers to learn how their lives had been impacted by the practice. She discovered that the policy has affected over 80,000 servicemen and women, and created a moral gray area where these soldiers are often forced to choose between their sense of duty to their country and doing what they think is professionally, emotionally, and ethically right.

The Writers Guild of America, West Web site sat down with Peirce to discuss the inspiration behind her new film and the advice she gives aspiring filmmakers trying to navigate the minefields of Hollywood.

How did the idea for Stop-Loss come about?

I was in New York during 9/11. I spent the day with friends watching the towers fall, and it was devastating. After the many vigils for the victims and the on-going discussions with friends and family, you could really feel a seismic shift in our culture. Then my younger brother enlisted in the Army shortly thereafter, and suddenly everything became more personal. We were not a typical military family. We didn't have the history, and none of my friends were in the military. We didn't even know anyone in the military, and yet, suddenly we were a military family. Frankly, I was really worried because here's my baby brother, who represents pure innocence to me, suddenly in harm's way.

Photo: © 2008 Paramount Pictures
Ryan Phillippe in Stop-Loss.
So it was a number of factors in combination that created an intense desire to really understand what it means to be a soldier, understand the emotional and spiritual toll it takes on these tremendously brave men and women. So in an effort to better understand what he was going through, I started making a documentary on our soldiers. On my brother's leave from Iraq, I watched soldier-shot and edited images of the war raids -- soldiers cruising in Humvees, combat, everything. The soldiers would mount their cameras on guns and sandbags, and then they'd put them to music. From there, it was like a very intimate world opened up to me with regard to these soldiers' lives. The film ultimately blossomed organically from there.

Along the way, I flew out and interviewed a number of [“stop-lossed”] soldiers. I heard countless stories, and that's how I discovered that they have very little recourse. A number of these incredibly brave soldiers had gone to their commanders with no success. Some brought a class-action lawsuit, which failed, and there were those that were thrown in jail, while others were going AWOL… Many of these men and women were sent back to second and third tours that were deadly. It's truly heartbreaking.

And yet it's interesting that the film is not anti-military. Was that a conscious choice?

That's right, it's a pro-soldier film. I am not a political activist, and that is not the tone of the movie. These men and women are honoring their country. They believe in the codes they live by. What I took away from talking to these guys was, when you're in the war zone, what it really comes down to is survival. It's about the profound relationship with the soldier on your right and the soldier on your left. The thread that runs through these characters, the heart and soul of the film, is that some of these men are at a point where they are unable to fight. Sgt. Brandon King [played by Ryan Phillippe] is a leader, who signed up, fought, and had his men killed, and you witness the unraveling of his soul. When a soldier consistently engages these unconventional IED [improvised explosive device] attacks, car bombs, literally fighting in somebody's kitchen, it diminishes the soldier's ability to really protect themselves and their men. If Brandon can't lead his men to safety, these brothers he so valiantly wants to protect, he feels he's unable to fight. It's one soldier's journey -- a journey of friendship, patriotism, innocence, and humanity.

So the concept of the film grew from what initially was going to be a documentary into a feature film because of the very personal nature of these soldiers' experiences?

Exactly. It became more about how do you get inside the universal quality of war? At the same time, I felt a duty to make it as unique and as specific as possible. These soldiers have very intimate, specific, individual stories to tell. This is the YouTube generation, and the script was borne out of videos and the need for these soldiers to be heard, to tell their tales. I've gone to a number of the screenings for our film, and it's empowering for these soldiers to feel heard.

How difficult was it for you to get this very action-oriented, war genre film made, given the fact that a) you're a woman, and b) this is such a departure from Boys Don't Cry?

Well, I come from the indie world. [Mark and] I decided to essentially do the film on spec. All of the research and development we paid for ourselves. That way you don't have to justify anything. If you feel it's worthwhile, you do the interview and make the effort because it's coming out of your own pocket. We began writing on weekends, and when that wasn't moving quickly enough, Mark quit his job [laughs] against my advice, and he moved in with me for a short time. We literally wrote day and night.

When we were happy with the script, I then cut together a video of many of the soldiers -- truly profound and moving images of what's going on over there -- on missions, in alleys, in Humvees, just an assortment of images. At the end of the day, we had four studios that wanted to buy the script. So when students or aspiring filmmakers ask me for advice, I tell them, “Write a script that moves you, shoot it, and create your own calling card. Just do it.”

If the script or concept had been an open assignment for this film, I think [my credits or being a woman] might have been an obstacle, but after the film clip, script, and presentation, people were confident I could deliver the movie.

During those nine years in between features, you spent some time working in television. How does writing or directing for TV differ for you as far as the creative process?

Creatively, I think it is tremendously important to free yourself. I know a number of people who will not work unless they're paid a lot of money to do so, and honestly, I think that kills you. It simply deadens your creativity. I don't operate that way. I'm never going to say, “I won't pick up the pen or pencil unless I get 'X.'”

Television and film are separate entities, but both feed a different part of the creative process, and you can really use television to hone your skill set. There's a camaraderie on a film set that is fantastic, and often, whatever I'm working on [in film] can touch greater depths in me artistically. But at the end of the day, working is what keeps you creative, simply doing.