From The Vault: Kimberly Peirce - Stop-Loss









With Kimberly Peirce about to return with a remake of Carrie, we look back at Stephen Applebaum's interview with the director about her Iraq war film, Stop-Loss, from The Australian.


Armed with opinion   

US soldiers are starting to speak out about the unseen cost of going to war, writes Stephen Applebaum      

From: The Australian      

May 17, 2008 

KIMBERLY Peirce looked destined for a glittering Hollywood career when her debut feature, Boys Don't Cry, made her the critics' darling and won Hilary Swank an Oscar for best actress as murdered transsexual Brandon Teena. Instead, she disappeared.
Nine years later, Peirce has re-emerged with Stop-Loss, the latest film out of Hollywood to explore the effect of the Iraq war on American soldiers. Like Boys, it comes straight from the filmmaker's heart. But why has it taken so long?

"Boys Don't Cry was a huge passion project that I started in grad school," Peirce says. "I fell in love with that character, fell in love with the story, and that kind of set the artistic bar high for me in that it made me think I could make very personal movies that were about my family and my country, my gender and all that, through my whole career."

After Boys, she buried herself in another pet project, Silent Star, and spent two years co-writing a screenplay at DreamWorks. Peirce says she got as far as assembling a cast, then the studio decided the film was too expensive and cut the purse strings.

She was attached to various high-profile projects, including Memoirs of a Geisha, but nothing worked out, especially her desire to tell personal stories. While the studios will happily pump money into projects they've initiated, it is a different matter when a filmmaker brings an idea to them, Peirce says.

"There's always going to be this questioning of whether it's commercial or not. So that is something that you have to be careful of, because you can end up losing years of your career."

Following the collapse of Silent Star at the end of 2003, Peirce turned to an idea that had been brewing since 9/11. She used to live in Manhattan and experienced the shock of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and the aftermath.

"New York was in this state of mourning, and then America declared war," she says. "And you could just feel, particularly as a New Yorker, that the whole culture was changing."

Fascinated by the reasons young American men, including her brother, were signing up to fight, Peirce began interviewing soldiers. Studio chiefs were interested in the stories she was hearing and asked her to develop a movie with them. Frustrated by her experiences, however, she wanted to do it alone.

"I literally just picked up a video camera and I just used all my own money going round the country interviewing people and collecting soldiers' videos," she says.

Everyone had their personal reasons for enlisting, she discovered. "For some men in America it is the way to be a man. There's a certain type of American patriotism where you put on a uniform, you go out there and you fight, and it's like the most manly thing one can do, in some people's minds. In other people's minds it was like, 'I'm willing to die to get them.' You know, they wanted to defend the country."

Different attitudes were reflected in the soldier-made videos that Peirce first came across through her brother, and they inform the tone ofStop-Loss.

"I would get a DVD of 20 videos by a unit and every guy was trying to tell their own little story in a certain way."

Some were cut to patriotic songs such as Toby Keith's Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue; others had aggressive images and heavy metal music, giving the videos a "don't f..k with America kind of feel", Peirce says. "I knew that was a new way of soldiers expressing themselves, and I wanted to capture that."

She also studied classic films, such as LaGrande Illusion (World War I), The Best Years of Our Lives (World War II), Apocalypse Now and Coming Home (Vietnam).

"I think war affects human beings similarly through history and across nations," she offers. "I think combat takes away a part of a person's humanity. Killing another person, I believe it stays with you forever."

Did her brother's Iraq experiences change him? "Yes, definitely," is as much as she willreveal.
As Peirce was working on a storyline about a "band of brothers" returning from the war, she heard from a soldier in Iraq, asking if she knew of a policy called stop-loss. She hadn't. He said it was a "backdoor draft" by which the Government was "involuntarily extending the tours of soldiers who have already fulfilled their contract, and were recycling the guys who should be getting out".

In the film, a patriotic sergeant (played by Ryan Phillippe) goes absent without leave after he is stop-lossed. The movie is driven by a fiery sense of injustice, and Peirce says she wants it understood that men who are willing to lay down their lives for the US are being imprisoned in the military system.

"As the writer-director, though, I can't make the character speak for me."

Interestingly, she says the policy of stop-loss is radicalising men who would otherwise toe the line. Like Phillippe's character, the soldier who told her about it was a true-blue patriot. And part of being patriotic in the US, at least among a section of the population, is not speaking out against the military or the government, Peirce says. "This was not a guy who was going to take to the street," she says.
"He was not a political activist. But the minute you screw his buddy, he's going to get political. Then he's going to have an opinion."

Judging by the movie's website, which provides a forum for soldiers, their families and the public to exchange experiences and views, there are a lot of people who want to be heard.

"What's exciting is being able to give voice to these people," Peirce says.

"It's up to us to speak for them, but also we have to get their voice out there."

Stephen Applebaum, 2008

Trailer for Carrie:


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