The director of one of the most famous American indies, Boys Don't Cry, makes her big, belated return with the Iraq War homefront drama Stop-Loss. A challenging look at military policy and the damaging after-effects felt by our newest veterans, the film stars Ryan Philippe, Channing Tatum, and Abbie Cornish. I spoke with Kimberly Peirce at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
G: First of all, I'd like to ask—the press notes implied that you've been working on the film for a long time—as much as seven years.
Kimberly Peirce: I haven't been working on the film for seven years. Certainly, if I trace back when the film came into existence, it was on 9/11. But I didn't sit down and start making a movie seven years ago.
G: Right. Or at least not this movie.
KP: No, not this movie. I actually did—I was working on another movie I was very passionate about the William Desmond Taylor story. After Boys, I kind of had very high, for me, artistic and personal standards. And I wanted it to matter to me, so I fell in love with this story—it was actually a murder—a Hollywood director was murdered, and they covered it up to protect Hollywood and America's innocence. And it's this phenomenal story set in 1922—and we figured out who did it, how they did it and why it had to be covered up. And I ended up casting Annette Bening, Hugh Jackman, Ben Kingsley, Evan Rachel Wood—and we were ready to go—this was the end of '03—so I wasn't taking all that long to make my next movie, and the studio ran the numbers and they said, "We would love to see the $30 million version of this. We would love to spend $20 million. And we don't want to see the $20 million version." So that was that. So I lost some time. But it taught me a bunch of valuable lessons about knowing how to work. And that was that I paid for all the research on this, and then I wrote this on spec so that I could stay true to the material and just run with it. And not have to get into development situations with big corporations.
G: Can you talk a little bit about the development of the script, its evolution in your mind to where it got to, and also how you worked with your co-writer? What was the relationship there?
KP: Sure. So I was in New York when the Towers fell—devastated. Went to the vigils for the victims. America declared war. I knew we were in this midst of a seismic change. I knew I wanted to tell a movie about the soldiers—who they were, why they were signing up, what their experience in combat was, and what their experience coming home was. So you'll see that that's really in the movie. So I started interviewing soldiers all over the country. Then my little brother signed up. And we had a grandfather fight in World War II. So we had military history in the family, but now it was an everyday occurrence.
G: It was real to you.
KP: It was very real. I was IMing with him every day. My mother was totally upset. She didn't want her son to go to war. Her son said, "Don't even try to stop me." He went. He had a very intense experience. He wrote back soldier-made videos during his first leave of combat. His first leave. And I was in the bedroom of my mother's house, and I heard, "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor," and I walked out, and I saw him plastered in front of the television looking at these images. And they were soldier-made and edited videos. So soldiers had taken little-hand-held, one-chip cameras. Set it on the ground. Put it on a sandbag. Wired into the Humvee. Put it on a gun turret. And literally just unfiltered, unadulterated—just filmed the combat experience. A mission. Combat. The barracks. Take that footage, they would go back to their iMacs or their laptops—cut it on iMovie or the equivalent, and they would put patriotic music to it. Toby Keith's "I Am an American Soldier." "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." I love that stuff. And these things were so moving because the guys were so in love with what they were doing, and so patriotic. Or there would be—there were so many different types—the other one was kind of like the rock video. It was kind of like—you know, they would have an eagle who would stick his little finger in a claw up, and he would just say, "Don't fuck with us." And it would be all this intense footage that was really violent cut to rock music. And it was like "You fuck with us, we're going to fuck with you."
G: That's the kind that I've actually seen, because I directed a play where I brought in some Marine Corps guys a couple of years ago, and one of the things they did is they brought in some of these videos—and they were the hard-rock variety you're describing.
G: And they included—they said, "Beware of this"—but kills—still shots that were edited in with the music of bloody corpses, etc.—
KP: But to Linkin Park, to AC/DC, you know, Rage Against the Machine—it's fascinating to see the varieties. So there was those—those hardcore ones, that were like—were tough. Patriotic ones. There were memorial videos for their buddies. You know, the minute I saw this, it was just so clear. This was a different type of war. This was this generation's way of expressing itself. The YouTube generation that takes a camera, videotapes themselves and their friends, puts it on the internet, puts music to it. It just was so obvious that the movie needed to be born from these videos and that we needed to use as many soldier-made images, music, video, everything, just to really make something that was coming from the soldier.
G: Though there are passages of the film that are conventional, in a sense, filmmaking, I thought it felt much more authentic than Redacted. I liked your film much more. I think it's better acted and so on and so forth. But I want to talk a little bit about the soldiers' psyche and, particularly, you represent very well two opposing viewpoints on this issue of "stop-loss." And then, by the end of the film, there's also something that goes beyond reason in the soldier's psyche: this need just to continue doing what they're doing that is—they're not really maybe articulating but having to go back there, wanting to go back. Can you talk a little bit about that and your experience of talking with soldiers and how that came to you?
KP: Yeah. So, as I said, I wanted to tell the story of patriotic young American, right?
KP: Signs up for all the right reasons. To protect his home, his family and his country after 9/11. Because that was what I was hearing over and over and over. That's what they did. But what I was also hearing over and over and over was: that may be why you sign up. You may have ideals—your mother at home, your sister may think this and that about the war, but when you're over there, it's about one thing. It's about protecting the guy to your left and the guy to your right. It's about keeping him alive and then keeping yourself alive. But it's really about putting another human being's survival ahead of your own. It's about the camaraderie. And over and over, soldiers said the most profound experience—the most profound relationship of their life was with the guys that they served in combat with. Of course, it could be women, but it was fundamentally a guy—masculine, camaraderie situation. So, that was amazing to me. I was like "Oh, so the heart and soul of the movie is camaraderie." It's like men wanting to be together and men wanting to fight together. And men wanting to have a sense of honor. Men wanting to be physical together. You know, like—it was just this craving. And they—it was interesting just to be a person who was witnessing it, and I'm just glad that they shared it with me—that they let me see it. So, in terms of like where the movie came from, that was huge. But getting back to your question—because there was something I was following—why is the camaraderie—?
G: Mm-hm. I was talking about—is there something maybe beyond reason about—
KP: Well, this was what's beyond reason, I think, and I'm still struggling with it, which is—you know, we had a screening in San Diego. The Wounded Warriors were there. These are guys who're crippled. And I was like—they were like "Thank you. We loved the movie. That was so astute of you to show that the last mission could be really difficult." And I said to the one guy speaking, "How did you get injured?" And he said, "Well, it was right before we were supposed to come home. And a guy under me accidentally discharged his weapon." Right? And he killed another soldier, and he wounded this guy. And I said, "How do you feel towards this soldier?" And he says, "I feel really guilty." And I was like, "Why do you feel guilty?" And he said, "Because I should have done a better job telling him how to handle his weapon. And then he wouldn't have killed this guy, and he wouldn't have injured me." So I'm just like "Wow." These men are developing—I mean the idea that men say, "I love this guy"—they always say that. "He's my brother." "I will die for him." "It was incredibly intimate. It was the most profound relationship of my life." "I care about these guys more than I care about my family or my wife." The Wounded Warrior—he was like "I want to go back." I'm like "You want to go back and fight?" And he was like "Well, you know, being a husband and a father isn't nearly as exciting as being with my guys." So there's some kind of profound connection happening between men that it almost makes you think, "Well, then maybe that's what men need." And maybe they don't necessarily always need it in a combat zone. Maybe they can get it in society in other ways. But clearly, that's the thing that goes beyond reason. It is—it's the most human experience. Even though the killing is inhuman, their relationship with the other men is so human.
G: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit about your process with actors, which I think is really interesting. Victor Rasuk described you as speaking to him "like an actor to an actor." And I wonder if you could just talk a little about how it is you approach the meetings, the rehearsals and then, you know, on the set?
KP: Sure. And I love that he said that. So I think the first thing is, because I fall so deeply in love with character and story, my whole mission is to know everything. Literally everything—if you look at my garage, it's just filled with research about the people I'm writing about.
G: That's an actor's perspective, yeah.
KP: Right. I want to know what they eat. I want to know what they drink. I want to know what their mothers said to them. I want to know what their biggest aspiration—what their biggest dream is. But that's really what every writer should do. And what every director should do. And then, what every actor should do. But I really approach it because I'm so curious about it. I get obsessed with understanding. That then I end up holding all the emotional—I hold the emotions of the movie in me, also because I co-write the script. So the great thing is I share all that with the actors. I understand what their "Life Need" is. That's pretty much how I work. Their Life Need is the fundamental need they have that drives them through the script. So I understand how they go about pursuing that Life Need—what actions they take. So I'm kind of the first guy in to talk to them, and I'm like "Okay, this is what I know about your character. This is what I know about how your character operates within this world." What ends up ultimately happening is they know more, sometimes, about that character than I do because they become it, and I want that to happen. So, for example, and I'll get into my process in a second, but the actors will sometimes come to set and be annoyed because the script asks them to do something that they've discovered they wouldn't do as the character. And I don't know that—because, at a certain point, they're more in it than I am. So, you know, Channing will say to me—he comes in and he's annoyed, and I'm like "What's wrong?" Because, obviously, it's like being in a relationship with them. And he's like "Um, I don't like him," about his best friend. And I'm like "Oh, you don't like him." He's like "I don't want to sit next to him. It says I sit next to him. I don't want to sit next to him." I was like "Oh. Okay." You know, "Ba ba ba, this is the reason why." "So, don't sit next to him." Right? So I'm like "Just go take the seat on the bus, okay?" So I say to Ryan, (whispering:) "He doesn't want to sit next to you. So you got to win him over." Right? So there's something beautiful about that. I can start the ball rolling, but then they know more. And then of course the scene is a scene about two guys who have been disconnected. One guy doesn't want to make the move back. The other guy has to make it. Well, that's much more interesting than two guys who just sit down because the script said they're supposed to sit down.
KP: So that's, you know, one thing. In terms of when I meet the actors, you know, because I hand-pick them all, I'm really looking for actors who have similar life needs to what the characters have. It just happens—that they have to be fundamentally on that same emotional quest.
G: And you just have to intuit that when your casting, or is it through interview that you get that?
KP: I mean it's not really like a rational process. I don't have like a checklist. It's—I meet the actor. They have a certain vibe about them. I mean, Steve walks in the room—Channing walks in the room, he's Steve. It's just like, he's hunky, he's masculine, he can be smart-alecky. He's a believer—like, that's Channing. So when he says those lines, and he leans back and he just like "I don't care what happens. I kill a hadji and take a nap." You know, and he's kind of leaning back in his chair. A guy five inches shorter couldn't do it with the same kind of command. So, it's also just that the language kind of runs off of him. It works. Then when I really get to know him, and I'm like "Where're you from? How'd you grow up?" It just—it's obvious. I mean, I already can tell but, you just, you feel it. They tend to tell me their life story as if they were the character too. So that's the other thing. Um, Ryan walks in. He's the leader of that gang. He's not going to be under anyone else. He's the father of two kids. I mean, he just has personal traits in his life—it's both circumstance and who he is. So you're handpicking them and they intersect with the characters. They are the character. So there's the character you wrote, there's the actor, and then there's this third thing, which is what is created. And it is a combination of the two of them. So you're not alone looking for actors that are individually right, but that who work as an ensemble. Right? Can Ryan be the Brandon to Channing's Steve? Can he reign in this wild dog? Well, it's sure going to be fun seeing him try since Channing is just like an animal. You know, we call him "Manimal." Um, you know, Joe Gordon Levitt totally fits as, you know, Tommy. You don't want him to look the same as Ryan or Channing. He has to be distinguished. So you're building this ensemble. Abbie is the girl who's one of the guys. So that works. Then when we get into rehearsals, you know, we're always rewriting based on—the great thing about casting is I get to hear the scenes read. And I bring that back, the videotapes, to my co-writer and we rewrite it. We get to a part when we're on location, where we have a read-through. And that's an amazing moment 'cause it's actually—you hear the whole movie. It stands up and it moves, you know? Whole areas are like "Oh my God, that works so much better than we thought" or "Boy, that really slowed down." You know what I mean?
KP: You get in there, you hack it out. And then you start rehearsing it. I like to put a scene on its feet. I don't like the actors to get obsessed with memory because, again, it's emotion. You want this, he wants that, you guys come into conflict. That's the scene. Right? It's about emotions and conflict and forward motion. So I'm just like "Okay, this is the scene where we're going to shoot up the wedding presents. Okay, you're over there, you're over there—I take a gun, you take a gun, you're going to shoot that—" I try to do it in broad strokes because I don't want to be bound by—if we play the scene out in a room, I don't want you thinking about the chair that you sat on when we're at the ranch.
G: And that process of shooting with—the master shot, so to speak, is really one continuous shot designed by the cinematographer, right, to protect the integrity, chronologically, of the whole scene?
KP: Yes. So, this is the thing that I don't appreciate in movies, is arbitrary camera movement. And I don't appreciate arbitrary editing. Same way you don't want to see arbitrary scenes in a movie. You don't want to see great scene, great scene, story moving, story moving, story moving, oh, interesting scene that doesn't move the story. You just—you want to be as winnowed down as you can. So, and I say this in the notes, is I interviewed Chris Menges, and I studied his work. You know, I had a lot of great cinematographers who wanted to shoot it and they're—I mean it's really humbling that they wanted to—the thing that set Chris apart was, when you look at his work, he generally has one shot that will carry you all the way through the scene. Which means that you start in your medium and you pull back and you get your wide shot; you establish your mise-en-scene. Character moves, camera moves. Not always, but fundamentally, if he can find a way to tell that story by letting the camera move through the different camera angles without having to cut, you end up becoming more invested in the story because you don't have to detach from it. So that was the great thing. And what happens is you get a scene on its feet, you start to see it moving —"Oh, the shooting scene. Okay, there's the presents we're going to shoot. This guy here, this guy here, this guy here. Oh, what's going to make me feel connected to this scene? We'll certainly want an angle back here, so I can see the whole scene. I certainly want to be up close so he's, like, shooting at me." So you move the camera to hold the scene together and you pick camera angles that are emotionally where you want to be. But I'm very much about not arbitrarily cutting, and I had a great editor in Claire Simpson. I have to credit her. She cut Platoon, she cut Salvador, she cut Constant Gardener—I mean it doesn't get better than that.
G: I do want to ask—a decade on now, almost, from Boys Don't Cry, when you look at the American landscape, and we recently had this Lawrence, or Larry, King case that was likened to the Brandon Teena story—
G: Do you—I guess how do you feel about the state of the union in terms of homophobia, and have we really gained any ground in those terms or are we still where we were a decade ago?
KP: Well, I don't think we're ever where we were a decade ago. I mean, you know, I certainly can't speak for—if you were to do a statistical tally of where we are, like how many homophobic attacks there are, and what kind of homophobic language there are, I don't know that stuff. What I can say is I'm amazed that there are so many gay people on television. I'm amazed that "transgender" and "transsexual" is not a bad word and not an unknown concept. I'm amazed that so many queer people have families. I think the more queer people have families, and their kids are going to school, and that's normal, it just normalizes it. So those are the things that I notice is kind of like the big—the big leaps. I mean, it's just like—again, the reason I made Boys is I wanted people to love and accept Brandon because he was just a kid who wanted love and acceptance. And I think the more you—the more people know a gay person, the more gay is normalized, the more we move on as a culture. I think the more, though, that the culture moves on in terms of acceptance, I think actually probably the more heinous reactions you're going to have—because that normalization is disempowering to certain people who don't want things to be normalized. And I think you saw that with racism. You know, in the 1960's, why was it so intense—the clash? It's because things were changing. And I think change can be threatening to some people.
G: Well, thank you very much. I wish we had more time. It's been great talking to you.
KP: Sure. Thank you.