Mr. Movie

Kimberly Peirce dishes "Stop-Loss" with Mr. Movie

In 1999 Kimberly Peirce rocked the movie world with her first film Boys Don’t Cry, the story of Teena Brandon, a young woman murdered for pretending to be a man.

It got critical raves, and Hilary Swank won her first Oscar.

Though it took nine years for her second film, Stop-Loss is worth the wait.

She recently talked with me about the movie. The term "stop-loss" is when a soldier is scheduled to be discharged. They are basically forced by their country to do another tour of duty against their will.

GW: Your film is about a guy getting stop-lossed and refusing to let the military force him to return to duty against his will. Yet this is not a pro or anti-military or anti-war. What are you trying to tell me?

KP: I knew I wanted to tell the story of a patriot who signed up for all the right reasons. Over and over I heard soldiers say, 9/11 happened and I signed up. So I knew that was what I wanted to show. Over and over the soldiers said that when I got there, it wasn’t about that. Do you know what a soldier is thinking about? Staying alive. It is about keeping the guy to your left and the guy to your right alive and keeping yourself alive.

GW: Stop-Loss really gets me into the heads of these guys. I got caught up in their struggle. It is unfair to not let them go after their tour is up.

KP: You’ve hit the core of it. In Vietnam, the war was across the whole culture. Everybody had to be available for the draft. Whether it was right or wrong, it was everybody’s responsibility. Right now, we have a volunteer army. It is a smaller portion of this society. They’re believers. That’s why they feel so betrayed. They were the first to sign up, and they raised their hand and risked their life. Now, they want to get out, and their contract says they can get out. Yet, they’re being sent back. It’s devastating.

GW: To develop these characters and this movie, you did hundreds of interviews with soldiers and their families. How did the concept change from your initial idea to the final edit?

KP: It evolved. I knew I was going to write this story about these patriots and about a guy who wanted to be a great leader. I didn’t know until I got into the interviews that the most profound experience for the soldiers is not about any of that. It’s about protecting the guy to your left, the guy to your right. It’s about survival. So that really shaped it.

The second thing I didn’t know was why wouldn’t King want to go back to war? Here’s a guy who has been a war hero, he had a real tough time that last mission, he wants to put it behind him. But his country is really in trouble. I believe he would go back. So why isn’t he going back? In the interviews with soldiers I asked if it was killing innocent people, and they said no. That could have been part of it, but the real reason was that he couldn’t protect his men. He felt the system wouldn’t let him succeed in protecting them.

And then that tied into all the camaraderie. It’s a movie about camaraderie. But it’s a movie about becoming a great leader and it’s about how you deal with the men. It started out about one thing and ended up much different.

GW: Other script writers that I’ve talked to tell me the same thing about their movies.

KP: It keeps organizing itself around a central principle. I don’t walk in knowing the central principle. That’s the reason I make these movies. They’re about things that I love and that I’m heartbroken about and I don’t understand.