“We tread lightly, because we didn’t want the movie to feel like a polemic,” writer-director Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) said of her new film, “Stop-Loss,” during a recent Dallas interview. The film is about U.S. soldiers returning from a tour of duty in Iraq during which they’ve seen buddies killed our seriously injured. But, Peirce noted, “The movie doesn’t take a position, one way or another [on whether to get out of Iraq].”
“For me the idea started with 9/11,” Peirce explained. “I had been living in New York for thirteen years. Most of my friends—I had a really tight-knit group of friends—were living in Brooklyn. And on the day I was writing when the Towers were hit, and somebody IM’d to me and said, are you okay? I had no idea what they were talking about.
“I spent the day with my closest friends, and we were devastated, as everybody was. We started going to vigils for the victims. New York was in a state of mourning. It was very obvious to me that we were in the midst of a serious cultural change. It seemed to me that the emblematic story of America was a boy signing up after 9/11 for patriotic reasons to defend their country, their home and their family. A lot of times guys were going in on a buddy program, and they have that profound experience that nearly every soldier I’ve talked to has had, which is, what it’s really about is survival, protecting the guy to your left and the guy to your right, putting somebody’s life ahead of your own. And the challenges that come with that, and coming home.
“I immediately knew that I was in love with the idea of these soldiers, these people who felt compelled to risk their lives to defend our country but who did not know what lay ahead for them. They didn’t know how they would be trained, or what the terrain would be like. And they didn’t know what it would be like to come home.
“I’ve studied a lot about history, about war—and I’ve studied war films. Those are movies that moved me deeply, and I knew that we were in for some real change. So I started working on a project looking at the soldiers. And not long after my baby brother told us that he was enlisting. And that really set in motion a very profound experience for all of us. For me that meant IM’ing with him very, very frequently from when he landed in Kuwait, as he moved through Iraq, and fielding many calls from my mother, who was terrified. Becoming a military family again was very intense.
“And I happened to be going around the country interviewing soldiers and their families. I’m very moved by the soldiers’ story, and to get it right I had to go deeply inside their psyche, their world and their experience. And it became clear to me that I wanted to tell the emblematic story of this generation, the one that for political but mostly for patriotic reasons signed up to fight and had the profound awareness that it was about camaraderie. And over and over again I was getting to know soldiers who had had life-altering experiences. The thing that was happening over and over with these soldiers is that they were feeling frustrated by the fact that they went there to fight an enemy, and when they got to Iraq they didn’t necessarily feel that they were finding this enemy. But they did say that they were finding an enemy, and unfortunately that enemy was in the bedrooms and the hallways and the kitchens of people’s homes. That taught me that camaraderie is what binds these people together. That really, really moved me, because it’s such a human thing. That was the main thing drawing them together and [making them] want to go back. But I also thought about the tragedy and remorse and frustration of being put in a situation where the soldiers were telling me that they felt like sitting ducks, that they couldn’t protect themselves, that they were accidentally killing innocent people. They were devastated by it.
“There were people on both sides—some who wanted to get out of the military and some who wanted to stay—but many agreed that they’re not letting us fight it the way we need to, to win it. And if we have to keep fighting these urban combat zones we will continue to kill innocent people—how can we not?—and we will continue to lose men. And they would be crippled. It was heartbreaking.
“It was a patriotic soldier who said to me, ‘Do you want to hear something f***ed up?’ I always want to hear something f***ed up! And he said, ‘Stop-loss.’ I literally looked at those two words and I didn’t understand the concept. What does that mean? And he said, ‘It’s a back-door draft, they’re keeping guys in past their agreed-upon terms of service, essentially recycling them. And I’m p***ed off. Because the guy that I fought with in Iraq was supposed to be getting out. It’s going to destroy his marriage. His wife already can’t take it. And now they’re going to send him to Afghanistan.
“I was already telling this emotional story of this generation and our country and this combat war. What stop-loss did was dramatize and exacerbate the situation for everybody. In many ways you can think of the soldiers, their families and America itself as being stop-lost.”
The crux of the script thus became a recently-returned sergeant, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) just recognized for his bravery in a recent mission in which his squad suffered men killed or seriously injured, who’s suddenly told he’s being sent back to Iraq. “This is a guy who’s always done the right thing,” Peirce said. “He’s proud that he served his country. But he’s done. He wants to move on with his life.” And he has to decide whether to obey the order or go AWOL.
But King isn’t the only soldier from the squad to return. Another is the severely wounded Rico, played by Victor Rasuk, who accompanied Peirce to Dallas. “We wanted to tell a story to represent the soldiers, and to do it in a very authentic way,” he said. In his case, Rasuk playing a man who’d been caught in an explosion, and lost and arm and leg as well as his sight, underwent a long process each day of shooting for authenticity’s sake.
“It was a four-step process,” Rasuk recalled. “Make-up, prosthetics, binding and CGI. It was four hours of that. Part of the make-up was also contacts. Kim and I looked at photos; we wanted to know the degree of Rico’s injury. We wanted to keep it authentic, but we didn’t want to freak out the audience. I kept [the contacts] really light. All I could see when I was doing a scene with Ryan was just a shadow of Ryan, and Kim came over to me to direct me. The whole process was difficult, but Kim helped me through it.
“I also interviewed a wounded soldier, and used a lot of what I learned. One of the things I got from him was the enthusiasm that he had even though his circumstances were as they were. I was really blown away by his positive attitude.
“We all immersed ourselves in learning where these guys were coming from, why they enlisted. Did I learn a lot? Did I have a whole different perspective afterward? Completely. They’re our brothers, our husbands in some cases.”
Peirce added, “I think it deepened my awareness of the sensitivity of the human psyche,” she said. It really made me understand just how deeply impossible the situation is for our soldiers. And that breaks my heart—particularly having a brother who’s gone through it.”