Kimberly Peirce's 1999 directorial debut Boys Don't Cry found the romance and heartbreak in the harrowing true-life tale of Brandon Teena, a small-town woman who lived as a man, and whose brutal murder became national news. The film catapulted star Hilary Swank from Beverly Hills 90210 also-ran and The Next Karate Kid star to Oscar-winning A-list actor, and helped make co-stars Peter Sarsgaard and Chloë Sevigny ubiquitous fixtures in independent and studio films. Boys Don't Cry looked like a star-making vehicle for its phenomenally gifted writer-director as well, but while fans hungered for a follow-up, Peirce more or less went MIA from American film. Nine years later, she returns to the big screen with the powerful new Iraq War movie Stop Loss, an evocative drama about a soldier (Ryan Phillippe) who goes AWOL after being "stop-lossed," having his tour of duty involuntarily extended. Like Boys Don't Cry, it fearlessly, sympathetically addresses some of the most controversial issues of the day. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the focused, hyper-verbal filmmaker about the glut of failed Iraq War movies, the stop-loss phenomenon, just what she's been up to all these years, and the oft-overlooked upside to test screenings.
The A.V. Club: There was a nine-year gap between the release of Boys Don't Cry and Stop Loss. How did you fill the years?
Kimberly Peirce: It wasn't really nine years. I spent a year promoting Boys Don't Cry, then I sold Stop Loss as a green-lit screenplay in '05. It takes that long to make a movie. I would like to make movies quicker, there's no doubt.
I was really lucky with Boys. That was one of the most satisfying, thrilling, amazing experiences of my life. I started it in grad school. It was supposed to be a 10-minute film, and it turned into a feature. That movie took over my life, and I loved it dearly. And I knew that I needed to make movies that matter very deeply to me. Certainly I spent time looking for that. And I actually did find a project that I love, that I will make one day. It was the life and death of William Desmond Taylor. It was this unsolved Hollywood murder mystery. And King Vidor and Robert Towne tried to make movies about it, and they had a hard time. But I figured out who killed this Hollywood director, and how and why it had to be covered up by Hollywood and the government. Wrote a script. Had it cast with Annette Bening, Evan Rachel Wood, Hugh Jackman, Ben Kingsley. And when we should have been going to make it, the studio ran the numbers and said "Look. We love it. We would like to see the $30 million version of it. We would like to pay for the $20 million version of it." And I said "Do you want me to cut it down?" and they said "No, because want to see the $30 million version."
So that certainly took me a number of years. But it also taught me a valuable lesson. That was a period piece, and it was drama. Those can be harder to make, because they have to be made for a certain price, and they don't always want to be made for that price. So it was pretty much a week after that happened, or days, that I was like, "Okay. Rather than get too depressed about this, I'm going to pick up my camera. I'm going to start traveling the country, and I'm going to start doing what I did during Boys Don't Cry, which is, I'm going to follow my curiosity and I'm going to pay for it." So I paid for all the research on this, and I paid for writing the script on spec. I went to Hollywood with a spec script co-written with Mark Richard, who is a Texas novelist. I don't know if you know about the videos I had with the soldiers.
AVC: Could you talk about that?
KP: Yeah, I'll tell you about that. But the trailer I cut together with [producer] Reid Carolin, who actually is from Illinois… Really smart kid, who did this research with me. We cut together soldiers' videos and the research we had done throughout the country, and we gave that to the studio. So they had a script, and they understood it was going to be young, it was going to be edgy, it was going to have violence, it was going to have camaraderie, it was going to have great music. So we kinda let them know that. And it was like, "You buy it, you make it." We sold it as a green-lit movie, which is really rare.
AVC: Are you worried that audiences are suffering from Iraq War movie fatigue?
KP: Well, you are always humble about your beliefs. Today, in particular, that doesn't faze me, because there's a couple things. One, this movie, I don't think is like those other films, although I respect those directors. This movie was literally born out of soldiers' experiences. I was in New York for 9/11. I saw the towers fall. I was devastated. I went to vigils for the victims. Our country entered war. I knew we were amidst a seismic change. I wanted to make a movie about who the soldiers were that were signing up, why they were signing up, what their experience in combat was, and what their experience coming home was. So I started embarking on that. Right around that time, my younger brother got signed up to fight. So he enlisted. We had a grandfather in World War II, but now we were a military family and dealing with the war on a moment-by-moment basis. So that already was incredibly compelling. And I knew that he brought back these videos. So on his first leave home—first of all, we had been IMing from the day he landed. IMing with other soldiers, which is kinda amazing. That they go do their missions, and they come back and IM you. You're able to talk to them as they're over there, which is extraordinary.
So on his first leave home, it was Thanksgiving. I was in bed and I heard "Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor." And I woke up and I walked out, and there he was, plastered to the television watching these images. These were images I'd never seen. They were shot by soldiers in combat, in the barracks. They would put a camera in a sand bag, they would strap it to a Humvee, they would put it on a gun, or during a firefight, they'd just put it on the ground. You'd see boots running across and you'd hear gunshots. They were firing machine guns, they filmed themselves. They thought that was cool. They'd go back to their barracks, and they would cut it together with music. Either Toby Keith, patriotic music, which I love, or The Prodigy's "Firestarter," Rage Against The Machine, Drowning Pool's "Bodies," country-and-western music. It was this full-on engagement with the soldiers' point of view in a way that we had never seen it.
I looked at those images and said, "This is how we need to make the movie. Entirely from a young man's point of view. We need to capture the energy, the fun, the humor, the excitement." For me, this movie is already different from any of those other movies, because it's coming out of their experience. World War II, Vietnam, it's just not any of that. And I've been lucky that I screened the movie in 12 cities, and I know the reaction. Over and over, people have been coming up to me, saying, "Thank you for making an emotional movie. Thanks for making a movie about people. Thanks for making a movie we can relate to."
AVC: Part of what sets it apart from other movies about the Iraq War—and also something it shares with Boys Don't Cry—is its immersion in the romance of small-town life and in being young. It captures the romance of youth and the sense of heightened emotion.
KP: You're certainly right about that. The heightened emotions of being young. Certainly a working-class, Midwest, in this case Texas, small-town, Americana, American feel. I actually spent some time here in Paris, Illinois, filming the homecoming of the 1544th, the National Guard Unit who had the highest casualty rate, the highest number of combat hours. A thousand soldiers came home. And we were able to film that and get to know the families. That had a huge influence on how we were able to bring that town to life. But you're right, there's a respect and there's a romanticism of it.
AVC: Do you see this film as journalism as well as storytelling?
KP: Well, in a way. I don't know how the audience is experiencing it. But it's like anthropology, it's like journalism, it's like history. I am very much in love with the American life, the American family, American working class, American values. I want to get as deeply inside of them as possible. It's journalistic in that I actually—you know, I love my subjects. I go and listen to my subjects. It's a profound curiosity that drives me to make these movies.
AVC: Do you see films like this or No End In Sight as a corrective, or a reaction to the mainstream media coverage of the war? Do you think films are picking up the slack where day-to-day journalism is dropping the ball?
KP: I wouldn't necessarily say that they were dropping the ball, but I certainly would say that in an era where there is a dearth of those images, when I got a hold of these soldier-made videos and I was seeing the experience from their point of view, the reason it was curious to me was because it wasn't out there. It's the reason I needed to get ahold of that. It's why I love The Battle Of Algiers. The stuff, I just feel like it's what life's about. It's about reality and intensity and human emotions and human experiences. And if we're not seeing that in the mainstream media, we want to. And I think that's what I've gotten from a lot of the audiences, they're like, "Wow! This is what's going on with our people. I need to know about this."
AVC: Watching the film, I felt guilty that I didn't know more about the concept of stop-loss. Why do you think there's so little press and outrage over the stop-loss situation?
KP: I think we're living in an era of headline news. So human emotion, storytelling, it's getting compacted. Things are moving quicker. It's harder to have good storytelling. Why don't people know about stop-loss? Fascinating question. Because they don't. In Vietnam, we had a draft. So everybody shared the burden. Everybody was concerned about their kid going to war. Their husband, their brother. Now, we have a volunteer army. It's literally a smaller group of people in a culture who are fighting the war. So, already, stop-loss is impacting a very, very concentrated group of people. A group of people who are volunteers. They're being stop-lossed and they're frustrated, it's not the whole country that knows about it. That's number one. Number two, I think a lot of military culture—I'm fascinated by the value system—is "Don't speak out against the military." So where do these people have a chance to make public the idea of stop-loss?
That's what's so interesting to me, I have this website, stoplossmovie.com, and I've given cameras to soldiers and their families. They made videos and I upload them. Then people write in. I have so many comments, on my site—people are writing in on stop-loss. "This happened to me. This is my life." I had military wives writing in: "This is my husband's life, this is our life, he's not going to see the birth of his child." I'm just giving people a chance to speak out, but every single person I've explained stop-loss to, every single American has been intrigued, overwhelmed, and concerned. "Why don't I know about this?" You don't know about this because, the funny thing is that it is affecting all of us, but it's overtly affecting a smaller group of the population. But 81,000 soldiers have been stop-lossed. At least, because that's an old figure. It is completely widespread, and I just think we need to get it out there. The patriotic soldiers are saying, "This is a backdoor draft," they're saying, "You're recycling people." Do you know what a lot of soldiers have suggested? They've said we should have a draft, because then all of America will be aware of how we are treating the soldiers.
AVC: To a certain extent, it's a class thing. If Ivy League graduates were being drafted, there would be a lot more outrage. But there's a sense that a lot of the soldiers come from poor backgrounds, and the military is a step up.
KP: It is a class thing, but I also wanted to show that a lot of the people who sign up really love the military and the military life, so if you treat them well, they're gonna be happy to stay in the military. But you're right—certainly if you democratize it and spread it out as these soldiers suggest, then all of America will be voting on it and thinking of our involvement and how our soldiers are being treated, because they'll all be involved with it. And I find that fascinating.
AVC: Which again is one of the big differences between Vietnam and Iraq. The fact that it was a draft and everybody was affected.
KP: Exactly. Well, I think the entire culture is being affected, but not in this direct way.
AVC: In Stop Loss, there's a sense of a real emotional connection to the military. Was it important to you that your protagonist would be predisposed to think well of the government and the military?
KP: Absolutely. If you had someone who didn't love the military, and wasn't a true patriot, you didn't have much of an arc. So we have a guy who… He doesn't really turn against the government, but he speaks out against this thing. That wasn't going to be dramatic, but when you have these kids who love the military, this is how they're brought up. They know they're supposed to fight for their country, and they go in for all the right reasons. And they've finished their tours of duty, and they've done everything right, and they you do this to them… They feel betrayed. They feel like, "Wait a second, this is not what I was taught. This is not where I was supposed to end up if I do everything right." Which is profoundly more dramatic, and true to the situation. Because it's in a volunteer army. Who's volunteering? People who are believers.
AVC: And there's a sense, too, that you sign up for it for the war, but not infinitely. Not in an open-ended way.
KP: Well, the soldiers say, "I signed up for 9/11." A lot of soldiers didn't know that [the Iraq War] was connected to that. Also, they signed up for a certain term, and then in their eyes, the president said that the war was over. And stop-loss is supposed to be used during a time of war. Again, they feel that the government isn't following the contract. Also, they're concerned that it's something that's deeply embedded in the fine print of their contracts, so they're feeling like, "Look, I signed up at 18. I love my country. Do you think the contract should have this in the fine print? Is that really a way that the military should be treating its own soldiers? Why not make everything out in the open?"
AVC: Do you think of Ryan Phillippe's character as going AWOL?
KP: He doesn't think so. He really doesn't. He even says, "We're not like these guys." That's a moment of shock to him. This is something we really worked hard on. There were times when he met other AWOL guys in the script, and we wondered if he should bond with these guys and say, "Great, I'm gonna be AWOL too." But we decided he'd meet them and say, "I'm not like these guys. I'm trying to solve my problem." He sees himself as a sergeant who did his time in battle. There were times that he saw things were unfair and stuck through it, and now he wants to put it behind him. He's not trying to be a deserter. It's not even in his consciousness. He's just like, "I'm gonna go solve my problem quickly, so it's no longer a problem." He says he's going to talk to the senator to get this cleared up.
AVC: It seems like this film is about somebody developing their own value system.
KP: Absolutely. But also, he already thinks he has a value system, but doesn't think it's being carried out. But you're right. He's developing a value system, particularly around the issues of leadership, and the camaraderie and the connection to the men. I think of it as a story of a guy who learns how to become a great leader. He's a good leader, and he's done his job, kind of like the gunslinger, and he's gonna hang up his gun and be done.
AVC: A lot of filmmakers are skeptical of the test-screening process, but it seems like you welcome it. What's the upside?
KP: The upside is that I love screening the movie. I think you make a movie by screening it. Frank Capra did it. One of the best books ever written, if you want to have a good read [is his autobiography, The Name Above The Title.] He would do these screenings and he would put a tape recorder on, and he'd go back to his editing room, and he knew when they coughed, and when they lost interest. Anytime I sit through a screening of the movie, it doesn't matter how far I've gotten through the editing process. You push and push to make it as clear as you can, but when you throw it up in front of an audience, you always see it with new eyes. You're like, "That is boring as hell!" Or, "Oh my God, that's working! We can do a little more of that."
I think that's how you make movies. In that way, I like screening. I screen constantly. The only thing that's really hard about the screening process… The Neilsen NRG isn't really the problem, because they're just a group of people who actually set up the screenings for you, get the demographic you want, and question the audience. You sit right behind the audience and watch them say whatever the hell they want about your movie, and it's enlightening. I think the problem lies in the commercialization of the film before it's reached its end result. That is what I would want control over. As the movie is trying to find itself, as it does in the editing room, you're bringing an audience in, and you're asking them to be filmmakers. As read by a filmmaker, I think test screenings are incredibly helpful. As read by the studio, I'm not always sure they're the healthiest thing, because the studios say, "Wow, if you cut out this scene, you'll have a wider base." And that may not be the best thing for this movie.
AVC: It seems like if you have a certain set of goals, it can be empowering in the sense that you're test screening so you can make the strongest film.
KP: If it's a director-run test-screening, it's only ever been helpful. And [Boys Don't Cry producer] Christine Vachon—I've really got to give her kudos, she told me to screen often. She forced me to screen, and no matter what, whether they liked it or didn't like it, it was always enlightening. I would encourage all young filmmakers to do it.
AVC: What did you learn about Stop Loss and Boys Don't Cry through test-screening?
KP: With Boys, we had a whole section where we showed you Brandon as a girl. The first 10 minutes as a girl in a trailer park. The problem is, people wanted more Brandon as a girl, or they didn't want any Brandon as a girl. So we ended up cutting it and starting it late, without the first 10 minutes, as a test screening. In Stop Loss, we realized with the opening, based on the soldier's video that I loved, we opened the movie with a very rock 'n' roll, hardcore, in-your-face opening that I loved. But it did provoke questions. So we ended up taking it out, and starting on a patriotic song. But really, we were starting with the guys being bonded with each other, so we got right into the story. That was a lesson for me, taking it out. Yes there was a part of it that I always missed. You always end up starting later than you thought, and you learn that through screening. Audiences want to start a film as late in the story as possible, and they want to start in the moment where the character is being most the character. That's always a lesson. And with pacing issues—you have to do pacing issues with an audience. You ask "Where is it boring, where does it drag?"
AVC: You have to be ruthless in your editing.
KP: It's painful. But can I credit my editor, Claire Simpson, who did Wall Street, and Platoon, and Constant Gardener. She's brilliant. [Stop Loss cinematographer] Chris Menges is brilliant. He did Killing Fields, he did Dirty Pretty Things.
AVC: Boys Don't Cry and Stop Loss are both very heavy, emotionally wrenching films. Can you see yourself writing lighter, more escapist work? Or is this just your aesthetic?
KP: I think it is my aesthetic, because it is what moves me, but at the same time, I'm writing a romantic comedy, which was inspired by a true story—my first and only blind date. And it is hilarious. Friends have been pushing me to write it, because I tell them the stories and they're like, "That is out-of-control funny!" I have a very funny side, but I get caught up in these serious things. You see a little bit of the humor in the way the guys open the wedding presents [in Stop Loss], but I always think my movies are incredibly funny.