Almost ten years after her stunning 1999 feature debut, Boys Don't Cry, writer-director Kimberly Peirce has returned with Stop-Loss, a powerful, thought-provoking film that focuses on a little-known policy that forces soldiers to return to duty in Iraq after fulfilling their commitment. Peirce spent years researching the film and collecting actual footage from soldiers documenting their experiences in Iraq. The film stars a crew of young hunks ( Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, etc. ) who enact a story revolving around the stop-loss issue. Peirce has also set up a Web site, www.stoplossmovie.com/SoundOff, where actual victims of the practice can post their own stories.
In person, Peirce has enormous vitality, and speaks quickly in a no-nonsense manner in a torrent of words.
Windy City Times: I know [ Stop-Loss ] started from a personal place for you. Could you talk about that?
Kimberly Peirce: Sure, sure. Shortly after the war started, my younger brother told us he was enlisting—so … shocking. It wasn't so much that we took a position on whether it was right or wrong to fight the war; it was that I'd brought him home from the hospital when he was born and he represents innocence to me. My mother, obviously very upset, wouldn't come home at night because she knows that if you're home they can come to the door. A lot of women do that.
WCT: I didn't know that.
KP: They just stay at work because they have to give you the news that your soldier has died in person so they're just like, 'I'm not answering the door and I'm not going to be around.' They've had women just say when they're knocking, 'You can't come in.' They don't want the news. So it's very intense when you have that personal connection. So not only was I IMing with him every day and hearing his side of it, which was an important element as a sister, ... but I was interviewing soldiers throughout America and that was really important to me. I really wanted to understand like generally speaking where were the soldiers coming from. I wanted to tell an emblematic story.
WCT: This research has taken you years and been your main focus for a long time. In all your research did you find examples of gays and lesbians that had been stop-lossed?
WCT: Did you find some people who said, 'Okay, I'm going to go back even though I'm a gay or lesbian?'
KP: Yes. But those are the people in the military, anyway.
WCT: Right, and everything you read now seems to suggest that they look the other way because they need the people so badly.
KP: Yes—they really need them—and that's why, to me, the movie isn't about stop-loss; it's about people. The reason that stop-loss is so important is because it cuts through everything including the gay and lesbian thing. I feel like both the soldiers are being stop-lossed and I feel that America is also being stop-lossed. Which is you're stuck in it, you can't get out. I mean, it's happening to 81,000 soldiers but it's also very much like America—kind of like having all these resources in Iraq and you just can't pull them out.
WCT: Is there any chance this policy will be overturned?
KP: I don't know the future of stop-loss but I do know that [ Defense Secretary Robert ] Gates has come out and said, 'We want to decrease the use of stop-loss.' You don't have anybody in the military saying, 'It is a good solution.'
KP: Because, I believe, it's not like the draft where everybody was invested. You have a smaller group of the population—but a significant group—fighting this war. It's contained.
WCT: What about the change in the attitudes toward 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell?' Over the course of your research—from 9/11 to now …
KP: You mean because they need gays and lesbians, they're more tolerant?
WCT: Well, that's what I'm reading and you have military personnel saying, 'I don't care if he or she is gay, this is someone who has watched out for me.'
KP: Exactly. Well that's the argument that I found the most profound. That it's about camaraderie, right? It's about the person that you're serving with, and so it makes sense that it would get to a point where gay wouldn't matter—the same way we got to a point that race didn't matter. I mean, fundamentally, it doesn't matter. I'm sure there's still racism in the military and I'm sure there's still homophobia but it's really true—you put people into a life-threatening situation that's the bonding experience that happens in the military. It makes sense to me that you would get to that point.
WCT: With such a punitive policy I can't help wondering what makes a gay or lesbian person want to go see a movie like Stop-Loss? I can't serve my country …
KP: Well, you can serve your country.
WCT: I can't openly serve my country.
KP: Right. But there are a lot of people who still have these values that were raised in these military towns—that were raised with this as a value system so they don't see their gayness. ... It's not mutually exclusive with their desire to serve their country in this way. They still want to.
WCT: I see that.
KP: I also think that the way masculinity works … I mean, I'm so fascinated with masculinity; I'm so fascinated with guys bonding.
WCT: Me, too.
KP: [ Laughs ] I think the guys are gorgeous, I think the guys are deeply interconnected, they live together, they fight together, and I think there's something very interesting about that.
WCT: Boys Don't Cry featured two strong female actors in the starring roles—and here you had Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt—who I love so much—
KP: Me, too. He's great.
WCT: What was the difference in directing all these men? Intimidating? Easier?
KP: I don't think it was intimidating or easier or harder. I think it was just very different. I'm a very physical director. I seek, in my screenwriting and my directing, to create physical situations. That's why I like sexuality and I like gender and I like fight scenes and car races. I like bodies against bodies, and I like bodies moving through space and time. What's so great about the guys was—if you notice—they're always hitting each other and touching each other and bonding, and when they have that fight with the snake they're in each others' faces. In a way, I got to be even more physical.
WCT: Oh, yes.
KP: This is about guys who love each other and respect other and will die for each other and almost every soldier I've spoken to said, 'The relationships that you form in combat become the most intense relationships you will ever have in your life.'
WCT: Between this and Boys Don't Cry, you are the perfect director to do the Don't Ask, Don't Tell movie.
KP: [ Delighted ] Oh good!
WCT: Right?! You do action so well [ and ] you do gender issues so well. Any chance you'll get into that issue?
KP: If I find a story that feels compelling I would love to, yeah. I mean, for me it's about making sure that the central protagonist has a deep human goal that I can identify with. For Brandon King this is a guy who is a great leader and he wants to protect his men. It's about family and duty and honor—those are the things that are compelling. So if then I can get a character that in the pursuit of their goal fits that in a Don't Ask, Don't Tell story then that would work.
WCT: Great, great! Or an action picture.
KP: I love action.
WCT: It's so ironic that you do war so well. You've made a great war film.
KP: I think the way a gay and lesbian audience finds their way in is certainly duty, commitment, value, honor, being patriots, the American stuff but I think also the male bonding is just so interesting to me.