BY MARGY ROCHLIN
In 1994, while still a graduate student in the film department at Columbia University, Kimberly Peirce read an article about the short, sad life of Brandon Teena, a girl from Falls City, Nebraska, who was killed by two local thugs for passing as a boy. Over the span of the next few years, Peirce attended the murder trial, took voluminous notes, accumulated stacks of court documents and convinced many of Teena's acquaintances—including Teena's girlfriend, Lana Tisdel—to share on-camera recollections about their friend.
Peirce's research, of course, turned into Boys Don't Cry, which was nominated for numerous awards in 2000 including two Oscars, winning one for Hilary Swank's performance as Teena Brandon. Directing an Academy Award-winning movie would ostensibly make anybody a hot commodity in Hollywood, but it still took Peirce nine years before her second feature, Stop-Loss, got made.
A part of her was eager to live up to expectations that had been created, but an even bigger part wanted to, as she puts it, "stay true to your engine." Peirce says she discovered that the studios "were very sensitive at a certain point to 'When was the last time you worked?' They have a fear of directors who don't work. They wonder: Does it mean that you're afraid? They think if there's any bit of hesitation, any bit of you're rusty, there's something scary about that. What they really like is a director who just gets back on their feet, gets back on their feet, gets back on their feet."
It wasn't for lack of trying that no second film materialized until now. During the post-Boys period, Peirce was involved with at least three projects. One was Memoirs of a Geisha and although she thought she was the best person to make it, she bowed out when Warner Bros. clearly wanted to take it in a different direction. Looking back on that, she admits to some mixed feelings. "That's a lot of money to give up. I mean, you're talking a lot of money. So there were definitely feelings of 'should have I taken it? Should I have done it?' But it just wasn't where my heart was."
What did ignite her passion was a mystery called Silent Star, about the scandalous, unsolved murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor in 1922, which she worked on with her characteristic vigor for six years until it fell apart. According to Peirce, Annette Bening, Hugh Jackman and Evan Rachel Wood had been cast and "it looked like it was happening and then it wasn't happening. But literally the day that fell apart I went full force on Stop-Loss."
Before a script for Stop-Loss even existed and all Peirce was sure about was that she wanted to make a war film as her follow-up to Boys Don't Cry, she had flown around the country conducting interviews with soldiers, their wives and military families. At the time, it was Peirce's intent to assemble these videotapes into a documentary that explored the shapes and contours of war in the modern age.
"It's my process: I go out into the world and I start a documentary so that I can then make a fiction. My fiction has to be inspired by the truth," says Peirce, who prefers bankrolling the research phase herself. "I've found that's the only way to wake up in the morning and be creative. I find in the initial phases you have to just do it."
But once she decided that the best way to tell her story about America's latest generation of enlisted soldiers was as a feature film, her library of footage would still end up serving every imaginable purpose. During the nine-week period that she and co-screenwriter Mark Richard wrote the screenplay, they constantly mined the interviews for vivid details of soldier protocol. When it came time for her cast to begin character building, her actors had access to hours of young veterans frankly sharing stories about their battle-weary, traumatized state of mind. When the art department began to dream up what a homecoming parade scene would look like, they chose to match one Peirce had shot in Paris, Illinois, for return of the 1544th Transportation Unit of the Illinois National Guard.
And later when it came to selling Stop-Loss to Hollywood in the summer of 2005, she realized another key use for all her pre-shot material. "This war is sexier, younger; it's kind of rock 'n' roll in a certain way," she recalls thinking. "If I just send them the script, they won't understand it. I have all this footage. Why not give them the energy of the movie? So we cut together this five-minute trailer and it was great."
THE HOME FRONT: Peirce, with Ryan Phillipe, acquired "tons" of little
movies made by soldiers and then restaged some of them for Stop-Loss.
(Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures)
In order to set the tone for Stop-Loss, the movie begins with messy, handheld Iraq war footage set to the adrenaline-fueled anthem "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" by the Dallas band Drowning Pool. Peirce freely admits the idea of using the growling speed-metal blast was lifted from a DVD imported from the war zone by her little brother, who had enlisted in the Army after 9-11 and was home on Thanksgiving leave from Iraq.
"I came into the room and he was staring at the television, right up close, and it was all these images of combat," says Peirce. "There were, like, 20 little homemade movies that everybody in his unit had made and cut to music. They were filming with a one-chip or using their cellphones, then coming back and downloading it to their computers, then sloppily editing it."
Whether brutal, sentimental or flag-wavingly patriotic, the footage struck her as highly emotional. "It was their point of view, their experience, a love letter of themselves, to themselves," she says. "It just became clear to me that this movie needed to be born out of that."
In the end, Peirce amassed "tons and tons" of these handcrafted, YouTube-ready mini-movies, many of which she licensed and then incorporated pieces from them into Stop-Loss. Others she meticulously restaged frame by frame, camera angle by camera angle, body movement by body movement, only now featuring her Stop-Loss cast.
As with Boys Don't Cry, most of the drama in Stop-Loss unfolds in heartland America. If there is one major difference, it's that being a studio-backed film meant more money, and with more money came more opinions, and from all directions. One thing Peirce is proud of is that she convinced the studio to allow her to film a crucial Iraq-based ambush scene in the narrow back streets of a poor community in Morocco, even though they originally wanted her to shoot it on a site they'd been offered for free—where the Battle of the Alamo was fought in San Antonio, Texas. Once ensconced in an Islamic country that made visual sense, knowing where to put the camera and how to choreograph the action of her first-ever combat sequence came easier. Says Peirce, "It was already inspired by a basic reality: The Humvees are going to drive in. They're going to block the back of the alley. The men are going to pour out in formation." To that extent, the cramped, maze-like Marrakech neighborhood did part of the work for her. "The great thing about an alley was that it automatically bounded us, allowed us to feel the claustrophobia and the danger."
It was moments like those that made Peirce feel like the wait between projects was worth it. "There was never a time when I wasn't being creative, being artistic. There was never a time I wasn't writing, exploring and doing my thing. But there were times when I wasn't on the floor, directing," is how she thinks of her long hiatus. "For me, being a director is about being so emotionally centered in the material you can throw anything at me and I fundamentally know where I stand because I'm so inside of it. That's something I want to retain. I'm glad I made Stop-Loss next. If I could have made another movie in between, I would have loved to. But I think the next one is going to come quicker."