Kimberly Peirce hasn’t changed much physically since she wrote and directed the gender drama Boys Don’t Cry in 1999. Forty years old now, she’s still a sliver of a woman so small that it doesn’t sound particularly impressive when she says Channing Tatum, one of the stars of her latest opus, Stop-Loss, picked her up over his head for a recent photo shoot.
Many other things have changed for her in the nine years since Boys gave Peirce what she calls a “Hollywood career.” It’s a long time for a follow-up, after all. Project after project slipped through her fingers even after she developed them to the point where shooting was a mere technicality.
“It is heartbreaking,” she says of this stretch. “There’s nothing I love more than being on a movie set; there’s nothing I love more than working with actors. It is what it’s about.”
Most of all, 9-11 happened. “I had been living in New York for about 13 years,” she says. “I actually saw the towers fall from my balcony. Not long after, my little brother enlisted.”
Stop-Loss is the fictional story of Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), a decorated Iraq vet who, at the end of his military contract, returns home to Texas, to civilian life. Once there, his discharge is suspended and he’s ordered back to the front, a reality he decides to fight since the contractual loophole that allows this only works in a time of war and war was never technically declared on Iraq.
A soldier serving in Iraq told Peirce about the phenomenon during an instant-message exchange while she was researching the conflict. “‘Want to hear something fucked up?’ `he asked`,” Peirce says. “I was like, ‘What?’ ’Cause I always want to hear about something fucked up. And then he spelled it out: S-T-O-P-L-O-S-S. It’s a weird word, so I asked what it was. ‘It’s a backdoor draft. It’s involuntarily extending service members’ tours of duty beyond their agreed-upon contract. They’re recycling the people who already did their duty.’”
Peirce finally had her story, the one she had been looking for since 9-11. “I need to make movies that I’m deeply in love with, about things that both intrigue me and I don’t fully understand,” she says. “I’m particularly fascinated by the American psyche, the American family, and the American landscape. When America declared war, I knew immediately we were undergoing a seismic cultural change and I wanted to tell the story of these soldiers. Who they were, why they were signing up, what their experience in combat was, and what their experience coming home was.”
Not surprisingly, she blames movies like Grand Illusion, The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home, and Born on the Fourth of July for stoking her interest in the War Movie. However, the human touches in Stop-Loss, from Sergeant King’s fight-or-flight response to the news, to the way his mother immediately offers to drive him to Mexico even though it would mean she’d probably never see him again, are all the product of Peirce’s research and, of course, her own family’s experience with Iraq.
Peirce conducted much of her research in person and over the phone with vets and their families, and even more, quite astonishingly, happened while her subjects were serving in Iraq. Unlike every other military conflict in U.S. history, the internet now allows for real-time relationships with service members as long as they aren’t on a mission — or someone in their unit had been injured or killed. “You go from talking to your soldier every day to nothing, and you stay in that blackout until they contact all the soldiers’ families,” Peirce says. “So for my mother, it was just these routine blackouts that were terrifying. Like many of the women I interviewed across America, she didn’t want to go home after work because she knew they had to deliver that news in person. She said to me one day, ‘You will never know fear until you’ve a child being fired at in a combat zone.’”
“You ask me why this story — it had to be this story,” Peirce concludes. “It’s the emblematic story of this generation.” •
Stop-Loss was originally slated for release in the fall of last year, according to
Hollywood Reporter, but the poor box-office performances of other 2007 Iraq/9-11-
related films inspired Paramount to push back its release. Will Stop-Loss — which, as you may have noticed, is being promoted with war-skirting, Friday Night Lights-esque advertising — beat the curse?