Interview With Kimberly Peirce

Peirce on the set with actor Ryan Phillippe

AE: Like that opening combat sequence that you shot. I just found that
incredibly chilling — I’ve never been in combat, but it just struck me as
incredibly real — what it must be like to have that experience, to be in that
chaos, not knowing what is around the corner. How did you create such a real
scene?
KP:
Well, I was looking at these soldier videos and really learning about
this experience from their point of view. And I knew that the movie needed to
come from the soldiers’ point of view. Every word. Every image. Every song. Every
movement needed to feel as they experienced it.

So I not only gathered
these video images, but I also interviewed a number of soldiers and I would ask
them: "Tell me exactly what it’s like. Tell me what you do on a daily
basis."

And so I would learn all
about their missions, and I found that the checkpoints were the most emblematic,
the most moving of what soldiers in this generation are going through. … They’re
told to stop at a certain point. One Humvee goes to the front, one goes to the
back. And they trap whatever traffic is coming either way, and that’s how they
hope to find somebody who happens to be doing something that they don’t want.

But that puts the soldier
in an incredibly vulnerable position. That means that everybody who comes up to
that checkpoint — they don’t know who’s in that car. It could be an innocent. It
could be somebody with a weapon. It could be a car bomb. And … I knew that I needed
to tell [that] — I knew that that needed to be one of the elements in that
opening scene.

AE: I really think that came across very vividly, that you had a lot of
empathy for them. When they had to chase those guys into the alley, I was
sitting there asking myself, why do you even have to go there? But I knew that
was part of what they were required to do.

KP: That’s what they’re required to
do. But then again that intensifies the whole experience of being vulnerable. So
as they’re going down the alley — and this is the thing that came directly from
soldiers’ testimony to me — they said: "Look. I signed up for all the
right reasons — to defend my family, my country and my home.

"I volunteered. But
when I went over there, particularly to Iraq, the enemy that I thought I
was going after wasn’t there. And the enemy that I thought might be in the
desert was in fact in the bedrooms and the hallways and the kitchens of these
peoples’ homes."

And that was incredibly
challenging because [of] the same thing: You don’t know who’s gonna come at
you. Is it an innocent person? Is it somebody with a weapon?

AE: Right.
KP:
So you’re in a higher state of danger of accidentally killing an
innocent person, and you have a harder [time] protecting your men. And the
whole job of a soldier is to survive and protect his or her men. The people to
your left. The people to your right.

So that, to me, was
profoundly important to do that opening. And the way I work is it’s all about
character. It’s about bringing the character to life emotionally, truthfully,
and bringing to life the physical circumstances. So as I heard these things, I
would just keep [trying to understand] from a soldiers’ point of view.

So particularly in the
alley scene, where would we put the Humvees? [speaking from the point of view
of a soldier] Oh, we would put them at the front. Then what would happen? Oh,
we would get out of the Humvees and we would stack along either wall. OK. Then
we would walk down the wall, and we would go into a house … and we would clear
that house.

Right? Then we would walk
down the alley more, and we would be going towards that taxi that we’re trying
to get to, because that’s where the guys that we’re pursuing have left from. OK,
as we’re going down, you know, then we start to get pinned in, and when we get
pinned in, what do we do?

So if you asked me how I
figured out how to make the sequence, it was by listening to soldiers. Every
single thing that they said. And then literally taking that anecdote or the
story and drawing a physical diagram —

AE: And piecing it together.

KP: Exactly. … Anything that I
included has to be necessary, has to be real and has to be causal. It has to
advance the drama and the characters.

AE: Yeah. And I think that
you were very successful with that.
KP:
Oh, good.

AE: In your previous film, Boys Don’t Cry, you also did a lot of
research, and with both these films you’ve chosen subject matter that has a very
strong social context. Why do narrative film over documentaries? Particularly
with Stop-Loss, I thought this could
have easily been a documentary. So what drew you to choosing narrative?
KP:
You ask a really good question. … I started this, in a way, as a
documentary by traveling around interviewing soldiers.

But what became very,
very clear — and it was the same thing that became clear with Brandon Teena — I
could figure out everything about the Brandon Teena story, but I could never
interview Brandon.
He was dead. But I could come to know Brandon
in a certain way.

So I would end up having
in my story the recollection of who Brandon
might have been, whereas if I wrote a character and made that character Brandon
Teena. … I could write it and cast it, and I could bring Brandon to life on screen. You were going to
have a much deeper connection and a much richer experience, in my eyes, if I
made a fiction over a documentary.

Same thing here. I was
interviewing all these soldiers. Their stories were breaking my heart. They
were making me laugh. They were moving me. Right? But if I tried to tell this
story it would be in recollection. … You would only ever be describing the
camaraderie between the men. You would only be describing the danger. You would
never be in it firsthand, because it would always be recollection.

 

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