SHOOTING STOP LOSS
The production began filming in Texas in early August. Peirce sat down with each actor before the rehearsal "to get to know them, absorb who they are, what's important to them, how they see themselves. Whether they know it or not, they generally tell me their life story as if they were the character. Once I feel they've told me all the essentials and I have a feel for them, we naturally start talking about the character."
After rehearsal, she again met with them individually and then paired them up based on the relationships they have in the film and their scenes in common. "Rather than reciting lines, I ease them into 'getting the scene on its feet,'" says Peirce. "We work loosely, get to the core of the scene emotionally, what each character wants, how they go about getting it; we improvise it and wonderful stuff comes out."
Once production commenced, before shooting each day Peirce had a general run-through of the scene, loosely putting it on its feet and letting the actors find their way through the space. "It's basically to help the scene find its natural shape and then to push on points of conflict," she says. "I'm always amazed at the new level of clarity we all have when the actors run through the action and dialogue with other actors on the set."
Working alongside her during the rehearsal process was director of photography Chris Menges. "I'd rehearse a scene until the point where it had a natural and dramatic shape," says Peirce. "He'd watch the rehearsal and generally figure out where to put the camera (and where to move the camera) so the scene plays out in one shot. That gives it the advantage of retaining the inherent dramatic shape of the scene. Then we can go in for more movement."
Menges excelled at utilizing handheld cameras, Steadicams and a crane, when needed, which Peirce says allowed her to capture a sort of dynamism and energy as well as a sense of intimacy. "And he's phenomenal with light. He tends to go with natural light whenever he can."
The cast and crew stayed in Austin, the cosmopolitan state capitol, home to the University of Texas and a world-famous music scene. However, most of the film's locations were in outlying small towns, such as Lockhart, Texas, the self-proclaimed Barbecue Capital of Texas. One of the movie's pivotal sequences took place there - the parade in which the town welcomes home its war heroes and the subsequent awards ceremony. This also happened to be the first scenes filmed in the movie. Lockhart was the perfect venue, with its wide streets lined by Norman Rockwell-esque shops in brick and Victorian-styled buildings and an eye-popping courthouse with mansard roofs, colorful turrets and a high central tower featuring a four-way clock. Equally important, the residents enthusiastically welcomed the film company and nearly 600 townsfolk signed on to be extras, cheering the returning soldiers over the course of two days.
One of the key sequences, in which Tommy shoots his wedding gifts and the tensions and rifts between Brandon and best friend Steve begin to surface, took place at a sprawling ranch known as the Double C. The Double C provided the perfect, vast expanse of desiccated grass and thatch of gnarled trees that provided some shade for the actors during the first part of the scene, set during the day. The night work required a "hunt club," where Brandon and Steve's friendship would begin to fray. Production designer David Wasco created a hardscrabble, tin structure that melded perfectly into the beautiful but brutal landscape.
"The script called for a dusty, dried grass kind of place with scraggly oaks. At first, we looked for an existing deer camp, which is essentially a shack. It's the most rudimentary kind of cover - a series of interconnected cardboard boxes. Ours was board and batten, with standing seam tin for the roof and walls, metal and fiberglass insulation, remnants of carpet on the wall, not pretty. We also had to provide something that was film friendly, so that the camera and lights could be in any position. So, we were lucky to come to the Double C Ranch, which is a multi-thousand acre ranch that offered so many possibilities. It provided a place for the earlier portion of the scene, the "target practice" sequence, and then Kim and the actors could move organically to the deer camp, as they do in the script, which we built nearby. It was essentially a wild-walled movie set - if we would have gone to a practical location, we would have been much more limited, in terms of the shots we could have achieved," Wasco says.
Wasco adds that the unprecedented drought that summer made for good production design.
"This is as authentic as you're going to get. This was one of the few opportunities in the movie that opens up to show true Texas prairie. We were in the midst of the strongest drought in memory, which gave us these golden fields and dusty prairie, which looks beautiful on film. It's quite a heartland America thing that is such a contrast to Iraq and New York," says Wasco.
Wasco adds that in general, his color scheme was a gradual "spiral down with Brandon. As we go on the journey with Brandon and his circumstances become increasingly dire, the colors go darker and darker, until they become almost monochromatic. The only break in that patina is in New York, where, of course, the colors are much more vibrant and jarring."
Costume designer Marlene Stewart followed a similar color pattern - at the start of the film, as the characters tentatively begin their new civilian lives, the tones are brighter - Steve in his patriotic red, white and blue checked shirts, Michele donning a soft pink top, a fresh white sundress and flouncy red party frock, Brandon favoring a maroon shirt. As the movie proceeds, Steve relies on his Army fatigues while Brandon and Michele, on the run, tend towards gunmetal gray and dark blue non-descript attire.
These looks did not happen by chance and even the more pedestrian garb merited scrutiny prior to principal photography. Stewart, the actors and Peirce participated in several costume and camera tests, to ascertain the best cut of the pants or the length of a t-shirt, in addition to the specific hues that would be used. While this process is common in moviemaking, at first, "Stop-Loss" would not appear to be "a costume movie" that warranted such scrutiny. Stewart demurs.
"I find that even on a 'simple' costume, there is the same amount of discussion, especially in a movie like this one, where the characters have to 'live' in one costume for a long time," she says. "I always prefer to have camera tests before production begins, with the DP, the director, the production designer and, of course, the actors, to see how the cut of the clothes look, how the colors react with skin tones and film stock. That way, everyone knows and decides and is in on the process."
Menges' trademark, however, is to illuminate sets via practical lights that are part of the scene. This signature practice was best seen in what became known as the Cattle Club. Club 21, in Uhland, Texas, a well-known honky-tonk bar, became the setting of a pivotal party scene in which drunken fun leads to a barroom brawl that reveals the difficulties the soldiers face returning to civilian life. The production ended up filming there for three nights and because the camera, usually a Steadicam, often revealed 90% of the set, lighting it with traditional key lights and the like was a difficult proposition. Menges' solution was to string a canopy of 5000 Carney lights above the set. David Wasco's production design augmented the look with neon signage above the stage where a band played tunes by which to two-step. Whenever Menges' team had to shoot close-ups, his team would produce a white cardboard card with a coiled ring of small white lights affixed to it. This portable, bespoke rig allowed him to softly and swiftly illuminate the actors without compromising the framing of the shot.
Retired Sgt. Major Jim Dever, the film's military advisor, was consistently on set. With his ramrod posture, his high and tight haircut, and matter-of-fact but positive attitude, he was a conspicuous and welcome presence. Whether it was corralling extras into military formation during parade scenes or teaching Channing Tatum how to fold a flag at a funeral, he was always ready and available. The male cast members got to know him better than they may have wanted at boot camp, where they slept in cots trimmed with mosquito netting, endured classes on and drills with weapons, firing 6,000 rounds during the course of their training. They began their day at 5:30 am with reveille and by 6:30 am, they were well into their rigorous military style PT, all courtesy of Sgt. Major Dever.
"It was like a total immersion system for the actors," recalls Peirce of boot camp and the extensive research material she provided to them before filming began. "I shared with them hours and hours of interviews I'd done with soldiers as well as live footage from Iraq shot by soldiers who were there."
Timothy Olyphant joined the cast as Brandon's CO Boot Miller and he consulted with Sgt. Major Jim Dever about his character. "I asked him a few questions, but he was running around all day commanding the extras. So I thought, 'you know what, I'll do what he's doing,'" Olyphant laughs.
Victor Rasuk was cast in the role of Rico Rodriguez, a role that required the application of special make-up and extensive prosthetics, including contact lenses that blinded Rasuk, to convey the horrible injuries Rico suffers in battle. Rasuk elected to keep the contact lenses in during his scenes and the constricting prosthetics caused him to limp; often, Peirce or Phillippe would guide him to his mark on set or towards a chair in between takes, much as they would have done to his severely wounded character.
"For me, the prosthetics helped me with the character. My arm was bound behind my back and it hurt like hell, so I incorporated that into my character, as part of his literal and emotional pain. I wanted to keep the contacts in because I honestly felt like I was in the dark, as Rico would. I couldn't see anything. When the cast and crew walked around me, I didn't know where anyone was or who they were, I saw only shadows. It was very helpful," Rasuk says.
Rasuk adds that Peirce understood his desire to use the prosthetics but her guidance helped him navigate not just his temporary blindness but also his acting.
"At first, the contacts were making me really cerebral, I spent too much time inside my head, so my acting was too forced. Kim stopped everything; she took me aside and gave me a heart-to-heart, not just like a director to an actor, but like an actor to an actor, she really understood the process. She takes such good care of her actors and I really appreciated that, " Rasuk says.
Rico recuperates at an Army Medical Center, for which the production used the Austin State School, home to about 436 people with developmental disabilities. Several of the school's buildings had fallen into disrepair, including the ones chosen for Rico's scenes. The art and set decoration departments revamped several interiors, which included the painstaking and costly business of removing asbestos. The production donated the freshly painted, restored facilities to the State School, which intended to turn them into art rooms for the residents.
Far from the plains and small towns of Texas, the cast and crew traveled to Morocco where they joined forces with additional crew from Czechoslovakia, Spain and Morocco to film a pivotal battle scene which is set in Iraq early in the film.
"In the film, our key characters have served together in Afghanistan and Iraq for a while, and have remained relatively unscathed. They are on a final mission before returning home, a mission which alters their destiny," explains Peirce. "They encounter a roadblock, and are drawn into an ambush resulting in some severe casualties. In order to save his remaining comrades, Sgt. Brandon King must make agonizing decisions--decisions which will haunt him long after he has returned home."
The choice of Morocco as the location for shooting this important Iraq-based battle proved to be a fortuitous one.
"Morocco is amazing and the people were so warm and welcoming," recalls Peirce of the experience. "For me, there was a whole layer of sensitivity regarding our company coming into this Islamic country and into their space. The scene we shot involved a military raid, so when we were shooting in Marrakech, we were going into the actual homes of these people, not a set on some soundstage. It was very humbling being over there--I was so impressed with their sense of community and their hospitality toward us."
"We were careful to lay out the specifics of the scene when working with Moroccan officials to organize the shoot," adds producer Gregory Goodman. "We were very sensitive to the fact that we were essentially depicting the invasion of a neighborhood, so we worked closely with our contacts there early on in terms of scene requirements, logistics and security, so they would know what to expect during our time there. The King of Morocco, the officials and the community of Marrakech were all incredibly helpful and cooperative--It was a terrific experience."
The filmmakers hope that the characters and the story of "Stop-Loss" will resonate with audiences. For Phillippe, "Stop-Loss" is essentially a personal tale. "I see it as a unique set of circumstances, not a sweeping indictment of any group, or of the military, or the Administration," he says. "Although it does say something about the situation we're in, what's at the heart of the drama is what happens to these guys when they come back home and can't cope. One guy's wife leaves him and he's got a drinking problem. The other guy is having post- traumatic stress disorder…it's about the ramifications of war, and the sorrow that can be reaped."
"This movie is definitely pro-soldier," says Peirce. "It may not be pro the Stop-Loss policy. But we have tried to honor and to show with great compassion and understanding the unique experience of these brave men and women and the effect that war has, not only on them, but on their families, friends and everyone around them."
About the filmmakers …
Kimberly Peirce (Director/Written by/Producer) made her feature film debut with 1999's acclaimed "Boys Don't Cry," a fact-based drama about the life and tragic death of Brandon Teena - a Nebraska transgender who was brutally raped and murdered after his double life was exposed. "Boys Don't Cry" plunged into a world few people know and emerged with a tale of universal resonance, an illuminating vision of our shared humanity. Peirce heard about the Brandon Teena story while attending Columbia University as a graduate student. Inspired by Teena's life and death, she switched her thesis project to this compelling subject. She traveled to Falls City, Nebraska, where the events occurred, did extensive research and attended the trial of the two men accused of Teena's murder.
In 1995, she made a short film on the subject. The Columbia faculty nominated it for the Princess Grace Award and it received an Astrea Production Grant, which helped fund the cost of developing it into a feature film. The Sundance Institute subsequently asked Peirce to workshop the screenplay at the 1997 Sundance Filmmakers, Writers and Producers Labs. Upon its release, "Boys Don't Cry" became one of the most acclaimed and talked-about films of the year, earning many honors, including the Oscar® for Best Actress for the film's star Hilary Swank, as well as the Golden Globe, the Independent Spirit, the NY and LA Critics, and the National Board of Review Awards.
Chloë Sevigny was nominated for an Oscar® and a Golden Globe and she won the Independent Spirit, CFCA, BSFC, NSFC, Boston, Chicago and L.A. Critics Awards for Best Supporting Actress.
The film received the International Critics prize for Best Film at both the London and Stockholm Film Festivals, the Satyajit Rai Foundation Award for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival, and was named "the Best American Feature" by Janet Maslin.
For her part, Peirce won honors as Best Debut Director from the National Board of Review and Best New Filmmaker from the Boston Society of Film Critics.
Continuing her tradition of writing real-life stories inspired by America and the American family, Peirce is co-writing to direct a darkly entertaining tale of "Sex, Secrets and Taboo in Suburbia." Peirce is also writing "Untitled Romantic Comedy '08," in the vein of Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen, in which a "guy's" group of friends resuscitates him from the worst possible breakup, and trains him to find true love in this gender twist on the classic romantic comedy. Other projects include the "Untitled New Orleans Project," inspired by true stories, in which Peirce takes a look at the lawless streets of New Orleans as they become the breeding ground for a great American gangster.
Peirce has been featured in the documentaries "Women in Film," "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" and "Hollywood Brats." In addition to her feature work, Peirce has contributed non-fiction film and theater articles to Kansai Time Out, Grey City Journal and Chicago's Screen Magazine. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago's BA, Columbia University's MFA and the Sundance Institute's Writing and Directing Lab programs, where Peirce first rose to prominence with her 16-mm experimental short "The Last Good Breath." The film ran in the Leopard of Tomorrow Program at the 1994 Locarno International Film Festival, winning several awards, including second place at the Canada International Film Festival, a Golden Award in the Experimental Division at the Chicago International Film Festival and first place at the Suffolk Film Festival.
Mark Richard (Written by) is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tommy Burgess) has already distinguished himself with a wide range of performances in both television and film. He most recently starred in Scott Franks' "The Lookout" as a physically challenged janitor who becomes part of a heist at the bank at which he is