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Back Door Draft

Nearly a Decade After Boys Don't Cry, Writer/Director Kimberly Peirce Returns With Another Disquietly American Story

COWBOYS DON'T CRY: Kimberly Peirce jaws with Ryan Phillippe on the set of her new film Stop-Loss.

By Cole Haddon | Posted 3/26/2008

Kimberly Peirce hasn't changed much physically since she wrote and directed 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 even 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, however, have changed for her in the nine years since Boys gave Peirce, as she calls it, a "Hollywood career"; it's a long time for a follow-up, after all, even if it wasn't spent sitting on her ass. Project after project slipped through her fingers even after she developed it to the point that shooting it had become 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, Sept. 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 Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), a decorated Iraq vet who, at the end of his military contract, returns home to Texas to return to civilian life. Once there, his discharge is suspended and he's ordered back to the front, a reality he decides to fight since, after all, the contractual loophole that allows this only works in a time of war, and war was never declared on Iraq.

A soldier serving in Iraq at the time 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 back-door 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 Sept. 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 The Grand Illusion, The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home, and Born on the Fourth of July for stoking interest in the war movie, but the human touches in Stop-Loss, from Sgt. 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 in Iraq.

Much of her research happened 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 allowed for real-time relationships with service members as long as they weren'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."

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