In FORT BLISS, A Decorated U.S. Army medic, Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan), returns home from an extended tour of duty in Afghanistan. Although she still suffers from the after effects of combat, including never being able to sleep, she has one amazing thing in her life to get back to, her five-year-old son. Unfortunately, upon her arrival, she discovers her son barely remembers her and would rather stay with his father, Maggie’s ex Richard (Ron Livingston) and his new wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who her son calls mom. As she struggles to reclaim his affection, life after deployment is made more difficult by her persistent memories of Afghanistan, both of war and the rigors of barrack life as a tough as nails femail in the world a world of men. When news of another deployment threatens the fragile balance she has achieved, she must find a way to reconcile her duties as a mother and her obligations as a solider.
We’ve seen a lot of films in the last ten years or so dealing with soldiers returning from war, but Claudia Myers’ film feels completely fresh, a story that we haven’t heard yet, and one that is very powerful. Monaghan gives a triumphant performance, one that could could easily be called star-making. Her negotiation through all the different conflicts thrown at her by the film is quite amazing. The rest of the cast is just as good, with Livingston showing real dramatic skills that he is not allowed to use enough. Another standout is Pablo Schreiber, who plays Maggie’s new romantic issue, but has problems of his own to deal with, living on one side of the Mexico border with his family on the other. In fact, there is so much drama crammed into Fort Bliss it was sort of a conquest in plotting and character development before the cameras even turned on and the actors gave these phenomenal performance. The film is really five years in the making, stemming from writer/director Claudia Myers’ prior work with the army and the VA, and it is really a special film. It tackles some really tough issues without ever passing judgment or shying away from real heartache. And it had the full support of the US military, which is pretty awesome.
I had a chance to speak with Myers last week about the film, and her answers to my questions were so dead-on, I’m just going to put this out there as an interview, which is something I don’t normally do. I don’t want to tell you too much about the film other than the premise. Its just something every parent should see.
Bears: Your film is different than most of the recent soldier-coming-home stories, why do you think that is?
Myers: I think what’s different about Fort Bliss is first of all it’s told from a female perspective… It’s fundamentally about trying to be a soldier and a mom at the same time, and I don’t think that’s been explored. My inspiration for the film was real soldiers and real stories. It’s not based on any one person but certainly it’s a composite of a lot of different people I met, a lot of stories I heard, and frankly what moved me personally. Common elements kept coming up, the same issues over and over again that are just an important part of the fabric of this complicated experience that is coming home from war as a parent after 15 months.
Bears: You shot on the base in El Paso (Fort Bliss) and received a lot of support for the film from the U.S. Armed Forces. How did that happen?
Myers: I had worked with the military for five years in the process of developing the script. I got the idea for the story when I was working on an army training film coincidentally at the actual Fort Bliss in Texas. From that point on I felt like I want to learn more about the experiences of soldiers and veterans, learn more about the culture, and so I sought out projects that would give me access to those stories. I did a large-scale interactive training script that was about combat stress and PTSD and then I also did a couple documentaries for the VA about soldiers coming back from Iraq and the importance of their family in the healing process – and then one about the evolution of women’s roles in the military since World War II and how rapidly the roles have changed. All of that gave me knowledge to write the script in a way that I felt had a little more authenticity and accuracy. Also I think earned some goodwill, in terms of showing that I was committed to exploring these issues in a truthful way so that when I went for Army support – it was quite a long process, it took almost a year – I think they knew where I was coming from. I don’t think the script shies away from the difficult issues, I think it presents a balanced portrait of what that experience of coming home is like and all the complications that surround it. They chose to support the film and when we were filming at Fort Bliss they allowed us to film on post both in the barracks and out in some of their training villages, They gave us access to military vehicles and, very crucially, some really terrific subject matter experts who kind of made sure that we were treating things accurately, which I think was a common interest of ours.
Bears: Was there something particular about Fort Bliss that made you want to use it as the central location of the film and Maggie’s homecoming.
Myers: I think honestly more than anything the name I thought was really evocative. There was something poetic about the name Fort Bliss, and I also felt like it captured a little bit of … the paradox in the story, this tender relationship that’s really strained, this expectation that things will be happy and wonderful when she comes back and in fact it’s quite different. It was one of those things where I knew that’s what the film would be called and I never wavered from that. And of course, I wanted to film there.
Bears: El Paso is sort of a strange place for people who have never been there, how do you think that affected the story of the film?
Myers: I think what I love about El Paso and the real physical place of Fort Bliss – of course I got to spend some time there so it was my entry point into the military – but I felt like it was a place where opposites were often coming together. El Paso is a town of two cultures coming together: there’s a civilian culture and there’s the military culture. You see HumVees going down the street, and there’s this sense of two worlds colliding in a way that I haven’t seen in other cities that I’ve been in. I was also struck by the metaphor of it being a town on the border, and here’s a character who’s kind of stuck between two places. She doesn’t want to be deployed without her child; she doesn’t want to be with her child without feeling a sense of purpose. She’s kind of searching for her place. And that she meets another character who is from Mexico, who has also come across the border and feels torn as well. So I felt like El Paso represented all of that. Trying to have a foot in these two different worlds, and how do you reconcile that tension.
Bears: And I love that you didn’t really allow for it to be reconciled easily. This is an uncompromising movie with people making hard choices. No one is innocent and no one gets off easy.
Myers: I was basically trying to portray people who are trying to do their best in a difficult situation. And nobody’s all good or all bad. They all have, to an extent, valid points to make, under all kind of feeling their way towards the answers. I firmly believe that in this situation. So it was more interesting to me to try and show people kind of presenting different sides of the same experience and presenting arguments in response to the same experience than to show someone who is clearly right or clearly wrong.
Bears: It’s great to see Ron Livingston in such a dramatic role. Everyone here in Austin has been a fan since Office Space, obviously, but this is a very different role for him.
Myers: Ron is an incredibly versatile actor. He is very smart about character. I just think he has really good instincts about the emotional truth of the situation. I think once he committed to the part, he understood the role that Richard has to play, he didn’t shy away from the less flattering aspects of his character and I think he just sort of embraced that gray zone where he was justified in his point of view but he’s not without its flaws. It was a pleasure to work with him on the film.
Bears: And Michelle Monaghan, I feel like she is about to blow up. She’s been doing great things for a while but right now, she seems to be just getting offered some really phenomenal and challenging roles.
Myers: Michelle has an immense range as an actor. I think what was appealing to her was to really explore all dimensions to the character. She was just completely committed. She went down to Fort Bliss a month or so before the shoot to train with medics down there, learn medical techniques, and spend time with soldiers. She really immersed herself in that culture until she felt a degree of comfort and familiarity with it. From the first of the last shot of the film she was 100% present. I think her performance is stunning.
Bears: Me too. Especially her conflict as a parent. She’s not afraid to show some real raw feelings, like knowing, as much as she loves her son, her life would probably just be easier if he wasn’t around. It’s heartbreaking. As much as this a very particular story, I can’t help but feel the film is actually more about parenting than being a soldier.
Myers: I’m hoping that will resonate with people even if they don’t have any experience with the military. I think on some fundamental level it’s the ultimate working mother story. How do you juggle work and family and how can you be good at both? Can you be good at both? Are you viewed differently for trying to do both as a woman? I think these are larger questions that anyone who has a job and a family can relate to, so that’s the hope. And I wrote it because I’m a parent, and I’m working, and I struggle with these things myself. Wanting to do something meaningful in life that gives us a sense of purpose and being a parent and not everyone is satisfied with just doing one thing.
Bears: Do you think this right time for a movie about this? It seems with the US involvement in the campaigns, there is a constant flow of soldiers to and from combat zones? But we don’t think about them as much when they are home, or on base.
Myers: I think it’s definitely timely, there’s no question about it. There’s certainly been a fair amount of discussion about the impact of war, I just don’t think we’ve looked at the impact of war on families and children. I don’t think we’ve looked at the social cost of war on parents. 40% of women in the military are moms. When the soldier deploys, the family kind of in one way or another is at war with them. That strain, that tension, those issues have far-reaching consequences. I think part of the role of the film is to raise awareness of what the sacrifice is and how much it costs. I do think now is a very good time for the asking of those questions.
Claudia Myer’s FORT BLISS opens in select theatres and on VOD on September 19th. Super cool, one of the places it will be playing theatrically is at The Grand 10 in Fort Bliss, TX.