In our second interview with documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger, he is annoyed with how veterans appear in the movies. Junger says “Redeployment,” a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, is the only modern storytelling that gets it right. Having read the book, the recent war drama Fort Bliss may force Junger to reconsider his position. Written and directed by Claudia Myers, the film follows Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), an army medic who returns to Texas after a tour in Afghanistan. Her civilian life is a readjustment: her young son does not recognize her – she was gone for fifteen months – so he calls the ex-husband’s girlfriend, “Mom.” Maggie also suffers from mild PTSD, which creates another set of challenges since the army still expects her in top form. Fort Bliss is unsentimental and empathetic, an involving drama because it forces the audience to constantly evaluate what they think about the characters (and the military in general). I recently had chance to talk about Michelle Monaghan about her role, her experience with female veterans, and the hardships all veteran families must face.
BYT: What do you think is the biggest problem about the way modern veterans are treated in popular culture?
MM: I think there’s a complete lack of appreciation for what they’ve done and the sacrifices they’ve made, along with their families. There’s a lack of education out there, in terms of what they are all going through. This side of war was something I’d never considered. I just think that beyond a death toll, there’s an emotional toll that takes place for the families, too.
If a lot of people are unaware of this sacrifice, do you think it’s to the point that the phrase “Support our troops” is hollow?
Yeah, I think it’s hollow. I also think it’s a political thing. One thing I discovered while I was doing my research and spending time with veterans is that [politics] does not matter. Their service is bipartisan, whether they’re Republicans and or Democrats, so this movie isn’t even necessarily political. It’s more of a social issue, in terms of the effects it has on people overseas or at home. Soldiers are inevitably going to serve, so now it’s time to embrace the impact of what that means.
What did you do for preparation and research?
We spent a lot of time down in Fort Bliss. Firstly, I was fortunate because Claudia Myers, the writer and director, had done five years of documentaries for the military. She was doing training videos, and interviewing a lot of soldiers. The common theme she kept hearing was the impact of the families, as well as the high rate of divorce. She heard about women coming back and losing their husbands, and single dads leaving their children with neighbors. She had done five years of homework, and her script was so well thought out that we were able to take it to the State Department for their approval. They approved it!
Did they come back with notes or anything?
Oh, yeah, they said things like, “This part is true,” and “This part isn’t true.” Still, it’s a testament to Claudia wanting to get it right. It was always her intention to tell the story honestly from a soldier’s perspective. The Army gave her support, even though the film tackles several controversial issues.
I felt like I was in good hands, so with that in mind, we went down to Fort Bliss. I went through an intensive medic training course. But what was most important for me was actually spending time with female veterans. The majority of them are moms, and they were extraordinarily candid with me. It meant a lot to me; it was integral to my preparation for the character.
One remarkable thing about your performance is how you’re constantly challenging the audience’s sympathy.
Good! That’s a smart comment because Claudia’s writing and direction has such restraint and balance. There are emotional points in the film where there was a temptation to take things into sentimental territory. We consciously talked about those moments, knowing that when we pushed the audience it wouldn’t be too far. What I also learned about these women is that they aren’t emotional being (at least not right when they return from war). They’re suppressed, not overly dramatic. They repeat things and tell stories in a matter-of-fact way. They’re not asking for sympathy, they tell like it is. It was really important for me to capture that.
What was your approach when portraying Claudia?
It was incredibly collaborative. I don’t really remember much improvisation – I had a few ideas here and there – but everything we did was specific. We talked out the whole script before shooting because we only had twenty-one days of shooting. That’s one of the great things about independent filmmaking and one of the things that can trap you: you have to have to be incredibly prepared when you start because there is no time to debate choices. We were creatively on the same page, so when we started we were literally running and gunning.
I was struck by the scene where Maggie loses her temper with her young son. What was that day like, since you were rough with a child actor?
Yeah, that’s a tough thing. First of all, he’s an incredible little actor. He’s such a normal little boy, and so fantastic to work with. We had a good relationship, so before that scene, we had a brief conversation where I spoke on his level. I explained to him, “We’re going to go like this, then I’m going to grab your arm. I’m going to try not to grab too hard, but if it hurts, let me know. I’m going to shake your arm so it looks like I’m grabbing it hard.” I also spoke to his mom, which was good since adrenaline gets going and shooting can be intense. But he was totally fine, and afterward he was like, “I’m OK. That was fun!” He’s a good sport.
There’s a scene in the film where your character is arguing with her ex-husband, and she calls out his male privilege. Was that something you talked about with the women with whom you spoke?
It’s a common problem. Female vets have one of the highest divorce rates in the country. Men are taking on this non-traditional role of being at home, and they don’t know how to grapple with that. It’s a burden for a lot of relationships because it’s relatively unknown territory. What’s great about this film is that you align yourself with people at home. You’re forced to question, “Is it selfish for a parent to leave their child, especially since they may not come back? Do we relate to that idea differently when it’s a woman? Is it only honorable if a man goes to war?” The film has a great balance when it asks those questions. I hope that it opens a broader dialogue, because I know that the women I spoke to love their jobs, and love serving their country. They’re passionate about it, yet they’re also devoted parents, and they don’t want to be judged.
Does the army have any programs to help veterans’ families after a deployment?
I don’t know of any specifically, but there’s a wonderful organization called the IAVA that is an amazing resource and advocacy group.
Where did you shoot the scenes where your character was in Afghanistan?
At Fort Bliss! They have Afghan training camps; we were fortunate that the army let us use all their logistical support. All the background actors were soldiers. All the guns, vehicles, and sets belonged to the army, and there’s no way we could have had access to that with our budget.
There’s a scene where a fellow soldier attempts to assault Maggie. When I saw it, it made me think of the documentary The Invisible War; specifically, there’s a moment where an accomplished veteran said, “If I have a daughter, I’m not going to let her serve.” How would you reconcile that women love their country and want to serve, while the army has institutional problems in protecting them?
This is a start, and so is The Invisible War. It’s all about educating our military, and our civilians. We need an open dialogue, so we can talk about the issues in an honest way. That’s when things start to change. I don’t think women should be afraid to serve our country – what an oxymoron – and they should be allowed to be an environment when they’re honored and respected. That’s really important.
That scene was always in the script, and it was always written as such. We didn’t push any farther than we needed. That scene touched upon several things that affect soldiers: sexual assault, PTSD, things like that, which unfortunately are all aspects of the female soldier’s experience. It was never about those things, yet we wanted to acknowledge that they exist.
How have veterans reacted to the film?
Men or women, it doesn’t matter, they have come up to us and said, “Thank you. Thank you for honoring our female vets, and for telling their side of the story.” Women in particular feel proud because they’re being recognized; over 200,000 women are serving, and over 40 percent are parents. The story may seem unique to us, but it’s common to them. Men are also excited because it highlights the family sacrifice that affects them, too.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!
No, thank you! We really appreciate the support.
Fort Bliss opens at West End Cinema on September 26.