Director Kimberly Pierce – Stop Loss

By Beth Accomando

Stop Loss, the title of the new film directed by Kimberly Pierce and starring Ryan Phillippe, is a term used by the military for the involuntary extension of a service member’s enlistment contract in order to retain them or return them to action.


“What it means is that soldiers are being kept beyond their service time,” says Pierce, “but if there’s a war going on, the president has the right to extend their service. This is technically in the contract; it is in the fine print and 81,000 soldiers have been stop-lossed.”


Pierce, who directed Hilary Swank to an Oscar in Boys Don’t Cry, decided that she wanted to make a film about why people were signing up for service, what their experience in combat was like, and what’s it like coming home. Pierce became fascinated with the Iraq war and the soldier’s experience when her own brother signed up. While he was home on leave, Pierce found her brother watching videos made by other soldiers, and it struck her that this was the first time soldiers themselves were documenting their experiences to such a degree.

“As I looked over his shoulder,” Pierce recalls, “I saw these were rough images that had been shot on one chip cameras, and the camera was placed on a sandbag or it was wired to a Humvee or even attached to a gun turret. And what you were seeing were images of battle, and images of guys in their barracks. I realized at that moment that this was a view of the war that we had never seen. It was the experience of the soldier unedited, from their point of view and then put to rock music. So in some ways it was like a fantasy of themselves. Some of these videos were extremely patriotic — set to Toby Keith’s music — and then there were also ones like pure gore. They would go into the streets and see dead bodies and it was about how much body count can we rack up, put to thrill kill music. I was fascinated by these, and I realized that these needed to be in the movie. In many ways the movie needed to be born from these videos.” 


And it was. Stop Loss opens with soldier videos, and if Pierce has her way, soldier videos should be playing in the theater as people arrive to set the tone for the film. The film opens in Iraq as Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) and his squad prepare to go back home. But before they do, they get pulled into a deadly ambush after a car runs their checkpoint. 


Opening the film with the characters in Iraq was important because it allows audiences to understand what the experience is like. But filming those scenes, says Pierce, “was a challenge because I had to harness this whole big movie machine. I was shooting four cameras, which means you have four different cinematographers and four camera crews, and they’re all trained looking at the action from a different point of view. And because it’s special effects and explosions, I can’t do ten takes. They come in and say, ‘If you are lucky, you can get two takes. But if you can do it in one that would be great.’ Yeah that would be great because the clean up time and the reset time are very expensive. So that means I have to be so technically precise to make sure that my actors are right. Generally you do multiple takes because your actor is getting up to speed or your lighting guy is getting ready. Everybody is getting it by take three or four, but I don’t have the luxury of doing that. So everybody just has to be on their game.”


Pierce says it’s also a challenge to keep the energy level high during these difficult set ups: “But it helps that we are using real guns, it helps that we are using real loads, it helps that we are using real uniforms. But still when you are in your close up, you are asking your actors to go into a state of mind that is incredibly tense and so you all really have to be in those circumstances.”


For the characters in the film, coming out of those intense circumstances and going back home can be a difficult transition. Making it even more difficult is to come home, thinking you’re done, and then being sent back. When Brandon comes home, he’s angered to find that he’s been stop-lossed. 

In researching the film, Pierce says, “Pretty much every soldier I have talked to is frustrated by stop-loss because who wants to go back after you have done your service? So some of them just accept it and go back and they are angry. Some of them fight the system; some people have actually tried to fight it through a law suit but courts won’t hear the lawsuits. And there are some people who have gone on the run, they are AWOL in America, up to 11,000 now. And there are people who have left the country.”


In screening the film around the country, Pierce has been moved by the soldiers who have attended and told her that she’s gotten it right. She’s also been moved by their individual stories and has wanted to “continue the narrative” beyond the film. To do that she and Paramount’s “interactive” department (that’s how they refer to the web) have partnered to get cameras into the hands of soldiers and then to post their videos online as part of the movie’s web site.


You can find the soldiers’ videos at

Stop Loss opens in theaters on March 28.