'Fort Bliss' Has a Secret Weapon: The Army
The Army isn't afraid of baring the ugly sides of life in uniform
For a film depicting PTSD, an attempted rape and the destructive aftermath of a military deployment on a soldier's family, the filmmakers behind Fort Bliss had a surprising ally: the U.S. Armed Forces.
"It's a good movie. It's a plausible story in the U.S. army," Ken Hawes, Western region director of U.S. public affairs, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There are 1.1 million soldiers in the Army. Aspects of this story will reflect someone's experience."
Michelle Monaghan stars as Army medic Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann, who returns home from Afghanistan to a son who doesn't want her, an ex who has started another family with a new fiancee, a world from which she's been removed for 15 months and, of course, her own demons. Fort Bliss opens Friday in select theaters in New York, Burbank and on base at Fort Bliss.
The movie shot at the actual Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, drawing from the authenticity of actual military barracks and a rifle range. A platoon of about 30 soldiers from the Army's 1st Armored Division served as extras, and an Army medic supplied technical advice for Monaghan. The film also shot at the Joint Forces Base at Los Alamitos in Orange County, Calif., featuring its motor pool (the military parking lot) and a hangar. All of this was at no cost to taxpayers, Hawes says.
For writer and director Claudia Myers and producer Adam Silver, the Army support was crucial for financial reasons and for storytelling. With a movie budgeted for less than $2 million, being able to shoot for no cost was key. Otherwise, the filmmakers would have had to rent a location, hire actors to play the military roles, rent the cars and outfit them to look like military vehicles at escalating costs, while obviously sacrificing authenticity. Silver says it's impossible to estimate the production value of shooting on base.
"The only way to do this as an independent film was to do it with military support," Myers tells THR. Besides, Myers and Silver had worked together on training videos for the Army at Fort Bliss in 2007, where the project was conceived. For them, using the military was never in question.
The Department of Defense supports Hollywood movies, both scripted and documentaries. The process of getting military support begins with script approval. If the movie portrays the military in a positive light, the project gets the go-ahead. The producers get access to equipment, bases, and personnel at little to no cost. Think of the dozen or so aircraft carriers used on Battleship or the C-17 used in Man of Steel. Lone Survivor, Godzilla, the Iron Man and the Transformers franchises also flexed some state-of-the-art government muscle. The military gets a brandishing of its image, fighting aliens, robots and monsters.
So again, why Fort Bliss?
The story is hardly all rah-rah about Army life for a woman. In one scene, a colleague aggressively tries to force sex. She struggles viciously, ultimately using whatever weapons are at her disposal to head off the threatening rape.
It's not all blatant propaganda, say Defense Department officials. The Pentagon cooperated with The Invisible War, the 2012 documentary about sexual assaults throughout the Armed Forces and the institutional retaliation against the victims.
"If it's in the best interest of the DOD, we help the filmmaker. Is it going to tell a plausible, accurate portrayal of service members? Sometimes it's cost prohibitive — if you want to use a lot of aircraft, for example. But we don't censor people; we try to tell help a story," Hawes says, noting that the Army supported another indie film called The Dry Land in the hopes that it would help the conversation about PTSD. "It doesn't happen to everybody, but it could happen to one person. If it helps one person with PTSD or someone else close to them who might recognize the symptoms of PTSD, than it's worth making the movie."
"I think there's a misperception between civilians and people in uniform in general. And so I think they appreciated that we wanted to share a story that was very authentic to so many soldiers, and whether it's good or bad, it's the reality. They were very open to that. I myself was surprised," Monaghan tells THR's Off the Cuff podcast.
Myers says the military didn't ask for any script alterations: "The only input they gave me was practical, something in terms of a technical note. No elements of the story were affected by approval. I think it's to their credit that they didn't ask me to make any changes."
Officials know that the military experience is complex. "We tell filmmakers: Unfortunately bad things happen in the Army, but usually those are corrected or there are consequences for those who do bad things," Hawes says. "This is a very positive but fictional film. It's not all Disney movies."
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