ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Tears flowed from Michelle Monaghan’s eyes as a moviegoer embraced her Sunday at the Old Town Theater in Alexandria, thanking her for telling a story that affects so many mothers in the military.
While most film festivals honor the work of filmmakers, the G.I. Film Festival also honors our nation’s brave service members. After a week that included Gary Sinise (“Forrest Gump”) and David Arquette (“Scream”), the festival culminated with Monaghan (“True Detective”) on the red carpet for the East Coast premiere of “Fort Bliss,” the latest film from writer/director Claudia Myers, who also teaches writing and directing full-time at American University.
VIDEO: WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley and Picture Lock’s Kevin Sampson interview Claudia Myers:
The premise of “Fort Bliss” is a lot like “The Hurt Locker” (2008) meets “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979). It follows an Army medic and single mother (Monaghan), who returns home from an extended tour in Afghanistan to discover that her young son no longer recognizes her. This forces her to reconcile her duties as a mother and her obligations as a soldier, amid visitation clashes with her ex-husband (Ron Livingston, “Office Space”).
Monaghan tells WTOP she enjoyed the uniqueness of this character study.
“It was a story that I had never heard of before. I had never seen a story about the cost of war on families,” Monaghan said. “It’s not a story about being down-range and it’s not a story on death and things like that, it’s really about the sacrifices that the families are making at home, and I think that’s what really struck me and compelled me to want to be a part of sharing this story.”
Myers says her previous non-fiction work with the military helped inspire the idea.
“I came to American University after working as a freelance filmmaker in D.C. for several years. Although, I had been working on the script for about five years prior while I was making a number of films for and about the military community. A lot of that informed my research and directly informed the story and the script,” Myers says.
The military angle was only half of the battle. The other half, involving the work-life balance of motherhood, was far more personal to Myers.
“In some ways, ‘Fort Bliss’ is the ultimate working mother story,” she says. “[It] was inspired by some of the tension that I felt making films and having a young child at the time.”
Of course, the stress of raising a family while serving in the military crosses gender boundaries.
“When I was actually doing research for the first training film that I did for the Army, I met an infantry soldier who was a single dad and deployed a couple of times, and I had found out that he had left his son with his neighbors when he was on deployment. … It was a side of the war I had never really thought about and didn’t know much about, and I became especially interested in stories of soldiers that are also parents and how they juggle the demands of two completely different worlds.”
Shooting any film requires a long pre-production process, but shooting a film about parenting comes with its own unique challenges.
“The big challenge was casting a child who had many difficult scenes … a young actor who can display a big range of emotions,” Myers said. “Oakes Fegley, who plays that part, was one of the first actors we saw for that role. I did cast in New York, in L.A. and also at Fort Bliss in Texas, thinking that maybe a non-actor would be the way to go, but clearly Oakes was the right choice.”
Fegley donned a suit on the red carpet, saying it was “pretty awesome” to have Monaghan as his on-screen mom. His highlight of the shoot? Getting to sit in an Army truck. His favorite scene? Shoving his plate off the dinner table.
The G.I. Film Festival was the first chance for Washingtonians to see the film before it hits select North American theaters this fall, distributed by Phase Four Films.
Editor’s note: The G.I. Film Fest is a WTOP-sponsored event. Fraley studied under Myers in American University’s masters film program and introduced Sunday’s screening of the Korean War documentary “The Remembered War.”