There are many films about the harrowing experiences of war, but not nearly enough about women soldiers — especially women with families. Returning home after serving her tour in Afghanistan as a combat medic, divorced single mother Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) expects a loving welcome from her five-year-old son, only to find him cold and distant. Now, Maggie has no choice but to fight on a different, emotional battlefront, struggling to re-adapt to the domestic life she left behind while remembering what it means to be a mother.
Under writer-director Claudia Myers’s keen eye and deft hand, Fort Bliss is a much-needed illumination of the many difficulties facing women in the military: PTSD, sexual assault, and the gendered stigma of reenlistment, while also serving as a heartfelt story of the trials, joys, and instincts of motherhood.
Fort Bliss opens September 19. Women and Hollywood spoke with Myers about the real-life soldiers who inspired the film and her own familial sacrifices for career.
WaH: What was the inspiration for this film?
CM: While working on an army-training film back in 2007, I met an infantry sergeant who was a single dad and had deployed twice to Iraq. I remember asking him what he did with his son while he was deployed, and he told me he had to leave him with his neighbors because the mother wasn’t in the picture. I had never thought about that side of the war — the impact of these deployments on the family and what it must be like for a parent to leave their child for 15 months. As a mother myself, I was deeply affected by the idea of that kind of sacrifice. That was the seed of the film.
WaH: The family side of the military, especially from a female perspective, isn’t seen often. How important was it that you tell a story about a woman and a single mother?
CM: Telling the story from a female perspective was essential. The female combat experience is rarely the focus in mainstream movies, and I had certainly never seen a story about a woman trying to balance being a soldier and being a parent. It is an aspect of the military most people don’t know much about. At the same time, I could relate to the difficulty of balancing family and career in my own life. In a way, Fort Bliss is the ultimate working mother story.
WaH: Through Maggie, you’re able to address not only the struggles of motherhood, but also of PTSD, rape in the military, and the power of compassion. How much of Maggie was inspired by the experiences of real soldiers?
CM: Maggie is a composite of different soldiers I met while I was making documentaries and training films, many focused on the psychological impact of war. Details like Maggie dropping off her child at daycare at 5:00 AM were drawn directly from soldiers’ experiences. There were also more serious issues that kept coming up — the difficulty of readjustment, the emotional strain of deployment, sexual assault, the impact of separation on the family — that I felt needed to be part of the movie to tell the complete story. On the other hand, Maggie is a distinct character with flaws and strengths and contradictions. For example she excels as a combat medic, but has to relearn how to be a mom. Michelle [Monaghan] was able to capture that incredible range of emotion in the character.
WaH: What were some of the biggest challenges in making this film?
CM: Paradoxically, one of the hardest things about making the film was being away from my own kids during production. In a very small way, I was living through the same kind of separation and guilt that Maggie was. As for the film itself, making it on a low budget and a 21-day shooting schedule was definitely a challenge. The conditions were difficult — in the desert it was well over 100 degrees — and the days were long. But it was also a great experience. The cast and crew were so talented and dedicated, and the logistical support we got from the Army at Ft. Bliss was top-notch.
WaH: You’re currently teaching film classes at American University. What is it like balancing teaching with your own work as a filmmaker?
CM: In my experience, being a film professor and working as a filmmaker are complementary. Teaching gives me the stability and freedom to develop projects I really care about. The biggest issue is time management when it comes to directing. Production schedules don’t always conform to an academic timetable. Luckily, I have the option of a sabbatical for bigger projects. So far it has worked out very well.
WaH: What do you hope people will take away after watching?
CM: I’m hoping the audience will be moved, that they will be entertained. I expect some people will come away with questions. Some will be disturbed. My hope is that the film will spark a dialogue. I don’t want to say too much more without giving away the ending.
WaH: Do you have any advice for aspiring female filmmakers?
CM: I would give the same advice to any aspiring filmmaker. Getting an independent project off the ground is an exercise in passion and persistence. You have to believe in it and be willing to fight for it, or no one else will.