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For her first feature-length film, Deb Shoval looked to familiar
territory: Her short “AWOL,” which garnered the filmmaker
accolades when it debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Shoval’s short followed a young soldier named Joey who, just days before her deployment to Afghanistan, comes home to rural Pennsylvania with a plan to flee to Canada with her girlfriend Rayna. Initially curious about the motivations of young Americans who willingly join the military, Shoval used her short to explore that question (and many more that popped up along the way).
After the success of the short, Shoval set out to turn the film into a feature with help of co-writer Karolina Waclawiak. The pair expanded out the world of Rayna and Joey, digging deeper into their complicated emotions and motivations. A start-and-stop feature in the way that only true indies can be, the film lensed in two parts: First in 2012, and then in 2015. The finally finished film just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, featuring Lola Kirke as Joey and Breeda Wool (best known for her turn on TV’s “Unreal”) reprising her role as Rayna from the original short.
Indiewire sat down with Shoval the day after her premiere to talk about the film’s long road to the big screen. Check out what Shoval had to say, in her own words, below.
The short so much served to make the feature, but it was not one of those things like, “Let me make the short as the advertisement for my feature.” I really was just thinking of it as the little piece that it was.
Ever since September 11, I’ve been very fascinated by why people are joining the military. You’re not obligated in this country to join the military and you know that we’re in some serious, dangerous situations. So, is it then coming from patriotism? Or is it just people’s only way out?
I started interviewing this woman, Skyler James, who had signed up really impetuously for the army and then run away really impetuously from the army. She sort of became the poster child of Americans in Canada seeking asylum from leaving the Army. What was interesting to me about Skyler’s experience was how young she seemed and how much I might have wanted to believe she was in Canada because she now had a critique of militarism. I very much felt that that’s what all these activists in Canada were portraying her as.
It was very clear to me once I made the film that it really felt like an Act II and Act III. There were no answers to how they had met or how long they were together or even why Joey had joined the military. I wanted to keep going and answer some of those questions. I also wanted to give Joey a larger world.
In 2012, we started auditioning people, and we found Lola and we started shooting, but we always knew we would be shooting it in two parts. I just didn’t know that those two parts would be in 2012 and 2015. Now that we can sort of talk about it in retrospect, it all worked out for the best. Time is supposed to pass in the movie.
All of that worked out great, but of course for most of us, there were moments that were a little scary. We were like, “Did we just shoot a third of a movie that we’re never going to finish?” I’m a glass half-full kind of person, so I never thought that, but I am not sure the whole team would agree.
A friend of mine brought me to see this show, this kind of experimental dance show, because she was so taken with Breeda. It was one of those things where you’re like, “Okay, there are five people in this, but all I can do is watch you.” She’s just very in her body.
I was very taken with her and I started working with her on whatever I was doing. She’s just one of those people, she really wants to work all the time. She just really was like, “I am an actress and I am available to act.” We started playing together a lot.
When I knew I was going to make “AWOL” the short, we started talking about this character of Rayna. I had someone I was basing it on a little, and she also had someone from her childhood that she was basing it on. We very much created her together.
Honestly, I had to push to work with her on the feature. She hadn’t had the TV show at that point. Everyone is, of course, already afraid to invest in these low budget films. It was like, “A blonde 27-year-old? There’s a million! Why can’t you take someone who’s already had ‘x’?” That was one thing I really held my own about.
Because we shot the beginning of the film in the beginning [of the shoot], I do think Lola is a more self-confident person [in later acts]. I do think that worked amazingly well for the character. She comes home from the Army more empowered, more confident in her sexuality, more aware there’s a whole world out there of women she could potentially be with. To some degree, I think that Lola’s maturing aligned with Joey’s maturing that was very fortuitous for us.
The ending of the short is very different, it really implies that she goes back to the army. It was really interesting with the short, because I took it to so many festivals and did so many Q&As, people really bring what they want to bring to the ending. I was clear that she was going back to the Army, but some people were like, “She’s just faking going back.” People will bring what they bring regardless.
Some people would read the script and be like, “This is so heartbreaking.” I really didn’t want it to feel that way, I do feel like it is a new beginning for her.
Check out another Tribeca premiere below, with the “LoveTrue” trailer: