Claudia Myers is a screenwriter, director, and producer (Fort Bliss, Kettle of Fish, Above the Shadows) and an associate professor in Film & Media Arts at American University’s School of Communication.
Fort Bliss (Official Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWLtr0xYI7E), released in 2014, is a film about Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan), a decorated U.S. Army medic who returns from Afghanistan and struggles to adjust to civilian life and to rebuild a relationship with her young son.
In her interview with Spy, Myers discusses the film, the personal story behind how the movie evolved, and her approach to writing and directing.
Val Cavalheri (Spy): Why did you have to write this story?
Claudia Myers (CM): I was working on a training film project for the U.S. Army about junior officers and decisions they have to make in difficult situations. In the process of interviewing a group of infantry sergeants, I spoke to a single dad who had been deployed twice to Iraq for 15 months each tour. At the time, I had a little boy that was roughly the age of the sergeant’s son, and I remember being really compelled by his situation. I asked him what he did with his son while he was away, and he said the mom was not in the picture, so he left him with his neighbors. That floored me, and it made me realize how little I understood and knew about the complexity of the military experience and what we’re asking our soldiers and their families to do when a country goes to war.
It was also was memorable to me that I was the only one who was really surprised in the room because all the other soldiers were like, ‘yeah, it happens all the time.’ I looked into it, and 40% of women in the military are mothers, and that was both humbling and compelling to me because on some visceral level, I had been wrestling with my own kind of work/life balance. I had a two-year-old son and had been away from my family for three months, filming an interactive training project. I found that I was viewed differently for leaving my kid to go to work, than, for example, my husband was when he left on extended business trips.
Spy: How long did it take you to write Fort Bliss?
CM: While I kind of stumbled on this story that I wanted to develop, it quickly went from being about a single father to being about a single mom. However, I felt I didn’t have the knowledge or the experience to write the script that I felt deserved to be written. So, I actually spent about four years seeking out additional work with the military.
I worked on a documentary about the experience of the evolution of women’s roles in the military since World War II, and I had the opportunity to profile a female army medic. I also did a documentary about severely wounded soldiers coming back from Iraq and their paths to recovery from wounds both visible and not. That was added to the film.
I also went to Walter Reed and did a big project for the army medical department about posttraumatic stress and combat stress and a survivor’s guilt and many other things that I also then incorporated into the film. So that was kind of how the script developed.
Spy: In the movie, there are several scenes in Afghanistan. Did you film there?
CM: It was actually all filmed in California and Texas. The military supported the film and allowed us to shoot at the actual Fort Bliss. The topography of Fort Bliss, if you don’t know it, has vast amounts of desert. It’s also the size of Rhode Island and the largest or second largest military post in the U.S. We filmed in Afghan training villages at Fort Bliss that replicated the geography of Afghanistan. Sometimes we outfitted actual buildings to make them look like we were overseas.
Spy: How long did it take you to shoot the film?
We shot in 21 days. As I said, you’re filming in a location, that’s the size of Rhode Island in some cases. There was a lot of the civilian part of the story that was more straightforward, but something on a military post was more challenging to shoot. We got lost a few times looking for specific locations.
There’s one scene in the movie where the soldiers come home from deployment. It was really important to me that we do justice to how emotionally powerful these events are. I also wanted to show how the community rallies in support of the soldiers who are coming home. We went to the person who was our point of contact, and I asked him if we could put the word out into the Fort Bliss general community to have them come out and act as unpaid extras.
We ended up with more than a hundred people who showed up and made ‘Welcome Home’ signs. We even had some extras who were off-duty soldiers that came in their uniforms. So, we were able to create a wonderful thing. And I think it was one of the more powerful experiences for Michelle, as well.
Spy: Speaking of Michelle, Michelle Monaghan was a fantastic choice to play Maggie. How did that come about?
Her agent thought Michelle would respond to the script, and she did. I flew out to LA, and Michelle and I had quite a substantive discussion about my vision for the script and the character. We went through the script page by page, and I made certain adjustments based on her input. So, it became a collaborative and thoughtful process from the get-go. We also organized a special training for her at Fort Bliss, where she spent a week learning basic medical techniques and got to spend time with soldiers learning from them.
Spy: I think the movie is a very unusual accounting of a very strong woman because she’s not a superhero, but a real woman with real choices. You’re asking us to experience, through Maggie, many different types of emotions. What did you want your audience to take away from this movie?
CM: It’s such an interesting comment because that’s exactly right. I didn’t want people to take away just one thing. I wanted people to question certain assumptions, but what I wanted more than anything was for people to root for her and understand her, even though they may not always approve of her choices. As a writer, I wrestled with the ending. As a writer, that’s when I knew that I had a really good script because I didn’t think there was an obvious way to end this story. And I tried a lot of different things and settled on the one that felt the most truthful, because, like very often in life, there are no good choices.
I feel the film does that. I think it shows how she’s evolved. I hope people come away with different views on whether or not she made the right choice, whether or not she changed, and whether or not she and her son will have a different kind of relationship in the future.
Spy: You’re a writer, producer, and director. Is there one role that you look forward to over the other?
CM: I think writing and directing are my two favorite things and where I’m most comfortable. I think producing, as an independent filmmaker, just comes with the territory because it’s really hard to find people that are as passionate about it as you are.
Spy: What’s next for you?
I have another project that I’m passionate about that I’ve been working on for about five years. It’s based on a true story about a death penalty case in Virginia, which is considered by some people, one of the most surprising cases in Virginia’s criminal history. I’ll just leave it at that for now.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.