This week, my six-year obsession to tell the story of a wounded Marine whose emotional trauma has a ripple effect on his family and friends comes full circle. Happy New Year, my first feature film as a writer-director, opens at the Quad Cinema in New York City, and the veterans, great actors, and my best friend and creative collaborator Michael Cuomo will be there. But the story that won't be onscreen is how making this film and researching how some soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress forced me to confront my own past pains and hurts -- things I long hid from people close to me and denied myself.
In 2004, I came across a copy of Nina Berman's Purple Hearts Back From Iraq, a book of essays and tragically beautiful photographs which tells the story of 20 servicemen and women who were wounded in the Iraq War and their hard road to recovery. Flipping through this book, I felt an immediate connection with the subjects inside. I don't know why. I was not really following the war at the time. I didn't have a military background. Like most Americans, I was somewhat indifferent to what was going on overseas. However, after reading this book, my life was forever changed. I immediately began to seek out men and women in the military to interview. I had no real goal other than to get a sense of why and how they did what they did. I had high hopes that someday the "project," whatever it was to be, would present itself. It was during these months of interviews and encounters that I began to read about the perils of post-traumatic stress.
In January 2007, I went to Chicago with several actors to research a play about Chicago cops that I had been hired to direct. One of the officers I met was an Iraq War veteran who'd come home a year and a half earlier. He didn't seem too happy about his new occupation, but it was something to occupy his time, and the closest thing to the "normalcy" of his time in Iraq. We talked for hours. The result of this conversation was a one-act play called Happy New Year -- an intense drama about two Iraq veterans reuniting in a veterans hospital on New Year's Eve to contemplate their futures. The play ran Off-Broadway six months later, with Michael Cuomo in the role of Sgt. Cole Lewis. It was at the urging of a group of military mothers (who had sons deployed overseas) that I adapted the play into a short film. The success of that 15-minute short film eventually led to me expanding the story into a feature film.
Because neither I nor Michael had any military experience, I wanted to ensure as much accuracy as possible in telling this story. Over nine months, Michael and I interviewed dozens of veterans from various wars -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Desert Storm, Vietnam and WWII -- their families, as well as various military and VA personnel. The interviews with the vets didn't go well as first. I wasn't one of them. There was no reason for them to trust me. But eventually I found a way in. Quick "yes" and "no" answers soon became lengthy revelations, as many of the men we spoke with re-lived certain horrors right in front of us, some of them even revealing things that they had kept hidden from their loved ones.
The research began to have an effect on me. Pretty soon, I found myself having trouble falling asleep. As I replayed certain events that had been revealed to me over and over in my head, I began to see images from my own childhood. My mother and father having one of their vicious fights. The various strangers who took advantage of me, starting at the age of 6. School bullies terrorizing me on the school playground. Why was I dreaming about these things along with bodies being blown to bits in Iraq? What was the connection?
The dreams intensified during the writing stage. I soon began to dread every draft, because it meant I had to war -- not only to Iraq and Vietnam, but to the war of my past. Not only did I have to re-live the horrors of the men we interviewed, but I had to grapple with my own demons that kept forcing their way into my everyday thoughts, and I didn't know why. I sometimes found solace by curling up in a ball and weeping for hours. What the hell was going on? Answers evaded me. Though the reason might seem obvious to some of you reading this, I was in denial.
After reading one of the many drafts of the Happy New Year script, one day a friend pointedly asked me, "Why are you so obsessed with this subject? I never knew you to be a 'military dude.'" My answer was that I felt a duty to tell the story of those brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for our freedoms. While this was very true, I knew deep down inside that there was an even deeper reason. But I chose to ignore it. After we wrapped the film, I gathered the courage to seek out a therapist. While I had seen one in the past, I felt that I needed a tune-up. I quickly realized that my previous three-year bout with therapy resulted in me finally admitting some of the horrors of my childhood. I thought that was the end. So I stopped. Returning several years later forced me to realize admitting my past traumas was only the first step. Now it was time to work through the demons that I had buried for several years. Not at all an easy process. Somehow, this project put me on the road to doing that.
I'm not at all suggesting that my childhood trauma of sexual, mental and physical abuse from various parties is equivalent to that of someone suffering from combat trauma. I've never been in combat. So, I can't say. However, I can relate. A very close psychologist friend recently told me that the subconscious mind stores trauma into a mental box. Unless it's treated, we will keep it there -- locked. However, like attracts like. When we experience things that remind us of that particular trauma, our very own is reignited. Who knows what will happen then. In researching this film, my own trauma was reignited, and I am very thankful for it.
Michael Cuomo and I spent a year on the festival circuit with Happy New Year. Visiting more than 18 cities, the film was viewed thousands of people -- veterans and civilians. Though many of the civilians had no clue as to the difficulty that many veterans face upon returning home, they could relate to the characters in the film. The fact is that most of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lifetime. Many of us have tried to bury it out of fear that we would be judged or ridiculed, as if the admittance that we are "not okay" would forever stain us in some way. In my research for this film, I found that to be very true with several of the men we interviewed, often citing the stigma as one of the main links to there being at least 18 veteran suicides per day in this country.
I found a new beginning through my work on Happy New Year and I sincerely wish for the film to provide hope for those unable to see their light amidst the darkness and to find the strength to reach out for help.