Don't let the name fool you. Happy New Year has nothing in common with vacuous holiday comedies like New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day. The film, written and directed by K. Lorrel Manning, explores the lives of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, digging into the ugly internal war so many soldiers face upon returning home.
Manning's film follows the journey of Sergeant Cole Lewis (Michael Cuomo), whose face was scarred and spirit shattered on the battlefield of Iraq. Now home from the war, Lewis is sent to a veterans' hospital, where he begins to recuperate despite visits from an unsympathetic father and a nagging guilt for the dead he left behind. Manning pulls no punches in his depiction of the deep-rooted pain of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which slowly drains the life from Lewis' eyes. And he provides an unflinching look at the bleakness of VA hospital life, which gives his film an eerie echo of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
New Year, which is still awaiting wide release, will be screened Tuesday, June 12, at the New York Athletic Club, followed by a panel discussion featuring Manning and Cuomo. Before the event, the director spoke with me about the film, his eye-opening discussions with injured soldiers, and how a trip to the bookstore sparked a lifelong passion he never saw coming.
Manning: I was in Barnes and Noble waiting for a friend. This was 2004. She was late, so I started thumbing through this book, Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq. The book is a collection of interviews and photos of Iraq vets. I was shocked by what I saw. I bought it and read it cover to cover that weekend. After that, I went on the Internet, looked at everything about injured veterans that I could find. The stories of these vets kept me up at night. I started reading blogs from military families and from current soldiers, men and women who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I noticed that some of those blogs got shut down or disappeared. I started wondering: what was it that they were saying that the military didn't want people to hear?
I decided I wanted to start interviewing soldiers. I put the word out to friends that I wanted to speak to anybody involved in the military, to ask them why they joined, how they felt about the war. All of the veterans would say, "What is this interview for?" I'd say I didn't know. I was just curious. This went on for about three years.
Then in 2007 I was hired to direct play called A Steady Rain, about Chicago policemen. To prepare, I did some ride-alongs with cops in Chicago. The last day I rode with a cop who was an Iraq vet. He spoke about how difficult it was to reacclimatize himself to civilian life. There was this pain in his voice. He sounded lost. He told me he went into law enforcement because it was very similar to what he did in Iraq but that his life now, after Iraq, just didn't feel the same. What he said sparked something in me, and that night I stayed up all night and wrote a play called Happy New Year: two soldiers reuniting in a hospital on New Year's Eve, which became the last scene in the film.
Kors: That last scene is remarkable. It takes a stunning turn, from comedy to tragedy, making you reevaluate everything you saw before.
Manning: That's right. That's exactly what I wanted. The story's funny, the conversation's natural—then all of the sudden you realize what's really going on. I sent the play to Michael Cuomo, who I had worked with before. Michael loved the piece and said, "Let's work on it." Then the Barrow Group, an off-Broadway theater company, selected the play, and we staged it at their theater.
Kors: Did you get any military families in the audience?
Manning: We did. One night we had a group of military mothers in the audience, with sons deployed overseas. I was really nervous. I remember, as I was leaving the theater, I said, "You know what: I'm going out there to talk with them." One of them was crying. I mean, really convulsing. She hugged me tightly and said, "Thank you for this play." She looked at me and said, "Do something with this story. You need to film it." I told her we didn't have the resources for that. But she was insistent. ... That conversation stayed with me. Finally I thought, "Okay. Let's do it." We started raising money for the film. I started writing new characters. And I went back to interviewing soldiers.
Kors: How did that go?
Manning: Not well. [Manning laughs.] I didn't know how to talk with them. And part of me felt like I was exploiting them, like I was trying to take their stories.
Kors: Didn't they want to share their stories? When I talk with soldiers, when they see that I really care, they're happy to share their stories.
Manning: Not the guys we spoke with. At least, not at first. ... For the next round of interviews, I brought a video with me. We had made a 15-minute film version of our play, and we showed it to each soldier. That is what changed things. The video always elicited a response. They'd get very emotional, start sharing their experiences. And within a few hours they'd say, "You know, I've never told this to anybody before, but ...."
Kors: The veterans in the film, they're drawn from the vets that you interviewed?
Manning: That's right. I started volunteering at the VA Center on 23rd Street, spoke with vets young and old. As the script developed, I gave them copies to get their feedback. They'd tell me when I got things wrong, but they always said, "Move forward." Their biggest concern was that I was going to wimp out and slap a happy ending on the movie. To be honest, I was thinking, is this too much? Have we gone too dark with this?
Kors: Did people warn you against making the film?
Manning: Oh, sure. Outside the VA, everyone was telling us not to do this, that these movies are not popular, that every Iraq movie has bombed at the box office.
Kors: Right. I mean, even soldiers, do they want to watch soldiers struggling on screen?
Manning: Some don't. That's why there are action films and romantic comedies out there. With this film, I wanted to do something different—create something authentic, where soldiers could see themselves on screen. We do have an audience. And it's soldiers and their families who have been waiting for something to start this conversation about the visible and invisible wounds of war, about the ripple effect that PTSD has on soldiers, their parents, their spouses and their kids. This is an issue people care about.
Kors: What has the reaction been from the military families who have seen it?
Manning: It's been good, very good. We've screened the movie at film festivals in Kansas City, Vermont, Rhode Island and New Mexico. Some vets said that this film gives them a voice. Others have told me that it sparked discussions with their families, raised issues they were too afraid to raise on their own. I remember one woman came up to me after a screening. She said, "Now I understand my father."
Kors: Wow. One of the toughest scenes in the film is Sgt. Lewis' clash with his father, a former Marine who comes to visit him at the hospital, then treats his wounded son with contempt.
Manning: Yes. This was a theme I wanted to pursue: parents who could not relate to their wounded children. It came up a lot in my conversations with soldiers. In this case, with Sgt. Lewis' father, I think he feels guilty that his son has followed his path. And now that that path has led to him to being ripped up by shrapnel, he just can't accept it. He has to turn his back on his son. ... Nina Berman, [the photographer who co-produced Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq], became a consultant on the film, and she demanded that we have a father character. Which was smart. Fathers play such a prominent role in the lives of soldiers.
Kors: At a recent screening of your film, Captain Paul Bucha, recipient of the Medal of Honor, spoke afterwards. He said the military could vastly improve the lives of wounded soldiers if it did one simple thing: take Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and rename it Post-traumatic Stress. Dropping the "D" from PTSD would alter the way veterans view themselves and make them much more likely to seek help. Plus, as I see it, it would be more medically accurate too, since the frayed emotional reaction of PTSD—far from being a disorder—is the healthy body's natural response to extreme stress.
Manning: Yes. I think Captain Bucha is absolutely right about this. So many soldiers have spoken to me about it too. To be branded as having a mental disorder ... I remember one soldier, he wanted to get help, but he was so afraid of being stigmatized. He kept saying to me, "I'm not crazy. I'm not— ...." [Manning's voice cracks.] It was so emotional to see that. With the label as it is now, I don't know if that soldier will ever seek help.
Kors: At the bleakest moment in the film, one of the main characters, devastated by his battlefield injuries, contemplates suicide. Which has become an epidemic in the military, with 18 veterans committing suicide every day. What would you say to those vets who are considering suicide?
Manning: I'd ask them to dig deep and see what could be ahead of them. After being severely injured, after PTSD, you can't be the person you once were. But you have the chance to be someone else, someone new. The question should be: who do you want that new person to be?
Kors: Do you want to continue making movies about soldiers?
Manning: I think so. The soldiers who are coming home from the war have a lot of important stories to tell. What I really want, though, is for those guys to pick up their own cameras and start telling their own stories.
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