Claudia Myers’ “Fort Bliss” deals with something we don’t see much of in movies: the challenges of being a female soldier and a single mom at the same time. The movie stars Michelle Monaghan as U.S. army medic Maggie Swann who has just returned home after serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But instead of arriving to greet her son Paul (Oakes Fegley) at the air base, she instead finds him back at home with his dad, Maggie’s ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston), and stepmom, and he doesn’t really remember her all that well. From there, Maggie works to repair the bond between her and Paul before her duties in the military threaten to tear them apart again.
Both Monaghan and Livingston dropped by the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Fort Bliss’” press day, and it was fascinating to hear about their experiences making this particular movie. This was a very low budget production so there wasn’t too much time to waste. I always wondered how actors deal with the lack of time because we are led to believe they are so used to working on movies which allow them to take a nap in their trailers between takes while the crew gets set up for the next shot. But while having fewer resources can seriously affect some actors, Monaghan and Livingston did not let any limitations stand in their way.
“There’s something that’s really exciting about the idea that they just don’t have time to micromanage you in your performance, so there’s a lot more responsibility to just show up,” Livingston said. “Your first take on it is gonna be the take that goes into the movie by and large unless it’s really egregious because there’s not a lot of time to waste tinkering with it, you know?”
“It is true that you don’t have a lot of time to play with it,” Monaghan said. “I think that’s why the prep time becomes so essential for an independent film. It’s your responsibility as an actor or a director or a writer to really play your part. You can’t just turn up and expect all these experts to show you something on the day. That’s really, really important. That’s a part of our job, and also we shot this movie in 21 days. It was so incredibly exciting because we were living, eating and breathing it. We shot in two different locations in and around Los Angeles and then Fort Bliss (in El Paso, Texas) with the help of the Army. With all their resources, the production value looks by far more than what we had for it.
“21 days with combat sequences is pretty incredible,” Livingston noted.
Again, I imagine some actors would prefer to have more time to prepare for the roles they have been hired to play, but they don’t always get that opportunity. When it comes down to it, they have to work with what they are given instead of complain about what’s working against them. For Monaghan, the fact that there wasn’t a lot of down time on the set of “Fort Bliss” didn’t affect her too much.
“There’s not (a lot of down time), but I always tend to find that I feel the strongest about performances in general when they’re shot in that way because you’re in it,” Monaghan said. “You are in the thick of it, and to say that I go to sleep at night and dream about the character and the role, you are. It’s 21 days where you’re attacking it for that period of time, and you don’t have time to think about it. Good things tend to come from that.”
One of the best scenes in “Fort Bliss” comes at the beginning when Maggie and dozens of other troops are returning home after their tour of duty in Afghanistan. It looked like the production succeeded in hiring the best background extras they could find as they looked so incredibly enthusiastic in welcoming the soldiers home, but it turns out there was a lot more authenticity involved in that scene than we realized.
“When you see the coming home scenes at the beginning, it was truly people of soldier’s families, military wives, husbands and children that two days prior had just welcomed one of those big planes home,” Monaghan said. “Fort Bliss sent out an email saying, ‘Would you guys come back two days later to shoot a scene?’ So they brought back all their signs and it was amazing. The military band was there and even the Harley Davison guys came back and all the former vets with their bikes and everything. Everybody was so proud to be there. That’s so profound to be able to have that experience and to feel that energy of what it’s like and everybody hugging one another. To be able to have that access and that resource was so invaluable. We constantly had that throughout the process of filming. I say this film has been so blessed, but it has. I’m so grateful to everybody in how far reaching the efforts that everybody has gone to.”
“Fort Bliss” may be coming in under the radar, but it is truly deserving of your attention. It deals with the female perspective of war and how women still have a stigma attached to them whenever they serve in the military. Many expect women to stay at home and be a mother to their children instead of fighting wars overseas, but life continues to be more complicated than we expect it to be and nothing is ever that simple.