What first turned you on to the story of Sgt. Clay Usie and his recruits?
It was in 2004 at the height of the war and I was feeling very frustrated and disconnected from what was happening, particularly from the soldiers who were serving - seeing every day just names and ages and home locations but not really knowing anything else about who it was who was serving and giving their life. At that point I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I got subscriptions to all sorts of magazines and newspapers, one of which was The Army Times. And after a few months of reading, I happened upon an article about Sgt. Usie. He had just won the Army Times Soldier of the Year Award, in part for being one of the top recruiters in the country. So I called him and that's really what set it all off.
Was it difficult to get the Army on board and convince them to give you the access you'd need?
No. In fact I wrote them a letter explaining really honestly what I wanted to do, and they did a background check and then I signed a contract with them, which was one of the most film-friendly contracts I've ever received. I've heard since then that they're imposing more restrictions, but they were very open to it. I think they also felt that ultimately it would really be the discretion of Sgt. Usie - and then later in basic training the drill sergeants and the public-affairs officers - as to how much time, how much access they'd give. The only time I felt that I was restricted really was when I was at Special Forces training with Bobby at the very end of the film. But during basic training and everything leading up to that, they allowed me to do whatever I felt was necessary for the film.
I was feeling very frustrated and disconnected from what was happening, particularly from the soldiers who were serving - seeing every day just names and ages and home locations but not really knowing anything else about who it was who was serving and giving their life.
What was it like to film Special Forces training? It's really rare that anyone gets to see that.
I was with them for a day and a half, and all I know is that it rained non-stop. I think for fifteen hours we were together, and it just did not stop raining. Apparently the weather had been like that all week that they had been in the field. They had two public-affairs people, who were also soldiers, holding a tarp over me so I could film. So what they were enduring, I only had a very small glimpse of. I think had I not been following Bobby since high school, I don't know if I would have received the access. But I think that they understood that this was part of a larger film, and that for them, Bobby was a real success story.
Bobby seems like such a unique story. What are the odds for him to say, "I want to be in Special Forces," and then actually making it through the whole way?
Really, really slim. In the film when I first interview him, he doesn't even know what Special Forces do really. For him it's just kind of a dream ... something he's not even fully aware of, and yet he does attain it. From what I'm being told, he is often picked for the most elite schooling, so he's doing exceptionally well.
What have the other recruits been up to since the end of the film?
Matt got what he wanted, which is he's now a recruiter at the same recruiting station. He did one tour in Iraq and now he's home. Lauren is doing well. I think she'll probably start at a community college, and she's trying to figure things out after the Army. But she's very happy with her decision and feels that she can be a voice telling people to be sure about their decision. Bobby is in Special Forces and I think he's getting ready to deploy soon. And from what I know of Chris, he's on his second tour in Iraq.
He does believe deeply in what he's doing, but there are frustrating moments like when an entire auditorium walks out on him... but by spending time and really going through the process with him, we were able to show what he was experiencing.
The film does a great job presenting the conflicting perspectives surrounding the war - the military, patriotism, economic inequality ... Having been so close to this complicated system, do you think it's fair?
No, I don't think the system is fair. There are seventeen year olds who are joining because they want to have the opportunity to go to college and no other reason. You're seventeen years old and someone offers you $40,000 sign-up and $70,000 for college ... it's like winning the lottery. I think military service is for many the right choice, and it's what they want to do, to serve their country. But for those who are going for college, there should be other options. And on that note, I just read that only about 57 percent of the soldiers who actually sign up for college use those benefits. And there are bills in congress right now for soldiers to be able to pass those benefits along to their children, which I think is very important and is not really moving right now in congress. I think that if a soldier signs up for college and for whatever reason doesn't use those funds, we have the duty to allow them to transfer those funds to their children. It's their money.
Sgt. Usie is such a high-energy, committed guy - was it difficult to see behind that and capture his own personal struggles?
I spent a lot of time with him. He does believe deeply in what he's doing, but there are frustrating moments like when an entire auditorium walks out on him and he's having a difficult time with parents of recruits, understandably. He definitely has a message he wants to get across and he's going to use the opportunity to voice that, but by spending time and really going through the process with him, we were able to show what he was experiencing.
The boot camp scenes had such a strange vibe - somewhere between your first month at college and being in prison. What was it like to see all these young people going through this transition in person?
Difficult. They're very, very young. Many of them didn't know what they were getting into. Many of them were scared. Many of them, it was their first sign of what war would be like. And others were really into it and felt it was a lot easier than what they anticipated. So there was really the full spectrum of what people were experiencing. I was trying to really capture that. From those who were fainting because of the experience which you have in the beginning of the boot-camp scene to those like Bobby who were thriving from the experience. There really is that full spectrum, but for most of these kids it really is their first sign of, "Oh my God, we're preparing for war."
2008 Documentary Films Series