When a sergeant (Kate Nowlin) arrives home in “Blood Stripe,” having served as a Lioness in Iraq and Afghanistan, she’s greeted at her front porch by her husband Rusty (Chris Sullivan), who when unsure of quite what to say to her, jokes “The wife is getting her hair done,” as he nods towards the empty house behind him. For a moment, it would seem like they picked up where they left off as Rusty’s sister Barb (Ashlie Atkinson) joins them for dinner, but as the evening wears on, the playful sarcasm that the two once relished clearly coarsens as the couple comes to realize Rusty might’ve been right earlier — the woman that was his wife is gone, and she’s not coming back any time soon.
“Blood Stripe,” which takes its title from the scarlet band that is part of Marine Corps dress, follows the sergeant who is left anonymous by Nowlin and co-writer/director Remy Auberjonois other than her military title throughout the film as if to search for her identity. In retreating to Lake Vermilion in Minnesota where she once went to summer camp, she hopes to wait out the 120 days it takes to get an appointment at the local VA to talk to a counselor, but finds the breeze coming off the water refreshing as well as the fact that being surrounded by strangers, she is free of judgment from people who knew her before going off to war to compare her with who she is now that she’s back. As the film makes clear, the violence she saw in conflict has made the transition back into civilian life jarring, but equally so readapting to an entirely different rhythm of life.
Auberjonois, in his feature directorial debut, and “Tangerine” director of photography Radium Cheung capture this disjointed feeling vividly, often profiling the sergeant from the side as if to suggest the other side might be missing, and even as the sergeant begins to find inner peace, Nowlin’s performance is so nuanced in conveying a sense of loss as she starts to regain her footing. Not surprisingly, “Blood Stripe” has resonated quite deeply with audiences since making its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year, where it won Best Narrative Feature en route to an Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival, and while the married Auberjonois and Nowlin were in Minneapolis, bringing the film back to where it began to launch its theatrical run, they spoke about the genesis of the project, shooting on Lake Vermillion and wrapping their arms around a subject such as PTSD that often defies description.
How did this come about?
Remy Auberjonois: We’re both longtime actors, but we had never written anything and I had never stepped behind the camera. Turning 40, you think if you don’t make it happen, it’s not going to happen, so the impulse was first to just make something and then in thinking about a character that would be good for Kate to play at the time we were writing it, which was at the end of 2013, there was a lot in the news about women in the military and whether or not they should be permitted to engage in combat or whether the service they were already doing was being acknowledged. Once we landed on that character, the story came pretty organically.
For Kate, what it was like writing something for yourself – could you build certain strengths you knew you had into this or did you actually want to push yourself out of your comfort zone?
Kate Nowlin: Neither Remy nor I have any military experience or background, but I was so compelled by these real-life stories around these people who go and sacrifice and serve and then return with very recognition or acknowledgement of their service. Often times, [when] we think so much the people that are serving over there, we envision men. We just don’t envision female servicewomen. So as I was writing and building this character, I recognized something in them that I felt like I could embody. I was really inspired by what I perceived as true grit and strength paired with pretty intense vulnerability in some cases and as an artist, I’m always most inspired when the characters that I’m reading about and called to inhabit are fully dimensional – that are almost contradictions of themselves in all of their facets. I was interested in embodying a truly complex female protagonist because honestly I wasn’t getting the opportunity to do that a whole lot in my own career as an actress. And I was rarely reading scripts where women got to be so many things at once. I don’t think I was necessarily consciously writing to my strengths, but I was conscious of trying to create a whole human being with flaws and strengths going hand in hand.
It seems crucial to how you see this character through the way you channel this character’s point of view, often through side profiles and the kind of lighting you use – did have strong ideas while writing the script or after?
Remy Auberjonois: It was a really happy marriage of the cinematographer Radium Cheung really approaching it through the script. When I met with him, he said, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen the movie already — I’ve read the script” because we did write the script very visually and we were trying to get inside that POV and use those cinematic tools of saying this is in some ways a potentially unreliable POV on what the world is, but we’re going to go so deep inside it, the story is going to be her experience. In terms of the approach and the shooting, it was a happy accident in terms of working on such a tight schedule and budget that we could only cover things so much, so the tone and the style was a result of that and also Radium’s such an artist that he got inside the script as much as we did.
Kate Nowlin: There was also a lot of conversation – Remy had studied film in school and we were definitely conscious of as we were writing subverting certain norms. There were times when we’d sit down and I would say, “What do we never see a woman do on film? Let’s write that.” Because she could hold that – we thought this is a character who could defy these expectations in certain ways, so what Remy and Radium were also able to create was a story from a female gaze. It is coming from a very particular psyche, but there’s also it’s taking something around the notion of the male gaze and turning it on its head a little bit.
Kate, is it true this was a camp you actually went to yourself when you were young?
Kate Nowlin: I grew up on that lake — in the summertime, I spent a lot of time up there with my grandmother, who was a very strong woman in her own right and I had never attended that camp, but a family member of mine was married there a few summers prior to when we were shooting. It was the first time we actually walked around that camp and that location was undoubtedly a huge call in terms of the creative genesis of the film. Remy thought, “Well, heck we can certainly put up a bunch of crew and have multiple locations all on this camp.” There’s a dining hall and a staff, so that camp embraced our crew and all of us with open arms and we could not have done it without them.
Remy Auberjonois: And it really turned into movie camp for the people working on the film. We couldn’t afford overtime, so people had a little extra time enjoying being on the lake and take advantage of the sauna and go fishing. It was great and very instrumental to have access to the lake in that way. Like everything in the movie, it was very much cast to be what it is. It is actually a Lutheran Church Camp where there are retreats and we were really going for a sense of authenticity of place and being able to cast all the places as they are really supported that effort.
Was there really a Last Chance Liquor? I couldn’t think of a more fitting location for Kate’s character to find herself at at her lowest point of desperation.
Remy Auberjonois: Yeah, that’s it! [laughs]
Kate Nowlin: That is legit. We were like that’s a movie in and of itself. [laughs]
Remy Auberjonois: Really, how could you not do this? The production designer really did a wonderful job of augmenting and creating, but using what was there. There are certain things that are entirely designed, like the house where they live at the beginning. That was a vacant house and it was fully created, but other things like the little cabin she retreats to with the fisherman – that is [a real] place that belongs to some family friends of Kate’s and those drawings on the wall were done by Kate and her sisters when they were children.
Was there something you didn’t plan for, but perhaps ended up in the film that you’re really happy is a part of it?
Remy Auberjonois: We only had 16 days to shoot and then we actually ended up cutting some sequences, so the edit took a long time. We gave ourselves that time and really mined the footage for moments before and after the camera was rolling technically, and some things we’re slowing down and playing in reverse to make the material flow and tell the story, so it’s full of little things like that and Radium was a master at always keeping the camera going, so we were able to capture those things. One moment that people have responded that really encapsulates a lot of themes that we’re working on is when Kate’s character mows the lawn in the middle of the night. That was an inspiration of Kate’s. The lawn location happened to be overgrown and there happened to be a lawnmower as part of the set that the designer had put in the garage. [Kate] said this character can’t stand that and can’t sleep and she should be mowing the lawn. I was, of course, [saying] “We don’t have time, we don’t have time,” but Kate, as the wise actor and co-creator that she is, said, “Let’s just grab this.” It really puts a nail on something that you often don’t see women do and also something that shows the state of mind of the character, so that was a real happy accident.
Kate, given you were serving as a writer and producer as well, were you able to concentrate on your performance or did having those additional hats actually help in feeling you had a greater degree of control over it?
Kate Nowlin: It was a challenge for both Remy and I. We had wonderful partners in Julie Christeas and Schuyler Weiss of Tandem Pictures, so we were building a wonderful team, but we’d never written anything before and we’d never produced anything before. And we’re parents. The little girl in the film is our daughter. So it was like we were hosting this party up there at that camp and there were many hats, but I found the focus I needed. I was undergoing some fairly rigorous physical training three to four months before the shoot and that got me in a good, strong mindset and I’m generally a fairly focused performer and have a craft that I developed over years, so when we were filming, I knew a lot of it rested on me and we had not time, so I dropped in. We did most stuff in two takes and very much out of sequence, but it was such a dream come true to have been sitting at our kitchen table nine months prior and then all of a sudden be shooting this thing that we saw in our heads and felt in our hearts had a resonance that was far bigger than us [that it felt like] I was just like I’m going to do whatever I’ve got to do. When we were calling “cut” and we got to dinner, I was a mom, I was a producer. I never stopped. But during the shoot, because I think I helped create her [as a writer], I was able to focus and Remy and the crew, of course, supported me and let me just be an actor when we were shooting.
Remy Auberjonois: Yeah, everybody was really onboard. We had a great crew, a lot of whom were local to Minneapolis. Crew heads were coming from elsewhere, but everybody was on the same page. The story of the movie has all along brought really great energy to it, and the crew was very focused and very respectful of Kate – she was carrying it and there was a real synchronicity again between camera and Kate and our assistant director, who was really maintaining the time and the energy very well so she really could have whatever space to focus.
Kate Nowlin: Also, I think they were partly scared of me. I was like the strongest dude on that set. [laughs] Everybody knew I came to play and once you get serious people around you, which we had, you’re off to the races.
What’s it been like traveling with this?
Remy Auberjonois: It’s been really gratifying, from the premiere at LAFF when they presented us with the jury prize, [and said] “Some films introduce us to characters that we haven’t yet met but that we need to,” to the Bentonville Film Festival pretty recently in Arkansas, which of course is really focused on female-driven stories and female filmmakers. The response to the film has been wonderful. We’ve been incredibly humbled and gratified by the veterans’ response to the way that we’re telling the story and the fact that we are telling this story. We’re hoping to really build [an audience] and when people become aware of it, they respond to it. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of people and we’re very grateful.