Kimberly Peirce's brilliant directorial debut, Boys Don't Cry, won Hilary Swank an Oscar way back in 2000, so why hasn't she been making movies all this time? ''If I could've, I would've,'' she says. But the Hollywood studio system left her stymied, and the professional heartbreaks piled up. She'd find herself sitting at home depressed, curling her lip over another crap script. ''This is getting made?!''' she'd say and then throw it against the wall. Thwack. Meanwhile, her baby brother Brett, his sense of patriotism jump-started by 9/11, enlisted in the Army and was sent over to Iraq. While Peirce IM'd with him, and soothed the nerves of her crying mother, she became obsessed with what it might feel like to be a young person in uniform today. ''Okay,'' she decided, ''this is interesting to me this I'll get out of bed in the morning for.''
Stop-Loss tells the story of a soldier named Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe). He has completed his tour in Iraq and is recovering in his small Texas hometown when he learns that the Army plans to send him back against his will. In other words, Brandon has fulfilled his contractual obligation to the war, but the Army is running out of people to fight it. Needless to say, the film tackles sensitive issues. Last year's efforts to dramatize or document the war in Iraq were largely ignored not one movie on that specific subject has grossed more than $15 million and when the Stop-Loss trailer first ran in theaters it drew some reflexive hisses. But Peirce, who's been crossing the country on a 22-city promotional tour and taking part in Q&A's with soldiers, veterans, and military families, says she's finding that audiences have more in them than a thirst for comic-book movies. In any case, she's innately drawn to risky territory. ''When I started interviewing soldiers, I kept thinking 'I should not be making a movie about the war; this is not what I should be doing.' But I remember telling myself that before: 'I should not be making a film about a girl who cross-dresses as a boy.'''
Over lunch in the bright courtyard restaurant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Peirce is relaxed and funny and engaged. Small and tough in a studded leather bracelet and belt, she asks as many questions as she answers and lingers over the meal for a couple hours. She greets only one query with a frown. ''You wanna ask me my age?'' she says with amused disapproval. ''I'm in a young medium, so it's nice to be young. It's on IMDb, so it's not hard to find out.'' Peirce, who is 40, wears a black T-shirt from her favorite L.A. bike shop and has TRIUMPH written across her chest in pink letters. She loves motorcycles despite having suffered an over-the-handlebars crash that left her battered and bloodied in a Thai hospital. The woman has thick skin.
Nearly 10 years ago, Boys Don't Cry dropped Peirce smack on the radar of the biggest power brokers in town. (The movie was originally intended to be a 10-minute graduate thesis project.) According to the industry playbook, she was expected to line up her next film immediately, and capitalize on the kind of glorious momentum freshmen filmmakers dream about. ''You jump out of the box and it's very intense,'' she says. ''They offer you tons of money and say, 'Oh my God, you don't have to spend your own money on credit cards to make another movie we'll pay for it, we'll make it.' And a lot of people jump.''
Peirce became obsessed with the unsolved murder of silent-film director William Desmond Taylor and dove headlong into the research. She watched every silent movie she could get her hands on, buried herself in film archives, and believes today that she may have ferreted out the true killer and the reason for the cover-up. She co-wrote the script for Silent Star, a true-crime Hollywood noir, and lined up a dream cast of Hugh Jackman, Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, and Evan Rachel Wood. But in 2004, the project crumbled when DreamWorks decided that a period piece with minimal appeal to foreign audiences didn't justify a $30 million budget. All that time was lost. ''At least I got my writing fee on that, so I could keep up my health insurance,'' Peirce says with a shrug.
It turned out to be just one of many heartbreaks. David Mamet wrote her a script about gangster John Dillinger, but the project stalled. ''I loooooved that movie,'' she says, groaning. ''But the script was not something [the studio] was ready to move forward on and now Michael Mann is doing a John Dillinger movie.'' Peirce was attached to direct the adaptation of Dave Eggers' best-selling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but that, too, fell apart. ''I love Dave. I love that book...it was just not meant to be.'' She went to Egypt, Israel, and the Golan Heights to research the execution of famous Israeli spy Eli Cohen, and sold her pitch to Columbia. ''They were like, 'Yeah! We're going to hire you the best writer and get it done!''' Peirce says. ''Well, they gave it to a writer who's not capable not that he's not capable of many great things, but he wasn't capable of this particular story so all of the sudden I have a script that doesn't work and I have a big lien against the project.'' (The studio had no comment.) She passed on Memoirs of a Geisha because the idea of a PG-13-rated movie about a Japanese prostitute struck her as misguided.
Unlike many other writer-directors, Peirce didn't take lucrative side work writing scripts for hire. ''She's not doing this just as a job,'' says Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays a tortured soul who fights under Phillippe in Stop-Loss. ''People in Hollywood too often say, 'We're just trying to make money, and if you think movies mean anything bigger than that then you're kidding yourself.' If there are certain projects she's lost out on, I can see that her unyielding and uncompromising work ethic would probably [make things] difficult for her. Because it's not the norm here.''
Peirce wrote Stop-Loss on spec with the help of acclaimed journalist Mark Richard. To make certain it wouldn't wind up in the purgatory of turnaround, she sold it to Paramount on the condition that it be greenlit immediately. ''If you buy it, you make it,'' she says, laying out her terms. The studio insisted that she defer most of her director's salary, and she fought every step of the way to maintain control of production despite a cacophony of voices and vested interests. ''And I did it, I've planted my flag,'' she says. ''I look back at my two movies and they're responding to the truly seminal questions of my entire life. My gender and sexuality [with Boys] and now my brother and family and country.''
After all this time, Peirce isn't angry with Hollywood and feels the years have sharpened her business savvy. ''I learned a valuable lesson, which is that it's not just about being talented and wanting to make stories that you love. Can it get made? Is it commercial? I don't want to go writing a bunch of scripts that are pipe dreams that won't ever get made.'' It's not lost on Peirce that her success or failure as a director has significance beyond herself. Only 13 percent of directors in the Directors Guild of America are women, a fact she's reminded of almost every time she screens Stop-Loss. ''It's so funny,'' she says. ''I've had all these men interviewing me in the last couple weeks saying, 'Uh, I don't want to be sexist but I've got to compliment you. I didn't think a woman made this movie that was one great action sequence.'''
However anxious she is to prove herself professionally to tackle the wide spectrum of material normally associated with the guys the years have added a need for a richer personal life as well. When Boys was first released, Peirce shooed aside questions of romantic love, declaring that with her all-consuming profession she defined the word ''unavailable.'' Today, home is as vital and meaningful as her career. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Malibu that doubles as her office. It's teensy but right on the water, and at night the sound of the lapping waves quiets her mind and lulls her to sleep. She and her partner Evren Savci, a Ph.D. candidate writing a double thesis on gender and sexuality and Turkish modernization, are anxious to start a family, and Peirce would like to get pregnant. ''Women out here, they get pregnant, they run studios,'' she says. ''And I think kids are better off for having working moms.''
But for now she gets to celebrate the long-awaited birth of her sophomore film. Peirce has one of those very recognizable mothers who out of concern can't help but follow her adult children around wringing her hands. ''My brother and I call her Death,'' she says with a hearty laugh. ''Like when I was in film school she'd go, 'What if you make a movie and nobody goes?' Or now she'll be like, 'What if you make a movie and it gets all bad reviews?' I finally had to pull her aside and tell her, 'You've got to let go of the fear of failure.' You're going to fail and you're going to succeed and you're going to fail and succeed again. Someone doesn't take the score and then you're done.'' But this is Hollywood a town of numbers and shifting alliances and steep pedestals and isn't that exactly what happens? Peirce widens her eyes and groans. ''No, no, I mean in life. You're done when you're dead. Until then,'' she says with a lusty grin, ''the game is still on.''