For well over a century and going soon into two, people have accepted the common phrase “war is hell” as a universal truth. While likely true, we don’t often talk about what affect war has on people individually once a war is over. That is the central issue surrounding Ryan Piers Williams’ thrilling, post-war character study The Dry Land, which just played at the Seattle International Film Festival this past weekend.
Ryan O’Nan stars as James, a soldier returning home to his small Texas town after serving in Iraq. The war changed him and he now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Coming back home, he is unprepared to deal with daily issues and is constantly on edge. He certainly doesn’t mean to be abusive towards his lovely and loving wife Sara (played by America Ferrera) or snap and his friends and coworkers who don’t understand the psychological torment he’s dealing with. At best, they can be sympathetic, but not empathetic. The director, Williams, said in a roundtable discussion with myself and a few other local film writers said about his film’s protagonist, “he needed much more than people saying ‘thank you for your service’. He needs people to actively try to understand his situation and offer him the support that he needs.”
Williams says he was inspired to make this film because “I started reading newspaper articles about this about five years. The first time I heard about PTSD, I was completely blown away. I knew people came back from war and were affected by it and I heard different stories about that. One in particular was about this guy who served his country honorably who was a hero but when he came back, his whole life fell apart. He was divorced within a couple of weeks of getting married; it just seemed the ultimate tragedy is that this man served his country and came home and found no support, he couldn’t find the resources to treat what he was going through.” He added he then “started reading more articles and being exposed to more people that were over there and there was more and more information. There was this huge issue that no one was talking about. Even five years later, people are more aware but still not that aware.” When the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down and more and more troops come home, this issue will become more and more prevalent.
The filmmaker and actors said they made the film as a means of opening dialogue on a subject that affects thousands of families. The first step, Ferrera said she thinks “is removing the stigma of these soldiers coming home and asking for help. I think it needs to be a conversation and clearly it hasn’t worked in the past to pretend it isn’t there.” After screening the film for military audiences, Williams thought “people left thinking they could talk about the issues better or had more knowledge of the issues and knew where they could go. That’s really what I think this film is all about. The biggest reward for us is to see that people are talking and asking hard questions.”
The film is the result of years of meticulous research. Williams said, “I spent two years researching before I knew that I had an idea and I spent a year and a half after that writing the story and sending it out to soldiers and family members who have similar experiences to get their stories and their feedback. Their notes really shaped the story in a lot of ways. There were things that I had in the first draft that weren’t accurate and they’d call me out on it, so I took it out. I really relied heavily on hearing the stories of people who had similar situations.” He goes on to say that he felt fortunate that the military was cooperative. “The army came out and supported us and were an amazing help. Basically, what they said was that they would give us whatever we needed, but the only thing is that it can’t cost taxpayers any money. “We can provide you with certain resources and we can let you shoot in different facilities.” Basically, they said “you tell us what you need and we’ll do what we can to get it to you.” One of the things we wanted to do was that we wanted each of the actors to talk to people that had been in Iraq and talk to people dealing with PTSD. I wanted America and Melissa (Leo, who plays James’ frail and dying mother) to speak with wives of soldiers, not just of the current war but in Melissa’s case, Vietnam wives.”
A lot of attention was paid to small details, as America Ferrera said “in terms of the soldiers, one thing that Ryan wanted was for them to feel like it was true to their experience. Some of the soldiers commented on the simplest things, like having the patches in the right place or have them call what they would call each other. They were telling us that they couldn’t buy any film that didn’t get the small details right.” Ryan O’Nan added “These guys watch all movies related to their experience and they just want their story to be told accurately. More than anything, they want it to be authentic and that they can share it with the people around them. Right before I left for Texas to film this movie, I sat down with one soldier for two and a half to three hours and recorded his story. He opened up to me in ways that he probably hadn’t opened up to anyone (like he did to me) about his fears because he felt it probably had the potential to be used in a way to help his friends and help himself.”
Williams said he felt the pressure from military people to tell their story accurately. “I remember when I was still researching and I went to Walter Reed and talked to some soldiers in the hospital and they said we better get it right and if we didn’t, they didn’t want to see it.” He also remarked that “it really becomes about how you represent the character’s journey that he’s going through with PTSD and how do you represent the family members accurately in relation to the experience. There was a lot of pressure (to get it right). I feel very happy to say that we showed it to a lot of soldiers and they had amazing reactions to it.”
After its final screening at SIFF, the filmmakers and stars plan on continuing to show it to military audiences as well as to crowds in other film festivals before opening in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas on July 30 and in a handful of other cities (including Seattle) a week later. Williams said “the biggest reward for us is to see that people are talking and asking hard questions.” He said he was encouraged by a screening just two days before its first SIFF screening. “We screened the movie in Boise, ID on Thursday and there were two psychologists from the VA and the discussion was unbelievable. The audience probably asked the VA people more questions than they asked us and that’s a good sign in my book,” he said.
Ultimately, though, he doesn’t see this as a war film because the implications can be universal and aren’t exclusive to military families. He said “at the end of the day, I truly feel like it’s a coming home story and people can relate to it, whether they have been in the military or not, because it’s about that fracture that can happen when someone goes off to an experience like that and everyone they’ve left behind changes.”
SIFF photo by Kathy Horsfall.