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Return - Liza Johnson interview

Return, Liza Johnson

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DIRECTOR Liza Johnson talks about her latest film, Return, and why she wanted to tackle the issue of soldiers returning home from Iraq and struggling to re-connect with society from a different kind of perspective.

She also talks about working with her leading lady, Linda Cardellini.

Q. How was working with Linda Cardellini? I gather you worked really closely with her?
Liza Johnson: It’s been super fun. We had more time than we wanted really to prepare because we met in casting and then we had more than a year before the film was financed. So, we really could work during that time. I feel that by the time we actually shot the movie we really did trust each other and that was good. So many people worked on this movie that were awesome and the whole cast, the whole ensemble, was great. I really love and admire them but a lot of that movie is between us and it was really good that we could trust each other.

Q. What made you decide that you wanted to tackle the subject of soldiers coming home from Iraq in the first place? And putting the focus on a woman too?
Liza Johnson: I guess it started from one friend of mine who was telling me about his efforts to stay married after he got back from his military deployment. He just was really good at describing how they wanted to stay married but there was a big gap of empathy because he had been in this very extreme environment and his wife had not and as much as they kind of wanted to cross over that it was very hard for them to do so.

Perhaps this is true here too but I feel that the public conversation about the wars that the US is involved in is mostly statistics stuff, such as six different people died in a car bomb, or policy stuff. But the way that he was telling that story felt very different to me and had a whole different set of implications. I feel like it asked me to feel this historical phenomenon in a different way than those statistics do. They’re important too… it’s not like instead of that. But it added a dimension to my thinking about the situation.

Q. What made you opt to look at the issue through the eyes of detachment as opposed to post traumatic stress disorder?
Liza Johnson: I think from a lot of the people that we talked to it seemed like what might be described as PTSD really varies based on the nature of your experience while you’re in the war and also the nature of your training. It seemed to me that even people who had super-awesome training and don’t in a clinical way have PTSD there’s still this empathy question that’s very complicated for people. Definitely we have some knowledge of what PTSD is from cinema and how a traumatic event can cause that, which I’m sure is true, but also my understanding is that people can be traumatised or not, but at least affected, by just living in a destroyed world.

Nevertheless, sometimes everyone around them when they come home expects them to be able to tell a certain kind of war story about a traumatic event. I don’t think that the experience of feeling dislocated or struggling to have communication who don’t have that experience… I don’t think it has to be justified by a traumatic event even though I certainly understand that it often does relate to it. I don’t think that if you don’t have one concrete traumatic event that then it should be easy to go home.

Q. How difficult is it to remain non-political?
Liza Johnson: I guess for me I feel like most of our sense of what counts as politics as very simple. It’s ‘I’m in favour of the war’ or ‘I’m against the war’ and I think a lot of people are very exhausted by that way of expressing politics. So, I certainly have an opinion in that regard but for me it’s more interesting to try and describe this story through these other contours. I hope that it enables us to feel the phenomena in a different way rather than the more common way of talking about politics.

Q. This is one of the firs times you’ve used a cast of such experienced actors. So, how much did that help and how much did you learn from the experience as a filmmaker?
Liza Johnson: I would have to say that a lot of the actors that I met could be good writers even if that’s not their practice because they’re definitely the best readers. Actors have awesome story skills and they really are better than anyone at reading and interpreting dramatic literature. So, that’s what I learned from actors and I think about it when I’m writing now.

Read our interview with Linda Cardellini