Approximately 25% of America’s active military force returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Statistics released by the Pentagon in May 2010 are sobering. In 2009, 1,224 soldiers received a medical discharge due to PTSD - an increase of 64% since 2005 and which accounts for 1 in 9 medical discharges. For the first time in 15 years, mental health disorders caused more solider hospitalizations that any other medical condition, including physical injury from battle. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan first began to 2009, the US lost 761 soldiers in combat. 817 took their own lives during that same period. Service suicide rates, after doubling between 2001 and 2006, still continue to rise with 160 active-duty soldiers taking their own lives in 2009. For writer/director Ryan Piers Williams, all it took was reading a news article on PTSD some five years ago to spark a flame and begin his journey to what would ultimately give us THE DRY LAND.
"I read a newspaper article that talks about a guy who returned back from the war and it followed his struggle through returning back home. He had served his country honorably, came back home and was suffering from PTSD and his whole life just crumbled and fell apart. For me, it was the first time I had ever heard about PTSD and this struggle that these soldiers were going through. I was so deeply struck by this man’s struggle. I felt like that was the ultimate disservice. I spent two years researching, trying to understand what it was like for soldiers returning home from the war. What I started to realize was this kind of story was happening more and more often. I dove in and talked to soldiers, read articles, watched documentaries and tried to understand what it was like. The whole point was just to become more socially aware. After about two years of research, I realized I had a story I wanted to tell and I started to write the script. Every step of the way I would go back to soldiers and have them read the script and give me notes with my ultimate goal trying to make it as authentic as I possibly could."
James is returning to his home in a small West Texas town. A veteran of the Iraqi conflict, there is no fanfare or ticker tape parade on his return - only his wife Sara and lifelong best friend Michael to meet him at the airport. A quiet man with a steeled gaze, he looks impervious to emotion. Something that doesn’t sit well with Sara who is anxious to rekindle the home fires and something that disturbs Michael when his exuberant peppering questions about James’ experience killing people are not met with the same glee; the inquiries are, in fact, met with silence. Wanting to "get back to normal", James quickly finds he no longer knows what normal is. Trying to go through the motions of adoring husband and fun-filled friend, James’ frustration grows as he can’t seem to be what everyone wants him to be.
With slim pickings for jobs, James ends up at the slaughterhouse owned by Sara’s father. Initially reluctant to take a job slaughtering animals, something he once found repulsive and inhuman, it somehow now feels natural; an immediate fit. And with the blood-letting of each butchering comes nightmares and fragmented visions of his days in Iraq and the events that led to his return home; events that James can’t remember; events that now threaten to ruin his very survival.
Drinking with Michael and another co-worker, one evening’s celebratory fun and camaraderie suddenly turns into unexplained horrific violence. Another evening finds James in a dead sleep unknowingly strangling Sara who lies next to him in bed. Yet another has James in a drunken rage committing an all out assault on Sara. And James has no explanation for his behavior. Heading to William Beaumont Army Medical Center looking for answers to his memory loss, anxiety, frustration, violence and erraticism, he learns he is suffering from PTSD. Unfortunately, learning of his problem and what treatment is available may have come too late as James returns home to find an unsympathetic Sara moving out believing James just has "issues" to work out rather than get treatment.
Determined to fill in the blanks and get his life back. James heads off to the one person in whom he can trust and confide - Army buddy Raymond Gonzalez. Raymond, who has made the transition to home life with more ease than James, but still not at peace, realizes James needs help and that he has no recollection of a traumatic event that happened in Iraq. Looking for his own escape, Raymond joins James and they head to Walter Reed Medical Center to reconnect with their other buddy, Henry. A double amputee, Henry survived the same incident in which Raymond and James were involved; an incident which James can’t recall but which proves to be the key to unlock his path to redemption and recovery.
For the character of James, Williams was determined to find an unknown who would be able to "make the audience feel like he is a soldier" and not bring in any pre-conceived ideas or comparisons to prior performances. What he got was Ryan O’Nan, a strong contender for both Oscar gold and an Independent Spirit Award, for his more than impressive portrayal of James. A totally nuanced, introspective, gifted performance, O’Nan has a commanding tacit intensity that is riveting. His ability to calibrate extreme levels of frustration and escalating anger is measured, controlled, appropriate and believable, culminating in a heart wrenching emotional explosion. In portraying James, O’Nan "just wanted to be as honest as possible. There are so many guys and girls going through this." To achieve this level of authenticity and honesty, O’Nan spoke with "a huge number of soldiers who had gotten back, people who had come back from several tours and were suffering from PTSD. People that were not. The thing about this story is that it’s not everybody’s story. It’s just this one guy’s story. It’s not trying to say this is how everybody comes back. I listened to their experience and what that had been through and tried to process that through what I think how I would have reacted." O’Nan, a very humble and gracious man, also looked to friends and family in shaping James. "Both my grandfathers were in WWII and one of my closest friends is a Green Beret that’s in Afghanistan right now. From the very beginning when me and Ryan first met and started this journey together, I had had this conversation back and forth with my friend about what his expectations were. There was this sense from him which was ‘[PTSD] happens to some guys. That couldn’t happen to me.’ I think that’s the biggest thing - these people feel like they’re supposed to be so brave. So when they come back and [PTSD] has happened to them and they don’t know where it’s coming from and it’s this fragment or splinter within them, they don’t feel like they can talk to anybody about it. They feel that’s not how they’re supposed to come back or how people expected them to come back."
America Ferrera shows us a different side of her with her portrayal of Sara. With an initial touch of sunniness, Ferrera shifts gears into a downtrodden, long suffering spouse. While you may sense an emotional disconnect between Ferrera’s and O’Nan’s characters, same bodes well given the nature and direction of the story. To prepare for Sara, Ferrera met with countless wives, girlfriends, mothers, drawing on their experiences to get inside Sara’s head. Ferrera, who also serves as Executive Producer, receives high praise from Williams as "Every step of the way, America’s whole heart was in the movie."
Wilmer Valderrama needed no persuasion on tackling Raymond Gonzalez. Actively involved in the USO for a number of years now, in addition to a well written, pivotal character, the very fact THE DRY LAND sheds light on something he has personally been witnessing up close for some time, was impetus enough for him to come on board. As Raymond, he epitomizes the brother-in-arms relationship while adding levels of energy, compassion and even some light hearted moments, critical to conveying the gravity of PTSD and the lack of understanding by "outsiders."
Jason Ritter never ceases to amaze me. Chameleonic in his performances, as Michael he achieves yet another level of dramatic excellence, delving into the character, giving Michael a slight roughness boding well for the time and territory, as well as walking an emotional tightrope giving textural layers to the interplay and relationships of Michael, Sara and James. And in a role written with her in mind, Melissa Leo handily provides an emotional anchor as James’ mother, Martha.
Ryan O’Nan has nothing but praise writer/director Ryan Piers Williams. "I was so lucky to have a leader like Ryan because he really fought for authenticity at every turn." Relying on narrative rather than flashbacks to get to the crux of the plot - James’ attempt to remember what happened to him in Iraq - Williams faced a daunting task. But thanks to well crafted characters, expressive performances, thoughtful and careful visuals and editing, he achieves his goal and the movie easily moves forward not only toward resolution to James’ journey, but in enlightening the public on PTSD. To see THE DRY LAND, one would never know this is Williams’ first feature. Led by a strong story and strong characters, Williams maintains a solid, steady pace from start to finish, punctuating the film’s effectiveness with perfectly placed emotional punches.
The two very distinct types of buddy relationships between James-Michael and James-Raymond are essential to establishing the story. Achieving the level of believability attained here goes directly to O’Nan, Valderrama and Ritter. "Me and Jay actually went out and did this whole road trip together with [Williams], the DP Gavin Kelly", looking at locations where the characters would have lived, talking to locals to study the accent, going to a slaughterhouse. "We tried to do everything to make them feel like they had a true understanding of where their characters were each coming from." O’Nan and Williams also "trained with the National Guard, heading out on training exercises in humvees, shooting blanks at actors running in the desert in the dark." According to Williams, "Each of these guys were able to sit in the same position that they would have sat in when they were in Iraq. And while there are no flashbacks in the film, I wanted [O’Nan and Valderrama] to have that bond of being soldiers together but also have that shared experience to be there and be in that humvee to together...to have that bond where they feel like they have something to draw from as they go through the story."
Shooting in Texas, Williams called on cinematographer Gavin Kelly who is well familiar with the look and terrain of the barren landscape. Likening it to the deserts of Iraq, the sense of authenticity and emotion created by the vast emptiness is itself a powerful storytelling tool.
According to Williams, the key to the strength of THE DRY LAND is that " the cast formed such a strong bond. We were all passionate. We worked so much in rehearsals and in talking about the movie beforehand, that we created such a trusting circle. When you go into an experience where you have to shoot these difficult scenes, we’re operating from a place where everybody really trusts each other and it’s a safe place to just create."
From the outset, the U.S. Army and Department of Defense were on board, lending their support and encouragement, giving the filmmakers access to countless resources, including soldiers themselves and Walter Reed and William Beaumont Army Medical Centers.
Shining a spotlight on one of America’s "deepest secrets" and an important issue facing thousands of U.S. soldiers and their loved ones everyday, THE DRY LAND is a powerfully emotional piece of storytelling and filmmaking, filled with truth, honesty and enlightenment. For Williams, "the goal of the whole movie is that I hope that we can spark a greater conversation with [THE DRY LAND]. I see this as an incredibly hopeful film. A realistic hope. No matter how dark the journey may be, there’s always that light or hope at the end of the tunnel."
James - Ryan O’Nan
Sara - America Ferrera
Michael - Jason Ritter
Raymond - Wilmer Valderrama
Written and Directed by Ryan Piers Williams.