INT. REGISTRAR’S OFFICE — DAY
Erika waits in an area in front of a service counter. A sign indicates that this is the Registrar’s Office. Smaller signs point the way toward ID CARDS, FINANCIAL AID, and ADMISSIONS. A placard on counter says FEES & DEPOSITS.
The ASSISTANT REGISTRAR, 40ish, stands behind the counter speaking to a student at the counter, but we can’t hear what they say.
The student picks up a heavy backpack and weaves his way around Erika.
ASSISTANT REGISTRAR: Can I help you?
Erika approaches the counter and lays the bill in front of her. The registrar takes the letter and scans it — she’s seen millions of these; her eyes know just where to look.
ERIKA: Yes, ma’am. I received this is the mail today, and I’ve been charged in error.
The registrar taps on her keyboard with lightning speed.
ASSISTANT REGISTRAR: Byrd. Erika M. Freshman. Out-of-state.
ERIKA: That’s the thing, ma’am. I’m not out-of-state.
ASSISTANT REGISTRAR: Did you live in New York the past 12 months?
ASSISTANT REGISTRAR: Then you’re registered as an out-of-state student, and you have to pay out-of-state tuition.
ERIKA: No, I don’t.
The registrar has heard this line from entitled students before.
ASSISTANT REGISTRAR: Look, where did you live for the past year?
- from the screenplay of Nontraditional, a film by Brian Hauser
In Nontraditional, a film by Brian Hauser, the landscape of war is approached in terms of homecoming, how soldiers — in particular, a twenty-six-year-old female combat veteran — fall back into civilian life, how communication and gender and powers of deduction crisscross. Erika Byrd, the protagonist of the film, embodies all of these issues. Her creators, filmmaker Brian Hauser, and his partner and producer, Christina Xydias, agreed to talk with me about the film’s conception and realization to its production and upcoming Veterans Day premiere.
In approaching Hauser and Xydias for this interview, I initially asked about their interest in filmmaking. Their candid, comprehensive responses are included here.
How did you became interested in film and this project in particular?
Hauser: I have been interested in film as a viewer more or less all my life, but I think I first became interested in making movies when I was in the Army in the mid-1990s. I was more interested in screenwriting at that time, but I had this sense that knowing how moving pictures actually got put together would be an enormous help in achieving a better understanding of writing scripts. I bought a cheap 8mm Samsung camcorder and noodled around with it to very little effect. When I got to graduate school several years later, I got a bit more serious about it. I purchased my second camera and set about making a few short films. This is also where I started reading the various filmmaking books on the market in a more systematic way. I was learning about all of this just as the World Wide Web was becoming robust enough to be useful. I found all sorts of like-minded people on the web, including a loose group of filmmakers dedicated to making film adaptations of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as the production company that gave me my first writing job. I was also inspired by all of the talk of the digital revolution that was in the air in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I soaked up all the rhetoric about DIY and the democratization of filmmaking. As a result of all of this, I wrote and directed my first micro-budget DIY feature in 2002.
The project was one part ill-conceived and two parts overambitious, so there was never really much hope of finishing it, but the last nail was driven in when I was called to active duty two months later. I was away for twelve months, during which time I put the film and graduate school on hold. That was a signal moment for me. Until then, my adult life had been very intentional; this was the first time that I had ever honestly felt swept away by the course of events. Since then, much of my creative work has been an attempt to sort through that experience, and Nontraditional is certainly a part of that. While I was teaching at the Ohio State University as a grad student, I was fascinated by the way that I could pick out the male veterans in my classes without them telling me. At the same time, I was reading a number of news stories about women in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I wondered how many female vets had been in my classes. I was sure that my curiosity about this had something to do with my own gender preconceptions, but I was also sure that female vets often did not display the same kind of non-verbal cues that males did: military-themed clothing, regulation haircuts, visible military tattoos, and all the other small details of military bearing. And as I thought more about it and tried to pay more attention to the issue in my classes, I came to the conclusion that female vets were far less likely than males to self-identify as veterans in all sorts of direct and indirect ways while in college. That interested me, so I started looking into it more here and there, seeking out more news articles. Eventually, Christina and I decided that we wanted to speak with female vets directly, so we arranged to interview eight female Ohio State students who were also veterans or in ROTC. Those interviews provided the background information that I molded into the screenplay for Nontraditional.
Xydias: My interest in filmmaking, specifically, as a means of expression is entirely through Brian’s interest. I have other voices: I used to produce enormous quantities of fiction—mimicking whatever I was reading at the time (Jane Austen, Tom Clancy, anyone). I’m an amateur musician with a lot of experience in performance, and over the last ten years I’ve worked to cultivate my skills in public speaking. Filmmaking is very new to me, and I don’t actually view myself as a creative participant in Nontraditional so much as … managerial. This isn’t to say that management isn’t creative, because I think it really is. I came to this project with an overarching interest in making the film happen, financially and logistically and creatively, not with very precise technical skills in camera work, say, or acting.
My interest in the content of the project Nontraditional in particular comes from three directions: first, my own feminism; second, my work as an academic studying and writing about women and politics; and third, my understanding of Brian’s experiences in the military.
I have long viewed women’s exclusion from registering with the U.S. selective service as promoting differential citizenship, so I was interested in exploring the dynamics of gender and power within the military. I’m also really curious about the extent to which these dynamics reflect how American politics works more generally. A lot of political discourse emphasizes protecting women when it really means protecting masculinity. It sounds silly to need to say it aloud, but gender and sexuality are really complex. I was intrigued by the idea of having a protagonist who challenged simplifying assumptions about both combat veterans and college students. I was even more intrigued by the challenge of developing this protagonist without portraying her as a victim, either of sexual assault (which is often the focus of portrayals of female soldiers) or of other people’s misunderstandings. Even when Erika Byrd is struggling in college, she is not a victim.
And, of course, by the time Brian and I undertook interviews with female vets at OSU, which was more than six years ago, I was very familiar with his own story and his experiences in the military. Projects generally have their own timeline.