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.
Tell us more about both your views on the politics and dynamics of gender and power in the military. How did you get this across in Nontraditional?
Xydias: The central co-concerns of any military are morale and combat readiness. Even when we observe that some female soldiers are sufficiently competent to serve in combat roles (and even when we observe that some male soldiers are not) – which might otherwise suggest that gender is not relevant to military concerns – service members’ attitudes towards one another and their conceptions of gender matter. Soldiers opposed to women’s formal inclusion in combat roles might experience lower morale, for example, with female unit members. However, there is a point at which it is not the state’s obligation to accommodate outdated conceptions of gender. At a certain point, people opposed to women in combat roles purely on gendered grounds need to remember that they are professionals and do their jobs. (By analogy, we would not argue that someone else’s aversion to women wearing pants should result in a pants exclusion rule. That person would just have to keep this aversion to himself.)
I also would like to clarify here that this emphasis on citizenship and democracy as they relate to women in combat is not because Brian or I happen to be particularly pro-war, or that I cannot imagine an alternative version of the world in which combat exclusion has nothing to do with mutual respect and self-determination. In the world that we live in right now, though, states have borders, and militaries protect them. The exclusion of anyone from a combat unit for reasons unrelated to their competence is a form of discrimination regarding who gets to contribute to this core state activity.
Hauser: I have always approached the question of gender in the military from a competence-based standpoint. Service members should be evaluated based on their willingness and ability to perform the required tasks to standard. Sex and/or gender should have nothing to do with it. I knew men and women who could do the job, and I knew men and women whose abilities I doubted. The tricky part about the question, I think, has always been not the fact of sex integration but what people think about it, what it means to them. In Nontraditional, Erika is simply a combat veteran. She has a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart. This is the part I feel she does not have to explain or justify. She did it; she was recognized for it. The question is not whether or not she can do it, as it is in films like G.I. Jane. The question here is, now what? Erika is a warrior, and a scarred one, but her identity as a woman blinds others to those important parts of who she is. There are thousands of women like Erika, and there will be thousands more soon.
In Nontraditional’s opening scene, Erika Byrd is seen in combat gear, crossing from forest to field where she is greeted by a crowd, each embracing her and taking her weaponry, then her uniform from helmet down to boots, exchanging them for civilian clothing and then accompanying her back into “the World.” This is, of course, a dream sequence, but, to me, this seems an incredibly profound and important kind of recognition for those who have been in service to our country, and I wonder why we don’t do this for our own returning soldiers. Would you speak about the decision to begin the film with this scene?
Hauser: To me, this is the crucial set up for the story. It is, I think, the broader context of all stories about soldiers coming home, not just women and not just Erika. Society has asked some of its members to shoulder the burden of stepping outside the confines of civilized behavior for the benefit of the state. However, when soldiers return home, they are implicitly expected to cross back into the civilized space and shed their warlike habits and attitudes. It seems to me like the perfect scenario for a ritual. Before you enter the peaceful city, we require you to put away warlike things; and because we are the ones who sent you to war, we will honor your service by helping you disarm. Of course, this is precisely what we don’t do for our veterans. We tend to be pretty good about the “welcome home” part, and this is usually carried out on the unit level, but I think it’s the ritual disarming that’s really the key to the process. That’s what we don’t do. My sense is that the reasons we don’t do this are tied up with an American warrior culture that tells us we must always be warriors, always ready for battle. In particular, this message is directed at young men, but to the extent that it is reflected in the Second Amendment it is directed at all of us.
Relationships are approached in multiple ways, from Erika skyping with her parents and speaking one-on-one with her Sociology professor to studying with other college students and when Todd “Doc” Clark, a friend from her old battalion, shows up for a visit, revealing the soldier she was and the woman she’s become. All of Erika’s encounters disclose what it’s like for a female combat veteran to re-enter civilian life and especially university life. The occasion that really stands out is the one in which Erika tells Todd of the necessity “to dwell in the boredom.” We understand here how the lack of action and adrenaline is entirely unsettling for returned soldiers. This is a phenomenal way of describing this circumstance that certainly all who’ve been in combat must experience, and how it’s pretty damned frightening to come up with coping strategies for simply engaging in everyday, dull-as-all-get-out life.
And so the question: would you tell us how you found your way through the maze of relationships in the film, all in service of Erika’s character and her story, and how you managed to fold them all so expertly together?
Xydias: Brian’s screenplay first introduced these characters and their relationships, to be sure. But ultimately what we see on the screen is as much a product of the actors and environment of the set. Erika’s relationships with other characters on screen are characterized by both tense interpersonal conflict as well as tremendous warmth. An audience can share in these dynamics because our actors worked really well together. They worked well together in ways that are not possible to anticipate; they created something new.
Hauser: Thank you; that’s an awfully kind way to phrase the question. As I wrote the script, I was aware of the ways that Erika was responding to different people. She was respectful to professors and staff, unless one of them seemed disrespectful to her. She was less impressed with her classmates and neighbors, and even with people she identified as peers she came off as gruff. She is only really open and warm with her Army buddy, Todd, and their conversations are sprinkled with some of the harshest language in the film. My experience in the military was full of that kind of interaction: harsh exteriors masking the personal. It’s a defense mechanism a lot of the time, and it’s one that Erika finds very useful in college. Though a number of characters reach out to Erika in the film, it’s really her fellow nontraditional student, Laurel, that does so in the most powerful way, and Laurel could only do that by mustering a kind of interpersonal courage. Erika is not an easy person to get close to, but Laurel chooses to fight for the opportunity. Looking back on it, this might be one of those unconscious themes at work in the film: people can be strong and competent by themselves, but it’s only in their relationships that they can be heroic. Heroism is transitive.
In Nontraditional, communication plays an immense role, from college essays to military acronyms, from understanding to misunderstanding, from classical music to jazz. Within these parameters Erika reveals her remarkable powers of deduction, as well as her loss of comprehension.
In the army, there are “tasks, conditions, and standards” — the goal is clear. In college, however, process replaces goal in terms of thinking: “Always revise. Always experiment. Always question.” Erika’s considers the wider spaces of possibility and seems to lose her footing, but then bears down into a place of understanding, the Rhetorical Triangle as her compass. Every communication as a trilateral relationship and each point of the triangle bearing some responsibility for the success of the communication, from credibility to consistency to imagination, from form to idea to force. This shape, this new way of seeing the world is related to an old way of seeing the world, as revealed by Erika’s notebook drawing of the symbol for the 18-Deltas (Special Forces Medics) — an 18 inside of a triangle. These kinds of connections are forthright, brave, and even scholarly.
In writing the screenplay did you realize the representation of the triangle, rhetorical and otherwise, would then lead to Erika’s ability to communicate more effectively by drawing from the past, while letting it go, and moving toward the future? Or is this something you came upon and worked through during production?
Hauser: I did not have the triangle associations in mind when I sat down to write the script, but they were definitely in place by the time I finished the first or second draft and well-thought out before we started shooting. I did know that the rhetorical triangle was a fairly didactic tool to stick into the middle of a film, so I was happy to stumble upon the link between that triangle and the “delta” of 18Ds. That also made me think of the triangle/delta as the chemistry symbol for reaction or change. At that point, I knew there were enough connotations that I could build on the motif; it was fertile ground for a character epiphany.
Are there any other stories you’d like to tell about discoveries made in the writing and in production?
Xydias: Making a micro-budget movie is the context for lots and lots of discoveries! We self-financed production, which was freeing (because no external funders controlled technical or creative details) as well as terrifying. Even though we did not produce the film expecting to make a profit per se, it felt like gambling with an enormous amount of our income. At every turn, we made decisions that balanced creative vision with very pragmatic questions of what we could afford. As producer, I constantly wondered whether we were investing enough to create something beautiful; as production manager, I stressed over how fast we went through hummus. (Incidentally: the cast and crew consumed approximately 50 pounds of carrots over the course of principal photography!)
In creative terms, I’d like to mention how hugely collaborative our set was. As producer, maybe I can’t claim to speak for the entire crew in describing it as egalitarian, but promoting a collaborative context was certainly one of our principal goals – and every day, everyone made suggestions and solved problems. Many of our core crew members are very young, and I found it so exciting to watch them assert their own creativity.
Hauser: Kat Evans really jumped into her role as Erika and did a lot of work to make that character come alive, and she also worked closely with the other actors on set to flesh out new dialogue (often saving me from myself as a writer). I invited and expected those kinds of collaboration and discovery.
What I didn’t quite expect was the way that the Bach soundtrack would fit together with jazz. I was looking for a piece of music in the Public Domain that I could reasonably use for the end of the film, something to say that Erika and her music class had moved on from Bach. By asking my music-savvy friends and through my own research I surmised that a lot of early jazz was on the Internet Archive. This seemed like a reasonable solution. It’s a big temporal jump from baroque to jazz, but in a music appreciation class like the one Erika is taking these periods of music history tend to jostle one another. I settled on The Original Dixie Land Jass Band’s “Livery Stable Blues” mostly because I liked the sound of it and the recording is in the Public Domain. However, when it came time for my brother, Kurt, to record the guitar version of Bach’s cello suite that forms the majority of the film’s soundtrack, he was suffering from a severe neurological disorder, thankfully from which he is now recovering. At that point, though, there was no way he was going to be able to play the suite on classical acoustic guitar, because he had lost nearly all the feeling in his left hand. In addition to being profoundly freaked out by what was happening to him physically, he was devastated that he wasn’t going to be able to provide the music we wanted. I remember when he called to tell me all this, he said, “So, when the plan fails, what does a soldier do? Improvise.” (Kurt was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne.) The music he could record for us was a series of gorgeous improvisations based on the six movements of Bach’s cello suite no. 6. The improvs on electric guitar make the entire soundtrack seem a bit more jazz-inflected than I originally expected. This wound up becoming an important change to the feel of the film, and in a subtle but powerful way it also emphasized the importance of the jazz motif as a way forward for Erika.
And last of all: Drive-ins, multiplex cinemas, or independent single-screen theaters?
Hauser: Independent single-screen theaters primarily, but I would also add in newer distribution platforms like streaming, VOD, and mobile devices. This is an intimate film and one that we would like to get in front of the people who might have an interest. Since it’s not a genre film, my guess is that it wouldn’t play well at multiplexes (though I would be happy to be proven wrong!). Thinking about digital distribution will hopefully allow us to get the film in front of more people who want to see it.
Xydias: Independent single-screen theatres. Ours is a beautiful film that is best appreciated on a bigger (theatre) screen — And it’s an independent drama, which independent-single-screen-theatre-goers are more likely to be drawn to!
Thank you both for the great conversation and for your time, which is quickly leading up to the film’s premiere! Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Xydias & Hauser: We’d just like to thank you for letting us talk about our film with the readers of Hothouse!
Brian R. Hauser
Brian Hauser grew up in Sylvania, Ohio near Toledo. He attended public school, watched too much television and too many movies, and played a lot of video- and role-playing games while he lived there. He later attended The Ohio State University, eventually taking a B.A. and M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in film studies. For several years in the 1990s and again in the early 2000s, Brian served on active duty with U.S. Army intelligence. He is now an Assistant Professor of Film at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY, where he lives with his partner, Christina Xydias, and their two cats.
Christina Xydias grew up listening to NPR, running and skiing long distances, playing classical piano and cello, and reading reading reading. She’s one of those people who did all of her homework and didn’t have a fake ID. Christina studied political science at Brown University (A.B., 2003) and then at The Ohio State University (Ph.D., 2010). She is now an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY. She talks with her hands, is a meticulous recycler, and always tries to listen to the other side of the story.
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
First posted at Hothouse Magazine.