As a Marine sergeant returning home after her third tour in Afghanistan, Kate Nowlin delivers a virtuoso performance in “Blood Stripe.” Unable to sleep, wracked by paranoia and anxiety, Nowlin’s Sergeant reveals the ongoing struggle many veterans face adjusting to civilian life after serving in combat overseas. Shot on a shoestring budget in just 16 days, “Blood Stripe” has already garnered a long list of critically important awards.
“Blood Stripe” received the U.S. Best Fiction Feature Film Award at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival. It was recently recognized by Got Your 6 as a “6 Certified” 2017 project. Additional accolades include the Audience Award at the 2016 Austin Film Festival, the John Schlesinger Award for First-Time Filmmaker at the 2016 Provincetown International Film Festival, and both the Audience Award and the Indie Vision Breakthrough Performance Award at the 2016 Twin Cities Film Festival.
You wrote this together with your husband, Remy Auberjonois, who directed it. What inspired you to make this film?
Kate Nowlin: The lake at Camp Vermilion was a real source of inspiration. It called to both of us as being ripe for some really interesting storytelling. Remy was getting antsy to try his hand at directing and many of his peers and collaborators encouraged him. He considered me his primary resource and someone he wanted to build a story around. I grew up around Lake Vermilion in the summers of Minnesota. Our research of the area—known as the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota—led us to a number of inspirational articles of service men and women who had served multiple tours overseas. So we wanted to tell a story that was entirely authentic and powerful, a socially relevant story that could be told there.
Can you go into the challenges you faced in getting this film off the ground?
KN: Neither of us had any military background and we were so inspired by what we were learning. There weren’t many stories about returning female combat veterans. So once we decided on the topic and committed to it, its uniqueness and power rallied an incredible amount of support. We had to work within a very compressed schedule—writing in October and shooting in August. Our biggest setback was our initial commitment to a larger script and budget, which would have involved ten more days of shooting. We were already hiring a crew, so we quickly cut down the script, trimmed the budget and kept going. Whenever we hit setbacks, we would think about the strength and resilience of the service men and women we read about. Our motto was, we fall down, we get back up.
So basically you adopted the Marine Corps motto, Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.
KN: When you’re delving into something that huge and humbling, we felt the Marines were teaching us, that it was our job to incorporate that drive. Whether you’re a soldier in the arts or in life, there’s something universal you can draw from that.
What did you draw from to so accurately develop the character of a returning Lioness—someone who ran checkpoints by day and house raids by night?
KN: As an actress, I did my best to observe and absorb. We had a number of veterans on set, including a Marine, Amber Patton, who was invaluable. Out of respect for their experience, I immersed myself in the topic via conversations, books, documentaries, and current reportage on stories of returning veterans.
At the welcome home party, the bear grip from behind sent Our Sergeant into an explosive rage. Was this to suggest she had been attacked in some way while overseas?
KN: Amber brought a woman she served with to our New York opening and the woman said, “yeah, that’s happened to me. You don’t want to be surprised and grabbed from behind.” We also read about military sexual trauma within the lines. We were trying to create a portrait of a veteran who can hold any burden or injury, as much a possible, so people can relate and project their own experience onto hers. The power and vulnerability of her being a woman veteran were really compelling to me. Her strength and dedication were first and foremost. I was very struck by some of the stories I’d read, the incidents about returning warriors who remain vulnerable to a different kind of attack. Our on-set veteran said that telling that would mean a lot to those who served because it’s not something that’s been brought up by returning veterans.
As a former Marine, it’s the little things that caught my eye—like continuing to wear her dog tags at home, her problems with civilian chow, and the fact that she was still constantly taking orders from people. How did you tune into these subtleties?
KN: Part of that is kind of mysterious to me. How do we expect these people to shed this fundamental part of their identity? How does that just come off in a plane ride home? How do you normalize or re-integrate into our civilian day-to-day life, which is so very different? What pieces of it stay with you? They may be leaving an incredibly stressful and demanding environment, but many veterans I talked to said they would go back in a minute. For them, the military created a sense of order, they knew where they stood, there was unity and a sense of purpose. So we wanted to honor the ways in which combat veterans come home and re-create some shred of drive and rank. It was a way to make sense of a world that is so drastically different.
The need for solitude, to work things out, to busy oneself with physical tasks is often seen in returning veterans. Did you pick up these habits by talking to combat veterans?
KN: That was, honestly, intuitive. We find that people just relate to her on a human level. In watching the documentary, “Lioness,” we were so struck by the strength and resilience of these women that I rarely wanted to see Our Sergeant sitting down. I wanted her to move through this, to follow a basic animal/human instinct—to move in order to survive. It’s a manifestation of her as a hunter, a creature trying to survive. We wanted to pair her vulnerability with her strength.
At the campfire party, our Sergeant rose, trance-like and applied black soot on her face. Was this a reflection of her need to protect herself from imagined enemies at night?
KN: By that time, she was beginning to feel a threat was near. She had the ability to distinguish friend from foe. But her sense of danger was mounting. It’s a sign that she’s ready to go back into battle. It’s also the fact that she’s marked for life, which is part of her identity that we didn’t want to silence. To reflect on the idea of ‘once a Marine, always a Marine.’
Instead of combat flashbacks, you used local deer hunters to draw our vet back into what must have been some violent, disturbing memories. Why did you use that approach?
KN: There are lots of metaphors and references embedded in the film. We couldn’t afford flashbacks. Remy decided that audiences have seen combat flashbacks before. The images in “The Hurt Locker” and “American Sniper” are embedded in our cultural memory. So we decided to keep her home, keep the threat on some domestic level. We wanted to engage the imagination of our audience as much as possible, to let them participate and project onto her and to the story what they already know.
One of the saddest moments was when she called her husband in a tear-filled plea from Camp Vermilion and said, “I want to come home.” Can you comment on that emotional scene?
KN: The Kleenexes came out and everybody got really quiet during that scene. The ‘I want to come home’ line came out of the moment, and I’m grateful for that. Certain things can surprise you, things you didn’t really know were there. Coming home and the struggle in getting home is the whole point of the film.
Blood Stripe opened in Los Angeles on October 13, 2017