Q & A with Happy New Year Film Writer/Director & Lead Actor/Producer
1) You talk about the film as a narrative feature. Describe how this is different than many of the documentaries that have been produced that cover these sorts of issues?
LORREL MANNING (Writer/Director): It’s very funny that you ask that question. Happy New Year often gets mistaken as a documentary, even after people see it. This happened a lot when lead actor/producer Michael Cuomo and I were on the festival circuit with the film. It used to really confuse me at first, but I then began to take it as a compliment. To me, it spoke to the film’s authenticity. Viewers thought they were seeing real people onscreen, not actors. It made total sense.
The film began as a one-act play that I wrote back in 2007 which was inspired by photographer Nina Berman’s award-winning Purple Hearts photo series. Six months later it had a short sold-out Off-Broadway run at the Barrow Group in New York City, with me as director and Michael in the role of “Sgt. Cole Lewis.” A group of military mothers who had sons deployed overseas saw the play one night and convinced Michael and I to make a short film out of it. A few weeks after the play closed, we raised about $20K and made the short. Near the end of the editing process, I showed it to producer Iain Smith. He loved the short but felt the story should be expanded into a feature film. I didn’t agree at first. However, a few days later an idea began to emerge in my head.
I decided to set the entire film in a VA hospital, with multiple characters from varying backgrounds. However, due to the fact that neither I nor Michael had any military experience, I didn’t feel I knew enough about the world that I was writing about. So, I began to immerse myself in research, reading any and every thing I could find. We then began to interview any military personnel that would speak to us. At first, we focussed on Iraq/Afghanistan vets, but we were soon introduced to Desert Storm, Vietnam and World War II veterans, and a thread of post-war trauma began to emerge. I actually became so obsessed with the research and “getting things right” that it kept me from writing. I even gave copies of the script to various vets for feedback. And cinematographer Soopum Sohn and I specifically took a documentary-like approach to the way we shot the film. We did our best not to get in the way of the action. But this is a narrative at the end of the day. While based on truth, it is fiction. I intentionally set out to write a story that included as many diverse characters (age, race, background, etc.) as possible, as a way to reach as many people as possible. You can’t always do that with a documentary.
MICHAEL CUOMO (Lead Actor/Producer): I think one of the best documentaries about the reintegration process that I’ve seen recently is our friend Heather Courtney’s Emmy award-winning film, Where Soldiers Come From, because of its raw, honest portrait of a group of childhood friends who served together in the National Guard, the impact it had on their families and the transition process the guys experienced upon returning home.
Happy New Year is similar to Where Soldiers Come From (and many others) in that there is a level of deep authenticity in the characters and the overall story (thanks to the aforementioned research process), but I think the biggest difference is that Happy New Year is specifically set in the post-traumatic stress ward of a VA Hospital. To my knowledge, this is the first film to intricately explore and illustrate the reality of post-war trauma, whether it be a narrative or a documentary. It has been said that Happy New Year picks up where The Hurt Locker leaves off and I think that’s an accurate statement, as far as, it being a deep exploration of combat stress and the recovery process post-war.
2) The film has been described as "apolitical." Why was it important to leave politics out of the story?
MANNING: That was something that Michael and I fought for from the beginning. It would have been very easy to make an anti-war or pro-war film, but that was of no interest to us. We were encouraged to do both. However, politics wasn’t our agenda. Our focus was the veterans and what happens to them (or, at least some of them) when they return home. Are they being cared for properly? What can we as a society do better to ease the transition? They are our responsibility. We wanted to to reach as many people as possible. The best way to do that was to leave politics out of it.
CUOMO: With less than 1% of the US population fighting this war, I think it is all too easy for those not directly impacted to turn a blind eye, especially if there’s any sort of political polarization. Whether you agree or disagree with the war efforts, there are men and women who are sacrificing their lives for our personal freedoms and, as a nation, it is our duty to make sure they are cared for properly. This has been our mission ever since the original Off-Broadway production and it remains our focus, especially as the media reports higher numbers of post-war trauma and veteran suicides (often a result of untreated or misdiagnosed post-war trauma).
3) Tell me about one service member’s story that really struck you as during your research.
MANNING: Honestly, they all did. We interviewed over 80 veterans and family members for this project. Everyone’s story was incredibly unique. I was just incredibly honored that they they trusted us enough to share their experiences. Many of them revealed things that they had not revealed to anyone else prior. It was a huge responsibility I found myself carrying as the head of this project. There were many, many sleepless nights, as I played various horrors over in my head. I felt I had a duty to honor these men. To me, the best way to do that was by telling the truth - as much as I could.
CUOMO: I was deeply impacted by a phone conversation that Lorrel and I had with Mr. and Mrs. Kevin and Joyce Lucey, parents of the late Jeff Lucey --- a lance corporal in the 1st Truck Platoon of the 6th Motor Transport Battalion, who took his life at home nearly one year after returning from Iraq on June 22, 2004. Kevin and Joyce were incredibly open with us about the entire experience, whether it be the difficulties they had dealing with getting Jeff proper treatment from the VA (on numerous visits), as well as, their own inability to fully understand what had happened to their son. For me, it was the first conversation about post-traumatic stress that went beyond the statistics and really gave it all a human face --- which is what we’ve tried to do in every aspect of Happy New Year.
4) Editing is part of the filmmaking process. Was it difficult to edit out scenes?
MANNING: No. It wasn’t. While at Columbia University Film School I learned early on how to “kill my babies.” One’s favorite scene may not work for the piece as a whole. What’s more important? There were some incredible scenes that didn’t make the final cut, but I had to decide whether or not they really contributed to the story and kept it moving forward. Thus, I had to let them go. I had help doing this, of course. There was a trusted group of people that I would show various cuts to who were brutally honest with their thoughts. Michael was usually one of the first to see a new cut. He had an amazing ability to look at the film objectively, as a producer.
CUOMO: As the lead producer, I would often come into the editing room and look at first cuts before Lorrel opened the film up to test audiences. Lorrel is a wonderful collaborator and he was open to suggestions and feedback throughout the editing process. In the end, I think he made some excellent decisions (and tough ones) to find a balance between making a compelling, dramatic film about a serious subject matter, while also injecting the right amount of humanity and humor throughout, so as to keep audiences entertained and engaged.
5) This has been a long process. What keeps you going?
MANNING: As time goes on, the issues of post-traumatic stress and the rise in military suicides have become more important to us. Happy New Year is the first of many films that we plan to make that sheds light on those suffering in silence. It is believed that about 18 veterans commit suicide per day. That’s about 6570 yearly. At least 25% of returning vets will be affected with some sort of post-war trauma, and about 54% of them will not seek treatment for various reasons. While we are very proud of the film and all of its attributes. we really hope to intensify the dialogue around these issues and get these men and women the help they need.
CUOMO: As it gets released wider theatrically and in the home entertainment space, I think that HAPPY NEW YEAR is going to create more awareness around the reality of post-war trauma and further bridge the gap between veterans and civilians. Often times, during one of our interviews, a veteran would say, ‘Thanks for doing this guys --- I never thought civilians gave a shit about us.’ After a screening last year at the MilBlog conference, a guy from Soldiers Angels approached us and said, “I think this film is gonna save some peoples’ lives.” Those interactions continue to motivate me when I’m not sure if I can continue.
6) What have you learned from this experience?
MANNING: Two words - resilience and faith. I’ve never been challenged as much as I have with this particular project. This is not a very popular subject matter, at least by Hollywood standards, but we feel that their is definitely an audience out there for this film. We’ve seen it with our own eyes. There are over 125 million veterans, military and family members in the U.S. That’s a third of the population. We are going to do our best to find a way to get to them.
CUOMO: Never Give Up. Just when things seemed like they weren’t going to work out, we’ve always found a way to get to the next level, whether that was making the feature film on a shoestring budget in the midst of a recession or fighting to find distribution at a time when the Hollywood studios don’t think that the American public cares to see a narrative film about a group of veterans recovering from post-war trauma. We’ve fought and fought for every inch of ground gained and we’re still fighting for the best release possible.
7) What has been the most surprising part of the film festival circuit?
MANNING: The biggest surprise to me was learning that most civilians had no clue about the issues of post-traumatic stress and the rise in military suicides. They had no clue about what some of our men and women face when they return home. It wasn’t totally their fault. These issues were simply not getting adequate coverage in the media. Now, that’s changing. The talkbacks were my favorite part of the festival tour. We got the chance to have serious post-screening discussions with veterans and civilians. They were usually very emotional and raw, but there they were - veterans and civilians - in the same room, educating and informing one another. It was amazing thing to be a part of.
CUOMO: The highly positive response from both veterans and film festival goers, who continue to connect with the universality of the film. In Beaufort, South Carolina we screened to over 500 people and received two standing ovations, ultimately winning the jury prize for Best Picture. There were decorated war heroes from WWII visibly moved by the film. Afterwards, an older woman approached us and said, “I haven’t seen my husband so emotional since our daughter’s wedding day. You guys have touched us deeply with Happy New Year.”
After playing over 16 festivals, winning several awards, and garnering the praise of the press and thousands of veterans, HAPPY NEW YEAR will have its NYC premiere and reception aboard the USS Intrepid as part of the 1st Annual Veterans Week on Monday, November 12th. Hosting this special event will be GERRY BYRNE, Broadway and film producer FREDERICK ZOLLO, and producer and Chairman of Help USA, MARIA CUOMO COLE.