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Exploring PTSD in Happy New Year

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At this year's MilBlog conference I got the chance to meet a team a filmmakers out promoting their film, Happy New Year. The director, Lorrel Manning, has seen the project grow from a stage short to a feature film -- and has faced both praise and criticism for the way he portrays PTSD in the project. We invite you, the UTR reader, to take a look at this exclusive clip from the film and check out our 5 questions with Lorrel and tell us what you think - 




Photo by Jayme Thornton

1) You've got a hundred words - tell us about your film.

Happy New Year tells the story of Sgt. Cole Lewis, a war-torn Marine, who, mentally and physically scarred by his time served in Iraq and Afghanistan, finds humanity, compassion and friendship in a group of similarly injured veterans in the psychiatric ward at a remote Veterans Hospital. Through humor and pathos, Lewis becomes a ray of hope in the ward, as the men find a way to combat their post-war grief. However, just as their luck starts to change, Lewis soon faces his fiercest battle yet. It's an entertaining yet hard-hitting look at the perils of PTSD and how it is affecting many of today's veterans.

2)  What was your inspiration?

In 2004, I came across Nina Berman's book Purple Hearts Back From Iraq in a bookstore. It's a book of photographs of American soldiers gravely wounded in the Iraq war, who have returned home. The images are accompanied by first-person interviews with each soldier, who discuss their post-war lives, reasons they enlisted and their experiences in Iraq. I couldn't put it down. Honestly, I was not really following the war at that time, but this book changed all of that. I immediately began to read and research whatever I could find. I became particularly interested in the experiences of soldiers before, during, and after their time overseas, interviewing anybody who would be willing to talk to me.

Over the next few years, I accumulated a ton of research (articles, interviews, etc.) but I had no idea what I wanted to do with it. In 2007, I was in Chicago doing research on a play about Chicago cops that I had been hired to direct. One of the policemen I rode around with was an Iraq vet. We talked for awhile about his time overseas and how lost he felt when he returned home. The conversation inspired me to sit down and write an 11-page play called Happy New Year. It was a story about 2 vets reuniting in a V.A. hospital on New Year's Eve, contemplating their futures. I sent it to my close friend, actor Michael Cuomo, who strongly encouraged me to continue working on it.

A few months later we premiered the play Off-Broadway in June/July 2007. It was a big hit. One night a group of military mothers came in to see it. Incredibly moved by what they saw, they strongly encouraged me to figure out a way to share the story with more people. Soon Michael and I came up with the idea of making a short film adaptation of the play, which we shot a few weeks after the play closed.

Throughout 2008, the short hit the festival circuit to great success, eventually premiering online via the Huffington Post, and reaching an international audience. We soon met our Executive Producer Iain Smith (Children of Men, The A-Team) who encouraged me to expand the story into a feature film. We shot the feature film in December 2009/January 2010 and had our World Premiere in the Best Narrative competition at the SXSW Film Festival in March 2011.

Photo by Nina Berman

3) What sets HNY apart from other military films? What's been the reaction?

Happy New Year is simply one of the most realistic portrayals of the difficulties some veterans face coming home that you will ever see. Since SXSW, we have played the Kansas City FilmFest, Sarasota Film Festival, the 2011 MilBlog Conference and had a sneak preview screening in Baltimore. At every stop on the way, audiences (veterans and civilians) have praised the film for its authenticity -  dialogue, relationships, the complexities of the characters, etc. One vet called it 'one of the best war films he'd ever seen.' That was one of our greatest compliments.

Because neither myself nor Michael are veterans, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Therefore, I insisted on doing as much research as possible to ensure accuracy. We interviewed over 80 veterans and family members from various wars (WWII to Vietnam to Desert Storm to Iraq/Afghanistan), as well as military and VA personnel. I often sent drafts of the script to various veterans that I had interviewed for comments. Those insightful remarks were a tremendous help in shaping some of the characters and dialogue.

However, reactions haven't all been positive. After our 2nd screening in Sarasota, one of our guest panelists for the post-screening talkback, a revered Vietnam vet, publicly denounced the film, calling it "anti-military, anti-Christian, anti-government," claiming the film presents Marines as victims instead of heroes. He was quickly booed off the stage and out of the theatre by an audience full of vets who vehemently disagreed with him. The next day he launched an attack against us in the press. Many reporters, who were in the audience that night, fought back in our defense. The fight continued for several days, long after we had returned to New York City.

For some, a gritty, unapologetic look at PTSD in film is still incredibly taboo, even with the recent headlines and the military's heightened awareness for it.

4) Tell us about the clip...

In this clip, Sgt Lewis (played by Michael Cuomo), takes on the psych ward's hard-nosed, head nurse, Martinez, who has taken away the group's movie privileges after he discovers them watching a film that wasn't on his approved list. It's a very important moment for Lewis because it's the first time he asserts his power and becomes a voice for the men on the ward, eventually becoming their leader.

5) Where and when can we see your film?

We are anticipating a nationwide theatrical release on 11.11.11 - Veterans Day. Until then, we are playing numerous festivals around the country and having sneak preview screenings in various cities. Next up are two screenings at the Little Rock Film Festival - June 2 and June 4.

The next confirmed festival is the Rhode Island International Film Festival (August 9th - 14th) in Providence.  Exact screening dates/times still to be announced.

I also encourage people to check out our website for more info about the film and how they can see it.

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