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Green Room: How to Fold a Flag

May 30th, 2011 by Ben Collins Editor

Michael Tucker saw a bunch of his friends coming home from the war in Iraq. He saw them in need of a support system that, he concluded, didn’t really exist. He decided to make a movie about their stories.

That might sound very political, and he’s worried about that. But How to Fold a Flag is really just the story of a few soldiers from his previous movie Gunner Palace and how they returned to America with odds, bills, and responsibilities stacked against them. And they had no help.

One soldier has PTSD, a family, and complicated finances from a bureaucratically mangled exit. Another is stuck in a beaten-down home working a minimum wage job. And the final story follows the parents of a GI Joe-esque super soldier; the unkillable who was killed in Iraq.

It’s devastating and very hard to watch, but it’s not political. It’s a reminder of the sacrifices of the modern American solider.

On Memorial Day, Hulu presents Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s film “How to Fold a Flag” and salutes the American soldiers we lost, the ones currently serving overseas, and its veterans back home.

Hulu: This is probably the most agnostic war film I’ve seen in a long time. It has no direct narrative. Do you have a hard time explaining to people what kind of movie this is?

Michael Tucker: There have varying degrees of how people feel about that. It’s funny that you say that actually. Our distributor on this, Virgil Films, put it on their Facebook page. Those were some of the first people to really come out in support of it. But, if you look on Netflix, it’s our lowest rated movie ever. It’s, I think, at 2.1 now (out of five). Yeah, it’s coming in at a 2.1. It’s one of the toughest things you can watch, if you watch it to the end—when you see the Colgan family that lost their son there. That’s part of it.

That’s very interesting about the rating. I’d find it hard to watch this film and get to Michael Goss’ section and see his kids climbing over him, then going right to the Internet give this thing a really low rating.

I think it has more to do with people they don’t want telling them stories, telling them stories. They view the voices of the soldiers as fairly liberal voices, which I think is very unfair. They’re very critical voices of everything, but I don’t think it’s from a political side. It looks like these guys looking at their country and they’re saying what they see they don’t necessarily like.

But it’s the curse of doing anything creative. You take a few arrows along the way.

That’s another thing about this film that I found interesting: You found four guys who could very eloquently piece together—and were open about—how they’re dealing with the war after they came back. That’s not an easy thing to do. I know you worked with them on (Tucker’s previous wartime film) Gunner Palace, but did you expect to have four open books like this?

Well, all of them were in the unit that we filmed for Gunner Palace. Stuart (Wilf) is basically a little brother to me. I’ve been in these horrible times with him in Iraq. Over time he’s been able to process these experiences. At the same time, he had a brother that was going off to Afghanistan.

Javorn did some hip-hop stuff for our first film. Three years ago, he invited me down to see how his life was going, and what he came back to—it was not good. That was pretty instructive. He’s also funny and also very articulate. It came by surprise that his mother was dying, so we followed along as he went through that.

John did all the press for us for Gunner Palace. That’s led to him finding his voice, I think, and running for Congress. Now he’s a Special Appointee for President Obama.

Mike Goss I didn’t know that well in Iraq. His life has just been a shitstorm. I knew nothing about MMA, so I learned a lot about that in filming. He’s very eloquent. There’s a part of a film where he says he wants to know what normal means, what home means. People, they don’t—there’s a very rah-rah element. You just label people, “You’re a hero, welcome home, now fuck off.” That’s the challenge. Everyone’s experience is different. But you go from 15 months in combat to being a civilian, and you can’t forget that.

I think that’s the most jarring part of the film. There’s that scene with Colonel Larry Wilkinson—and I think most people do this—where he speaks in abstract terms about PTSD. He says, “Why someone didn’t intervene in that.” It seems to be a fully recognized problem that everyone understands is serious and real, but there’s no real, genuine help at the end of the day.

Mike Goss in the film is a prime example of that. If it’s not actually in your life, nobody pays attention. Before we started filming, we got a text message saying, “I’m gonna go kill myself.” He was completely out of the system. There was nobody to help him. If you live in a city, maybe there’s some help. But Mike’s not there. There aren’t many support services out there for people.

That happened before we started filming. One of the things, as we’ve met, more and more people have been helping support the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. We were able to reach out to people that we knew. That’s the interesting about this generation of vets: They socially mobilize pretty fast, especially compared to the Vietnam.

Do you think average Americans are starting to pay enough attention to how serious PTSD can be?

Society is a lot more progressive now in general. I still think most people think war is this Hurt Locker-esque thing. And there are some people who are like that, who come home and say, “I need some adrenaline.” They want multiple war experiences. But, for most people, war sucks. After the honeymoon wears off, it just plain sucks. Not everyone comes home with PTSD. But the ones that do, they need to be able to say, “I need to talk through this.” And that’s impossible to do if coming home means “Welcome home son, go fuck yourself.”

It’s funny, we were out with Javorn. We were stopped by the police one night, filming him. At one point he said, “I was in Iraq.” And the police officer says, “Big deal, you’re in Iraq. The whole town’s been to Iraq.”

You bring up The Hurt Locker part of this, and your film touches on this in some scenes, but there’s a Hollywoodization, I guess, of the war experience. The Army is using that sort of adrenalin rush to recruit people now. They’re using video games and that sort of experience more than the honor-based stuff they used for ads last decade. How do you feel about that?

Yeah, there’s that stuff in the film, it sounds like “Pirates of the Carribean” music. We paid huge money to a Hollywood composer. Turns out he’s this enormously liberal, yoga zen guy. He got a huge amount of money making this horrendous piece of music. It’s funny.

There’s this element of, “The uniform is your passport.” They show pictures of you shaking hands with faceless Middle Eastern children. I was 11B infantry; enlisted in the army reserves when I was 17. I think society is so out of touch to what the reality of all this is.

I mean, it’s still really exciting when a Navy SEAL team took out Osama Bin Laden. I was jumping up and down. As a red-blooded American male, it’s in our veins. The way they’re selling it. We’ve got two wars going on. It’s showing you all the images. It’s selling it like a rite of passage, as an adventure. If you’re 18 and your life is boring. Here’s a way to become a man.

I think it’s great for people. It’s really painful to watch. No matter whatever anyone thinks of the military, there’s some mom or some dad that are torn up inside about it. That’s the reality. Somebody has to do it. I really respect these guys. There’s a part of me that’s very hooah. It’s seductive. Nothing can prepare you for the intensity of experience. That’s often good.

So it’s a challenge: How do you recruit people? It’s a way to become socially elevated very fast. My father did it. In 20 years he got places that it would’ve taken much longer to get to. It’s a challenge. How do you get people in the military with a war going on?

And the truth is, for a lot of people, joining is an act of rebellion. As it’s presented to some people, a lot of people are like, “Yeah, I want that.” “Belong to something, join us. We are the 1%.” It’s like joining the Hell’s Angels or something. It’s probably the most rebellious thing you can do.

And they’re still very proud of their service. But, at the end of the day, it’s the military and you have to take instruction. You look at Stuart, and he’s not at war with anybody but the army.

If you could make a pitch to someone browsing around Hulu, what would you say to convince them to watch How to Fold a Flag?

I guess I’d say, as the wars have gone on, we owe it to these guys to listen to their stories. Not just greet them and say, “Welcome back,” but absorb what they’re saying and make it a part of the national conversation.