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Oden Roberts’ A Fighting Season is a film about a soldier’s heroism, although it takes place a world away from the hot zones of international war. A searing character study, it examines the courage needed to fight for the honour of a soldier’s life on home soil, while summoning the strength to battle one’s own inner demons. Set amongst a team of recruiters stationed in an everyman enclave of middle America in 2007, it is a dark, disturbing take on the swirling maelstrom of national pride and muddied morality that swept through Roberts' homeland post-9/11.

An NYU Film School graduate, Oden Roberts’ debut feature had its world premiere at the recent Byron Bay Film Festival, where a rapturous response from festivalgoers secured it a ‘Jury Special Mention’ honour and earned the filmmaker the Best Director trophy. Roberts was a popular attendee, his droll humour and engaging love of cinema proving a winning combination. SCREEN-SPACE spoke with the LA-based auteur about the personal journey that inspired his narrative, the function that film plays in dissecting the impact of war and how dissenting voices are crucial in a true democracy…

The ‘recruitment office’ dynamic is a setting that will be unfamiliar to many outside the US, although the target-oriented desperation and the immoral methodology recalls films such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Tin Men. Were the characters drawn from men and situations you have known? 

My work always draws from personal experiences and people I’ve met in my travels. A Fighting Season is based on being recruited during a six month (period) in my senior year of high school. The characters are based on an assortment of real people and hundreds of hours of private interviews with Army recruiters, so I hope it feels very real. I drew from my own recruiter’s charismatic, machismo personality to create the characters. In fact, (the) supporting cast features former military recruiters and some of the recruits are now serving overseas. A kind of ‘art depicts life’ moment. 

The conflicted complexity of your lead character, Mason (Clayne Crawford; pictured, right, on-set with the director) creates a tangible tension throughout the narrative. How did his character develop, from your first thoughts in the early stages of the script to Crawford’s contribution?

My goal for Mason was to depict (a) modern day hero but avoid the clichés seen in Hollywood, such as American Sniper's Chris Kyle, where one man takes down the entire enemy - the Rambo film. The subdued nature of Mason is an honest depiction of a PTSD-affected soldier, trying to survive after being torn apart by war. And Clayne’s alpha-male persona, coupled with his ability to keep a stiff upper lip, made him a perfect choice for the role. After the first two screenings of the film, I had a handful of audience members ask me how I received permission to shoot the actual recruiters. This comment says so much about Crawford’s performance, (that) he’s the real thing. Sometimes heroes aren’t larger then life, they are normal people just like you and I under extraordinary circumstances. 

Was there an extended rehearsal period that allowed for the actors and yourself to detail backstory and foster the on-screen chemistry?

I always write with an actor in mind, one that represents the tone and mannerisms I hope to achieve on and off camera. I’ve known both Lew (Temple) and Clayne (pictured, left; in uniform on set, with co-star James Hechim) for years and admired them as performers and as individuals. With A Fighting Season, I was extremely lucky to get the two leads I wrote for. Our rehearsal process was short because I knew what to expect out of the gate from these two talents. Lew and Clayne were only with us for 14 days, so my initial choice for chemistry was create on the page and in casting. 

Your film will draw comparisons to two of the decade’s most acclaimed war films – The Hurt Locker and, as you’ve mentioned, American Sniper. As an interpretation of the plight of the returned serviceman, what does your film have in common with those films and what is its point-of-difference?

A Fighting Season makes a commentary on the controversial recruiting practices post 9/11, particularly the Army policies that support the cherry picking of the meek or underprivileged and the taking advantage of woman sexually. The film points out very clearly that recruiters are under extreme pressure to make their numbers and in doing so are often pushed to make immoral decisions. The major point of difference is to not celebrate the war, but hone in on what is important about soldiers and the battles they face internally when returning home. Other films about war are often blockbuster action hits, used to feed the American image of ‘no guts, no glory’. A Fighting Season is what I consider an honest film about real American soldiers, not a poster boy from a polished “Army Strong” commercial. 

Cinema takes a while to process the costs of war – M*A*S*H came well after the Korean conflict; Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, a decade after Vietnam. In the wake of 9/11 and the Bush/Cheney administration’s morally ‘murky’ deployment of troops, is portraying wartime heroism on screen harder than it should be?

We lack cinema that portrays troops with any real accuracy. There are documentaries on the subject, (but) even there you find a collection of films that are financed by the Army and military branches. The film is meant to lend an alternative opinion to that fuelled by 9/11 propaganda. We can never know the costs of war until decades later, but for now the film serves as a reminder that troops are suffering by the hundreds of thousands, returning with trauma, and battle scars. It’s extremely hard to get past the superhero complex that American audiences buy into. In war, there aren’t always heroes, sometimes, just survivors.

How do you answer those inevitable protesters who will claim anything less than glowing portrayals of US soldiers is ‘unAmerican’ or ‘unpatriotic’? 

Our first amendment right is freedom of speech, (so) I encourage any protest through words. But I’d challenge the critic by asking them to create something they consider American before they’d cast A Fighting Season as anything less. We live in interesting times and under a cloud of ‘American Propaganda’ that casts around the world. This film offers a different perspective on how many Americans who protest the current war perceives the issues. Diversity sparks conversation, leads to debate then results in more diverse thinking. A Fighting Season is a film that brings the debate of war and terrorism to the forefront. It clearly states, ‘what is the war on terror and why are we in it?’

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