Directed and co-written by veteran Samuel Gonzalez Jr., Battle Scars confronts the long-term effects of war through acts of of desperation by a disoriented young soldier learning how to piece his life back together. During the film’s festival run, it picked up awards at the San Diego International Film Festival (Best Military Film), the Orland Film Festival (Best Screenplay), and the Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival (Best Feature).
I recently talked with Samuel Gonzalez Jr. about his filmmaking process, which I learned was incredibly detailed. I also talked with versatile actor Arturo Castro (Broad City, Narcos) about his experience on the set of Battle Scars.
Addison Wylie: As the director and co-writer of Battle Scars, do you have a personal connection to the material? Or, was this a movie primarily made for another audience to have a stronger connection with?
Samuel Gonzalez Jr.: As a combat veteran myself, Battle Scars has a deep rooted connection to my time in the Iraq War and my return home to the states. All wars are different, yet the core, the soldier, the man/woman on the frontline – our brothers and sisters, are the same. The film is relatable on that same level. When writing Battle Scars, I approached the material personally, although through the eyes of the Vietnam Vet, and his own trauma when returning home to a country that was unsupportive and left them, their struggles and conflicts, out in the cold like them – to fend for themselves. Thankfully, times have changed and the support line is much stronger.
AW: As a director, how do you approach sensitive material (war, trauma, PTSD) to make it accessible to movie goers?
SGJ: Very delicately. Story is everything to me and engrave that in every process from the page on. The subjects explored in the film are still being explored by us as a society today. We have yet to understand, that PTSD is a disease and goes unnoticed everyday. – often too late. When approaching this, I surround myself with it, consume myself in it. You understand how to tell the story and relate to it on every level, I must live it and embrace it. Tackle it head on, invite in my space. Only then do I know how to put it on the page. Once that happens, I push the limit of how far I can go and I test my audience. I lift the curtain for them to see just whats behind it. Sometimes it’s hard to watch, which is why I prefer a more psychological and artistic approach to any difficult themes. Let them feel it. At the time of making the film, I hadn’t even gone to film school yet; no training, mentors, or much practice other then my love for storytelling and cinema. Battle Scars was the ultimate film school experience and taught me many things that I still practice today.
AW: Before the film explores the depths and desperation of PTSD, Battle Scars is a story about loyalty. What about that theme speaks to you personally, Arturo?
Arturo Castro: Well at the time that we shot it, we were all a group of young actors in the thick of the hustle. Training with the army guys and having that “pounding the pavement” struggle in common really bonded us and gave us an organic loyalty/brotherhood feeling.
AW: Did you feel the chemistry between you, Kit Lang, and Illya Konstantin came naturally? Did you have to do character work with the other actors to recognize and understand your role more?
AC: Me and Illya dressed pretty much the same: motorcycle boots, jeans and V-necks. So when we met, it was an immediate recognition of people that could be cousins. Kit was in the room when I auditioned and the kindness he displayed from the get-go was something that helped build our chemistry organically. I loved shooting with those guys.
AW: You were brilliant on Broad City, and you do a really good job with more dramatic material in Battle Scars. It made me wonder: as an actor, do you prefer working within a comedy or a drama? Why?
AC: I truly see the approach to both genres in similar ways. You commit and try to live fully as the character when you’re shooting. But there is a very special moment in comedy acting when the whole set is cracking up. Few things come close to that immediate reaction.
AW: The film’s roster of characters are mostly acquaintances to the main character, Michael. Samuel, what’s the process behind writing characters that will have brief screen time, and what’s the key to making them memorable?
SGJ: The key to strong writing and is often a problem with beginner writers, which I was myself when I wrote the original draft of Battle Scars, is how to make each character memorable. A common mistake is that each character often sounds like the writer – no personality or differences between them. The audience will spot this and automatically disconnect with the world you’re telling your story in.
My way of going about this starts before even writing a single word. I spend much time developing each character no matter how big or small: writing bios for them, what music they like, movies they enjoy, background history, family trauma, etc. Once that’s complete, I spend time enjoying some of these things these characters enjoy. I embody each one and make them real in my mind. Once I have a firm grasp on these individuals, I can write about them as “them”, not as myself writing about a stranger I made up.
In a film like Battle Scars, I spent time at a VA hospital with Vietnam Veterans, and brought my actors to do the same so they can meet these people, speak to them, and understand that they are real and not a generation lost of a shadow of the past. This process attaches us to the characters unlike another and their true personalities will then shine on page and screen, making them beyond memorable.
AW: What do you hope will be the main takeaway for audiences watching Battle Scars?
AC: That brotherhood knows no race or creed. And that we can always go further in our kindness and attempt to understand a veteran’s struggle.
SGJ: To bring awareness to the disease known as PTSD. To shine a light on all those that have it – men, woman, child, veteran, civilian, and others – and that the film is a beacon to follow, and to bring understanding to a subject that will no longer be ignored.
I hope the film also entertains and encourages independent filmmakers to make their film, no matter what, and to use a high platform to share stories with strong messages and themes. Use the voice of film – its louder then any other.
Battle Scars is now available on VOD and Digital HD.