The award-winning film “Happy New Year” tells the story of Sergeant Cole Lewis (Michael Cuomo), a brave soldier who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He comes home badly broken, with a scarred face and wheelchair bound. Placed in a bare bones veterans hospital with insufficient care, the only free bed available is in the PTSD unit. With heavy shades of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Lewis rallies the mentally ill patients to rise above their dire circumstances.
“Happy New Year” is now available nationwide through SnagFilms on Cable On Demand (Verizon Fios, Comcast) and Digital Broadband (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox and Vudu). DVD and subscription-based streaming options are coming this summer.
Writer and director K. Lorrel Manning sat down for an interview yesterday with Examiner Dorri Olds.
Dorri Olds: For readers who are not familiar with “Happy New Year,” can you summarize the plot?
K. Lorrel Manning: “Happy New Year” tells the story of a war-torn Marine who returns home after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to face his fiercest battle yet: the one against himself. The film takes an honest look at the issues of PTS/PTSD.
What is the difference between those two acronyms?
PTS or post-traumatic stress is a normal response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event; PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is a clinically diagnosed condition. Symptoms include reliving traumatic events through nightmares, flashbacks or constantly thinking about the incident. Most sufferers are in a prolonged state of agitation and often are clinically depressed and suicidal. During work on the film we met veteran Paul Bucha, a board member of the nonprofit Veterans Advantage. Bucha is leading the charge to drop the “D” from PTSD. Veterans feel stigmatized by saying, “I have a mental disorder.” The theory is that more veterans would get help if it were referred to as post-traumatic stress.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced as a filmmaker?
Oh, man, where do we start? You name it, we faced it. Many people said the public was not interested in seeing a story about a wounded vet and his post-war struggles. The feeling was that America was involved in two very unpopular wars at the time and movie-goers would not want to be reminded of them. But Michael [Cuomo] and I were too passionate about the project to give up.
Have you or Michael Cuomo served in the military?
No. In order to make our film as authentic as possible we interviewed over 80 veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam, and WWII. As I got deeper into the research, I realized that this was a story that had rarely been told. Most war films dealt with soldiers in combat. Very few focused on the aftermath. As these men and women began to open up to us, I felt a duty to shed light on their struggles.
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has become a supporter of the film. How did that come about and how has it helped?
We met Roger Waters through a close friend. We sent him a copy of the film, and he invited us to his place for a meeting. It was pretty surreal. I rarely get starstruck, but because I’m a musician, Waters is one of those people whose music I’ve listened to and dissected from an early age. I have a deep respect for him both as a musician and humanitarian. I was nervous but he immediately put me at ease by saying how much the film moved him, then throwing a zillion questions my way. It was an insightful discussion about the issues the film addresses. We talked for hours.
What have you learned about veteran suicides?
The statistic for veteran suicides in 2008, which is when we decided to turn our short film into a feature film, was 18 per day. As of February 2013, the number has risen to 22 per day. In the active Army the primary cause of death isn’t combat it is suicide. More soldiers on active duty died by their own hand in 2012, than died in combat. That’s staggering. There’s no way we as a nation can go on ignoring it. Blue Star Families and Stop Soldier Suicide are two nonprofits whose primary focus is to prevent veteran suicides.
What’s next for you and Michael Cuomo?
“Happy New Year” was the first product from our company One Light Left. OLL’s primary focus is to produce projects that shed light on those struggling in silence. I’m currently writing our next project called “Red House,” which deals with clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church from the point of view of a troubled yet highly imaginative 12 year-old altar boy and a 35 year-old ex-con who shows up as his savior. We are also talking about producing a documentary short focusing on one of the clergy sexual abuse survivors that I interviewed.
Thank you for reminding our readers what Memorial Day is all about.