Film still from "Fort McCoy." Photo Credit: © Marzipan Entertainment.

Film still from “Fort McCoy.” Photo Credit: © Marzipan Entertainment.

For several years, Fort McCoy, a film about a family’s experiences living on a Midwestern army base during the summer of 1944, has been on the international film festival circuit. After winning many awards, including Best Feature at the Hollywood Film Festival (2010) and Best Cinematography at the Boston Film Festival (2011), the film is set to open at select theaters this week, after having had its theatrical release on August 15 in Los Angeles.

The movie is based on the real-life stories writer/director/actor Kate Connor heard from family members as she grew up. Connor won the Best Actress Award at the 2012 Milan International Film Festival for her portrayal of her grandmother, Ruby Stirn — a devoted mother and wife, whose vivacity and strength hold not only the family together but also soldiers returning from and leaving for the war front. Ruby’s husband, Frank, played by Eric Stoltz (Mask, Pulp Fiction), is the opposite of his heartening wife. He is a stoic and reserved man, who, due to a heart defect, was denied entrance into the military. The family lives at Fort McCoy (named Camp McCoy during the time of the war), where Frank serves as a civilian barber to American service men as well as German prisoners of war and Japanese-Americans living at the base in internment camps.

Three main story arcs run concurrently, and at times seem to crash into each other. But Connor’s script is adept at bringing the sentiment of the characters to life: young Gertie Stirn (Gara Lonning) grows infatuated with a young German boy (Josh Zabel) living at the base as a prisoner of war; 18-year old Anna Gerkey (Lyndsy Fonseca) falls in love with Sam Dolnick (Andy Hirsch), a Jewish-American soldier who has just returned from battle; and Frank struggles with his German-American heritage and inability to enlist. As their lives intermingle, themes of xenophobia and anti-Semitism arise, ricocheting within and outside the military base in the neighboring town of Sparta, Wisconsin.

Despite the height of the war looming in the background, Fort McCoy’s rhythm is often languid: we see Ruby and her children walking through meadows of red and purple wild flowers; Ruby baking her apple kuchen (cake); and a sensual scene in which Frank closes shop for lunch and washes Ruby’s cascading locks in his barber chair.

This is not to say there isn’t an underlying tension reverberating throughout the film. It is war after all: SS officers donning their uniforms walk through the base with stereotypical malice; Frank grows jealous of a virile military officer who appears sweet on Ruby; and the courting of a Catholic woman by a Jewish man raises more than a few eyebrows.

But more than anything, the film is an ode to a bygone era. With impeccably chosen period costumes, the frolicking fervor of swing music, and the sheepish shyness of dating in the ’40s, it’s hard not to wonder how life today has changed so drastically in 70 years.

GALO recently had the opportunity to speak with Connor about her family’s history, life in a small town, and her upcoming project, Piggy. Read on to find out what she had to say.

GALO: The film hit the festival circuit in 2011 and was picked up by Monterey Media in March 2014. How excited were you to find out you had secured a U.S. distributor?

Kate Connor: We started the festival circuit and had interest from distributors the whole time. We were fortunate to win quite a few awards and went on the festival journey. It was so much fun. We wanted to share the film with people all around the world, so we decided to wait to do distribution until after the festivals. Monterey Media was always on our list and had contacted us at the beginning of the festivals. I always thought they’d be a good home for Fort McCoy. It’s a really great match, especially because of similar films that they’ve put out in the world.

GALO: You received such accolades while on the festival circuit both at home and abroad.

KC: Yes, audiences [responded well]. I was very pleased with audiences all around the U.S. — and then internationally. There are universal themes in the movie — love and family and the tragedy of war, so it doesn’t matter where you are. When I was in Shanghai, China, an elderly woman who had come to the movie came up [to me], grabbed my hand, and said, “We should all have peace.” Peace is as universal as it gets, and it was quite a moving experience sharing the film with people everywhere.

GALO: The film is as much about small town America during the war as it is about living on an army base. How were you able to capture the essence of Midwestern life? Did you grow up in a rural community?

KC: I did grow up in the Midwest. And I feel like the stories that my family told me about their time at Fort McCoy have that Americana small town feeling, because that was their experience. When you went on a date, you either went to Sparta or La Crosse, as you well know.


GALO: Yes. Definitely! (I inform Connor that I grew up in Sparta and worked at the military base while in high school.)

[More laughter]

KC: What was very interesting is that Fort McCoy was (and still is) a very big military installation, so you have a lot of people from the surrounding area working there either as military or, like my family did, as civilians helping the war effort. There were people coming in from all different places in the U.S. As portrayed in the movie, the military police officer, Dom (Brendan Fehr), is from New York City. It brought together a lot of city people with small town people and mixed their lives together, which was fascinating for everyone.

GALO: Having grown up in Sparta, I go home and see that Fort McCoy is still the economic backbone of the area. And to this day (70 years later), the military base introduces city people into this rural farming community.

KC: That’s so fascinating to hear. It’s just like a university town, where the university ends up being the backbone of the economy and likewise affects everything — bringing in new people and new cultures.

GALO: Speaking of cultures…There’s a point in the movie where Florie, played by Camryn Manheim, says she has to go into Sparta to buy cheese curds — the squeaky curds that come from the making of cheddar cheese. If you aren’t from Wisconsin, most people have never tried them, much less know what they are. Did you try them?

KC: I have tried cheese curds, and I even tried them deep-fried, which I think is the preferred way.


GALO: Yes, coated in beer batter. We have very healthy food in Wisconsin!

GALO: Fort McCoy is an homage to your family’s experiences. Could you describe your creative process in determining what was included and what wasn’t included while writing the script?

KC: There was so much. That was probably the biggest challenge of all — culling through the stories and shaping them into a 100-minute film. My family actually lived there for five years throughout the whole war. I decided to combine it all into one summer in order to be able to arc the three storylines simultaneously. I think that summer is a great way to tell a coming-of-age story, a love story, and one man’s struggle, because so much can happen over the course of a summer. And the summer of ’44 was when the war really took a turn for us as Americans, after D-Day happened and we stormed the beaches of Normandy — we started to get the upper hand in the war. So once I realized I could do that, it helped me decide which stories should stay and which shouldn’t and the best way to shape them into a film.