In 2004, director and writer K. Lorrel Manning picked up a book that would forever change his life.
It was a copy of Nina Berman’s “Purple Hearts,” a series of photographic portraits and interviews with American soldiers who were severely wounded in Iraq.
The subject matter struck an unexpected chord in Mr. Manning, propelling him to seek out military veterans to interview himself. He was unaware that his collected data would, seven years later, help shape his controversial film, “Happy New Year,” which tackles the topics of war and post traumatic stress disorder, and screens on Saturday, October 15, at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
“This has not been easy,” Mr. Manning said during a telephone interview last week. “These films are not popular. Everyone and their mother told me that we’re crazy: ‘People like comedy. Nobody wants to hear about war and this stuff. Who’s going to see this movie?’ But from the love we’ve received on the festival circuit, I don’t think that’s the correct assumption. We’ve received the opposite response.”
Rewind to 2007. While doing research in Chicago for a play he was hired to direct in Manhattan, Mr. Manning rode along with a police officer who happened to be an Iraq War veteran. They drove for hours, and Mr. Manning soaked in the man’s story, he said.
“When I got back to my hotel, I had a 6 a.m. flight back to New York,” he recalled. “But I stayed up and started writing.”
The result was an 11-page play, titled “Happy New Year,” and the first thing Mr. Manning did once he returned to New York was email it to actor and friend Michael Cuomo.
Mr. Cuomo read the play from his Manhattan apartment. His printer was out of ink, so he read it off his computer screen. Toward the end, the screen started to get blurry, Mr. Cuomo recalled during a phone interview last week. Thinking his old computer was finally calling it quits, he shut it down and let it reboot.
When he got up, Mr. Cuomo caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His face was flushed and covered in tears, he recalled. He wiped his eyes and looked back at his computer screen, which was completely clear, he said.
“I didn’t even realize I’d been crying when I was reading the piece,” he said. “It wasn’t a conscious thing. I called Lorrel right away and said, ‘Hey man, I just read “Happy New Year.” It’s tremendous. I’m completely a mess over here. I don’t know if you realize this, but you created a really harrowing piece of work. I’m terrified, but we have to do this.’”
Six months later, the play ran off-Broadway and was soon adapted into a short film, Mr. Manning said. Before converting it into a feature film, the two men interviewed nearly 80 war veterans—from World War II and Vietnam to Desert Storm and Afghanistan—who helped shape Mr. Cuomo’s character, Sergeant Cole Lewis, a young American soldier who is admitted to the psychiatric wing of a hospital following a botched military operation in Iraq. The result: a burned face, paralyzed legs and a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was a strenuous and amazing experience as an actor,” Mr. Cuomo said of playing the lead role. “We fight and dream to play characters this rich and this layered.”
The majority of the film was shot in an abandoned building at the Bronx State Hospital, Mr. Manning said. The team wrapped in just 24 days, and during that time, the director and lead actor had an unwritten agreement: Mr. Cuomo would remain in his wheelchair for the entire shoot, on and off the set.
“If I wasn’t in bed, I’d be in the wheelchair,” Mr. Cuomo said. “People on the set who didn’t know me had no idea I wasn’t handicapped for about the first 10 days of shooting. I decided I was going to live and breathe this.”
At night, Mr. Cuomo would wheel around Manhattan, taking the subway and the bus to understand how the world looks at a young, disabled man, he said.
In addition, Mr. Manning brought in a military advisor, who created a simulated, one-on-one boot camp for Mr. Cuomo.
“That was really integral to the feature,” Mr. Cuomo recalled. “Even though the character is in a wheelchair and the post-war situation, it’s important to really feel what it was like to indoctrinate yourself to the Marine Corps and to have this as your new code of being.”
Mr. Cuomo explained that the film not only follows his character’s physical journey, but his mental one, as well, taking on poignant dream sequences that feature real combat footage provided by former U.S. Marine, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Mike Scotti.
“As a filmmaker, I wanted the audience to really get inside Lewis’s head,” Mr. Manning said. “I wanted to take them there, and I was trying to figure out ways to do it with sound or whatever, but that seemed sort of distant. This footage felt personal and real. This was the real deal.”
The film is a hard-hitting narrative on what’s going on under America’s nose, Mr. Manning said, with an underlying look at PTSD. The condition is nothing new, he explained, just one that is gaining a name for itself due to recent, unprecedented suicide rates among veterans—18 a day, he said.
Mr. Manning said he hopes his film helps put a stop to it, and shines a light on the grave reality of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The greatest reward is when,” he paused. “I’m sorry.” He paused again, unable to keep a quiver out of his voice as he started to cry. “I’m sorry. It still gets me. My greatest reward is when one of them, a veteran, comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you. I thought I was alone. And this helps me know that I’m not.’ To me, that means more than anything.”
“Happy New Year” will screen on Saturday, October 15, at 12:15 p.m. and Monday, October 17, at 7 p.m. at UA East Hampton. A panel discussion will follow Saturday’s screening. Tickets are $15. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.
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