XFINITY On Demand Movie: Director Liza Johnson Discusses ‘Return,’ Starring Linda Cardellini

Liza Johnson on the set of "Return." (Focus Features)

Talk about making a statement. In “Return,” her first feature-length film, Liza Johnson wrote and directed a hauntingly realistic portrait of a female soldier stepping back into life with her husband and children after serving in the Middle East War. The movie is newly available on XFINITY On Demand (click here to use to order it right now on your TV) and a must-but-not-easy see for movie fans – and especially indie movie fans – wanting a powerful film they can discuss long after the last twist in the story.

Actress Linda Cardellini gives a performance that’s noteworthy for its aching realism as her character steps from a hopeful familiarity to a frightening disconnection with that world. Both the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly praised her work. Man Men’s John Slattery also provides a strong onscreen presence. But its “Johnson’s feel for the rhythms of reconnection” said the New York Daily News that “make ‘Return’ one of only a handful of films to honestly address what to many is heartbreaking reality.” In our ongoing effort to bring Xfinity subscribers closer to the talented people who make the outstanding entertainment featured On Demand and online, we spoke with Johnson, who divides her days between a home in Brooklyn and teaching film and video at Williams College, in Williamstown, MA.

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How did you decide on this story, this subject matter? I first was motivated from a friend of mine who I met in a restaurant in Williamstown. He was telling me about his experiences trying to stay married after he got back from his deployment – his first deployment. I learned that military culture and civilian culture can be really separate. And for me, living in civilian culture, that was the first time that I ever heard someone talk about this very intimate account of having a gap open up in between himself and another person who had just been living in a more everyday American life while he was in this more extreme environment. We often hear about the wars, and we talk about them mostly in terms of statistics and policy. But this was an intimate account of what real life might feel like, and I was struck by how unfamiliar that felt to me. If I was in a military family it might be more familiar. But I’m not. And I wanted to find out more.

I assume you did research and interviews. Yes. Through that friend I met a bunch of female soldiers, and over the source of writing the script I met a lot of different military people, men and women. But I tried to talk to women.

Did you base Linda’s character on a particular woman? No, because I realize that the women I was speaking to had a giant range of experiences and not much in common with each other. When it was clear that I had to make a commitment to a fictional person and had to be very specific, I learned quickly that there was no one ind of representative story of a female soldier. Then it boiled down to trying to make decisions in a way that would make her feel very real. But she’s not supposed to be a stand-in for every woman who comes home from their deployment.

Even though Linda’s character is in every scene, there’s so much not said or known about her. What did you know about her but not say when you were writing her? Honestly, I don’t know if I have any secret answer for you. I worked on her a lot with Linda. And Linda did tons of research on her own. So when Keli – her character – says, as she does all the time, she doesn’t have a particular story to tell, I believe her. Her sense of purpose when she returns feels very different to her, and its uncomfortable and makes the world resonate for her in a way she doesn’t expect. But there’s no one story. she may lack the kind of acute traumatic narrative that we normally see in returning soldier type movies. So it’s different. But it doesn’t mean she hasn’t had an intense encounter with a different world.

What did you come up with when writing the script that surprised you?There is something, but I don’t want to say because it gives away a turn in the plot.

What do you want the take away to be after people watch the movie? I hope it makes people feel respectful or interested in what they may or may not know about certain gaps in between military and civilian culture. I also hope that it puts people in a position to decide for themselves about how they feel. I think a lot of movies that relate to social issues and wars have a moral to the story. I hope this one doesn’t feel like it has a moral. Instead it kind of just asks you to feel the world in a new way and doesn’t really tell you what to think about it.

Finally, pitch XFINITY TV subscribers who have so many choices when they want to watch a movie. Why should they watch this one? What I hope is that it offers a very vivid account of one version of the world that we live in and tells us at least some version of how that world can feel. I think that is just an interesting reason to watch a movie – to see the world that is around you reflected back in a way that’s shifted a little bit or feels a little bit different than you expect.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.
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