Long a successful film producer, Lysa Heslov, along with her husband, Oscar-winning producer/writer/director Grant Heslov, founded Children Mending Hearts ten years ago, a non-profit dedicated to empowering disadvantaged youth in the U.S. through educational and humanities programs that build empathy and global citizenry. She’s produced cult indie films like Attention Shoppers, Bug, and Hank Azaria’s short film Nobody’s Perfect, but Heslov makes her directorial debut with Served Like a Girl (premiering on Independent Lens on PBS Memorial Day, May 28). To paraphrase the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “she chose wisely.”

This moving documentary tells the story of a group of women combat veterans who return stateside dealing with their own external and internal battle scars, and find empowerment and bond with each other in the Ms. Veteran America competition.

It is “a truly inspirational, emotional and profoundly moving film,” wrote Katie Walsh in the LA Times. Heslov “does an impressive job balancing the contestants’ deeply disturbing stories with the near giddiness they express while getting dolled up,” adds Tricia Olszewski in The Wrap. “It’s infectious.” 

After she’d just returned home from Las Vegas where the 2018 Ms. Veteran America competition was lifting off, Heslov and I spoke over phone about the emotions she experienced in making Served Like a Girl, how she bonded with the women in the film (and how they bonded with each other), what each of these extraordinary women are up to now, and if they keep in touch with each other.

How did you first hear about the Ms. Veteran America competition, and why did you want to make a film about it?

I had been running an organization that I’d founded to teach anti-bullying to at-risk kids, for 9 years. I’d taken a sabbatical from producing films., but I was interested in getting back into it, and got together with a journalist friend who spends lots of time with women who are serving in the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just as she was getting up to leave she said, “By the way did you know that there’s a Ms. Veteran America competition?” All my alarm bells went off, I knew that it’d be something that’d be in my wheelhouse. I just hadn’t intended on directing it, that was by default. [laughs]

After hearing these women’s stories and the inequality that was occurring on a daily basis, I had no choice. I had to make the film.

Served Like a Girl director Lysa Heslov
Served Like a Girl director Lysa Heslov

How did you hone in on this set of women in particular? I assume there were probably a lot you initially talked with…

I had an instinct early on which stories would be most compelling, but because I was a first-time director I really focused on the women who were the same off camera as on. Who didn’t have an edit button, never inauthentic, never playing for the camera. What you saw was what you got. I just knew from their stories that having that quality we’d go down some very interesting roads with them which we did. It was really just about following my instincts.

What do you think will surprise audiences the most when they get to know the women in your film?

The stories are universal, the struggles they go through are universal. Yes, it’s different for them because they served in the military, but every woman can relate to one or two of the characters, whether it be going through divorce, child custody, having issues with drugs or alcohol, or about feeling beautiful. It’s in every woman’s tale. But some of the resounding comments from showing this at festivals, men and women alike who hadn’t served said, “I had no idea this was going on. I had no idea this was happening. When I thought of a female veteran I thought of a woman sitting behind a desk in an office on a base in the US.” So I think while I wasn’t trying at all to make a “spinach doc” (good for you), I really just wanted to make a narrative film, there was some accidental learning. People learn what it’s like for a woman serving in the military.

Nichole and Jas from Served Like a Girl
Nichole and Jas from Served Like a Girl

Also, I’d really felt like my target audience for this was people in the military, men and women who’d served, but what I was so surprised to learn at festivals was that our audience was kind of everyone. It was so amazing to watch 11-year-old girls go up and ask for autographs from the women in the film. And be in tears and be moved. It was amazing to see men who’d never served in the military, come up bawling, be so emotional. 

What surprised you the most about them while making it?

Which day? [laughs] I was same as those audience members who came up to me after. Had no idea women had served in combat in the US since the revolutionary war. No idea that women lost their limbs and their lives, that so many women had served in combat and had come back with PTSD. I just did not know—even with a stepfather who was in the Air Force, I’d never gone up to a woman and said, “thank you for your service.”

So I was kind of shocked and then embarrassed, and then as a citizen, I got kind of angry.

What’s one thing you hope people take away from your film? Or what sort of discussions would you like audiences to have afterward, no matter what their political affiliations?

The whole female empowerment thing is definitely at the forefront of what is going on in our society right now. But as the filmmaker, I hope audiences are moved and entertained, but also hope they ask the question, “what can we do?” 

“Please do not portray us as victims because we are not damsels in distress. We’re warriors.”I never wanted to have an opinion when I was making this film. I never wanted to make a statement or have a political footprint or have a judgment about the military, bad or good or indifferent.  I wanted to be the “butterfly on the wall” (I say butterfly because I don’t like flies [laughs])I just really wanted to be the vessel to let them flow through me and tell their story with integrity and honor.

The main thing I would tell myself every day we were shooting, I repeated, “don’t make them look like victims.” That was [the women’s] one note to me when we first started. “You’d better get this right Heslov—tell the truth and portray us as we really are. Please do not portray us as victims because we are not damsels in distress. We’re warriors.” And I think we did that.

As the filmmaker, was it hard to not want to jump in and help these women more than you couldwomen who were often struggling?

Oh, having established these deep connections with all these women, it was gut-wrenching. I was following Hope when she was homeless. And every part of me as a woman, as a wife and daughter, wanted to reach out and help, give her resources, make phone calls, take care of it. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t change the narrative. It was really painful.

I was just taking it all in. I got shingles a couple of times while shooting—I’d never had shingles before. I didn’t even know what shingles were! [laughs] It was really difficult. I’d have to say that was the hardest part of the shoot for me, not reacting.

What were some of the other big challenges you faced in making Served Like a Girl?

We were always running out of money. And because of the competition, we were on a deadline, so it was very stressful. It was also an emotional journey that was at times difficult to handle. Tequila helped.

How did you get so many amazing musicians to contribute to the soundtrack? How did Linda Perry become involved with it and the film?

I knew I wanted to have a really great end song that captured the essence of the documentary. Really early on—I loved Linda Perry and had a song she’d written for Christina Aguilera called “Beautiful” [that I’d temporarily put] into the soundtrack. The film hadn’t even been cut together yet but I sent her an email where I said “you’re such a bad ass. You could write an amazing end song for this.” And she wrote me back within five minutes.

She went and found Pat Benatar, and said “this is the only person who can sing this song. This is a woman who changed the trajectory of music. This is something where we won’t have to fit a square peg into a round hole.” Benatar came on immediately. And in terms of the other musicians, we came up with the idea of putting together the soundtrack by getting all these artists to work for free and donate all the proceeds to Final Salute to help female veterans.

A couple of the women who sing on the soundtrack had some military history in terms of their parents serving, army brats. Others were relationships that Linda had. A couple were ones I’d already used in the rough cut and reached out to them, and said, “Hey would you be willing to help out these women?” They were amazing, Pink and Gwen Stefani, Aguilera, Pat…they showed up for this. They had our veterans’ backs and it was amazing to see it all come together.

Can you talk about the docuseries spinoff from the film that you’re working on?

The idea was to have an ongoing series. When I was filming Served Like a Girl I always felt like these stories are so amazing there was the potential to have it be an ongoing docuseries just because at the end of the film there’s this amazing competition that happens. What I think of as the more modernized version of Miss USA or Miss America, where you have these beautiful, amazing warriors competing for the title of Ms. Veteran America and it also benefits homeless female veterans so it’s really just a great opportunity to have—not really a competition reality series but at the end there’s a cliffhanger where you’ve fallen in love with these women.

I’m sure after people watch Served Like a Girl they’ll want to know how everyone’s doing. Do you have updates on the women in the film you’d like to share?

Yeah, I’m still in touch with all of them. Let’s see…

Jas retired from the reserves. She was promoted to major at the end of shooting, and she’s now focused on Ms. Veteran America and Final Salute, and traveling across the country trying to help female soldiers in need.

Denyse is still director of Ms. Veteran America.

Rachel Engler on stage at the Ms Veteran America
Rachel Engler on stage at the Ms Veteran America

Nichole: We’re actually working with Radical Media on a six-part docuseries to solve the murder of her father, titled Murder on Marathon. And she just graduated from college with honors. I think the MVA competition inspired her and gave her the confidence. I can’t remember when she’d dropped out of school, but she was young and she went back to college and just graduated last Friday.

Rachel is still a nurse, which really gives her life to try to serve other women. She has her own medical issue to deal with, she has myasthenia gravis. It was gratifying to be able to film that dance for her, because I honestly don’t know if she’ll be able to dance like that in 3-4 years, so for her family, that really meant a lot to me. Because she does suffer from this horrible, horrible disease.

Hope is no longer homeless. Sadly, domestic violence and sexual abuse have been a part of Hope’s her entire life and her mother’s, and her mother was murdered last July from domestic abuse. That happened after filming, so we stuck a card in at the end, because [her mother] Cindy had become such a huge part of our family. The good news is that through her strength and perseverance to make a better life, Hope has ended the cycle of abuse for her and her children.

Andrea is realizing her dream to become a medical death investigator. And she’s still friends with her two ex-husbands, with her four kids.

And Marissa is still in school, has a job, and is continuing on as the emcee of Ms. Veteran America and is doing great. And we’re still waiting for her prosthetics, so she can dance around the room, to be finished.

Do they keep in touch with each other too?

What was amazing to me while we filmed this doc is how all these girls became family. And I know that until the day they take their dying breaths that they will always be there for each other. For instance, as mentioned Nichole just graduated from college and Rachel flew in to surprise her. And they spent the weekend together. They all just seemed to bond. Sisters in arms.

They live by that motto, “Never leave a fallen comrade.” So when Hope’s mother died everyone rallied around her.

They didn’t really know each other before this competition. They became really close during it. MVA is a place in a room for 3 days with other women who shared the exact same experiences so they leave, make new friends, and realize they’re not alone.They had sort of all been interacting online, on Facebook, so by the time we got to their competition, we’d narrowed it down, and they knew about each other. So they’d met in person for the first time but they’d already been social media friends. Just seeing the way they came together and just bonded, was incredible.

That’s one of the gifts of Ms. Veteran America. A lot of the times when you leave the military it’s such an incredible shock to your system, you feel as a soldier and warrior if you complain or ask for help that you’re looked upon as weak so a lot of these women suffer quietly, they don’t talk about their problems. But MVA is a place in a room for three days with other women who shared the exact same experiences so they leave and make new friends, and realize they’re not alone.

For instance, when Denyse ran for Ms. Veteran America, she was raped 20 years before when she was in the military. She’d never told anyone, not even her mother, until she competed for Ms. Veteran America and the feeling of being around all these other women who had the same experiences gave her the strength to finally tell her story, which she does in the film. If you’re looking for the big picture silver lining of Ms. Veteran America, it’s that, camaraderie. And the love, empathy, and compassion that they have for each other.

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Bonus! Here are Heslov’s favorite documentaries and feature films:

  • The Look of Silence
  • King of Kong: A Fistful of Dollars
  • Virunga
  • Being There