Every generation has their war movie. Ours will be ‘My Dead Friend Zoe.’

Sara Giller
Mar 29, 2024 7:47 AM PDT
Reviewed byTessa Robinson
10 minute read
Mighty Heroes photo


Director Kyle Hausmann Stokes brings audiences a poignant exploration of grief, friendship, and the intricacies of loss in his new, must-see film, “My Dead Friend Zoe.”

The atmosphere at SXSW was electric, with bustling crowds, thought-provoking panels, and a palpable sense of anticipation. Amidst this whirlwind of activity, I found myself eagerly anticipating the premiere of "My Dead Friend Zoe." The buzz surrounding the film was undeniable, and as a fan of Kyle Hausmann Stokes's previous work, I was filled with anticipation and excitement.

In the realm of independent cinema, certain creators possess a unique ability to challenge conventions and reshape narratives. Kyle Hausmann Stokes, an accomplished director and storyteller, has been at the forefront of this movement, particularly with his groundbreaking work alongside We Are The Mighty. Through this collaboration, Stokes has played a pivotal role in redefining how military stories are told and understood. His latest project, "My Dead Friend Zoe," has garnered attention for its poignant exploration of grief, friendship, and the intricacies of loss.

Video thumbnail

From the opening scenes of the film, Stokes immerses viewers in a world where memories intertwine with reality, blurring the lines between past and present. "My Dead Friend Zoe" follows the journey of protagonist Merit, portrayed with raw vulnerability by acclaimed actress Sonequa Martin-Green, as she navigates the aftermath of her friend's tragic death.

Stokes's directorial approach is characterized by a keen eye for emotional nuance and a commitment to authenticity in storytelling. His previous works, including the award-winning short film “Merit x Zoe” (basis for the feature) and the viral PSA “Veterans for Gun Reform” (40 million views), have established him as a filmmaker unafraid to tackle themes of loss and resilience with sensitivity and depth.

Drew Rausch, Jamie Castro, Zeke Alton, Sandra Lee, Alicia Borja, Gloria Reuben, Melisa Lopez, Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, Claudette Godfrey, Richard Milanesi, Sonequa Martin- Green, Larry Freeman, Natalie Morales, James Bane, Thom Tran, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Paul Scanlan and Rich Paul at the "My Dead Friend Zoe" Premiere as part of SXSW 2024 Conference and Festivals held at the Paramount Theatre on March 9, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Samantha Burkardt/SXSW Conference & Festivals via Getty Images)

In "My Dead Friend Zoe," Stokes collaborates with a talented ensemble cast and a dedicated crew to bring his vision to life. The film's haunting cinematography, evocative soundtrack, and intimate performances create an immersive experience that lingers long after the credits roll.

As audiences eagerly anticipate the release of "My Dead Friend Zoe," Kyle Hausmann Stokes's directorial prowess promises a cinematic journey that transcends genre conventions and invites viewers to explore the profound impact of friendship and the enduring nature of memories. It is no wonder that Kyle was greeted to uproarious applause and a standing ovation after the screening. It was my pleasure to speak with the gifted auteur just a day after “My Dead Friend Zoe” was awarded the coveted Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at SXSW.

Why did you join the Army? 

Kyle Hausmann Stokes in Iraq 2007. Photo/Yo Han Ko, courtesy Hausmann Stokes.

I have a big and a small reason, as most folks do. The big, lofty reason was I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. It sounds so pretentious but I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help people. I wanted to get out of Wisconsin. Everybody was doing the same thing at my high school; it made me want to run so fast in the other direction. I’m dating myself, but this was before 9/11. I graduated high school in 2001. 

The small reason, I wanted to stand up next to my grandpa during the Music in the Park, which you see in the film. We would go to this little Music in the Park thing every 4th of July with my family. I was just this little guy and I remember vividly feeling like my grandpa was 100 feet tall. I’d see him stand up and people would applaud. I didn’t really know what I was feeling but I just knew that I wanted to be like him and one day I could stand next to him. And I did, and I got to. My grandpa is very stoic, his name was Orville, which couldn’t be a more grandpa name. The mythology of our family, we have a lot of military in our family. Nobody signs up because they’re hungry for war; they sign up because you want to help, you want to make a difference. Those who have served from Vietnam to WWII, I think it’s the bravest thing you can do on day zero, is raise your right hand and say, ‘Whatever you guys decide, I will do that.’ That’s bravery. That’s selfless service. I was excited to make a film about family, about friendship, about grief, about love, and these people just happen to be veterans.

Why did you make the decision to use females to portray yourself and your all-male friends in the film? (Also: it was an amazing decision).

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 08: Gloria Reuben, Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, Natalie Morales, Sonequa Martin-Green and Utkarsh Ambudkar from 'My Dead Friend Zoe' pose for a portrait on March 8, 2024 at SxSW in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Robby Klein/Getty Images)

It was one of the first decisions I made when conceptualizing the project. I knew I wanted it to be a film about friendship. It was going to be based on my own relationship with one of my battle buddies. But I didn’t want the characters to look like me. I also needed some separation from these characters because the film is so damn personal. The protagonist and these folks had to be different from me in some way. Just as important, I was also coming off this huge mental health campaign that I directed for the VA for six/seven years called Make the Connection where I traveled the country with a small team and we interviewed over 500 veterans. I held space with, I was nose-to-nose with 500 veterans of all different ilk, men and women, and got this firehose of experiences. I knew what my experience was in the military but it was a privilege to get to sit with them. I met the most incredible women veterans that I had no idea of their experience. I was in the Army in the infantry at a time where boys and girls weren’t allowed to serve next to each other, so I really had no idea of their experience. For that reason, it had to be about women. Women make up half of our society and an increasingly large number of the military. Every military film I’ve seen has been about white straight dudes, so it was kind of a no-brainer. 

What I think is so great about the film is that it’s a universal message. Obviously, it centers around the military but we all go through trauma. Did you think about what kind of impact putting two women as the leads would have? 

A little. I hope we can get to a point where people are just people. Someone’s gender or ethnicity would be no more remarkable than the color of their hair, but that’s not the world we live in. Film is such a collaborative art form. I feel like I created these containers of characters and then they totally got filled up. One anecdote about this was there was some discussion about Zoe’s sexuality, being a queer woman. We did this screening in Hawaii for a bunch of veterans. And people were saying she’s queer, it’s like the first line in the movie, ‘How do you still not get this, I like girls,’ and one of the female veterans said, ‘She’s not queer, I said that every day just to keep men off me.’ That a how people can pick out different ways in which they feel seen. A character can be one thing to one person and something to another. 

What is your purpose with this particular piece of art? 

A view of the Paramount Theatre marquee at the "My Dead Friend Zoe" Premiere as part of SXSW 2024 Conference and Festivals held at the Paramount Theatre on March 9, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Hutton Supancic/SXSW Conference & Festivals via Getty Images)

I really wanted to Trojan Horse in a call to action, like a PSA, into this film. I think if people turn up for the humor and the performance and the cinema of it but they come away with this self-reflective, have I really dealt with my trauma? I know there is a tough guy, we don’t do feelings, hopefully, this will be a little chink in the armor of that and hopefully, we’ll save some lives through it. 

My purpose and my intention is to maybe show people a version of what it can look like on the other side of talking about that thing or that person or whatever that might haunt you. There’s better stuff on the other side of it. I had this big thing where I would feel guilty about enjoying my life. When I came back and I was at film school, didn’t really have a lot of friends at first and even celebrating at a party, I’d feel guilty, I’d be like, what the fuck are you doing? Do you know how many people are dead in Iraq right now? It’s hard to flip from one to the other. It felt like a way to punish myself, to drink, to self-medicate. I would abusively run in a bad way. It wasn’t until I met a Vietnam Veteran at the downtown VA for a session I didn’t want to go to. I actually walked out of it because it went so poorly, but I met this Vietnam Vet in the lobby. And he told me, ‘Do you really think you’re paying homage or honoring your buddies’ memories by living this bullshit, depressed life? You’re dumb. You need to square yourself away. You need to thrive. You need to live your best life. You need to talk about them and move on because you’re here and they’re not. What would they really want for you?’ That was such a paradigm shift for me. That’s what I really tried to channel into the film, this notion of the way that we honor the folks that we’ve lost is by moving on and living our best life. 

Who were some of your mentors as you got into filmmaking?

My OG mentor was this colonel named Daniel C. Griffith at Fort Polk, LA. In August of 2004, I was weeks away from the end of my enlistment. But, because of the war in Iraq, my unit was suddenly 'Stop Loss-ed' and my plans to discharge and attend college would be put on hold until we returned from a 12-month combat tour in Iraq. Then, and I still can’t believe this, because I had become known as the “battalion film guy” -- I was always secretly filming our airborne jumps, jungle warfare trainings and tank battle maneuvers, editing them into short films in my barracks room and handing out copies on VHS -- I was ordered to report to the Colonel’s office one night late -- this is rarely a good thing. He said, 'Sergeant Hausmann, I’ve seen your films, the impact they have on morale, and … I think you may be destined for something else. So I’ve made arrangements for you, and only you, to be exempt from our Stop Loss. You’ll be allowed to leave the Army on your discharge date, but in exchange for not deploying with us, I have a mission for you. You will seek out the best film school in the country, hone your skills and…you will be our voice. You will tell the soldier’s story.' I was floored. But never so inspired. I found my way to USC film, used my GI Bill, and have spent the last 14 years of my filmmaking career dedicated to living up to that promise.

Kyle Hausmann Stokes in Iraq, 2007. U.S. Army Photo/1-160th Infantry

Ironically, I was recalled back into the Army in 2007. It was the beginning of 'The Surge,' I was a junior at USC, hadn’t yet deployed and knew if I didn’t, someone else would go in my place. So I dropped out for 18 months, put film school on pause, and served a yearlong combat tour in Iraq with the 1-160th Infantry as a convoy commander. Coming back to film school after that experience, now 5 years older than my peers, was a surreal experience. But it only further cemented for me the colonel’s mission to tell the soldier’s story. I spent the next ten years writing, producing and directing PSAs, campaigns and short films about the veteran experience. I just talked to him two nights ago; I hadn’t talked to him since I got out and he found me. I was a little nervous to talk to him and he basically said sergeant, hooah, for staying on mission. Pretty wild. He has nothing to do with film or film industry, but in terms of that initial fire, it was him. 

Why now with this film? 

At a very practical level it came from COVID – in the same way that COVID was a lot of introspection for people. I got back from Iraq in 2008 and went into film school. It took me a lot of years to get the courage to point the camera inward in a way. During COVID there was just no way to escape it. And now here we are. I worked with some incredible people along the way. I think if you look back at the buffer between when an American war ends and when these quintissential films about that war start to come out, it’s about a decade. It takes awhile for the country to get to that reflective place. Iraq and Afghanistan was such a fade to black ending; it wasn’t a huey leaving Saigon on that one day. I hope the country is going to be very receptive to this. And it’s not a war film. 

Talk to us about using veterans in the film.

Kyle Hausmann Stokes directing a PSA for the VA in 2012. Photo by Mike Moriatis, courtesy of Hausmann Stokes.

I don’t think you have to be the thing to tell that story. But I think it can help in some major ways. We veterans rarely get the opporutnity to tell our stories behind or in front of the camera. I always knew that veteran group in particualr would be all veterans. First and foremost they are professional working actors and secondly they are veterans, in that order. I didn’t write any dialogue for them. I just said, ‘James stands and shares. Asia stands and shares.’ And they had to do that in front of Morgan Freeman, no big deal. But they crushed it. It was important to show the industry that we are much more than just technical advisors that the characters you see in the film portrayed by veterans, I wanted to see how emotional and funny and dynamic veterans can be.

What’s next?

Audience members react at the "My Dead Friend Zoe" Premiere as part of SXSW 2024 Conference and Festivals held at the Paramount Theatre on March 9, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Hutton Supancic/SXSW Conference & Festivals via Getty Images)

I have a handful of things i want to do. I want to continue to tell veterans and military stoires. I want to do other stuff as well. I’m working on another dark comedy with A.J. It’s a film about friendship between two men and adult male loneliness. It’s about a guy going through some stuff in his life and he accidentally starts a men’s group. I have a pilot ready to go that takes place in Argentina. I have a book I’m chasing as well. I’m just a guy who has been doing stuff with We Are The Mighty for so long. 

Where and when can our readers see My Dead Friend Zoe? 

We’re seeking distribution and I think we’ll get it. There’s talk of it releasing on or around Veteran’s Day.  


Sign up for We Are The Mighty's newsletter and receive the mighty updates!

By signing up you agree to our We Are The Mighty's Terms of Use and We Are The Mighty's Privacy Policy.