“Make your first film about something you know.” That’s the advice you’ll get from film schools, seasoned filmmakers, the guy tearing tickets in the lobby… Make the film about something you know and there’s at least a chance that it will ring true, that it will succeed. More likely by destiny than by design, Kimberly Peirce took that advice. She made a movie about a charismatic, nonconformist girl with a burning need to reinvent herself; about a strong human being with a gentle soul and an effortless, smoldering sex appeal who is determined to make whatever sacrifices are necessary in a desperate search for family, home, love, and a fulfilling identity. Her resulting feature, the spellbinding, gut-wrenching Boys Don’t Cry, is being heralded by critics and audiences as one of the most masterful directorial debuts of the decade.
Score one for conventional wisdom. Those who insist on pigeonholing have called this movie an entry in the “true crime” genre. More accurately, its lineage can be traced to the larger cinematic family of American tragedy, which includes not only In Cold Blood, and Badlands, but Rebel Without a Cause and Streetcar Named Desire, all films Peirce names as influences. When the Brandon Teena story stumbled into her lap from a spring ’94 issue of the Village Voice, Peirce, then a Columbia grad student in her mid-twenties, dumped her previous thesis script about a female Civil War spy posing as a man and began pursuing the Brandon Teena case.
Inspired by the terse, meticulous prose of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, Peirce shaped the voluminous findings of her three-year research into a rural American tragedy in the vein of Terence Malick’s Badlands and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause.
The story of Teena Brandon, a Nebraska girl who reinvented herself as a dashing ladies’ man named Brandon and was raped and killed by two ex-cons s/he had befriended, is told by Peirce with keen insight into the social dynamics of the small mid-western town where the crime occurred. Brandon emerges as the tragically flawed hero of the story, the outsider drawn to the edge of the precipice by an ever-elusive desire for love and acceptance, while the destructive forces around him vie to bring about his inevitable demise.
“The last thing I wanted,” explains Peirce, “was to duplicate the violence without understanding it. I had to make the violence personal.” The key for Peirce was to understand the elements that were true to the characters on an emotional level. “Once I started understanding the folklore of the society as it was being told to me by the cops and the kids of Falls City, I could get the audience to empathize.” Born in Harrisburg, PA, of Jewish and Italian descent, Kimberly Peirce knows something about having an identity crisis and wanting to reinvent yourself. While growing up, her family was constantly on the move—from Pennsylvania to Miami to Puerto Rico to Ft. Lauderdale to Chicago. There was little in her upbringing to foreshadow the Ivy League education, chic New York style and downtown attitude. “I moved between people a lot when I was young. I lived in a trailer in Harrisburg, so that lifestyle was somewhat familiar. The Peirce brothers—my father and my two uncles—were the tough and troubled kind, notorious for getting in scrapes all the time, chasing girls and so on. Knowing them actually kind of laid the foundation for my interest in Tom and John [in Boys Don’t Cry].”
Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry
“I identified with Teena,” Peirce says, a bit hesitantly. “Probably the re-telling of Teena’s search for family was about my own search for a family. And her drifting reflected my own moving around. Making herself into the fantasy she had of herself is something I related to as a filmmaker. I make sense of my own life by what I write about and what I make movies about. This film is very autobiographical, really. I used myself to understand my characters more deeply.” Along with his search for identity, Brandon’s indomitable will is something Peirce has no trouble relating to. When faced with problems, Peirce has a head-on, “yang” way of finding solutions—no matter how unconventional. When she ran out of money and couldn’t continue her education at the University of Chicago, for instance, she decided to sock away cash (literally) by moving to Japan and teaching English to mob lawyers and modeling in her spare time. She saved enough money to travel all over South East Asia while photographing the countryside, sumo wrestlers, and geishas, until a motorcycle accident forced her to stop in Thailand. “When I was recovering on this island in Thailand, I had a Blade Runner type of moment, when the replicant says to Harrison Ford ‘I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe.’ For the first time I saw things that were so astoundingly beautiful—I felt I was lucky to be alive to see them. I put my camera down and just looked in awe. That’s a moment I go back to when I’m on set. There’s the HMI, everybody’s screaming, the actor is on, the film is rolling. During those times I’ll sometimes go back to that moment that transfixed me—and then, sure enough, [that beauty] is there in the dailies.” By the time she came back to the States she still had enough money to return to the University of Chicago, where she got her degree in English and Japanese Literature.
“I had at least $10,000 in cash. I withdrew it from the machine all at once and all this cash came spitting out. I was so excited because I could finish college. I put it in my sock and flew back. I had the money to finish college in my sock.” From there she enrolled in film school at Columbia and made Boys Don’t Cry.
A.G. Basoli (MM): How did you go about dramatizing the actual event after the research?
Kimberly Peirce (KP): I knew early on that the key to the film for me was making sense of Brandon; understanding who this person was. Early coverage of the case aimed at sensationalism “girl masquerading as a boy, got stripped, raped and killed,” that type of thing. The lesbians were claiming that he was lesbian, the transsexuals claimed that Brandon was one of them—I didn’t want to side between them. What I wanted to do was make sense of what his desire was. I ended up going on a trip to Falls City with a group of 15 transsexuals who were staging a protest on Brandon’s behalf. Together we went to the murder trials and we retraced Brandon’s footsteps. Eventually I ended up at the farmhouse where he was murdered. When I saw the blood on the walls and the clothing scattered around, the questions that had always been there hit me on a more emotional level. It was extraordinary that this person lived; that she had such a powerful desire and the courage to transform herself into this fantasy of herself. I had to make sense of the violence. Because I feel the violence that was done to Brandon is being duplicated everywhere in the states. Matthew Shepard was killed while we were shooting. That sent a wave of terror to everyone on the set. Here we are shooting a movie and it’s like ‘Oh, that’s right. This is real.’ A few weeks after the movie was finished I was in Los Angeles and there was the shooting at the Jewish Daycare Center. How do you fight this kind of violence? One way is to tell the story, not only of the brutality, but of the people. Tell not just Brandon’s story but also his killers’ story. I wanted to know who they were, what they wanted and why Brandon provoked them. And it was really important to make the audience fall in love with John and Tom—they had to be characters that people loved. The audience can see the violence up close only if they love John and Tom when they cut that umbilical cord at the moment they strip and rape Brandon. Then they can understand what the violence is. If Tom and John were bad guys from beginning to end, it would be bad, dramatically. If they were good guys after the rape, then it would be terrible. I’d be promoting rape. It was important to have them be completely sympathetic and then completely unsympathetic. In terms of Brandon, once I brought him to life I realized I had two stories to tell. One was about the transformation. Cinderella, Pinocchio, Mr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all my favorite fairy tales—and the other part was the love story. That’s when I realized that the real heart of the film was in the love affair. It’s a tragic love story like Romeo and Juliet. That is really what everybody identified with.
MM: How did you get there?
KP: During the editing we saw that the part with Teena was too long and we decided to move quicker to get to the love story. But when we took out the Teena part it didn’t make sense anymore. So I figured out a way to collapse the transformation in the prologue that goes over the title sequence and let the audience in at the moment Brandon looks in the mirror and he’s become Brandon. Basically I framed the story beginning with the birth of Brandon, and the death of Brandon is the moment that we stop. I wanted to make the most completely simple, universal and human story possible. That was the way to make sure Brandon would not be this thing that people couldn’t understand and could hate, the way those guys hated him.
MM: Why did you decide to use the real names?
KP: Brandon Teena is a resonant name. I wanted everything to ring true. I had the rights to her life story. I wanted the film to resonate with the underlying emotional truth of the events. Names usually hold a truth to them which is beautiful. John and Tom are the most ordinary names in the world and yet they went off and did what they did. I didn’t find out I could use their names until very late into it; when I found out, I was thrilled.
MM: How did you go about getting permission to use them?
KP: Legally I really didn’t need permission because the information is in the public domain. As long as it has been printed three times in articles and media coverage, it’s in the public domain. I went to the trial and from what I understand I had access to anything that was in those court transcripts. And then for the interviews I actually had the people sign personal releases.
MM: How did you approach the research?
KP: I interviewed Lana in person, which was really fascinating. Her mother and sister sat on the couch and told me how they were very unhappy with the prior portraits of them in magazines and in the book. They felt that nobody was getting inside the story and they were being treated unfairly. She was very happy that my intention was to remain truthful to the story. So she unfolded a great deal of the dramatic events that I was unable to make out from the transcripts and coverage. I was able to ask Lana questions like at what point did she know that Brandon was a girl? At what point prior to the stripping scene did she actually leave Brandon’s side? What happened in the five days after the rape, leading to the murder? What was her continuing relationship with John and Tom? I did get a release from her to make a movie portrayal from this information, but from what I understand from the lawyers it was just icing on the cake. My intention was clearly to honor her and to make sense of the things that remained unclear in other depictions. Then I interviewed the cops who were an incredible source of information, because they really talked to me about the class setup of that society. I had hung out at the Qwik Stop with the kids all night and watched what was going on. There were three groups of kids that would congregate at the Qwik Stop each night: the farm kids with their trucks, the rich girls and the wall people. Sheriff Hayes told me about the dustless highway, and about John Lotter. He would steal a car and race at 80 or 90 miles past the police station and the cops would stand up and say what was that? John Lotter! So they would get into their cars and race each other to the dust-less highway. It was basically the Rebel Without a Cause update of ‘chicken.’ I understood the society as it was being told to me, like folklore, and once I started understanding the elements that were true to these kids on an emotional level, I took the liberty of moving things around. But the court transcripts were the real heart of the research. I formed a relationship with the court reporter. She showed me the transcripts and the exhibit photos. Those were really powerful—and she let me photograph them. And then I went through Falls City and Lincoln to the social services and I got as many of Brandon’s arrest records and psychological history as I could, trying to figure out what a kid who was looking to get a sex-change operation might encounter.
MM: How did you develop Brandon’s relationship with the guys? It seems so genuine.
KP: The guys know that Brandon is green, doesn’t quite have it down and that puts them in a very interesting position of power. One of the hardest things was figuring out the relationship between John and Brandon. It was clear why Brandon appealed to women. He was nice, he was gentle. He had totally shaped himself in the way in response to what the other guys didn’t do with the girls. But how do you win over another guy if you’re this little effeminate guy? When I went to Sundance in the Writing and Directing Lab, the actor who played John in Lab said “I don’t like Brandon.” This was a scene where John and Brandon were supposed to be friends. He said: “I don’t like him.” So I had to get underneath it and figure out why John does like Brandon. It’s because Brandon is willing to be the underdog to John’s superior male and John can be in a position of being a father figure and a teacher, but when Brandon starts taking the power away from him by taking the girl, that relationship is threatened. As it turns out John is trying to be a man as hard as Brandon is.
MM: What was Lana’s response when you interviewed her? How did she relate to Brandon?
KP: Her response was beautiful and very complicated. I asked her—’When did you know that Brandon was a girl?’ ‘I knew Brandon was a girl the day I met him,’she said. But she changed the story around every time. So you understand the texture of how this is working. In Streetcar Named Desire, for example, Blanche needs to hold onto the fantasy; you understand what she is trying to hold on to, and why she keeps shifting things around. She’s not crazy, her need is always the same—there’s just no real way to satisfy it. In the interview with Lana, a bunch of what she said did not follow the truth. She would weave in and out of truths. I thought, well, this must be how the relationship was. She loved Brandon, this person who could inhabit a male space and was completely fine in it, but who was biologically a female. No matter how much you respect Brandon’s image as a man, biologically he was a female. And that threatened certain codes of how Lana saw herself, so she just held onto what she believed was right and worked everything else around it. But the way she responded was the best thing for me, because she could have told me the absolute truth. But the ultimate truth was in the lies…it was in the distortion, and the denials. That’s how that character is set up.
MM: Was Blanche DuBois a model for that character? The model for how you directed Chloe Sevigny in the part of Lana?
KP: A little bit. I had interviewed Lana, so I gave Chloe that videotape and asked her to absorb it. I mentioned other people, as well: Natalie Wood, in Rebel Without a Cause. I didn’t want her to get too obsessed with other characters. You can’t give actors a direction that is too literal, because you don’t want them to act like Natalie Wood. In a way you do, but you want them to do it from a place that is internal.
MM: How did you cast Hilary Swank in the role of Brandon?
KP: Brandon took three years to find. I had interviewed a bunch of transsexuals and butch lesbians and some of them were cast and were wonderful but they really couldn’t carry the role. There was no guarantee that there was going to be a Brandon. When Hilary came in, it was the first time I saw someone who not only blurred the gender lines, but who was this beautiful, androgynous person with this cowboy hat and a sock in her pants, who smiled and loved being Brandon. There was something wonderful about the adventure he invited you to be part of, and since Brandon was a product of his own imagination, Brandon loved being Brandon. And I think that’s why people loved Brandon. Hilary captured not only the ability to pass as a man but the beautiful spirit that he had.
MM: How did she prepare for the role?
KP: I insisted that she make a full transformation as a boy. She met the other actors as a boy. I kept them separate during the shoot so she’d be the outsider coming in. She lost herself in the middle of the shoot. When you’re a transsexual you move away from one pole but don’t fully reach the other. She started losing her feminine side and got really scared and as much as that was terrifying for her, for me its was really effective because that’s where she needed to be for the rape scene. In the rape scene Brandon’s identity is completely eradicated and so unable to fall back into either Teena or Brandon, she’s lost in between. It was a very good emotional state for her to be in.
MM: Was there a stigma attached to the role when you were auditioning actresses for Brandon?
KP: In ’96 agents would not send actors out because that was pre-exposure gay culture. They all thought that it would stigmatize the actors. Then we had a whole different wave in ‘98, when I was flooded with people who wanted to be Brandon, and they weren’t even anywhere near being
right for the role. They were girl-girls. Any smart actor would realize that it’s the role of a lifetime. How many actors actually go the distance to do it right? Probably not many.
MM: What was the biggest challenge in the process from script to screen?
KP: Well, the script obviously was really difficult. Financing took forever. I was coming out of grad school and had shot a first short film, but to give a girl enough money to make a feature, especially someone who’s never made a feature, it’s a risk.
MM: Because it’s a girl or because you were a first-time filmmaker?
KP: I guess it’s a combination of the two. It’s tough. I mean, is it harder for girls? I don’t really know. So the financing kept falling apart, which was actually good for the film because my writing partner Andy Bienen and I kept going back to the script and re-writing it.
MM: How was the movie eventually financed?
KP: The seed money came to us from the limited partnership that was set up between, I think, Killer Films (Christine Vachon and Eva Kolodner’s company) and Hart Sharp Entertainment, and that was the money to get on set. IFC gave the rest of the money, $1 million, after the first week of dailies coming in. That made up our budget, including post-production, which meant we weren’t supposed to go past that.
MM: What was the total?
KP: Under $2 million dollars. My producers were wonderful, but the money is never enough. So in January we started editing and after 10 weeks we realized we needed more time to complete the film. But you can’t buy more time on LLC. So we sort of broke the rules. I cut a 20-minute trailer of the film and Christine Vachon brought it to Sundance (Producer Christine Vachon’s credits include such edgy contemporary films as Larry Clark’s Kids, and Todd Haynes’ Poison, and Velvet Goldmine) and showed it around to a select number of executives. It’s called a negative pick-up. Eventually Fox Searchlight bought it and that gave us five more months in the editing room.
MM: Did Fox Searchlight interfere on a creative level once the movie was bought?
KP: Fox Searchlight gave me one page of notes and I gave them 10 pages of reply. There were some difficult times, but ultimately they allowed me to make my movie. It was thanks to the pull of Fox and Fox Searchlight that I was able to complete the film without giving up creative control. Generally films don’t get sold off of a 20-minute trailer, and my independent vision could not have been fully realized without studio money. I think it’s a fascinating set-up because
the movie originated independently, then made a metamorphosis in the middle because of the negative pick-up and was completed with studio money. Nobody could have made this movie and given me this much creative control except Christine Vachon. They were unusual circumstances that gave me the means to fully realize what the film needed. I don’t want to make it a gender thing, but how many women get to make their film as they want to? As a director, you constantly ask yourself how much money you’re getting, and how much control are you giving away for that money. You’re vulnerable, because you need the creative control but you also need money. But you have to take responsibility for what it is that you want and tell yourself this is what I have to go through to protect my vision. You’re not a painter. What you do cannot be done without many people and a lot of money. It’s humbling.
MM: How many days was the shoot?
KP: Thirty days of sheer terror. Guided terror, because I understand my craft, but it’s your baby.
MM: How did you pick the location? Did you ever think about shooting in the actual place where the crime took place, in Falls City?
KP: Absolutely, I wanted to shoot in Falls City because that’s what I knew. Christine said right off the bat you can’t shoot in Falls City. It was just a given that you never shoot in the town where it happened. She said you’ll find it will be a better drama if you don’t have access to the real place. Now, what I didn’t understand at the beginning was that I still had to dramatically duplicate Falls City. We were supposed to shoot outside of Omaha, but I looked at these places and none of them felt right, even though they were in Nebraska. Two years went by, we were nearing winter, and we knew that once we had the money we had to shoot, we could not wait. By going to Nebraska we would run into a number of problems. Nebraska is not a production base—which means that to get your equipment from Chicago to Omaha it’s an eight-hour drive. There’ no way. You’re going to die as an indie film. If something breaks, you’re stuck.
We looked at Kansas, we looked at Texas and we looked at one other place in Florida. The amazing thing about Dallas was that it didn’t get cold. The production base was in Dallas, plus I went to all these small towns and they all looked identical to Falls City. I found out that Falls City was founded at around the very same time as the counties that I was looking at, they were county seats. They had been organized and laid out a certain way because they had to match their purpose. They were towns of faded glory which totally represented the guys. The guys at some point had been iconographically strong and were being overpowered by Teena, who was coming in and being another guy, a better guy. So it was great, because the locations reflected the fragility of their masculinity. Did it need to be the jail where Brandon actually stayed? No, it needed to be a jail that actually had a certain width of bars because it needed to be photographed a certain way. The real jail might have been too narrow. So I began to realize that this gave me an incredible freedom. Then I gave pictures of Falls City to the arts department and told them they had to match them.
MM: There’s a powerful scene during the stripping when Brandon is being held naked by the two guys in front of Lana. How did you shoot that scene?
KP: There were only three set-ups, because there wasn’t any time. Two in one direction with the two guys on either side of Brandon in a medium shot, and the wide shot where you see everybody. And then the reverse, which is Brandon with the women as they leave. It would have been six shots in my ideal scenario, but I had to do it in three. Which is what kept happening. It was one of those ‘do you need this? Because we’re out of time.’ We were working with such a tight budget that they even wanted to cut that scene, that slow motion part.
MM: I’m glad they didn’t—that scene is so resonant.
KP: Absolutely, but when you look at it from a production standpoint it was ‘you have the meat of the scene, let’s move on.’ You can’t even imagine how much was dropped. But that was one of the scenes where I just said ‘this is a thing that cannot be dropped.’ That scene was so crucial to the way I saw the script. I said ‘I have six setups,’ they said ‘you can’t do six. You have an hour and a half.’ It should be an hour per setup. ‘Can you knock off three setups in an hour and a half?’ A half-hour per set-up—which is crazy because every time you move that camera, it’s an hour, at least. But I would do it in half the time. Somebody else pointed out that maybe the reason why that scene was so powerful is that I didn’t have the luxury to have more [set-ups].
MM: How many set-ups were there usually, per scene?
KP: It depended on the scene. Generally you have 12 setups per day. I was probably doing 27. There was some ruthless editing going on during the shooting. I had to make all these emotional choices, pitting one scene against another. The meat of the film is the story, so as I was telling the story my style and my vision were being sacrificed. ‘You have the stripping scene, now go and get the rape scene’—the nuts and bolts of it. My stylistic way of seeing was the first thing to come under attack. As a director there is no right and wrong, nobody is the bad guy. But you do have a finite amount of time. At one point I was eating up my nights. I was doing 17 hours a day and I was supposed to do 12. I thought ‘Oh, there’s the solution. I’ll just go five hours overtime every day.’ Then I realized that I was eating up my nights. They said ‘This is a night movie, you need to be out at night. Every time you go over by five hours, you start swinging around the clock’—because everybody needs what’s called ‘turn around.’ I wasn’t trying to waste money, but it was the only way of saving the narrative. So I found out that by going overtime, instead of starting at 6 p.m. the next day, I would have to start at 10 p.m., which would then leave me only six hours of shooting time. Because, by the time lights are up, camera is loaded and everything is ready for ‘first shot off,’ it’s midnight. And if dawn breaks at 6:30, then that’s it. Then we had a hard-out at Thanksgiving. Everybody went home for that holiday, no matter what. Dawn is a hard out too, and you’re humbled by the fact you can’t control the elements.
MM: What were some of your influences?
KP: Back at the University of Chicago there was film library that nobody really used. And this is when I studied Fellini, Eisenstein, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Murnau. My friend had access to the film library so every single print I could get ahold of I had him screen for me in private. There was a huge auditorium and I would just watch the movies alone. I just loved Fellini, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Scorsese, Eisenstein. They opened up my world they saw the world with a kind of intensity that made sense to me.
MM: What’s your next project?
KP: I love tragic love stories—I like separation; I like male-female separation and then crossing the line. This one is about the afterlife. But instead of the film playing out in the world of the living, it plays out in the world of the dead. It’s about crossing over and the consummation of a relationship in the world of the dead.
MM: Was it ever a concern of yours that the film might be stereotyped as a gay film?
KP: Not so much that it would be pigeonholed as a queer film. My concern as a human being was that I didn’t want to categorize Brandon in any way that he wouldn’t have categorized himself, repeating what had been done to him in real life, and what he was brutalized for. I wanted to let Brandon’s soul be Brandon’s soul. MM