Moving Pictures

Kimberly Peirce, director of the indie hit Boys Don't Cry, focuses her powers on Carrie.

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2013
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On the set of “Carrie”, from left: Peirce, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Julianne Moore. / © 2012 MGM Pictures Inc. and Screen Gems, Inc. / Michael Gibson

Six weeks before the October 2013 release of Carrie, Kim Peirce ’96SOA is locked in an editing room in Los Angeles. The air holds the dolorous last notes of blockbuster season and the first tingles of Oscar time, when studios trot out their prize ponies. The chief of the studio has been in and out. Phones ring, reporters wanting to know how the director of a gritty, personal, true-life film like Boys Don’t Cry came to remake an outlandish horror masterpiece.

Peirce gets it. She, too, loves the 1976 Carrie, directed by Hitchcock-goggled visionary Brian De Palma ’62CC. Calls it “brilliant.” De Palma is a friend, and gave his blessing. Peirce frames her movie not as a remake, but as a fresh retelling of the Stephen King tale, whose elements of an outsider, a knotty family life, a small town, bullying, and reprisal tugged a rope inside her.

Still, when the studio approached her in 2011, she was skeptical.

“I just didn’t trust it,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a remake. Hollywood is doing tons of remakes.’” Peirce has nothing against remakes — she loves, for instance, both the 1932 Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks, and De Palma’s 1983 Miami-splashed white-tuxedo edition. But in general, she felt that the studio system lacked the imagination and inspiration to do the process justice.

“I thought, ‘You guys want to do this because there’s money in it.’”

That motive at least made sense. Peirce had bigger questions.

The thing was this: she had made two movies, and neither seemed terribly relevant to Carrie. Boys Don’t Cry (1999), for which Hilary Swank won the Oscar for best actress, told the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a twenty-year-old transgendered person from Lincoln, Nebraska, who moves to a nearby town to live as a man. Brandon pursues Lana, a working girl; they fall in love. Brandon also befriends Lana’s pals, John and Tom, two roadhouse burnouts who take a shine to this sweet, slight, oddly appealing dude. When the men learn the truth about Brandon’s anatomy, they are enraged, humiliated; they beat Brandon, rape him, and, after Brandon files a police report against them, murder him.

Peirce’s second film, Stop-Loss (2008), was inspired by her brother’s military service, and expanded her study of violence and rural machismo. The story begins with an electrifying Tikrit street battle (shot in Morocco) before settling into a stateside fraternal drama about a group of returning soldiers, one of whom, Brandon King, after getting a hero’s welcome in his Texas town, is ordered back to Iraq. Believing this “stop-loss” policy unjust, Brandon makes the grim decision to go AWOL.

None of which sounded much like a pulp Gothic about a bullied schoolgirl with paranormal powers.

“Why do you want me to do it?” Peirce asked the executives.

Their answer surprised her. “Because of Boys Don’t Cry.”

Peirce was baffled. Then she read King’s book.

When I was six I got ahold of an audio recorder and would record my family, mostly my mother, her mother, and her mother’s sisters, talking or arguing. They’d say, “Why are you always recording things?” I didn’t know why, exactly, but I liked listening back. It helped me begin to understand dramatic structure and dialogue.

Peirce read Carrie three times during a trip to Turkey with her fiancée. King’s novel was a succulent little truffle. Reading about the lonely teenage misfit with a potent secret made a light bulb go pop! above Peirce’s head.

Though Carrie White and Brandon Teena could not be more different (Brandon: magnetic, bold, cunning, reckless; Carrie: shy, ungainly, sheltered, afraid), Peirce fell in love with the picked-on girl from Chamberlain, Maine. In Carrie she saw, as she’d seen in Brandon, a profound need for love and acceptance. The ache to be normal. To live.

Both characters possessed cryptic powers. Brandon could seduce girls with charms unknown to his rowdy male counterparts. Carrie could make objects move with her mind — a faculty that blooms with her late-onset menstruation. “With the period comes the power,” Peirce says. “That’s straight from King.”

In Boys, Brandon is unmasked in part by a tampon wrapper that he’d stashed under his bed. In King’s book, Carrie gets her initial period in the high-school shower (a scene made famous by De Palma’s slow-motion, soft-focus lyricism and Psycho-tinged tension), which rouses the other girls to taunt her and pelt her with tampons.

Both Brandon and Carrie are marked by blood and secrets. Both risk everything for a chance at happiness. Both attain a brief exaltation before their peers betray them.

“I do love a tragic structure,” says Peirce. “I love that everybody is culpable for the explosion that happens at the end. Everyone is part of the trigger point.”

Throughout my childhood, things were so chaotic and traumatic. But when I put stories together, I could find meaning. I could find calm.

“If you want to start at the beginning,” says Peirce, “you have to start with Carrie’s mother, Margaret, being terrified of this thing that comes out of her, feeling that she needs to kill it, then recognizing that it’s a baby, then falling in love with that baby and struggling with her terror and love all through their lives together.”

Here, Peirce nods to King’s book, which chronicles Carrie’s howling birth in Margaret’s bed: blood-sopped sheets, a butcher knife, a sliced umbilical cord, and a baby at the breast — a scene that did not appear in De Palma’s film.

“Each character is pursuing her primal need,” says Peirce. “Margaret’s is to protect her child; Carrie’s is to get love and acceptance and find a way to be normal. How wonderful that they both have such strong, conflicting needs, and that’s what fuels the movie from beginning to end.”

Sixteen-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz stars in the title role, with Julianne Moore as the religiously incandescent Margaret. In Moretz, Peirce had a Beverly Hills-raised, full-lipped, precociously poised actress endowed with movie-star je ne sais quoi (“If you have that quality, the camera just falls in love with you,” says Peirce. “You watch her face, watch an emotion play off it — she doesn’t have to do anything”), a child star who had worked with Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton, and whose un-Carrie-ish confidence Peirce sought to break down.

“We have to create for you a space where you don’t have all the things you’ve had since you were five,” Peirce told the teenager. “Success, money, confidence, love, support. Carrie doesn’t have these things. We have to transform you as a character from an overconfident child to a broken young woman.”

To that end, Peirce took Moretz to homeless shelters.

“That was sensitive. I didn’t want to use people who are less fortunate than us,” Peirce says. “So I suggested to Chloë that she owed it to herself, and to others, to see beyond how we live. She was open. She was wonderful. We went to shelters and worked with some girls and women who were very generous and talked to us about their difficult times. I said to Chloë, ‘Try to go beyond just listening and feel.’”

For three months they focused on getting Moretz to internalize adversity and rebellion. When Moretz finally teamed up on the set with Moore (“who is a master,” says Peirce, “she just is”), the director witnessed the fulfillment of that work. “In the relationship with Julianne, and under Julianne’s tutelage, I saw Chloë grow as an actor.”

Moore, a four-time Oscar nominee, had her own concerns.

“Julianne was worried that people wouldn’t love her character,” Peirce says. “And I said, ‘What do you mean? Margaret’s great. Everyone’s going to love Margaret.’

“We worked through Julianne loving this complicated woman through her love for Carrie. Margaret and Carrie’s love for one another is at the center of this movie. Yet there’s a tragic inevitability, because Margaret fears that the child is evil, fears that her powers could come out. Margaret is in a moral struggle: she feels she must kill Carrie, but she loves Carrie. So what should she do?”

Peirce, versed in Aristotle’s Poetics (core undergrad reading at the University of Chicago) and the lessons of her film-school teachers, is a demon for dramatic conflict.

“Margaret is in a moral struggle: she feels she must kill Carrie, but she loves Carrie. So what should she do?”

“Carrie is bullied at school, bullied at home. She discovers she has a secret power, which maybe could make her happy, make her normal. So she explores it. When her mother finds out, she tells Carrie it’s the devil’s work. She tries to stop the power. But Carrie is desperate to have something of her own, desperate to be a whole person. She’s trying to be everything she’s ever wanted to be. ‘I can have powers and I can go to prom. I can be normal.’

“But we all know that she can’t.”

“Because it’s a Kimberly Peirce film, the horror builds from the truth in the acting and the relationships,” says Lee Percy, Carrie’s editor. Originally trained as an actor at Juilliard, Percy has edited more than forty features, including three with Oscar-winning performances: William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune, and Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry.

For Percy, the heart of the film is the mother-daughter bond.

“I think Kim would say it’s the love story,” he says. “The relationship between Carrie and Margaret in Kim’s film is much more emotional, much more linked, much more aware of what holds them together than in the De Palma film, which is a great classic. Brian has his areas of expertise, and Kim has hers.”

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