Moving Pictures

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

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2013
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Download
  • Text Size A A A

Hilary Swank (right) and Chloë Sevigny in “Boys Don’t Cry”. / © Bureau L.A. Collection / Sygma / CorbisPeirce was born in 1967 in working-class Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her mother was fifteen. Her father was seventeen. Peirce remembers her parents as “larger than life” — her mother beautiful, alluring, adventurous, her father a charismatic hell-raiser brought up to “fuck, drink, and fight.” It wasn’t long before they each blew town.

Her father, a builder, went to Florida. Her mother went to New York. Peirce bounced around among relatives, lost herself in Saturday-morning cartoons. Got ahold of a tape recorder, too.

At five, she moved to New York to live with her mother, who had gotten a job as a waitress at the Plaza Hotel.

That arrangement didn’t last long. Peirce went to live with her father in Miami.

Her father started his own contracting business. In the late 1970s Miami began receiving mind-blowing injections of Medellín-cartel drug money. Construction cranes shot up like weeds.

Her mother sojourned in Europe, lived with sheikhs in Morocco. Both parents drifted in the patchouli of me-decade immoderation.

In Florida, Peirce learned to fish, swim, scuba-dive, play tennis. She was a sparky tomboy who read DC Comics and sci-fi–fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time, who loved to draw and make animations with her Super 8 camera.

At times, her father became abusive. He’d been beaten as a kid, toughened up the Harrisburg way, and he repeated that pattern with Peirce.

His life moved fast. Money. Women. What Peirce didn’t know was that he was running cocaine in and out of the Bahamas on seaplanes.

When Peirce was ten, her mother returned from overseas and landed in Puerto Rico. Peirce went to live with her for a year.

She would ask her mother questions. Where did you live? What were you doing? How did you make money? Who were you screwing? Why did you come back to get me? What do you want? She wanted chronology, wanted to understand the mechanics of how one thing led to the next.

Her mother also brought into Peirce’s life a “complicated stepfather.” That situation, Peirce says, informed a lot of the physical and sexual abuse in Boys Don’t Cry.

Someday, when the time is right, she says, she will tell her own story in film. Until then, she will tell it through others.

I quit college after my sophomore year, bought a still camera, and moved to Japan. I had my own darkroom in Kyoto. Over the next two years I went through Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Thailand, photographing everything I could. I wanted to be a photojournalist. I wasn’t pursuing film, but I was pursuing life, and literature, and images. Being stripped of the ability to speak a language really developed my visual ability. It was the best training in the world.

Before Carrie, before Brandon, there was Pauline.

“I was wildly in love with this story,” says Peirce, who burns for her characters with the passion of a raptured mother. She doesn’t just love them; she is in love with them.

Pauline Cushman, an actress born in 1833 in New Orleans, was one-eighth African-American, a fact she concealed as a matter of survival. During the Civil War, Cushman became a Union spy, posing as a white Southern man in order to get her hands on Confederate battle plans.

It was a hell of a story, and Peirce wanted it to be her thesis project. She’d been drawn to Columbia’s film school for its emphasis on storytelling. Columbia meant “you’re going to write, write, write, and you’re going to take acting classes and acting classes and acting classes.” Peirce took three years of acting with theater director Lenore DeKoven and actress Carlin Glynn. “I loved it,” she says. “I wasn’t any good at acting, but I was good at the class, at reading the texts and understanding what the actors were going through and what they needed from me. I was glad the program made me write, work with actors, and use other media in addition to film, because it allowed me to create more work, make more mistakes, and learn more.”

Her first year, in 1992, the students shot video. Peirce knew from having recorded her family in different media that format wasn’t the crucial thing. And yet. Video.

“Look, we all bitched about it,” she says. “We were running around the Upper West Side in the horrible New York City heat with these ridiculously huge video cameras. We had all chosen Columbia and were like, ‘Aah, this is fucking awful, these cameras suck.’ We’d shoot these crazy videos, then go back to these old, bulky editing machines that had something called ‘timecode’ that none of us could figure out. You’d be up till six in the morning doing linear editing, you’d have your whole project edited, and then you’d suddenly ‘break the code’ and lose the whole thing, and then it’s time for class, and you’d say, ‘It was great, and it’s gone.’ It was crazy.

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (76)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time