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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“But it became so clear to me — and this is said with a great love for film — that it was just about getting story down. I saw that no matter how technically weak the visuals were, whether they were done on Super 8, Hi8, PixelVision, or whatever, if the story was good, it worked.”

Peirce took the Pauline Cushman story to her writing teacher, playwright Corinne Jacker.

Jacker thought about it, and said, “I think you have a problem.”

“What is it?” said Peirce.

“Cushman dresses as a man to get a job,” Jacker said. “I think you want to write about somebody who dresses as a man because that’s who that person is.”

The insight sank in. Jacker was saying that the story wasn’t going to work as a movie because Cushman’s motivation wasn’t coming from an internal enough place.

That laid Peirce low. She had no story now. No thesis film.

At the time, Peirce lived in “the lesbian ghetto” of Manhattan’s East Village, home to artists, anarchists, squatters, drug dealers, academics, activists — “an oasis of queerness that was wildly more interesting to me than the straight white male world uptown.” For money, she worked nights at a Midtown law firm.

One evening, Peirce was at the law office.

During a coffee break, a co-worker, Hoang Duong ’94SOA, came over to her.

“Hey,” Duong said. “You should read this.” He handed her the Village Voice.

It was an article by Donna Minkowitz about the case of a young Nebraskan woman named Teena Brandon, who transposed her name, passed as a male, and won the hearts of the prettiest girls in the town. The story of Brandon’s life and death, told from a butch-lesbian perspective, jolted Peirce.

“From the moment I read that article, that was it,” she says. “Brandon was my child.”

“The question is always: who is Carrie, what does she want, and how would she use her power?”

“This is a girl with superpowers. She can stamp her foot and create a fissure in the earth. She can lift up a car. She can levitate the furniture.”

Peirce, in postproduction, is talking about Carrie while exercising her own earth-shaking power. With big-budget digital technology at her disposal, Peirce can summon not just the minor mischief caused by Carrie’s capricious flexing of her telekinetic muscles (if there’s a girl-appropriate superpower, Peirce has said, it’s telekinesis: emotions turned physical), but the massive destruction of the town caused by the full discharge of her adolescent rage. (De Palma, filming in 1976, had confined the ruined prom queen’s climactic vengeance mainly to the school gymnasium.)

“It was a blast to figure out how to use visual effects to better tell the story,” says Peirce. “As a writer, not only was I able to write on the page, write with the actors, and write on set, but now I could write throughout post, as I refined the action and the story with the visual effects. The question is always: who is Carrie, what does she want, and how would she use her power?”

For me, sexuality was very fluid — I had boyfriends, I had girlfriends — and gender was very fluid: I was a tomboy. I wasn’t ever really closeted, but once I came out, I left a sort of heteronormative life.

With the Pauline Cushman story on the shelf, Peirce fixated on her new obsession. “I was in love with Brandon,” she says. “It was amazing to me that this female-bodied person lived as a boy, loved other women, and had the audacity to live like that, especially in the Midwest.”

Peirce brought the Brandon Teena idea to Corinne Jacker. Peirce had many wonderful film teachers — director Miloš Forman; screenwriter Paul Schrader, a name well known to a Scorsese nut like Peirce (“Paul taught us that you need ten years’ distance before you can tell your own story, and even then you should aim to transform it, find a cover for it, as he did in Taxi Driver”); Serbian director Emir Kusturica; and Ralph Rosenblum, editor of Annie Hall, to name a few — but it was Jacker, her thesis adviser, whom she had to persuade.

Peirce had reason to be optimistic. Here was a story about someone who wanted to dress like a man and date girls because that’s who that person was.

Again, Jacker balked.

“Now this person has two needs,” she said, “and that doesn’t work. You need one need. Does she want to be a man or does she want to be a lesbian?”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Peirce. “She seems to want to be a guy, or to dress like a guy, and she seems to want to be with women; she seems to want both, and I’m not sure which one came first or which one is more important. I don’t think it’s an either–or proposition. I think this person needs both.”

“Kim, you can’t just follow the truth. You have to shape drama.”

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