Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena. Photos: Bill Matlock
On the night of December 31, 1993 in Falls City, Nebraska, two men crashed down the front door of Lisa Lamberts home, shooting her and two guests, Philip Devine and Brandon Teena, to death and leaving her nine-month old son, Tanner crying in his crib. This crime, covered endlessly by the press, chronicled in a documentary The Brandon Teena Story, explored in a interactive web site [brandon.guggenheim.org], is now dramatized in Kimberly Peirces debut feature, Boys Dont Cry. The crime lives in infamy because of the murderers motive: they had discovered that Brandon Teena who was dating their friend Lana was in fact a woman, Teena Brandon, who had changed gender when she had moved from nearby Lincoln.
Originally drawn to the story while working on a Civil War female spy story, Peirce went on a fact-finding odyssey, interviewing the original participants, spending long stretches of time in Nebraska to unearth the person behind the headlines. But the closer to the truth she got, the more the story took on the shape of a classic tragedy, as sad and sublime as anything from Shakespeare. While Peirce references other true-life tales of the America Heartland, from Terence Malicks Badlands to Truman Capotes In Cold Blood, her story transcends the contour of a nationalistic myth. As producer Eva Kolodner observes, "What Kim realized is that the story of Brandon Teena wasnt so much about the tragic murder or the brutality he experienced at the end of his life, but about this remarkable love he had found, about finally finding someone who accepted him on his own terms." With the alchemy of a determined filmmaker, Peirce took the stuff of "A Current Affair" and wove it into the gold of fairy tales. High Art director Lisa Cholodenko, who has known Kim Peirce since they were graduate students at Columbia University, talks with the director about her film.
Lisa Cholodenko: What originally drew you to the character of Brandon Teena?
Kimberly Peirce: Just the fact that he existed. Its amazing that Brandon walked the earth, that he lived in a trailer park and had no role models and limited economic means, and that he took the imaginative leap to pull off what he did. His sheer existence is completely compelling to me. And then that he got killed for it. [For me], being in love with him was the beginning, the birth of the character.
Cholodenko: It was really stunning how you worked with Hilary Swank. Did casting director Kerry Barden hook you up with her?
Peirce: He did, but it took three years to find Brandon. I had a wonderful actress in the short, and she was good but she didnt pass as a boy. And then I had another actress out at Sundance, but she didnt pass as a boy either. And then I was interviewing all these butch lesbians and transgenders and getting tapes from all over the country, and they were great, but they didnt cinematically carry Brandon. And then all the actors had no idea what a butch was, so I was getting flooded with actresses who tried to act like boys but didnt come anywhere close. Eventually I started understanding what made a girl look like a boy on screen. Brandon had to be played by an unknown. She had to be someone the public didnt recognize. We knew that she needed to pass in the movie as much as Brandon passed in real life because that was the audiences big thing does she pass as a boy? And then secondly, that was the only way the scenes were going to work; the other characters had to actually buy her as a boy. Brandon was trying to be a boy as much as the guys were trying to figure out what it was to be a guy.
Cholodenko: Its fascinating, all the bone structure stuff, what makes a man look like a man, a woman like a woman. It was so intriguing to be watching this character who I knew intellectually was a woman, and realize early on in the film I had lost my grasp on her gender completely.
Cholodenko: So how did you wind up with Hilary?
Peirce: Well we were finally getting our money together you probably know this, the minute you get money to actually make your film the idea that you would stop for any reason is unthinkable. We were going into production and I went to [producer] Christine Vachon about four weeks before we were going to shoot, and I said, "Look, Christine, Ive been looking for Brandon for three years, and theres no Brandon in sight. I cant shoot this movie unless Brandon works." So we called up Kerry, and we were like, "You have to pull out all the stops, and he went out to L.A. and did another round of auditions after wed already been auditioning for three years, and he sent back this tape. And this gorgeous androgynous person floated across the screen. She was packing a sock in her pants, she had a cowboy hat on, she had a cut on her lip, and she had that gorgeous jaw. She had those ears, those eyes, all those attributes that I had discovered made a girl pass as a boy. But more than everything else, she loved being Brandon, and that was the thing. A lot of girls when they tried to pass as a boy got very tense and shut down. And I know that Brandon loved being Brandon because he was [otherwise] deprived of his own imagination.
Cholodenko: Did you cast Hilary right off the tape?
Peirce: No, because I still wasnt convinced that she was going to pass as a boy. She blurred the gender lines, but she wasnt a boy at that point. Still, that was more than anyone else had done. So I said, "Look, you can have the role if you do a Robert De Niro and do a full transformation into a boy. And that means psychologically and physically." I got her a voice trainer and a physical trainer, because the voice is the thing that gives them away. And I made her live as a boy for four weeks.
Cholodenko: How did you negotiate with Hilary and Chloë [Sevigny] in terms of the sex scenes? They were rigorous and so believable.
Peirce: The sex scenes were terrifying for everybody, as I think sex scenes always are. Everybody is wigging out! The actors are like, "Kim, why dont you tell us exactly what you want us to do because we dont want to have to make up anything." So they are forcing you to map it out like a fight scene.
Cholodenko: I know, its incredibly choreographed and kind of antithetical to the whole idea.
Peirce: They want that, though. Once you map it out and you let them go through it a couple of times, then they kind of start to inhabit it. But they need that kind of structure. And whats so neat is that people would never imagine that in a sex scene its all mapped out.
Cholodenko: I thought the film was quite ambitious technically. It seemed like so many of the shots and sequences were really well conceived like the segue from the love scene to the screaming scene in the car. Did you do storyboards, or shot lists, or did you just go through it in detail with your cinematographer? Were those bridges constructed in the editing? What was your approach?
Peirce: With that scene, the point was that I wanted it to be the orgasm of all orgasms. This was the orgasm that set her free and was supposed to be like a rebel yell. I wanted it to echo all throughout the movie the country, really! So particularly in the sex scenes, we tried to be as close as possible [to the actors], and on a dolly, when we could, so we could have movement. And, whenever we could, wed shoot from Brandons perspective, which is why we pushed down into Lanas mouth. As it was written, I wanted to go inside her mouth, through her teeth and into her tonsils, but I didnt have the budget or the technical means to pull that off, so I went as far down as I could and then put [the scene] into the truck. Everything in the movie plays out in cars rights of manhood and stuff like that. So I wanted it to be totally celebratory and really sensual, and I wanted it to be from a girls perspective. Generally I did do a ton of storyboards which I threw out a bunch of times. I drew a lot, I would study my favorite movies and break them down and figure them out, like the language that they use, and how they structured their scenes. The great thing about having a storyboard is its kind of [like] your psyche laying itself down. But when you get to set, you end up changing it.
Cholodenko: It frees you up to improvise things if youre really well-prepared. If you really have thought through your storyboards, if you really have worked through your script, youve internalized the material at that point. Its in you, and you dont need to reference it for what youre doing.
Peirce: But storyboards are neat, too. When Brandon goes into Skate World, that [sequence] was inspired by The Wizard of Oz. Its a basic three-shot structure. Youre looking at the thing that hes looking at, youre looking at him, and then youre going over the shoulder and entering the magical landscape. So that was fun because you say to your cinematographer, "This is the shot breakdown, and now you do with it what you need to do with it." I would find things that had a grammatical structure that I liked.
Cholodenko: Which films impressed you? What were you looking at when you were conceptualizing the movie?
Peirce: I had two different needs: One was coming out of neo-realism, so it was Pasolinis Accatone, Rossellini, Scorseses early stuff, Whos That Knocking At My Door?, Mean Streets, Cassavetes, because I really wanted it to feel real. But then I had this whole other magical element when Lana and Brandons relationship broke down and they had to escape into their imagination, and thats coming out of Mamoulians Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Wizard of Oz, some of Gus Van Sants stuff, and Mizoguchis Ugetsu Monogatari.
Cholodenko: Kim, youre so academic!
Peirce: Sorry! I was so overwhelmed since I had gone to the trial, interviewed Lana, and had been researching [the story] for five-and-a-half years. I had all this information, and I wanted to make sure Brandon didnt become an icon or sensationalized the way he was in the media. And yet I knew the structure of the movie needed to be mythic, meaning it had to be really simple, so I was going back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Cinderella and Pinocchio, these stories of transformation. But fundamentally the real heart of the material was the tragic love story which was like Romeo and Juliet. So I actually used those things as models in the editing.
Cholodenko: Thats whats great, because stories that have the most power are the ones that you can reduce down to these kinds of mythical or classic comedies or tragedies. The cinematography in your film is gorgeous. When I was watching it I kept feeling like I was in Larry Clarks book Tulsa.
Peirce: Get out! That was a huge influence.
Cholodenko: I just kept feeling like, wow, Kim just stepped into that book and totally absorbed the whole thing. That daydreamy kind of naturalism really makes you feel you are there. Larry Clarks photographs had a huge influence on me as well when I was making my film. As did Nan Goldins and others. I know that you are a big fan of still photography, so were there other photographers that influenced you and the way you visualized the movie?
Peirce: Man Ray is a gigantic influence, just because I think he works on such a sensory level, and I like some of his fashion photography. What I really wanted to do is get underneath the skin of the characters and certain images did that.
Cholodenko: Its interesting that you were talking about Cassavetes too, because when I was thinking about the film, I just kept thinking Larry Clarks Tulsa and Cassavetes A Woman Under the Influence, just in the overall feeling you convey through the cinematography.
Peirce: Cassavetes is neat because he didnt storyboard, so you get a real visceral quality. You know, if you break down Raging Bull, the shot structure is gorgeous. So its a different thing to be influenced by someone like Cassavetes versus somebody as structured as Scorsese.
Cholodenko: I know people are saying that this film is in the spirit of the docudrama, and I was thinking that you kept a kind of psychological distance from Brandon in a way. Theres an objectivity to the storytelling, like the way you placed the camera, and you were spare with point-of-view shots. Did you have issues about mixing genres mixing melodrama with docudrama? Do you have any thoughts about where you wanted the psychological or emotional distance to be?
Peirce: Yeah. This story had been covered so sensationalistically, and people were making Brandon into an icon, so I knew that what I needed to do was enter as deeply as possible into his character. And I thought that the heart of that was actually to be inside of his desire. I didnt want to reduce it to questions like "Was he a lesbian?" or "Which came first, wanting to be with women or wanting to dress like a boy?" I wanted to be deeply inside his experience, and thats why I chose a lot of close-ups, thats why the color is saturated, thats why you start the movie in his bedroom [with him] looking at himself in the mirror thats like the birth of Brandon. In terms of any of those genres, I dont know how applicable they are. What I really wanted to do was bring the audience in and allow them to enter into a pretty epic tragedy, but on a really, really human level [in order to] bring Brandon to life. And to see the world as he saw it.
Cholodenko: So you had a script and you had to be "ready to go" at any time, but then financing didnt come for two or three years. How do you feel that the material evolved, and what did you learn about the character and the story during that time?
Peirce: I was never satisfied with what I had. When I first started thinking about Brandon, I had a more mythical, cool sense of him. I wanted him to be kind of like my fantasy. And then I realized that was the worst way to characterize him. If anything, I had to make him as deeply human as possible. Completely fallible. The more that I learned about Brandon, the more I laughed my head off. He was a criminal, but he was like Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run; he was an inept criminal. I realized that this character is not the cool guy whos got it all under control. Whats endearing about him is that hes constructing himself as he goes. The question becomes, how do you tell Brandons story? And I would watch myself pitch it to people, and I would say to myself, Well, what information do I get out right in the beginning? And that became the thing that I used to keep rewriting the script. How to make it more accessible, how to bring the audiences as deep inside the journey as possible? And the great thing is you have the opportunity to do that in writing, and thats what not getting financing gives you time to do.
Cholodenko: It seems like a miserable thing to go through, this process of development, but sometimes its really to your advantage. The film seemed like it was distilled to its best possibility.
Peirce: I think that came about also in the editing. We did seven audience screenings with 100 people each, and those questionnaires are so invaluable. Because when you sit there with an audience, you can tell when it goes slack. I was caught between telling the story of transformation and the love story, until I finally realized that the transformation has to be done within seven minutes, and you have to be on to the next story.
Cholodenko: In your press notes about [Brandons murderers] John Lauter and Thomas Neeson, you said "I had questions about who they were and how much did they know." And I was thinking about that too as I was watching it.
Peirce: In the real story, Brandon got exposed so many times it was beyond comprehension that he stuck around and that they kept exposing him without fully destroying him. In the script he got exposed many times but what we found in the editing was that there was no way you could have a good dramatic structure with all of those. It was a repetition of the information.
Cholodenko: Right, it deflated the tension.
Peirce: I also think that the guys in some ways might have known earlier and were manipulating and using Brandon, but it would have made the relationship between the guys so ugly. Norman Mailer talks about [a comparable situation] in The Executioners Song. He says there are moments when you have to enhance the characters to actually make them more truthful.
Cholodenko: I think that would be the incredible challenge of this, to be able to detach from the true story and figure out what you need to embellish to make it a dramatic one.
Peirce: Yeah, what stuff are you going to lift, what ultimately is the emotional truth, what are the characters arcs, and in the short time that you have, how many of the events can you tell, and which are the privileged events?
Cholodenko: What about the issue of life rights? I was wondering what you used and how you got them? A lot of people were swarming around this story.
Peirce: Just by nature of the fact that hes dead, you can write about Brandon. And I interviewed transsexuals and butch lesbians and found out about their own personal experiences. So, it was based on the true Brandon and also an amalgamation of other people. I got Lana and her mom to sign off on the rights to their life stories, which meant I had the right to use anything they told me.
Cholodenko: Wow, thats great, Kim.
Peirce: Yeah, it was actually really terrifying because they signed off on it, and then later on we found out that there was something wrong with the signature, two years later. So we were about to shoot and John [Hart, producer] and Christine were like, "You have to get them to do it again." So it was intense. Then in terms of the guys, I have 10,000 pages of court transcripts that I have the right to use because theyre in the public domain. And then anything thats in articles and cross-referenced three times I have the right to use, but we still had to fully vet the script. I had to tie every single line, every single description, every single event to something that I had the right to use. And I was doing that right before I shot, so it was intense. As you probably know, people own the things that we perceive, and we have to fight to have the right to write about the things that are within our culture and our perception.
Cholodenko: What was it in the end that enabled you to get that financing? How come at that point?
Peirce: Its funny because, remember, I had seen you when I was ready to give up a year earlier. I think that the culture killed Brandon, the guys killed Brandon, the family killed Brandon, but it was at a time that someone doing what Brandon did was going to get killed. Ultimately I dont think the society was ready to finance it for quite a long time. I think that the story had captured the nations imagination, but I dont think that people knew how to get inside Brandon. I think I finally got inside him, brought him to life, then he started making sense to people and things were starting to open up. Also, we found Hilary. So I think the reason it finally got financed in the end is because people were finally ready to tell the story. I would just say to people [reading this], just stick with it. If it matters to you its going to matter to other people eventually. Financiers dont make scripts until theyre ready. And everybody says, "People dont understand my script." But I think its that the script is not ready. And if you just rewrite and tell the story with more clarity, it will get made.
Cholodenko: Taking it full circle, if I learned anything, it was that. Just keep working on the script, and know when youre not there and know when you are there.
Peirce: And keep finding yourself, where your own myth intersects with the story youre telling, because I think when you reduce it to those classical structures, theyre going to hit people.