Hollywood screenwriter Dustin Lance Black has been swimming in the deep end for quite some time now: After earning his chops writing for HBO’s Big Love, he nabbed an Academy Award in 2009 for writing the script to Milk, Gus Van Zant’s bio-pic about slain gay-rights leader Harvey Milk. He also penned the screenplay for J. Edgar, another high-profile bio-pic, directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood.
Black even stood up to the President in a controversial Hollywood Reporter piece that called both Obama and Romney to task for being “up in the air” about gay marriage.
But his new film, Virginia, might just be Black’s most daring endeavor yet: An extremely personal project, it marks the first time the Hollywood golden boy has both directed and written a major feature film. “Except for a couple of horrible videos I made in college that got released as features,” he jokes while chatting with Queerty’s Dan Avery.
Virginia is both the title of the movie and the name of its main character (played by a stellar Jennifer Connelly), a single mother battling both mental illness and a fearful future: Her relationship with a married Mormon sheriff (Ed Harris) isn’t going anywhere, a pesky social worker keeps banging on her door, and her teenage son and protector (Harrison Gilbertson) is itching to leave the nest.
Is it any wonder she retreats to a fantasy world to cope? “It’s what you [do], that aspirational thing that Southerns have that helps you survive,” says Black.
Below, the filmmaker talks about about getting Virginia made, whether Mormons are bullies and the film’s connections to his own life.
Was it daunting directing your own movie after working with people like Gus Van Sant and Clint Eastwood?
Oh yeah! I had come from working with Gus, and have since worked with Clint, and they have a filmmaking family—a crew they’ve worked with for years. They have a shorthand when it comes to creative conversations. So it was daunting to try and build that. I think I succeeded in some ways, and didn’t in others. I hope I get another shot to build that family.
A viewer doesn’t have to be Freud to see some elements of your life in the film. How autobiographical is Virginia?
Its incredibly autobiographical in a thematic way. The characters are a bit different, the names and places have changed. But I grew up a poor Mormon kid in the South with a mother with a disability. My mother’s disability was different—she was paralyzed from polio. I would tell that story to people once I had gotten a little drunk on some whiskey—the stories of what we did to survive and what roles I had to take on—and I would get these long faces. And I just thought, you don’t understand Southern, you don’t understand Mormon.
Was there that kind of flight from reality in your family?
We lived in a dream. It’s what you did, that aspirational thing that Southerns have that helps you survive. And its only magnified by being Mormon, because now you have someone telling you this life is just a test. So you’re aspirational and dreamy not just in this life, but in the next one too. Where my mom will have a perfect body, and we’ll have a big wonderful family and pick the colors of everything in Heaven.
Jennifer Connelly is amazing in the film, and her role is a real departure from what we’ve seen her in before. Did she bring a lot of her own ideas to the part or was that all you?
Probably two years before Milk, I met with her here in New York at the Bowery Bar and she just really responded to the script. She said she saw a lot of herself in Virginia. And I had never met her before, I had a lot of those same concerns. But what you don’t realize is that, in real life, she’s really, really funny. You don’t seen that on the screen all the time. She was down to do whatever, and take it anywhere. She became my real ally. This film was made on an incredibly small budget under some really difficult conditions. Virginia could not have been made without Jennifer Connelly, both as an ally for the film early on and on the set, willing to do whatever.
Ed Harris plays Virginia’s lover, and he’s basically a bastard and a bully—and a Mormon. With what’s come out about Mitt Romney’s past, did that strike a chord with you, this idea of Mormons as bullies?
I was surprired that Mitt Romney attacked a gay kid when he was younger. I grew up Mormon, I grew up surrounded by Mormon men. There’s a lot of judgment inside, in Mormon men’s hearts but Mormons aren’t violent—not today, anyway. No, I think that kind of attack is particular to Mitt Romney. Which is what makes it so horrifying.
It actually speaks to another character flaw in him—that he lacks empathy. And that’s a frightening character trait for a presidential nominee to have.
Virginia opens in theaters on May 18. Photos: Entertainment One.