Kimberly Peirce has something to say. That should come as no surprise.
The award-winning director of films like Stop-Loss and Carrie left her mark on cinema with her debut feature Boys Don’t Cry. Critics hailed it as one of the best films of the 1990s and one of the most auspicious directorial debuts in history. It went on to win an Academy Award for a then-unknown actress named Hillary Swank.
20 years on, Peirce still basks in that glory. As a special guest of the Women Under the Influence Goes Idylwild festival, she joined other industry luminaries like Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World), Courtney Love, Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and Karen O (lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) to celebrate the milestone anniversary of her film, and its continuing impact on queer cinema.
Peirce agreed to give Queerty a few minutes during the festival, though we ended up talking for far longer. (And we could have kept talking) In our conversation, we discussed the legacy of the film, the changing cultural landscape, being a lesbian in Hollywood and the future of queer cinema.
It’s amazing that Boys Don’t Cry is 20 years old. How are you feeling about that milestone?
I don’t want it to be that long!
I want to still be making it. I want to be on that set with those guys. There’s nothing like working on a story, a movie, with other people. For it to be a dream come true like that project, it was so deeply fulfilling. And over the years its been fulfilling watching it make its way in the world. It’s been a great thing to have done.
And a great gift to the LGBTQ community. I know you directed a short film about the same subject. What was it about Brandon’s story that seduced you so?
That’s a great question. I was up at Columbia studying film, in a pretty straight, white, heteronormative male kind of environment. Scorsese taught. Schrader taught. I was getting the best education. It was so wonderful for me, but at that time, I had boyfriends. I’d always been queer, though at that time, I didn’t understand yet. It’s important for people to know what the world was like back then: it was still considered really unusual to be gay.
In terms of being a lesbian, I hadn’t really met other lesbians. When I was growing up I didn’t really know that there was a girl version of it. I remember being called a lesbian, but that was a bad thing.
So I was at Columbia, and I was loving everything I was learning about the classics. I was trying to write a story about a woman who lived as a man during the civil war. Interestingly, I had a lesbian professor, Corinne Jacker. I went to her with this story I was obsessed with, and she said “You don’t want to tell this story as someone who passes to survive. You want to tell someone who passes because it’s who they are.”
Now, I want for your readers to know that I don’t use the word “pass.” I use the term “live as a man.”
But that’s the term she used as a lesbian of that era.
Right. Got it.
So she told me that and I was like oh God I don’t even have a thesis. But she was right. I, at that point, was realizing I was queer. I never really used the word “lesbian,” but I was falling in love with women and sleeping with them. I’m on the trans scale somewhere.
I don’t know exactly where, but I’m genderqueer. And I was going downtown all the time. I had a girlfriend downtown, I was going out to bars. You know that first moment when you’re like oh my God, I’m gay. And I love being gay!
It was such a great era too. Boy clubs were great. Girl clubs were great. It was heaven on Earth to be a dyke in downtown New York then. So I didn’t have a project but I was happy being queer. Then all of a sudden, my friend hands me this Village Voice article. I literally lost my mind. I read it at one in the morning, and by three in the morning, reading Donna Minkowitz’s article, and I couldn’t see straight. It was like I adopted a child. Literally, the next day, I saw Andy Beenan on campus. He remembers you were holding the Village Voice and it was all tattered. You were like ‘this is my movie.’
I was a kid in graduate school. I had no means, but I knew I was going to make a short film of it. If you ask me why, it was a reflection of what I was going through leaving the straight, heteronormative ivory tower which I loved and venturing into The Leatherman. Going to Meow Mix. Going to The Cock—all those great bars for queer people. We called ourselves ‘gay’ but we were inventing a culture. We needed a culture.
We were not assimilated, nor did we want to be. I went deep into my community. Not everyone knew about Brandon’s story, but when I would tell people about it, they got interested. It’s important for your readers to know that the lesbian world—I don’t really identify as a lesbian, but that’s kind of what we were—it was kind of racially divided.
There really wasn’t much mixing of what you’d call trans people and classically lesbian people. But because I was already myself in those communities, I was crossing over between them. So I read the Brandon Teena article. I fell deeply in love with this person who shaped themself into a fantasy of themself. And they had the courage to go live as they wanted to live. That was always the heart of the story to me.
And of course, I particularly identified with a girl that dresses as a boy and lives as a boy and makes love to women. All that I loved. But, I also knew—and it’s important for queer readers to know this—I didn’t want to cast myself on to Brandon. I’m genderqueer. I sleep with women. What I wanted to do was to understand this human being, Brandon.
There wasn’t a lot of understanding about Brandon, but we had some sense. I’m very much a historian and anthropologist, so I got on Lexus-Nexus and I got, over the years, every single article ever written in the world on Brandon—thousands and thousands of pages. I also immediately got in touch with Transsexual Menace. This is their own name: Kate Bornstein, Nancy Nangeroni—a number of self-identified transsexuals. I think now they’d call themselves transpeople. And I said I wanted to understand every bit of Brandon.
Brandon’s desire as a female-bodied person for other female-bodied people. Also, Brandon’s desire as a female-bodied person to live as a man. I wanted to start interviewing transpeople about when they understood their own feelings about themselves and their bodies. I was interviewing everybody saying “What do you think about Brandon?” So with Transsexual Menace, we flew as a group to the murder trial [of Brandon’s killers].
Whoa. That is intense.
They said “Interview us for a week and come with us to the murder trial.”
I didn’t know that part of the story.
A lot of queer people don’t and I wish they did. I was always coming at it in service of Brandon, whatever Brandon was. And nobody knew. And those transpeople and butch lesbians both felt that Brandon represented them in some ways. So we went to the murder trial. It was crazy.
Oh good lord.
We stayed together for a week and videotaped all of them. At one point Kate was like I’m going to call you “he.” And I was like ok fine. They were just saying “We think you’re a transperson.” And I wasn’t into it or out of it, I just wanted to know what I was. At the end of the day, I think I’m on the trans scale, but I have no desire to take hormones or transition, but I like being in my strange middleness. So Brandon was built from that understanding. Then I spent three years looking for Brandon.
I was this little graduate student making this little movie. I’d go to drag king performances. I’d go to transpeople. I’d go to butch lesbians. I went to everybody and it was open call for anyone that could portray this human being.
That’s wonderful, and I think that’s part of this story people don’t know. I know you auditioned a lot of transpeople, which was totally unheard of in that time.
It was unheard of. I felt a deep obligation to get this right for Brandon, and his memory, and for anyone who was like Brandon. All of us.
So how and why did you end up going with Hillary Swank? Obviously, she’s brilliant in the film, but why a cis woman and not a trans man?
Because everybody came in. I have all the tapes that I’m archiving with the Academy. Hillary was the only person who carried off the role in a way that would work for a feature.
That makes sense.
This is important: I definitely think transpeople should play transpeople if they want to. I think transpeople should have a right to see transpeople play transpeople if they want to. I’m completely, 100% behind that.
But I think what people need to know was that it was unheard of that I was auditioning transpeople and lesbians. We didn’t have the word “cis” back then, but I was looking for the person who could bring Brandon to life. My first instinct was to draw from the community. The thing is, to carry a feature is not a small task. I want people to understand that.
I want an authentic representation. We certainly gave it the best shot we could have. It was my intention to cast a transperson. When Hillary came and performed that role, it was hands-down obvious that character was her. So it was with the utmost respect for doing it authentically, and at the end of the day, what I saw was authenticity this human being. I’m not going to graft onto [Hillary] that she’s transy. But she has a level of masculinity that she accesses very well.
Or possibly androgyny. I guess it depends on the context. Hillary is a very femme woman if you just see her in interviews.
Yeah, but when you see her act, she has consistently succeeded at these kinds of roles that have something going on around her gender that you’d call androgynous, I’d call masculine. So it was her performance that made me cast Hillary. Now the other thing I want to add is that nobody really knows what Brandon really was.
Nobody. I lean towards a female-bodied person that lived as a man. I called him “he” always. I lean towards the transperson interpretation of Brandon. But we don’t know for sure. What we do know, if you’ve seen the autopsy pictures, is that Brandon was a female-bodied person who, as far as I know, ever had a hormone, never had sexual surgery, and Brandon did not gravitate towards the queer community. He overtly said “I’m not a dyke.”
Brandon moved from Lincoln to Fall City…into a more oppressive, smaller, less access to homosexual culture and tried to exist as a straight person. So in terms of Brandon moving towards a certain kind of queer identity, I didn’t see evidence of that.
All that fits with everything I’ve ever seen or read about him. I think it’s obvious he was a transgender man. That’s the general consensus anyway.
Yes. And I cast the best person for the role at the moment that the role could have been played by that person. And what Hillary did—it’s no substitute for trans playing trans—but Hillary met with many transpeople. And they were thrilled with Hillary.
And she essentially lived as a man for more than a month before filming.
Yes. We were in touch with the transpeople I’d been interviewing. It was a given. I wanted this to be from their point of view. And they were happy with her. That the movie works is a miracle. I don’t think people quite understand: what I was doing was so unusual. I recognize now I was so queer, so committed to my queerness, I was just doing what was authentic to myself and to the movie.
To this day I think it’s one of the best queer films ever made. And Hillary gives the best female performance of the 1990s.
She was committed and went all-in. But again, notwithstanding the idea we evolve.
It’s funny; I actually saw the film for the first time with Kate Bornstein. We were at an LGBTQ conference where she was a keynote speaker. I swear I’ll never forget–as long as I live–seeing Boys Don’t Cry for the first time. People had to be carried out of the theatre. I was so emotionally wrecked, I’m not sure I could watch it again. It destroyed us. Maybe that’s why I know so many people—trans people in particular—who are scared to watch it.
Let’s stay on this point for a moment. You saw it with Kate. Kate had been a big influence and talked to Hillary and I’d worked with Kate. You were saying you were devastated by it?
Why’s that a good thing?
Well the purpose of art is to make an audience feel something, to confont the human experience. Seeing it with a queer crowd, I felt a solidarity with the people I saw it with. It made me think about being part of a community in a way I never had before. It made real the violence that faced our community then and now—particularly for trans people. And it made me realize you can make an unapologetic, queer film and have it be great. And, as someone who grew up in a town not all that different from Fall City, it was a scary thing to see. So I’ve always wanted to open myself to queer people living in those towns or to young queer people for emotional support.
That’s a dream come true for me. We thought if we even got to make the movie it would open up in a two-boot cinema in New York to five people with a piece of pizza.
And that would have been great if they thought I did a good job. I wanted to do right by Brandon and my community. So the fact that the movie has touched so many people, and you say it touched you: it made you reach out to people. It made you have a good effect on people. Our humanity is at stake. Nowadays it’s interesting: I lecture, and I have the younger generation. One question I’ve gotten is “Why would you put a rape in a movie if that’s going to hurt people to watch it?”
That’s not a question you would have gotten ten years ago. The cultural awareness and literacy was of a different nature. These kids are being protected. So I actually walk them through and say “I’ll tell you the reason why: because when I read about Brandon, I fell in love with his exuberance and fun and charisma. This cute little human being that I wanted to be like and be with. For all that excitement of what Brandon did, I was so traumatized when I read about the rape.” I was so traumatized when I went to the murder trial and saw those guys. I have the tape with the sheriff interviewing Brandon. That’s what Hillary was listening to the night we shot the rape scene. I was so upset and obsessed with this story, that my bringing Brandon Teena to life was my way of healing how much it hurt to have faced losing Brandon. I believe in catharsis. And I’d like people, especially your friends who are scared to watch it, to know: I know I’m a really honest, caring storyteller. Many people have told me they were scared to see the movie, but when they saw it, they felt taken care of.
I recut the rape scene a hundred times, but we showed it eight different times [in test screenings]. Every time, it was too long and too brutal. People would say “I don’t like the rape.”
As if they were supposed to.
I would read these questionnaires and what I eventually realized was if the real rape is brutal and long, the movie version has to be brutal and long but not so brutal and long that it brutalizes you. There’s an art to capturing the potency of the experience. Very early on, it was clear to me, I did not want to contribute to the pornography of violence.
I did not want to recreate violence against any human being, in particular, a transperson in such a way that it denigrates the original person or the audience. That only encourages more violence. The important thing to know is when I create violence on screen, even though I have good intentions, I know it’s possible that I could make something pornographic. Therefore, I have to test myself. So we kept screening and I kept cutting it down until the miracle day when the questionnaires said “I don’t like rape. I don’t like this rape. But I know you’ve done the best job you’ve can.” They were saying they didn’t look away. So now it’s just long enough.
And I would like in your article to talk about why it’s important that we do show violence authentically and with a human point of view. It’s preserving our history. It’s humanizing us. I think the younger generation is being taught you don’t want things that are uncomfortable. But uncomfortable is not bad.
No. And in the film, it is not violence for violence’s sake. It is the most brutal rape I think I’ve seen in a film, but it is honest and warranted by the story.
Now when you went out to do press for the film, I’m curious: were you instructed to address Brandon as “she” for fear that the audience wouldn’t understand that he was transgender? How did you take a queer work of art to the masses?
That’s an interesting thing. I was so queer, and my point of view was so queer, that I operated in a vacuum. I think I was living in a queer, downtown world that allowed me to continue to reapply the story in the modality that I lived in. That was baked in. There was an attempt when the studio bought it to undo some of that queerness, and I probably said “I’ll burn the negative.”
I was encourageable. But I went to the nth degree to make it work on everybody’s terms without hurting anything. I did get an X rating, did you know that?
I did. I know you had to make cuts.
I made eight, because Christine said “I’m opening up the edit room once. You have four hours. You better get your ‘R.’” But I pulled out eight cuts, and until I retire I won’t be able to tell anybody how many frames are missing. But I protected it by going to the MPAA. I actually argued with the MPAA, and that protected my movie.
So this is my argument to queer people: yes, it may be hard to make our meaning. But fight fight fight! What Boys is…it’s a miracle in terms of how much meaning I protected, but I had to go to the mat every single time and work within the system. I needed that R. I got that R without hurting the queerness.
So the reception…
Yes. When we went to Venice—that was our first screening. We screened the X rated version, which is close to the R. The amazing thing was people just got it. It was a mostly straight audience. And they came out and said “We love Brandon.” And I almost goddamn fainted.
I had these Italian people saying “We love Brandon.” And all I ever wanted was for people to love Brandon. I wanted to create a character that I loved and that you loved so that destruction wouldn’t happen. India, they loved Brandon. Japan, they loved Brandon. It was amazing that all over the world where you didn’t have deeply, publicly developed queer identities they loved Brandon. They went right past the homosexuality and transness of it. There was no hitch. That’s the aim of the storytelling: to make Brandon comprehensible and to go through the world in his footsteps.
It’s a testament to how good Hillary is.
And this I want to tell your audience: there was a lot of misunderstanding about who Brandon was. The things that would be most upsetting would be that he pretended to be a boy—people saying it was a game, a joke, a lie. That he was deceitful, and he got the punishment he deserved. That was what you would get. But, there was a consistent desire by a straight, heteronormative culture to typify Brandon as a freak and responsible for his own destruction. So making him beautiful and relatable as we did counter that.
There was a moment where I was on a red carpet and being interviewed by Joan Rivers.
And I say it tells the story of a female-bodied person who lived and loved as a man. And Joan was like they lived and loved as a man!? She repeated my words. So the cameras went to Joan and me, and we’re on television. Now, I knew unconsciously the power of getting the language right. People all over the world were going to read the language right. My friends called me on the red carpet—I was carrying this big cell phone. And I pick up my phone. And they’re like you’re a lesbian talking about a trans person on the red carpet. That’s so great! It was these moments where we were tracking it and just humbled and amazed that we were making progress and the culture was running with us.
I think the release of the film came at a time, or represents a certain tipping point for the culture wherein we could talk about this. There’s so much more to say about that, but we’re over time and your publicist is going to break my legs.
So you didn’t make another narrative feature until 2005 with Stop-Loss. And then you didn’t do another until the Carrie remake. What was the hold-up?
I advise you to go see the vagina speech on the AFI website about this specific question. I had your point of view early on. After Boys Don’t Cry came out, and I met everybody and had all this success, and I was given opportunities. I said if someone like me can make it, given that I’m a female-bodied person, I’m genderqueer, I’m transy, I sleep with women, I sleep with men. If I can make it, maybe there’s no sexism, right?
I was dead wrong. The exception does not prove the rule. The fact that I made it is the same way an African-American who is extraordinary can make it. A gay person who’s extraordinary can make it. A woman can make it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t systemic obstacles women and people of color and all kinds of people from creating a story in front of a lens. I didn’t understand all the structural obstacles. I’m now part of that solution. I’m on the Academy Board of Governors with Steven Spielberg. I’m on the board of the DGA. I fight relentlessly to overcome the obstacles to women, queers, people of color to work. At the end of the day, I’m friends with Kathryn Bigelow and other great female directors, but you’ll see gaps. It’s not that they didn’t want to work. It’s not that I didn’t want to work. In the same way we forget how hard it was for queers, I don’t think we remember how hard it was for women.
There’s a book that I’m part of that just came out called 1999: The Greatest Year in Film. And it’s wonderful. I have a chapter. David O. Russell has a chapter. I think Spike Jonze has a chapter. All the straight white boys…and me. And not just me as girl but me as queer. Yes, you would get opportunities, but you wouldn’t always get opportunities for that great movie. You might have gotten one off-kilter you didn’t want to take. Christine Vachon—I want you to celebrate her—she has done so much for queer cinema. Christine trusted my vision. Christine enabled and worked with me to bring the movie to life. And, there were things she helped me understand. She was a true creative partner and we got the best work out of me. Interestingly, she wasn’t having a power struggle with a gay woman. She wasn’t competing with her.
But straight women aren’t working. Straight women like Kathryn Bigelow have gaps. They didn’t have the gay thing but they had the female thing. It’s a heteronormative, male environment that was geared toward reproducing male content and letting men reproduce it. That’s just what it was. So even though I was in the game, was I given the movies that I wanted or could have particularly done? No.
I was getting a lot of great stuff, but I’m very, very picky. After I did Boys I did two more movies, and the amount of unnecessary f*cking around with the material is what undermined those movies from the inside on certain levels.
Ah, I see.
And you don’t want to be the whiner or the complainer, but at least now it’s out in the culture. There was a male environment that didn’t want women creators.
But, I made three, which is statistically hard for a woman. I’ve done 11 extraordinary television shows that I loved being a part of. And I’m about to sell my follow-up to Boys Don’t Cry, my new movie and make that. It’s a modern love story. I like to say it’s a butch-femme romantic sex comedy. But it’s very much in the tradition of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Jules & Jim and Annie Hall. It’s two best friends—beautiful butches—who try to overcome the dilemma of love and heartbreak.
Boys Don’t Cry streams on HBO GO, YouTube, VUDU, iTunes & Amazon, and is available on Blu-Ray.