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Friday, June 30, 2000

Under Brandon Teena's skin

Kimberly Peirce was described to me (by a fellow director who had met her at Cannes) with a mere two words: "hard-core." Having finally seen Peirce in the flesh, I now see what she meant: an alert, penetrating gaze; jet-black hair with blue streaks; and a passion for film making that was evident during her press conference.

Unlike many filmmakers, who struggle for something intelligent to say, Peirce gave us an earful about the six years of her life she spent in bringing this project to the screen. More than a project though, Brandon Teena almost seemed to be an obsession for Peirce. As such, it's no surprise that with her debut she manages to handle controversial material while keeping her vision intact. With "Boys Don't Cry," Peirce has established herself as one of the most exciting directors working in America today, one of the few who are successfully able to play the margins between the mainstream and art.

On the film's message: "When I make a film, I don't start out with a message; I think that I start from the individual. I completely fell in love with Brandon Teena; rather than a message, the idea was to simply get inside this character who nobody seemed to understand when he was alive. I thought if I could bring the audience deeply into Brandon's story, I could avoid what I was seeing happening in the retelling of his story, a lot of sensational coverage. If you can make a work that's complete, then the message follows."

On how close the film is to the facts: "If you look at Kurosawa's 'Rashomon,' you realize that there is no story until the storyteller makes it. For Brandon's story, I went back to Falls City, I interviewed butch lesbians and transsexuals, I retraced Brandon's footsteps, I went to the murder trial, I interviewed Lana, I had 10,000 pages of court transcripts. After amassing all this information, it became clear that one person's story contradicted another's, and that people contradicted themselves. So as a storyteller, my job was to distill the underlying emotional truth."

On the film's problems with the rating board: "We originally got an NC-17 and I had to appeal it in person. You want to know why? Two reasons: One, Lana's orgasm (at the hands of Brandon) was too long -- aaaaaaaaaaah! (laughs) -- and the rape scene, the sense was that it might be too disturbing for people. And my reaction to the first thing was, who's ever been hurt by a long orgasm?"

On casting Hilary Swank: "She came in for an audition; I had already been looking for three years. And she passed as a boy to the guard downstairs. She blew everybody away, so I said you can have the role, under one condition: that you make a full transformation into a boy. So I asked her, where are you from, and she said Lincoln, which is where Brandon was from. And I said how old are you, and she said 21, which was exactly the age Brandon was when he died. So I thought it was like a second coming.

"I asked my producers to find out if she was telling the truth, and they said, well she is from Lincoln, but she lied about her age: She's 25. So I called her up and said, 'You know, I really want to cast you, but you lied to me.' So she said, 'Well, Brandon lied.'

"I sent her back to L.A. and had her live as a boy for six weeks. So she bound her breasts, she put a sock in her pants and she learned to be a boy the very same way that Brandon did. When it failed, she had to go out and do it again, and feel the humiliation of failure and the thrill of success."

On the stress of the role: "Around the time we were shooting the rape scene, Hilary confided in me that she had moved so far away from her female self, yet she hadn't fully achieved her male self, that she began to lose herself. And this is something I had seen happen to my transsexual friends when they entered into this emotional no man's land. . . . I think she was so courageous to allow herself to enter into that unknown area, and I think that's why the performance works."

On what made Brandon that way: "I really trust desire; I think desire is the purest thing about all of us. It's the thing that makes us know what we feel. Early on with Brandon, I interviewed transsexuals and lesbians, and they all tried to claim him. . . . His mother said he was abused, and that's what made him dress like a boy. Everybody's got a different reason. I wasn't interested in diagnosing, categorizing, or reducing him. Rather, as a dramatist, I wanted to be true to his desire."

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