Kimberly Peirce: writer, director, social critic

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Kimberly Peirce is the acclaimed writer and director of “Boys Don’t Cry,” the 1999 Oscar-winning film based on the heartwrenching story of the rape and murder of Brandon Teena in Falls City, Nebraska. More recently, she directed “Stop-Loss” (2008), inspired by the experiences of soldiers, like her younger brother, who were required to serve extra consecutive tours of duty in Iraq. She is the guest at a Silliman Master’s Tea today at 4 p.m.; the tea is the headline event of Trans/gender Awareness Week. Her two feature films will also be showcased today and Saturday. WEEKEND caught up with her via phone on Thursday to talk about documentary, masculinity, and setting stuff on fire.

Q. What movies or directors have influenced you most?

A. Films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s, who directed “Stories of the Moon.” Certainly Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray and Polanksi, films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.” Certainly Coppola’s “Godfather” movies, Scorsese films like “Raging Bull,” “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas.”

Q. How did your experiences growing up in Harrisburg, PA affect the subject of your films?

A. Socioeconomic class has a lot to do with my movies. We apparently came from a background of money and education in Russia. Grandpa Herman came to America and joined the circus, and we lost all of it. We became lower-middle-working class. I’ve always felt very connected to stories of small-town, working-class families. That’s where two of my main characters [Sgt. Brandon King in “Stop-Loss” and Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry”] come from. Characters have to have as much life and aspiration as they can.

Q. Did your experiences studying in Japan affect your artistic work?

A. I quit college and lived in Japan at age 18. I said, “Screw it. I’m not going to be an American anymore.” To get the financial means I needed would have required forging my parent’s signature, so I screwed it and went to Japan and decided to claim my scholarship when I was of age.

It was there that I bought my first camera, which was a big deal. Armed only with a camera, I became my own photojournalist. The camera was a good excuse to learn, to look at things more closely. At this point, I didn’t know I would be a director, but I would watch what people were doing to understand what they were thinking.

Q. To me, your films seem to deal with masculinity. As a female, what draws you to this theme?

A. Mostly from being a tomboy. I was a rowdy young girl who raced cars and played volleyball. I climbed roofs and jumped off roofs. I set things on fire. The seventies were the first time it was much easier for girls to do anything they wanted. I stayed on the same track with the guys, just shooting photos and traveling around. Was I acting like a boy or inhabiting a guys’ space? I wanted to be empowered. I wanted to be included.

Q. How would you characterize your own gender identity?

A. I call myself queer. I don’t identify as a lesbian or as a transsexual. We all go through phases throughout our life, so that’s why I identify as queer. But I’m probably somewhere close to transgender because I’m very much masculine as well as feminine. It’s just within me. I enjoy my feminism, but I certainly don’t revel in it in the same way many people do. I just am what I am. Lots of people feel freer these days, but there are still horrible things happening. There is more dialogue than there was. If you have the feeling of not being in the right body, there is more opportunity for self–acceptance today.

Q. Although homosexual men and women are meeting gradual acceptance, many people who are transgender are still being forced to the margins of our society. Why do you think that is?

A. If you look at culture, there are times when guys get together and need to act anti-women. You ask why? It makes them feel safer if they are men and not women. The idea of being transgender, of a continuum — that it’s not either/or — can be very threatening to a lot of people.

Q. Pre-production for your two films has involved a substantial amount of research, including finding background information and conducting many interviews. Could you talk about how you arrived at this process?

A. When I look at good art, the core is about whether there is a truth to it. It’s well structured, has meaning and is moving. There’s something about life and human nature that has to be truthful. I start when I realize that this is a phenomenal person and event. Then I ask questions: How did she pull it off? Why did she live with those guys? Why were the guys compelled to destroy her, to rape her and kill her?

Research takes me from what could have happened and gives me an incredibly strong idea of what did happen. The more you study the truth, the more things artistically fall in place.

The same happened with the war. My little brother signed up to fight. I had been going to anti-war protests because I felt like we were killing innocent people. I asked why he would sign up and what he would do when he found out he wasn’t killing to make us safer. What if they sent him back to do it again? This happened to thousands of soldiers, including my brother.

Q. Have you ever thought about making documentaries?

A. The two films I have made started out as if they were documentaries. I do interviews and read a ton, but I find it more compelling to put into narrative fiction. In the future, I might follow through on a documentary. In the case of “Stop-Loss,” I was sent a DVD called “Shot ‘Em in the Face” made by soldiers on tour around mid-2003. [Soldiers] would put little video cameras in humvees or on the ground. The guys edit together on iMovie and put it to rock music. It is their experience. They shoot, record and edit to make it feel the way it did at the time. How can I show the emotions of these soldiers in battle? I can’t film in a battle — I’ll get shot. With a war story, the audience can get inside these guys’ heads and the dilemmas they face and what it means to kill innocent people.

Q. Were you happy with how people responded to “Stop-Loss”?

A. When I went around the country, people who had fought said, “You got it right.” I really liked that. I wish the country had been in a better place. I think it’s better now that the war is over. I wish there had been more popular support, but the main thing is to make it. It’s really secondary how it’s received.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. Hollywood has a lot of opportunities. I didn’t make movies for so long because I had to learn to move within the system. I had a project called “Silent Star” which was cast with Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley and Hugh Jackman.

Q.Is this the movie about the unsolved murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor?

A. Yes. The studio told me that they wanted to see the $30 million version but would only pay $20 million. It was tough. Unfortunately, the movie was waylaid. I also have a great gang movie set right after the LA Riots.

Q. Is this a true story?

A. It’s all based on nonfiction. Like my other two films, I take nonfiction and push it to the classical model. In this case, I turned to the buddy movie. I watched “The Departed,” “Heat” and “Donnie Brasco.” As the builder of stories, the structure is what I need. Something has to happen to pull opposite sides together.

Q. Do you prefer working in Hollywood or as an indie director?

A. I don’t think you have to work in Hollywood. From my point of view, you never did. The studios are in the business of making huge movies attached to big franchises. They want name recognition from books or lots of sequels to make their investment worthwhile. The pursuit of big business is not really good film. I wouldn’t mind making a huge movie — it would be fun. The people who love story and character are going to the studios asking if they can make a movie for $15 million. With a great story, you can double the profit of a smaller budget. Maybe it won’t make ten times as much, but it’s something.

There are still rich people in the independent market. It’s much riskier since fewer films get released, but we never went into the business because the odds were good. They were a billion to one against us. But if you have something compelling, there is enough of an audience out there.

Q. Do you have any advice for Yale’s aspiring filmmakers?

A. To begin with, you go to a great school. Hopefully, you are smart to begin with. Take advantage of where you are at. Learn as much as you can. Find things that really thrill you. Once you enter business, your life will be consumed by movies. It’s a great thing, but I am so glad that I read a ton of literature and hsitory and traveled the world because it always finds a way into my work. Be a real student and study “The Poetics.” Study structure. There is truth and there is the way that art works. Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t think it’s gonna be easy.

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