Q: Why did you decide to make “Boys Don’t Cry” as your first feature?
A: I didn’t have any kind of calculated decision about this movie. I was in graduate school searching for a project. James Schamus, one of my professors, said, “If you’re ever going to make a movie” — and this was new to us — “you just have to satisfy your audience. If your audience loves it, you have a chance of crossing over.” I fell in love with [Brandon Teena]. He was a character no one had seen before. You didn’t have trans characters, [except] maybe in comedies. You hadn’t had a character who lived in real life and was a reflection of a realistic character in a non-comedic role. It hadn’t been done.
Q: What were the challenges in bringing this type of movie and this character to life?
A: The first reaction I got from my teachers — and my teachers were brilliant — [was] “you can’t have a character who both wants to sleep with women and wants to be a boy. You can’t have a character with two needs.” It’s really interesting to be told something doesn’t work, because I find that problems are the seeds of solutions.
Q: How did you solve this problem? How did you reconcile Brandon’s dual needs?
A: It wasn’t until I got to the Sundance Institute and met an amazing artist named Frank Pierson, who was my advisor, and said to him, “Look, I’m torn. Brandon’s need is to live as a boy. Brandon’s need is also to be with girls.” He said, “Neither of those are the needs. That’s what he’s doing. His need: it’s to get love.” He did these things in his life in order to do that.
Q: What problems did you run into after you solved any narrative issues?
A: I had to satisfy my audience, and transsexual and transgender were just starting to be pulled into the [LGTBQ] movement. All the letters kept getting added. I was making this movie before “T” had been added. As a young queer person, I felt I had to do justice to Brandon, who was raped and killed and silenced. Who was misunderstood. I don’t have a right to make this movie unless it honors this person and feels reflective within my own community. That was the huge challenge. My community was not unified. Satisfying the community meant a deep investigation into what you were trying to represent and knowing that you were going to piss people off.
Q: Did you have any idea how successful, how impactful, the movie would become?
A: I had no idea that we would shoot the movie. It took five years to make. I looked three years for Brandon Teena.
Q: What happened during those three years of searching?
A: Many now very well-known, very established, wonderful queer artists came to audition for me. We didn’t get straight actresses because people didn’t want to play gay roles. Then Ellen [Degeneres] came out and I got tons of straight girls. My instinct back then was a gay person could play it better. We were already in production, and we didn’t have Brandon. There was [an] elephant in the room. If this person doesn’t pass [as a man], the other characters seem ridiculous. If the audience doesn’t believe it, and if it looks ridiculous, then the audience has no faith in any of those characters.
Q: How did Hilary Swank eventually win the role?
A: Our casting director brought back all these tapes. None of it was working. I put a tape in, I was exhausted, and this person floated across the screen. She, he, was in the middle of the gender. There was a kind of androgyny that was really intoxicating and you just kept watching. On top of it this person, playing masculine, smiled. The big thing I realized about Brandon: yes, he passed on a certain level. I think it was very fluid and always leaking out. I think there was a little bit of buying in. The thing that Hilary Swank brought that was miraculous, which is what a great actor brings, was she smiled and she put you at ease. You wanted to embrace this person. You wanted to bring them into your life. You wanted to get closer to them. Charm and charisma. Then I said, “Oh my God. That was the thing that Brandon must have brought to people.” It wasn’t just that Brandon was masculine. Brandon charmed people; he opened up their hearts. Automatically, what I saw was the power of a movie star. An old-fashioned movie star, someone who affects your heart and wins you over. Hilary had that.
Q: What draws you to a project when you are looking for your next feature?
A: I am deeply interested in sexuality. I’m very interested in gender. I’m very interested in violence. There is physical and emotional violence in all of my work. My second movie, “Stop-Loss,” was about my brother fighting in Iraq. That was hugely disorienting to me. I often make movies about people that I don’t like or understand. So with “Boys Don’t Cry,” I did not like John Lotter and Tom Nissen. I hated that they raped and killed Brandon, but I spent all those years understanding them, to understand: How does a boy turn into the man who does that? Same thing with “Stop-Loss.” I’m deeply interested in how my little brother, who was 18 years old when 9/11 happened — when I was going to anti-war marches — ended up signing up and ended up killing people.
Q: So what is your next project?
A: My parents had me at 15. They were the best looking kids in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My dad, he thought he was the king of the world, but he really was a con artist. He and I went down to Florida when I was five and he kind of revolutionized the shopping mall industry. He was building shopping malls and he fell prey to his own good looks, charm, and charisma … hence my love of movie stars. He got involved with the Mafia and ended up running drugs. It’s my family’s story. I have an interesting prodigal son — or daughter — story of reconciling after he basically exploded through this journey. I think we all live in such a unique way and we all love films that are personal because they take us on journeys we would not necessarily go on. That’s my next movie. Then there’s also a butch-femme romantic-sex-comedy, which I’m very excited about.
Q: What do you see for your future in the film industry?
A: We’re living in a time when, as a director, you can go onto a set and work with fantastic actors, feature-level crew and you get access to equipment you wouldn’t normally get access to, and [then] you get to go in and make these short films. That’s essentially what a cable episode is.
Q: Do you expect to work more in television?
A: Absolutely. We all have to admit, [in the entertainment industry] women work [in production] six percent of the time. We’re an endangered species. If I look at the Finches and the Scorseses, if I look at my heroes, the men who clearly have more access than any woman does, they’re all doing television in addition to features. I don’t even call it television anymore. We should just think of it as content.
Q: How do you think television will influence feature films?
A: I think that content takes cues from content. What you’re getting is access to all kinds of voices you didn’t have before. You used to have a real reflection of the people in power. You were echoing not the culture, but the power structure of the culture. Now, with so many opportunities, when I take a Netflix meeting or an Amazon meeting, what they say to me was what James Schamus said to me 15 years ago. Satisfy your audience.