'Boys Don't Cry' filmmaker saw past violence to love
October 22, 1999
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- Standing outside the door of a small house in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska, filmmaker Kimberly Peirce was obsessed. And that's putting it lightly.
In fact, her obsession with the search for answers to a hate crime had brought her halfway across the country to this place. It had started two years earlier.
While taking graduate film classes at Columbia in New York, she'd read in an April 1994 issue of The Village Voice about the life and death of Teena Brandon -- or Brandon Teena, as she came to be known.
Brandon Teena's story made headlines that year. She was, in physical terms, a female. But Brandon loved women. When she cut her hair and ventured from Lincoln to Falls City, she told everyone she was Brandon, a guy, and started winning the hearts of several females, falling in love with one.
"It's almost like the love affair became more beautiful in a way, because of the way she held on to her love. She felt this absolute spiritual love for Brandon. It was like a soul love."
But when Brandon's secret was discovered, she was raped and killed. She was 20.
Peirce read about this story and saw through the "Jerry Springer Show"-type coverage that followed. She saw a person who dared to be different, who dared to chase her inner voice -- and was gunned down because of it.
Peirce was so moved that she knew she had to tell the story on film. So she went to Falls City to research. She went to the farmhouse, sat in the room in which Brandon was executed along with two witnesses. She interviewed people who knew her, hung out at the convenience store where Brandon hung out. She attended the trials of the two men later convicted in Brandon's killing.
And then Peirce won an interview with the person who was closest to Brandon before her death.
There Peirce was, standing outside a small house in the middle of nowhere on that July day, 1996. She had a video camera with her, ready to record.
Lana Tisdel -- who fell in love with Brandon before finding out the truth of her sexuality, and then still loved her and tried to protect her, still loves her to this day -- answered the door.
It was one of those rare moments in which a filmmaker's obsession converges with her own reality, a checkpoint that perhaps lets her know she's on the right path.
"She stared at me for a long time," Peirce now recalls of the first meeting with Tisdel.
'An emotional artifact'
Fast-forward to the present day. "Boys Don't Cry" is being released Friday in major markets across the country by Fox Searchlight Pictures. It's Brandon's story, told by Peirce with a fictional flair reminiscent of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."
The film stars Hilary Swank as Brandon, and Chloë Sevigny as Lana. Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III play the trailer-park criminals who are at first Brandon's new buddies, but evolve into her rapists and killers.
"The movie itself is an emotional artifact," says Peirce, 32. "That's what I'm most interested in -- creating states of emotion for the audience. That's how I watch movies. I can love all these different kinds of movies, but what I really love is when they get inside my nervous system."
Judging by reviews, the film -- Peirce's first feature-length attempt -- is a top offering for the year. Roger Ebert says, "'Boys Don't Cry' is a compelling and absorbing film for general audiences, the kind of movie like 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Philadelphia' or 'The Crying Game' that can reach and touch anyone."
Rolling Stone's Peter Travers says, "Peirce moves from delicacy to devastation with uncanny skill, and Swank and Sevigny give performances that burn in the memory."
'It was stunning'
And it all started with that article on Brandon's life and death in 1994. Peirce still remembers how she felt when she read it.
"It completely blew me away," says Peirce. "Here was a girl living in a trailer park, she didn't have much money, she didn't have any role models, and she successfully transformed herself into a fantasy of a boy. That was completely compelling and extraordinary to me -- the courage to carry it out and then the cleverness to keep the fantasy alive."
After researching her subject in Nebraska and interviewing lesbians and transsexuals, Peirce set out to make her film. She started work on the screenplay, and four years later finished with help from screenwriting partner Andy Bienen.
Then there was the matter of raising enough money to shoot it. Peirce struggled at first, but in the final year the finances started rolling in -- in fact, before the lead actress was signed.
"I was looking all over the country, but there was no girl who could play Brandon," says Peirce. Then a videotape arrived in the mail. Peirce, weary from her search, didn't watch it at first.
"Finally," she says, "we popped in the tape, and this beautiful, androgynous person just floated across the screen, cowboy hat on, big sock in his pants, gorgeous boy jaw, boy voice, boy ears, boy eyes, boy forehead. It was stunning."
'People who are like sponges'
It was Swank, whose previous work had included television experience, as well as feature films like "The Next Karate Kid" (1994) and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1992). Peirce, in allegiance to her obsession with the subject, hired Swank but demanded that she live as a guy for four weeks prior to filming -- go to the store, the restaurant, the bathroom, dressed and acting like a guy.
"I choose people who are like sponges," says Peirce. "Hilary was just drinking Brandon in, his spirit."
The part serves Swank as a re-introduction to audiences -- and to critics. Her evocation of Brandon's slide from adventurous girl to friendly guy to boyfriend to tragic figure is the major reason the film has received such avid press acclaim.
Sevigny is another reason. The star of "Kids" (1995) and "The Last Days of Disco" (1998) reflects the shifting lines between sexualities. As Lana, she at once loves Brandon, but deep down knows the truth and consequences.
"Chloë will never give you a false moment," says Peirce. "She is endlessly gifted. It was an absolute joy to work with her because she really absorbed Lana and brought her to life in ways I couldn't have imagined."
In its finished state, "Boys Don't Cry" rides a crest of freedom as Brandon becomes the person she always wanted to be, though in the subculture of a low-income, Podunk existence. There's bumper-skiing on the backs of pick-ups, bong hits and whip-its, drinking and driving, love and violence.
But the movie revolves around the burgeoning affair between Brandon and Lana, and its inevitable conclusion.
'I think you have a responsibility'
Peirce says her story came out of the research, and the desire to go more deeply into the story.
"I started looking at all the other coverage and a great deal of it was sensational," she says. "People were focusing on the spectacle of a girl who had passed as a boy because that is so unfamiliar to so many people. Where to me, I knew girls who had passed as boys, so Brandon was not some weird person to me. Brandon was a very familiar person.
"People were also focusing on the crime without giving it much emotional understanding and I think that's really dangerous, especially with this culture of violence that we live in," Peirce says. "In duplicating any sort of hate crime, I think you have a responsibility to figure out moment by moment what was motivating this violence to happen, keep it personal, keep it up close, keep it dramatic."
To hear Peirce talk, it sounds almost like Brandon was being channeled through her vision.
"The work was informing me about how I wanted to represent it," Peirce says. "I wanted the audience to enter deeply into this place, this character, so they could entertain these contradictions in Brandon's own mind and would not think she was crazy, would not think she was lying, but would see her as more deeply human."
'I might have resembled Brandon'
Rewind back to that day when Peirce was standing outside the house in the middle of nowhere. The real Lana Tisdel was staring at Peirce for an uncomfortable amount of time, not saying a word.
"There was a strange look in her eyes," says Peirce, "and then once I was inside the house, she said, 'I stared at you like that because I thought you were Brandon.'
"I might have resembled Brandon a little," admits Peirce. "Short brown hair, a little bit androgynous. But I think it was more that she was looking for a sign of him, rather than she actually thought I was Brandon."
Or perhaps she was looking for someone to give Brandon a voice, even in death. The two sat down and talked, Peirce recording the interview. She says she found something in Tisdel; her obsession had led her to an answer.
"Because of the way she talked about him," says Peirce, "it's almost like the love affair became more beautiful in a way, because of the way she held on to her love. She felt this absolute spiritual love for Brandon. It was like a soul love, and society was saying, 'Well, you met him as a boy and now he's a girl. What are you going to do?' Society kept forcing them into these categories that I don't think they really needed. And that was so destructive."
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