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Weekly Alibi Eye-Opening Document

An Interview with "Boys Don't Cry" Director Kimberly Peirce

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Director Kimberly Peirce's shattering debut feature Boys Don't Cry has ridden a crest of good press capped off by several "Best New Filmmaker" awards for Peirce (including one from the National Board of Review) and a "Best Actress" Golden Globe win for star Hilary Swank.

Boys Don't Cry tells the startling true-life tale of Teena Brandon, a Nebraska girl who passed herself off as a boy, Brandon Teena, before being exposed and ultimately murdered by two of his best friends, John Lotter and Tom Neeson.

Peirce felt a strong kinship with Brandon Teena and was compelled to bring his story to light. Peirce grew up as a tomboy herself and was often told by her parents to "act like a girl" -- a phrase she didn't understand as a child and still doesn't to this day. In sharing the story of Brandon Teena with the world, Peirce has created an eye-opening document, not simply about the rigidity of sexual roles in America, but about the courage to explore who we really are in life.

Alibi had the opportunity recently to speak with Peirce about this remarkable story.

How did you hear about this story, originally -- on the news like everyone else?

When I was growing up, I always was amazed by women who passed as men -- adventurers, sailors, pirates. In my second year of grad school at Columbia Film, I was writing a script about a woman named Pauline Kushman who had passed as a man during the Civil War. The more I probed into that, I found out she did it for survival reasons. Not only was I compelled by stories of identity, but I knew that a great movie character was somebody who, in pursuit of their basic life need, [carries] out a dramatic action. That dramatic action drives their life. That dramatic action also drives the script. The examples you can look at are Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, Rebel Without a Cause. A lot of the characters I love are anti-heroes, and they're driven by that search for identity. So with all that in mind, I pulled back from this other script, and in April of 1994 I read about the extraordinary story of Teena Brandon. I was totally blown away. I felt this total kinship. [I] knew a lot of girls who had passed as boys. [I] was totally in love with the fact that here was a girl, living in a trailer park, [who] didn't have any role models, didn't have much money, and she fully transforms herself into her fantasy of a boy. I mean, it's extraordinary that she even walked the earth. I wanted to bring her to life. The more I read about her, I just loved her. ...

The question is, "As a moviemaker, how do I get inside who this person is?" So I start reading all the (press) coverage, and I see that a lot of it is sensational. People are writing about the girl who passed as a boy with no deeper understanding as to who this girl is and why she would do this. They're also writing about the violence in a way that is focusing on the gratuitousness -- the events of it, the stripping, the rape and the murder. I think that's deadly. So I say, "OK, the way to tell this story is to bring Brandon to life." I have some insight on it, but I really have the obligation to figure out who he was. So I started interviewing butch lesbians about their early history. How they saw Brandon's body, how they saw their own. I then realized that I needed to go back to where Brandon Teena lived. So I traveled with a group of 15 transsexuals back to the murder town in July of 1994. We retraced Brandon's footsteps, we had a vigil on Brandon Teena's behalf. I went to Tom Neeson's murder trial. I went to the farmhouse where Brandon was executed. I eventually returned two years later. I interviewed the real Lana, I hung out with the kids, interviewed the cops, interviewed the court reporter. [I] gathered as much basic raw material on this event as existed, and then started piecing it together. Who were these people? Because, ultimately, that was what was most compelling to me. Who was Brandon? Why did he do this? Who was John? Why did he befriend Brandon? Why did he feel the need to kill him? Who was Lana? Why did she fall in love with Brandon?

Aside from the issues of sexual identity, there seems to be an even more universal theme at work here -- the idea of transforming your life, of wanting to become someone else. Was that something you tried to focus on?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that, at its heart, this movie is the American Dream. Right? We are all trying to figure out who we are. And there definitely is the fantasy that you could just pick up one day, go somewhere new and solve all your problems by constructing an identity which is a fantasy. I think Brandon taps into that. I also think he taps into the basic desire for love and acceptance that we all have. Brandon wanted to find love and acceptance in a small town with straight people. He didn't want to be a "freak." He didn't want to be marginalized. He didn't want to be an outsider. He wanted what we all want. He wanted love.

I'd venture to say that people who choose to live a transgendered lifestyle do so because they are being true to themselves or to their sexuality -- but it seems to me, Brandon wasn't just a woman who chose to dress as a man. Brandon seemed to be living much of his life -- not just his sexual identity, but his relationships, his actions -- as, for lack of a better word, a "lie." Did you think of it that way?

Not so much the word "lie," because I tried not to pass a judgment on Brandon. But definitely what you're picking out is important. There's a couple things with Brandon: One is he constructed himself into an identity. Now, if there was ever another human being in the world who clearly [found their] true identity, that was [Brandon]. But what you're picking up -- which is totally accurate -- is he then went out into the world and he didn't tell who he really was. So, he did ... um, I don't know what the word is ... He didn't lie. He, um ... Yeah, I guess he lied. He manipulated what people knew about him. The second thing was, he was incredibly self-destructive. He committed not only crimes of impersonation, but he did a lot of things that, in the end, got him revealed. He bounced checks among people in a small town, so it was a given that he was going to get discovered. But I looked at all these actions, and I said, "OK, what is the makeup of this character?" A lot of times, what you don't want in drama is a liar, because a liar is very hard to empathize with. You also don't want somebody who is self-destructive. Because somebody who is self-destructive is also hard to empathize with. So then what you try and do is lay out all their actions and say, "What is this person really achieving?" And if you say that the lie -- let's call it a "misrepresentation of self" -- is really a way of holding on to love and acceptance among the people that he's managed to create an identity [with], then I can identify with him. Then he's just doing what you might do, or I might do. And then in terms of the self-destruction, he's leaving all these clues so he gets discovered. What if the greater need is to basically be honest? But his way of ultimately being honest is to take on this persona which isn't necessarily honest to begin with.

Brandon is certainly a sympathetic character, but what surprised me is that there was ultimately a good deal of sympathy for John and Tom, his murderers, as well. Did you develop that by being at the trial and seeing these real people?

A couple things. One, I loved Brandon. My love for the guy didn't come until I dove into the story. Then I went and I started researching everything. I was trying to grapple with the cruelty that was done to Brandon. I started gaining all the history on John. I found out that at five years old John was throwing chairs in his elementary school screaming, "Motherfucker! Motherfucker!" I found out that literally his brain was too big for his skull. I found out at six years old he was in a moving car on his way to school and he opened the door and got out. Seven years old, he was a ward of the state. He was taken away from his mom. Twelve years old, he was stealing cars and taking them back to Falls City. When asked why, he said, "to come back home." Fourteen years old, he was too violent for Boy's Town. Here was a kid who needed help. Here was a little boy who I started to fall in love with. I'm not in love with the actions he did to Brandon. I'm horrified. But here's a person who, just like Brandon, needed help. Once I could understand that John wanted love, then his actions started to make sense. Then he was a character that I could connect with. Then, ultimately, for good drama you want a character who provides as much empathy and understanding as Brandon. Because Brandon was adopting them as his family. The only way you could participate in that relationship is if you saw them the way Brandon saw them. As much as I could bring those guys to life, make them fun, make them lovable, the movie was gonna work, the audience was gonna enter into the adventure of becoming Brandon.

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