Jennifer Connelly Stars in Dustin Lance Black's 'Virginia'

5.18.2012

By Jerry Portwood

The 'Milk' scribe writes, directs a semi-autobiographical film about the Southern experience—with Ed Harris in some sexy magic Mormon underwear.

Harrison Gilbertson (Emmett) and Jennifer Connelly (Virginia) in Dustin Lance Black's 'Virginia'

Virginia is a wild and weird film. Written and directed by Dustin Lance Black, known for the films Milk and J. Edgar, which he wrote, as well as his work on HBO's Big Love, it explores autobiographical territory that is at times chilling while also managing to be quite funny. Call it Southern Gothic, if you must, but any Southern person can tell you, that's part of the joy (and pain) of living in the South.

Set in and around Virginia Beach, the film contains multitudes—from hypocritical Mormons (and plenty of magic Mormon underwear), to crossdressing carnival bosses—but keeps pathos through its many extremes. In it, Jennifer Connolly portrays a young, single mother who is wracked by physical and mental illness but who manages to continue to be sexy and sweet. And Ed Harris portrays a Mormon sheriff who continues to be her secret S&M lover. The real star in so many ways, however, is newbie Harrison Gilbertson, who plays her son, Emmett. Although he's Australian, you would never detect it with Gilbertson's spot-on Southern drawl.

We spoke to Black about the path that got him to a film that is so different from Milk, which won him an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 2009, and what he thinks is going on with Romney these days.

First, I wanted to say, I think I related to the film quite a bit because I grew up in the South. My parents live in South Georgia, and I grew up in other places in the South, so I felt like you really captured something that felt authentic. 

Oh, you poor thing.

Well I moved there from Japan so it was a big culture shock.

Yeah, big culture shock. I was just in Atlanta, but I guess that's different.

I used to live in in Atlanta. I went to college there and lived there for about eight years. I like Atlanta.

Yeah, I like Atlanta. I went to that place, Swinging Richards.

Oh yeah, I know Swinging Richards, the male strip club?

Yeah, I had friends shooting out there. It was even straight friends. We're taking you to Swinging Richards! It was interesting... it was more like a party, the whole thing felt like a bachelorette party.

OK, well, getting back to Virginia, I was curious: After having written two historical, biopic films, this is quite different, and it's the first time you've directed. Was it that you were able to work on the project you wanted in this way, now, at this time?

It's strange. The evolution of this is so drawn out. It doesn't really fall in the creative development, when you look at this, it doesn't fall into the chronology right now. I wrote it eight years ago. I wrote it even before I did Big Love. So I was already investigating all the Mormon stuff before investigating it further in Big Love.

I met Jennifer Connolly, like five years ago; I flew out and met her at the Bowery Hotel. I had a new agent, she had read the script, and I came out and met Jennifer at the Bowery Hotel restaurant there, and I was very nervous. At that time I wasn't even producing Big Love, I was just the kid writer on it. And she was just disarming and funny, and I thought, Oh my goodness, no one knows this side of you, Jennifer, we have to share this with the world. And she had faith in the material and the character and she signed on. And this is way before Milk

So, actually, we were gearing up with Jennifer and the script, and we were getting a good amount of attention from some financiers and other potential castmembers. But then Milk happened and that's when I just checked out of everything. In fact, I quit Big Love, I just put every piece of every ounce of my energy into Milk. That was a year-and-a-half, almost two-year process. I came back, we didn't know that Milk would do as well as it did, but it was in the can, and that's when I started working n Virginia again. I would check back in and update the script a little bit and just try to get it made. It started coming together better in terms of financing after Milk

Well, that's a good point. You also weathered the implosion of indie films and the inability to get them made or produced or distributed.

We got in right under the wire. There were things still being made. Now? I don't know how you do it. It was this collission of, yes, I think the success of Milk helped. At least people had some clue of who I was. And it was that moment of Michigan money. That's how we got it made. Through Tic Tock Studios, West Michigan, 42-cents-back-on-the-dollar tax break. I flew out there, and I did a scout to see if you could make this into Virginia. In the summer, it looked like you could. It was beautiful, bright, all these beautiful colonial homes that looked like Virginia. I said, sure yeah, we can do this. And they said, "It will be going by September." When we finally got there, it was 29 degrees. Jennifer is in these summer dresses outside at night. That was a bit tough. How did we get here?

The fact that you were doing an autobiographical film after these others, Milk and J. Edgar, came out.

Creatively, Virginia is probably more for the Big Love audiences than the Milk audiences. Which was tough. We premiered the film and it needed help, and it needed fixing and I did that work. But I think there was an expectation that it would be more like J. Edgar or Milk—and it's just not at all. Not in content, not in style. It's really really different. It's up against that a little bit. It's like my old-self is warring with my new-self. At least a little bit. At least probably to the outside that's the way it seems. I love the film because it's so personal and I think Jennifer Connolly is amazing in it. It's a whole new side of her that I don't think people knew was there. I love it for that reason. But it is a strange thing to peremiere a film that you shot three years ago. 

You had worked with Gus van Sant by this point. You had directed documentaries, but you hadn't directed a feature-length film. Was there any of his influence in the film from him or others that you had worked with? You weren't working with Clint yet, correct?

Sure, it was before Clint. But I was working on J. Edgar while this was going on. I was working on J. Edgar before Milk was done. Certainly. I'm sure I borrowed from Gus, and I'm sure I borrowed from a lot of the directors on Big Love because we had a pretty stellar cast of directors come through on Big Love. In both cases, I was lucky to be able to work really interimately with them. So that's true. And Gus came on as an Executive Prodcuer on Virginia, and he read the script and would watch cuts with me and, sort of creatively, was helpful. And I brought on Eric Edwards who was one of his DPs on My Own Private Idaho

I was curious about some of the scenes. I mean, there are some comedic moments, especially in that climax near the end, that are funny in a way, almost Coen Brothers-esque. There is this level of madcap comedy, but it doesn't go there. I wondered how you decided to balance that. You obviously wanted a heartfelt film but you seemed to want a  level of hilarity: these potentially crazy, wacky moments that, somehow, don't get into pure comedy.

The whole time on this film I was speaking from my experience. It was what motivated the writing of the film in the first place. I would tell my story of growing up as a Mormon in the South. We were incredibly poor because it was a single parent, and my single parent was paralyzed by polio. So it was a lot of heavy weight lifting for us as kids. We grew up very fast. There's a lot of stories that get incredibly dark of how we survived. I would tell all these stories, and people would look at me, like, "Wow, I'm so sorry." Pure pity.

Well, you'll maybe relate to this. I would say, "You don't understand Southerners at all: that is our badge of honor. We're not defined by our troubles; we're defined by our dreams. We're defined by how we see ourselves. And it does change in direct relation to how rich or poor, troubled or not-troubled you are, then the more outlandish your dreams become. And sometimes the more delusional the vision of yourself becomes. It's a survival mechanism. But in the South, it is celebrated Just ask Tennessee Williams.

So, yes, I think some of it comes off as kind of absurd or even comedic or outsized. And, you know, because of that it seems madcap perhaps. To me, that was what was really going down. And the poower we got, the more that was the thing that was really going down. We never quite knew the stakes of our delusions. So I know it walks this really fine line between drama and comedy and, sometimes, certainly in the first cuts in Toronto, it was stumbling on that line. I think, thanks to a new editor, we got it closer. I think that will probably be my challenge the rest of my career, to be able to walk that line.  

The other topic I wanted to ask is about the character Toby Jones portrays. I kinda loved that you weren't being P.C. about that gay character. I understood that there are guys like that: Maybe they're a little shady, and also sweet. I wondered about that, creating this gay character, since he's really the only out gay character in the film. 

And he's not really that "out." Until he is. Until he's outed.

Right.

But you know he's sort of just this guy. Boy... It happens. And I remember it growing up, the guys who so do not want to be called gay. They don't want to be out. And it's difficult to be out. So they crossdress, and they try to appear as a female to pick up guys.

And hire young, cute boys to work for them...

And hire cute, young boys to work for them. You know, it's all very real. It's partly why I do all my activist work, is to make sure that those Toby Joneses out there don't have to dress up to hide. If they are dressing up, it's because they want to. I don't think that's what Toby was doing in the film. I think he was dressing up to hide, which is what I don't think people should have to do.

Well, you know, there did seem to be—maybe this is because of the year we're in—notes of John Edwards, funneling the campaign money as hush money, and obviously the hypocrisy of being Mormon in the film. Was that intentional?  

Oh there are shades of Mitt Romeny and John Edwards. But you know, whenever you do something with politics in it, especially when there's politics with a little bit of scandal around the edge, you're always going to be able to find the parallel to the real-life story. So because it's coming out now, I think people will relate it to Edwards and Romney. If it came out five years ago, when I was casting it, they'd relate it to other people. Or eight years ago, they'd be talking about Bill Clinton.

Finally, to wrap things up, are you shocked though that people haven't called out Romney more so far in the campaign.? That he's been able to be publically Mormon but also not have his ideas questioned much?

I think I've called him out. I think people will continue to call him out. I think people in the church, Mormon people are going to call him out. I think he's to the right of a lot of people in that church. So I think we'll be discussing what his beliefs are. More importantly, will he be legislating on those beliefs? And unfortunately, I think it seems like the answer is yes. 

 

 

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