Photography by Jeff Minton
In the crush of promoting her new take on Stephen King's classic 1974 novel Carrie -- a massive marketing campaign by Sony Pictures that began early last year, before the film even started shooting -- director Kimberly Peirce gets one question over and over again: "Isn't it better that a woman is doing Carrieinstead of a man?"
Enveloped for years in the safe embrace of indie films, Peirce -- whose striking, sharp looks and intense intellectual passion make talking with her feel like an advanced graduate seminar taught by an unfairly distracting professor -- is accustomed, even eager, to make viewers uncomfortable. But now that she's made it to the major studio system, opening October 18, she has to take a harsher look at her own style of my-way-or-the-highway filmmaking.
"It's interesting when you pose [the question] to a woman director who's aware that women don't work enough," she says, leaning back into a high-backed sofa in the lounge of the Chateau Marmont. "Part of you wants to say, 'It's great that a woman is doing it over a man.' "
It's been almost 40 years since King's book, probably best remembered as the camp classic movie by Brian De Palma, was published. Peirce's version is a closer match to the original book despite its modern-day setting, but the story remains the same: Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) is an awkward outsider who is tormented both by her fundamentalist Christian mom (Julianne Moore) and a high school full of cruel bullies. The escalating abuse causes Carrie's dormant telekinetic powers to violently -- and bloodily -- erupt. (The film was originally slated for a spring release, then bumped back to a more thematically appropriate -- and, in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, less controversial -- premiere around Halloween.)
At the time Carrie was published, King's interest in writing from a female character's point of view seemed risky, especially for the author's first full-length novel. But one thing that has barely changed at all since then is how few major studio films are helmed by women. There are a handful of household names -- Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Jodie Foster -- but in the past decade, the portion of top films made by women has held steadily between 5% and 10%. As one Forbes columnist wrote, "Welcome to Hollywood: The Land That Forgets Female Directors."
In 1998, when Peirce finally began shooting her first film, Boys Don't Cry, after almost five years of research and writing, there was a well-lit path for indie filmmakers, even those who wanted to make a dark, unsettling movie about the real-life murder of a transgender man. "I lived in a completely queer bubble," Peirce says. "I don't think I faced sexism. I don't think I faced homophobia."
The buzz for the film -- which would go on to win Hilary Swank an Academy Award for Best Actress -- launched Peirce into a different league. Suddenly she was noteworthy, in no small part because of her gender.
"They call the same bunch of us whenever they're doing a 'Women in Hollywood' thing," Peirce says. "In the Boys Don't Cry time, I was asked a lot, 'What's it like to be a woman in Hollywood? Isn't it really hard to get work?' Naively, I said, 'Not at all. Nobody notices that I'm a girl.' "
Though some major studios fund or distribute indie films -- and more established directors and stars have begun to move more effortlessly from one realm to the other -- the cocoon of Peirce's early experiences wasn't actually a great training ground for life in the risk-averse vacuum of the Hollywood industrial complex. Ask any female executive, producer, writer, or director, and eventually she'll admit: Everyone notices they're a girl.
"I think it is very much an issue," Peirce says. "I think that, fundamentally, like likes like. As a queer person -- though I don't want to limit myself, because I've had boyfriends -- and certainly as a woman, you become hyperaware of power, unfortunately, because you realize you're not given it off the bat," she says. "On this movie, it's become very clear to me that it is not a given. I have found pockets of sexism that I have never seen before. My eyes were opened. They don't care about the queerness, but the girl-ness is an issue."
Still, she can point to some ways her queerness works in her favor: teaming up with straight guys. She's developed a butch/femme lesbian romantic comedy with Judd Apatow, who executive-produced both the girl gross-out mega-hit Bridesmaids and HBO's breakout comedy Girls. "The butch and femme fall madly in love," she explains, "and they have all these complications -- and there's a number of straight guys who come to their aid."
"Some straight men think dykes don't like them," she adds. "I don't know who those dykes are, but I think they're great. I don't think there's a lack of attraction between straight men and gay women, but there's a lack of an obligation on the male's part to ask you out. If anything, they get to flirt with you, and I think that that's really freeing. Queer people move in and out of the straight world, but straight people don't [move] in the same way."
Peirce also has a strong eye for casting emerging stars, both men and women. In addition to Swank, who had previously been best known from the original Beverly Hills, 90210 series, Boys Don't Cry elevated Chloe Sevigny (then an obscure art-house darling seen in Kids and The Last Days of Disco) and Peter Sarsgaard (as one of Brandon Teena's murderers).
For Stop-Loss, her 2008 drama about a young soldier who is called back to service, she fought to cast Channing Tatum, whose biggest credits at the time were Step Up and Step Up 2, both glorified dance-offs. "All these [actors] who are coming in are boys," she told producers. "Channing came in and I was like, 'That's a man.' "
If Peirce's faculty with a dark, flawed, unconventional protagonist was an obvious plus when looking to relaunch Carrie, it's hard not to wonder if her major studio minders realize just how straightforward Peirce is when talking about her characters' queer subtext.
"Carrie's desire to be different is similar to my desire to be different," she says. "She's certainly not front and center--the most popular, the most beautiful, the most perfect. The relationship between all the girls is incredibly queer. The way the girls are screwing their boyfriends to get them to either hurt or help Carrie--that's a complete triangle of desire. My actresses would be holding hands and hugging and kissing, and I'm like, 'Guys, you're making this queerer than I ever made it.' And they're totally straight."
Add Moore to the mix and the dysfunctional family portrait also gets a little bent. "I think Margaret and Carrie's relationship is very queer," Peirce says -- but it's also about power, more Michel Foucault than Inside the Actor's Studio.
"Carrie is topped by the mother for the first half of the film," Peirce says, "beaten down, dominated. The mother won't even let her get a word in edgewise. After Carrie has reached her zenith of power [at the school dance], she comes home and she wants to turn back into the child, wants to go back to, 'Mother, I will pray.' Of course the mother lets her. But then the mother tries to kill her and the powers protect Carrie. So you have this phenomenal arc of the bottom becoming the top, wanting to be the bottom again -- but it's too late."
As for that frequently asked question about whether Carrie will be better solely because a woman is running the show, Peirce is characteristically thoughtful in her answer. "The minute we say [it is better], we're buying into the argument that only a man can do this, and only a straight person can do that," she says. "So let's not buy into that."
WATCH a Behind the Scenes trailer of Carrie below: