Murdered nonconformist Brandon Teena has become a transgressive icon of daring and ambiguity, a poster person for the gender rebel as misunderstood victim. A biological female, Brandon not only passed as a boy, he (as Brandon’s often called) wowed the ladies with tender lovemaking that made him a better straight man than the “real” ones. When his secret got out, the girls stayed true, the guys became violent, and the legend was cemented.
Kimberly Peirce, the director-coscreenwriter of the new Teena flick Boys Don’t Cry,is more of a clear-cut entity. She’s an out lesbian and a total woman who talks in a rat-tat-tat style, with an inexhaustible clarity. She also runs a very tight ship, and admits, “Absolute creative control is my number one goal because that’s the only way to protect the movie.” But on the set of an indie, she says, “though you try to have control, everything’s changing in front of you. You say, ‘Let’s shoot the merry-go-round scene,’ and someone says, ‘But there’s no merry-go-round!’ ”
I had a brief ride myself when I was warned that Peirce was worried I might do a “crazy article.” Peirce told me she never said that, only that she was afraid she’d have to tell me gossip. In our talk, she gracefully patched things up, ultimately giving me hints of gossip anyway.
Her movie—shot in 30 days in and around Dallas—zeroes in on the relationship between Brandon (Hilary Swank) and Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny), who fell for the idealistic drifter, only to have the local thugs mess with their fairy tale. The pace is at times deliberate, but the attention to detail pays off when the dark story kicks in and the film emerges as a distinctively acted powerhouse. In contrast to the acclaimed ’98 documentary The Brandon Teena Story, Peirce says, “I got to have a real character. Instead of repeating the facts, I got to understand why he lived as he did, then bring the audience inside this adventure. I don’t think a documentary could do that.” With typical assurance, she feels her version is realer than the nonfiction one.
Peirce had been working on a thesis about a woman who posed as a man during the Civil War when she read about Brandon’s tragedy in ’93. Fixated, she went to Falls City, Nebraska, where she attended the murder trial and, along with transsexual author Kate Bornstein, visited the farmhouse where Brandon was killed. “This was a trailer-park girl who didn’t have role models or economic means,” says Peirce, “but created a fantastic vision of herself.” Bonding with his own future murderers, Brandon was a hit until he moved in on their turf—nabbing Lana—thereby upsetting the clique’s macho stasis. Finding out that Brandon had a vagina was the last straw for these Cornhusker State ex-cons, who proceeded to strip him of his masculinity, his pride, and his being. “I think Brandon was destined to die, given the way he was living his life,” says Peirce, sadly.
Peirce hails from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, “which is not unlike Falls City.” An animator-
photographer, she quit college and went to Japan for two years, “where I had my brain split open by sensation—it’s so beautiful.” In ’95, she filmed theBrandon story as a short, having written the script as a Columbia film school graduate thesis. For the feature-film lead, she interviewed every butch lesbian and transgender actor she could find, but not men or male-to-females, insisting that the base person should be a biological woman, “because that’s what Brandon was.” Alas, most females wanted no part of it in ’96—one gay actress was afraid the sex scenes would reveal her as a lesbian—”but in ’98, after Ellen, there was a proliferation of gay images and it wasn’t a stigma anymore. We were flooded by the agencies—but it didn’t help because none of these girls knew what it was to be a butch.”
In came an audition tape of a young woman in a cowboy hat, with a sock in her pants, a cut on her lip, “and that face and those eyes,” beams Peirce. Tori Spelling? “No, Kate Winslet,” she laughs. Actually, it was ex-Beverly Hills 90210-er Hilary Swank, who makes a stunningly cute boy and a charismatic enigma. Swank wore the same outfit to a live audition in New York, which she flew to at her own expense. “I strapped and packed, as they call it,” relates Swank, who came to know Peirce as “a very smart woman, very articulate and passionate, with a strong vision.” Swank’s take on Brandon? “People are either magnetized or threatened by a person living their dream, and they [the killers] were threatened.” Swank doesn’t rule out that at least one of them was attracted to Brandon—as a woman, that is.
The film’s crux is the rape/murder scene, which Peirce recut no less than seven times. “I wanted it to be perfect,” Peirce says. “I wanted to show the mechanics of hatred—to see from all sides what was pushing into this retaliation of violence against difference. I’m sure that was frightening to the studio. I wrote 10-page memos trying to explain the importance of everything.” How controlling—in a good way. As for that gossip, does Kimberly Peirce have a lover? No, she confides. “Who can date a filmmaker? A couple of girls have tried, but I tell them, ‘I’m unavailable.’ I redefine unavailable.” Clear enough?