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Why 'Boys Don't Cry'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 1999


    'Kimberly Peirce Kimberly Peirce's film focuses on a cross-dressing martyr. (Fox Searchlight)
Intense, earnest and voluble, Kimberly Peirce barely stops speaking to glance at the bowl of fruit, granola and yogurt set in front of her during the first in a round of morning interviews on the subject of her feature directorial debut, "Boys Don't Cry," a fact-based film about Teena Brandon, the 21-year-old Nebraska woman murdered in 1993 after secretly – and successfully – passing herself off as a man named Brandon Teena.

In the space of a few minutes, conversation bounces from the influence of Shakespearean tragedy to her work's evocation of the Oedipal conflict to a discussion of the principles of Aristotle's "Poetics" to a litany of directorial idols: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Kenji Mizoguchi and F.W. Murnau.

In light of such erudite effusiveness, the caffeinated cappuccino she's sipping seems redundant – if not downright dangerous. Yet offsetting the air of wired bookishness – and demonstrating an ability to accessorize cultivated in Greenwich Village – Peirce sports not one but two shocks of electric-blue hair, dyed to match the streak that is now spilling out of her mouth.

"I'm opposed to hate crimes and hatred against difference – whether it's against race, religion, identity, gender identity or sexual preference – I'm against all hatred against difference," proclaims Peirce, describing her attraction to the tragic story that fell into her lap while she was in film school at Columbia University in 1994.

Long interested in what she calls issues of "identity and crossing over," the self-described tomboy who felt "out of alignment" with her own body fell in love with the saga of a contemporary martyr in the transgender wars, deciding to drop work on a planned script about a Civil War cross-dresser to film a short about Brandon/Teena.

"Ultimately I spent the next three years looking for Brandon," says Peirce, who revised her plans for a short when it became clear that the actress she had originally cast as Brandon could not pass as a man and that the tale's poetic complexity called for the scope of a feature. Hillary Swank, who looks remarkably like the real Brandon, was only cast after an exhaustive audition process. "I had pretty much looked at every butch lesbian and actor that I could get a hold of," Peirce jokes.

Although she had to winnow an unwieldy and at times contradictory chronicle and trial transcript, of necessity modifying some of the original facts (one person's name has been changed for legal reasons, another dropped from the story for simplicity, and certain scenes are imagined extrapolations based on massive research and interviews), the director insists that she has remained faithful to "the emotional truth." "You find a deeper truth by surrendering the truth," says Peirce, sounding a bit like a Zen master.

"My responsibility to these people is to tell the truth and my responsibility to drama is to tell the truth," she continues. "The question is how do I take their truth and make it work in my structure? I needed to make people fall in love with Brandon and to understand his journey and the violence that was exacted upon him, because that's how you fight hate crimes."

And does she regret all the poetry she had to leave lying on the cutting room floor? "It's so funny," laughs Peirce. "People are like, 'When you do the DVD, are you going to put in all the stuff you lost?' And honestly, I'm like, 'No.' I mean, there's a reason I lost it, because it was achieving a better form."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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