Director Kimberly Peirce explains why the tale of tormented outcast Carrie White is the bookend to her breakthrough film Boys Don’t Cry
"I wanted to make it a superhero origin story because that’s inherent to the book,” says director Kimberly Peirce with characteristic directness.
It, in case you’ve been dwelling in a cave far removed from any form of social media, is Carrie, her cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal 1974 horror novel. Starring Chloë Grace Moretz as the bullied telekinetic title character and Julianne Moore as Margaret White, her dominating religious zealot mother, the film opens in theaters Oct. 18.
Peirce knows she has a lot riding on this new film. In the nearly 15 years since Boys Don’t Cry—the searing 1999 drama about murdered transgender male Brandon Teena—launched her directing career and won Hilary Swank an Academy Award for the year’s best actress, the out 46-year-old filmmaker had made only one other film before Carrie. In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last film, and Peirce’s last film, the 2008 Iraq war drama Stop-Loss, received mixed reviews and disappointing box office returns.
But perhaps even more nerve-wracking is the prospect that legions of LGBT fans devoted to the first adaptation have sharpened their talons, waiting in fear for possible desecration of a classic they’ve held near and dear. Peirce might need to exhibit some superhero qualities of her own if she intends to satisfy hard-to-please fans of the original 1976 film.
Last year, when the announcement was made of the reimagining (don’t call it a remake!) of the King novel, it was greeted with ire by some queer fans who see their own struggles against oppression echoed in the story. Not to mention the first film version—directed by Brian De Palma in 1976, earning Oscar nods for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie as the iconic characters—is indisputably a classic of the genre and rite-of-passage viewing for many gays. Plus, there are many who likely feel burned by the inane 1999 sequel Carrie 2: The Rage and completely forgettable television remake of the original three years later. They don’t want this sacred material fucked up again.
Re-envisioning a well-known film is always a daunting prospect for any director, and Peirce recognizes the inherent risks that accompany taking on such revered queer material. She says before she accepted the challenge she called up her buddy De Palma, who offered his blessing, and she reread King’s novel—three times.
Despite such pressure to deliver a film that will stand up against one of the most vividly realized horror movies in modern cinema, Peirce is practically ebullient as she leans forward on the sofa in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles to discuss the film.
She completely understands the concerns and doubts of die-hard Carrie fans. She had them herself before she accepted the directing assignment, calling King a “master storyteller” and acknowledging the novel as a bona-fide classic.
Rather than remaking what De Palma did nearly 40 years ago, Peirce decided to find her own way into the well-known story. She compares the process of beginning to make Carrie to that of beginning to film Boys Don’t Cry and acknowledges doubts of her own she had to overcome.
“When I started, I absolutely fell in love with Brandon Teena,” Peirce says. “I went with transgender men to the murder town, and I researched everything. I never knew if I was good enough to tell that story. In fact, I wasn’t at that time. I was just out of film school. I wasn’t the writer or director I am today, but it was always with the sense of absolute love and intent to show up every day and do my best that I engaged with that material. When it finally came out, I had no idea if people would like it. I did OK.”
Boys is a factual retelling of an authentic and chilling piece of queer history. Why is the story of Carrie White—a heterosexual misfit teenager—so revered by gay people? Peirce sees the tale as being completely emblematic of the queer experience.
“If you’re queer and you live in a heteronormative society, you are the outcast,” she says. “You are the misfit, even as our communities find a way to give us self-worth or a sense of pride. Why do we have Pride marches? We have them because society took away our sense of pride. We want to go out into the street and say ‘we’re here, we’re queer, accept us.’ So I just think part of the idea of being queer—although it’s changing, because we’re becoming part of the mainstream—was that we didn’t have enough societal pride and we were in search of it. I think a lot of queer people have felt they were the misfit. They went through stuff like this. Whether you’re a gay man or lesbian—or wherever you fall under the umbrella—I think that’s why people relate to Carrie.”
There’s also the universal appeal—particularly with the ongoing bullying epidemic in schoolrooms around the globe—of a downtrodden character getting revenge on her tormenters. Peirce says her version of the story serves as a fantasy for anybody who wants a sense of justice.
“I made it very clear that Carrie went after the very people who did her wrong,” Peirce explains. “It’s a very classic justice and revenge story. Once her powers come out, she looks for Chris and Billy [the story’s bullies], and she looks for their accomplices. One by one she goes after them and has a big showdown outside the school. I think the sense of the revenge fantasy is really important—and fun and entertaining.”
Does the director see herself—a queer filmmaker—making a name for herself in Hollywood’s directing world, which is typically considered a boy’s club?
“I’d say we all relate to Carrie,” Peirce explains. “Her profound goal in life is to have love and acceptance. We all want that on a daily basis, and we all struggle with it on a daily basis. Carrie White is all of us. She doesn’t get it at school and she doesn’t get it at home, and then all of a sudden she has a super power. It’s like anyone discovering a talent for anything that helps us get by.”
Peirce had no qualms with making Carrie’s harridan of a mother a more complex and possibly more sympathetic character than in the 1976 film, helped undoubtedly by casting the gifted Moore, an actress who has an emotional shorthand with film audiences.
“Margaret’s a bit harder for people to identify with,” Peirce states. “But at the same time, I granted her a complex human being who is real. Margaret wants to be safe. She feels unsafe in the world, and that’s why she doesn’t venture out. She was very religious, and when she felt she’d made a mistake and sinned and had sex, she created her own religion just to get security.”
It doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to think of Carrie as a bookend to Boys Don’t Cry, to find a common link between the two outcast protagonists.
“I think that they come from the same DNA, interestingly,” Peirce says. “They seem so different. You have a really strong central protagonist whose need is to get love and acceptance. They’re not getting that love and acceptance from basic society or at home. Brandon transforms himself into the male he believes he should be and dates women he wants to. Carrie is like, I’ve got superpowers. I think I’m going to use them. I think I’m going to go to prom with the boy I like and with the powers I have. Same with Brandon. I think I’ll go down to Lincoln living as a man instead of Falls City and see what happens. They both build to this explosive and tragic inevitability.”
As one of the handful of studio-friendly queer directors, Peirce says she’s aware of another inevitability—that people consider her responsible for making more films accurately portraying LGBT lives. Foremost, though, she feels an obligation merely to be a good human being herself and to tell interesting stories. Period.
“If I can find a good queer story, I’d be the first to tell it,” she offers. “If I haven’t found a good queer story but if I find another great story that needs to be told, I’ll tell it. But if you find me a great queer story, of course my heart will go there, and I’ll have a passion for it. But it’s all about finding a good story.”
For now, Peirce just wants people to see Carrie with an open mind.
“When I was making the film, I just wanted to make it good,” the director reveals. “Now I want people to love it.”