Dustin Lance Black on What's Wrong With Virginia, Mormon Underwear and Polarizing Toronto
Despite the most spirited endorsement of yours truly, Dustin Lance Black's directorial debut What's Wrong With Virginia hasn't found the warmest reaction this week at the Toronto Film Festival. This has been a bit confounding to Black, whose follow-up to his Oscar-winning screenplay for Milk tells the wild tale of mentally ill Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), her teenage son (Harrison Gilbertson), her Mormon sheriff/Senate candidate paramour Dick Tipton (Ed Harris), and the small-town cauldron of love, sex, longing, desperation and hypocrisy from which each attempts to climb on the way to a bigger, better life. Whatever that is -- each has a different conception, as does Black himself, who today spoke with Movieline about the Canadian cold front and what isn't as wrong with Virginia as some might think.
Oh, you know. Insanity.
You don't say.
Yeah. I brought my baby out to Toronto for the first time.
How are you feeling about that right now?
I was feeling great until I got here. I was feeling really good about it; the film had had such a good reception in the New York Times. It's been rough! Things are starting to turn right now, but I think this is not what people expected to see.
What do you think they expected to see?
Probably something more traditional. That was the main criticism of Milk, which was that it was incredibly traditional. But to me, you've got to make the style match what the film needs to be. So with Milk, it was the idea of, "Let's give an openly gay guy the all-American treatment," which meant a really traditional narrative. Name it Milk -- like Patton or JFK. Just name it after him. But if you ever saw any of my really early stuff, it was rather experimental. So I think maybe there was that expectation -- that it would be something more traditional. I remember reading some of the early [reviews], and it made it sound like this was supposed to be some political drama about a guy running for office. Not really! It's about a mother's son. Tonally and aesthetically, I wanted it to look how my childhood felt, and come at it from that perspective -- the perspective of the child and the people I was raised by.
One in particular: an aunt who was a paranoid schizophrenic who had this incredibly buoyant, childlike personality. The things she couldn't control were sound and some of the paranoid delusions. And she didn't want to be medicated. But what she could control was color and light, and so I thought, "That's definitely how I'm going to control this film as well -- in a way that's from their perspective." [Pauses] I love it. I really do.
I love it, too, seriously. I was really surprised by the reaction. So many filmmakers shy away from the word "melodrama" anymore, but you really went for it, and to great effect.
I mean, the way I grew up was extreme. Not only were we in Texas in this Mormon enclave, but you throw in the military, and all the archetypes are blown up. Everything's bigger in Texas -- that is true. So I said, "Well, why not?" The truth is that it's probably closer to my subjective reality of it than if I'd just made it a straight drama. Things were incredibly funny. Things were childlike and naïve and colorful.
But tonally, anyway, things in this movie turn on a dime. Was that part of growing up -- that family sensibility -- something else you wanted to capture?
Yeah, the chaos. I thought at any given point when you're in that atmosphere, things will take a turn -- and generally for the worse. It's because people are making desperate decisions. I was surrounded by people making incredibly stupid choices, putting themselves and their loved ones at risk. The goal was always to get the American Dream. Right now is a really good example of that: The middle class, the lower-middle class is struggling. They want to achieve the American Dream, but there is very little opportunity to do so. That's the environment I grew up in. And you start making these wild, irresponsible choices to get there. So at any given moment growing up, I never knew what was going to come down next. Is a parent going to leave? Are we going to get arrested because we're shoplifting in order to have things? Who's going to drop dead from whatever drug might be going around?
At face value, whenever I describe the things that were going on in my life, people will get this glum look on their face and feel really badly. I always say to them I found it extraordinary. I loved my growing-up years; I found it really funny. It was probably the happiest time of my life. I felt very liberated. You worry about your survival, and the drama going on in the film, and the drama going on in the film was the same drama going on in my young mind, which was how do we get to a better place? How do I help mom? My mom is disabled in a different way. There was always a lightness and a love to it.
Virginia has a fascinating style. How did her costumes come together, and what exactly would you call it?
It was just working with [costume designer] Danny Glicker a lot. We went through thrift stores, where I think she would shop, or Wal-Mart, where she might get her accessories -- stuff that was affordable or easily found. Things she had in the closet from her family, but always with the idea of Southern aspiration, which is something that I grew up around. They all want to be Scarlett O'Hara. They all want to be Gone With the Wind, in my experience. We were looking at what would feel, in her mind, "This is better than who I am right now"? That manifests itself in color. She might be drawn to things that are dated or might have that Southern Gothic feel to them -- and not know better than to not wear it.
To be honest, it probably feels bumped to a New York audience, or an L.A. or Toronto audience. But go to Virginia or go to Louisiana, and it's not that far off. In fact, she's probably better-dressed than she might ought to be. It's Southern Gothic 2.0.
So let's say those coastal audiences -- the so-called "sophisticates" -- do just assume it's bumped as opposed to contemplating it might reflect a way of life elsewhere in the country. Does that offend you? Hurt you? Piss you off?
It definitely doesn't piss me off.
What if some of them accuse you of exploiting or mischaracterizing her in some way?
I haven't heard that yet. I hope I don't; maybe I will. But to say that it's too bumped -- to me -- would be like me saying, "I want you to go out there and live it." Because it is extreme, and it's extreme out there for a great many people. It's funny: I've shown this in New York, where it goes over really well. I don't know why it does; we've had really good success there. The test screenings are fantastic. I don't know why. But I think a lot of people who live in the South are really going to find it true. They're not going to find the colors even that extreme. I think they'll find it less bumped. It feels bumped to the people who haven't grown up in that world or lived in that world.
Well, it's obviously a heightened universe wherever you live.
It's certainly heightened -- on purpose. If you took a still photograph, sure this would be heightened compared to that. But if you went there and lived there for a few weeks, it's going to feel a lot like my movie. If you go to Lake Province, Louisiana, for a couple of weeks, you'e going to be like, "My God. This world is out there." It feels extreme in that way; people are dreaming big dreams even though they don't have the means -- or even the decision-making skills -- to get there.
Pages: 1 2