Dustin Lance Black on What's Wrong With Virginia, Mormon Underwear and Polarizing Toronto

what_s_wrong_virginia_dlb_500.jpgDespite 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.

What's happening?

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.

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  • Seth says:

    Lance Black seems like a nice guy...but the reason he got MILK, (a journalistic story pared down to screenplay) sorry to say, was that Gus Van Sant thought he was cute....
    maybe there's no there there....
    not the first person to rise fast on his looks...

  • Not buying what Black is selling says:

    When the Times calls this "another slightly eccentric little film with potentially universal lessons" that is hardly a ringing endorsement.

  • Emotionally Retarded says:

    And this is not Black's directorial debut -- he has directed about four other movies.

  • I was sleeping and I remember waking up and I felt really anxious and my breathing was really weird (I've had a panic attack once before when I was little and it felt like that but I felt really anxious and kept moving around). How is it possible that it was an anxiety attack or panic and anxiety attack? (Is an anxiety attack and a panic attack two different things or the same?) The information you provide here is very valuable - thank you.

  • Dumbfounded says:

    I am a practicing Mormon, and Mr. Black has completely missed the mark in his characterization of Mormons, our beliefs, and our religious practices. In his interview he mentions that he sees things as they were in his young mind, so they may not have been accurate. This must be the case here because his explanations are so stunningly inaccurate. Had he said "my parents" instead of "all Mormons", I would have no problem with his statements--I might have thought his parents were a bit off, but I would know it was _his_ parents. How someone this young with so many axes to grind against Mormonism can claim to know the honest truth about the church's doctrine and practices is beyond words. Mr. Black is welcome to voice his own personal experience with Mormonism, but readers and viewers must remember it is just that--the personal experiences of a young person trying to make sense of his world which, by his own admission, was extremely distorted. His pronouncements on polygamy, sexual practices, underwear, priesthood, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and so on, are half-truths at best, and outright lies at worst. Anyone interested in knowing what Mormons actually do believe and practice would do well to ask an actual Mormon.

    • nightavatar says:

      Well, I am "an actual Mormon" and I think Mr. Black was spot-on in every single way. What specific quote do you disagree with? Everything he said in this interview is 100% true, with the single exception of boys getting temple garments at 16. It's age 18-19 that happens.

    • nightavatar says:

      Everything he said about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, garments, the temple, priesthood, etc is true. He didn't say anything about sexual practices, did he? Only that some Mormons wear their garments all the time, including during sexual acts. Well, sorry if it offends you but it is also 100% true! I heard that all my life, growing up, and know several people who never took their garments off for anything except bathing, and then only out of necessity! If you don't know your faith better than this don't blame Mr. Black or me, stop being lazy and study it yourself.

  • Chris says:

    A Woman From Utah Accuses Mormon Prophet Of Attempted Rape!

  • Jacob says:

    So people know, Black is WAY off in his description of the Mormon church and it's beliefs. I'm LDS and I DO want to see this film (I'm a diehard Jennifer Connelly fan) but really, Mormons DO NOT wear their garments to EVERYTHING (this includes sex which is what he was saying) if his parent's did, then that's his parent's. If some Mormons back in the day (I mean WAY back) did then that was them...it is not the religion. Also, you don't turn 16 and suddenly get to wear them. When you are ready to go through the temple (which is when people are usually 18 or older. You go through before you leave on a mission or if you want to get married) THEN you do. Also, it was never taught that the more wives you have the better or that the more you had got you higher up or that you were going to have as many wives as you wanted on your own planet. That was NEVER taught. Their are things in their that are taught but people have put them together and made this ridicules story. Joseph Smith and what he said on polygamy is very little because, as you can imagine, it was very "out there" for society. There are volumes being published of Joseph Smith's journals and court records and such and theyc an be avaliable to ANY ONE who wishes to read and know. Black seems to like to talk about the Mormon culture instead of doctrine. No offense, but he left teh church very young and never really was a part of it. I myself went through my own thing so I can relate to him. I have friends who left the church in their late teens and they talk just like him...they say EVERY anti thing they can and it makes them feel better about their choice. It's their choice, they are welcome to it. He says he isn't attacking, but his documentry 8:Mormon Proposition was received very poorly and it was recognized for what it was...a hate film. It was sad over and over again by people, who weren't LDS, that their was a better way to get their point of view across. I'll see this movie, which sounds like it'll be like Connelly's "Creation" very small release and I'll end up getting it on Netflix because redbox deosn't even have it. But I wanted to "clear" some things up. I know he has a lot of fans on here and they'll probably attack, but to those who happened upon it, just know he's off. He's an excellent writer and from what I hear he's an actor's director, but he does have an axe to grind...whether he admits it or not.

    • nightavatar says:

      I am not a big defender of Black, so this is not a defense of him but a correction of some of your false claims. I have been a Mormon for 40 years and aside from him mentioning 16 as the age to get garments everything else he said is in fact 100% true! No, not all Mormons wear their garments all the time, and yes, it is becoming less common to wear them during sex, but he never said ALL Mormons are like that. The fact is that some Mormons are, and more importantly MOST Mormons were like that in the past! Luckily it is fading out with time (as reason and the internet enlighten people more over time to the ridiculousness of some of the practices) but that doesn't mean there aren't people who still cling to the old ways. It happens!
      Also, Joseph Smith, and especially Brigham Young, DID in fact teach that having multiple wives was a requirement to get to heaven and that the more you had the higher your level in heaven would be! If you don't know this that's not unexpected but it WAS in their teachings and every devout Mormon back in the day believed this.
      Most ex-Mormons (including Mr. Black) do NOT have "an axe to grind" nor are they "anti-Mormon" (which is a pet insult Mormons love to dish out to anybody who says things about their faith which they don't approve of) but simply have no problem telling it like it is. They have no reason to "defend" the strangeness that exists is Mormonism. Admit it, a lot of Mormons doctrine and practices (think temple ceremony, washing anointing, etc) would be seen as bizarre and peculiar to most people. It's not "anti" to point that out! It's simply the honest truth. There's nothing wrong with being "a peculiar people" but own up to it and stop being so defensive! That's advice most Mormons would do well to heed.

  • Jacob says:

    sorry, I need to proof read things before I hit send! lol!

  • Jacob says:

    wanted to say oops for my spelling errors! I really need to proof read things before I hit send! lol!

  • @Jocob it heppened some time