(Photo courtesy Kimberly Peirce)
Alumni newsmaker: Kimberly Peirce, AB’90
Critics acclaim feature film debut of Peirce.
When Kimberly Peirce, AB'90, first read a Village Voice article about Brandon Teena, formerly known as Teena Brandon, it was love at first sight. "Here was this teenage girl living in a trailer park who had no economic means or role models, and she fully reinvented herself into her fantasy of a boy," she says. "I was completely blown away and in love with the character." Five years later, Peirce has transformed the captivating story into the critically acclaimed feature film Boys Don’t Cry. Starring Hilary Swank as Brandon and Chloë Sevigny as Brandon's love, Lana, the film traces the true story of Brandon's eventual exposure as a girl and his consequential rape and murder by two male friends who felt betrayed by his artifice. While other media focused on the story's more spectacular and violent elements, Peirce says she strove to offer a deeper emotional understanding of why Brandon acted in the way he did. Peirce had written and animated short stories from the age of eight, but didn't discover her love for filmmaking until her graduate years at Columbia University, where she earned her master's degree in film. She found filmmaking to be the perfect answer to her interests in different fields. "I knew I wanted to combine my anthropological interests in culture with my desire to tell stories with images," she says. "And then film just answered everything." Before Boys Don't Cry, Peirce had only worked on two other film projects, both in graduate school: The Last Good Breath, an award-winning 15-minute short about a fictitious love tragedy, and a short version of Boys Don't Cry, for which she co-wrote the script as a graduate thesis. She never finished shooting the short version because she knew that it needed to be a feature. Peirce began researching the film in 1994, retracing Brandon's footsteps in Falls City, Nebraska, visiting Brandon's killers in prison, going to the farmhouse where he was murdered, and interviewing the real-life Lana. When they first met, Peirce says, Lana stared at her and initially wasn't able to do the interview because she was convinced that Peirce, with her short brown hair, was Brandon. "I didn't really look like Brandon," says Peirce, "but I was representative of him in some way for her." Interviewing Lana helped Peirce discover the real heart of the movie: "I realized that she was so in love with this person, this soul, that gender really wasn't a concern," she says. To draw the audience more completely into Lana and Brandon's love affair, Peirce wanted to find the universal truth in it, no matter how exceptional this particular story was: "All people, when they are in love, hold onto that thing that they love. They refuse to categorize it, sometimes at their own expense." Critics have been almost unanimous in their praise of Peirce's portrayal of Brandon Teena's character and life. Peirce recently won the Boston Society of Film Critics Award and the National Board of Review Award for Best New Director, and Boys Don't Cry swept up nominations in such prestigious competitions as the Golden Globe Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, and the European Film Awards. What she appreciates about all the attention, though, is that the memory and spirit of Brandon Teena is being kept alive. "They're taking a character who was potentially marginalized and putting him out in the mainstream," she says. Peirce is now working on two new films—one about an unsolved Hollywood murder and another about righting a wrongful death. The numerous awards garnered by Boys Don't Cry have put her in the spotlight and given her the money and power to fully control her work, but her goal remains the same: "I want to make movies that enter into people's nervous systems, shake them up, make them feel what I saw and felt, but then enable them to see and feel their own thoughts and feelings."