Dustin Lance Black: The Power of Dreaming
“It’s a movie about dreams,” Dustin Lance Black says about his feature directorial debut, Virginia.
The surreal comedy, in which the title character, an unhinged mother (Jennifer Connelly) struggles to raise her teenage son (Harrison Gilbertson) while carrying on an affair with a Mormon sheriff (Ed Harris), has been a passion project for the talented 37-year-old. Black originally wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay eight years ago as a writing sample that helped him secure a position on the writing staff of HBO’s polygamist drama Big Love. Following his Academy Award win for his Milk screenplay, anticipation was high for Virginia. An earlier cut of the film that screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival was disparaged as an uneasy blend of comedy and drama. Black says he didn’t take the criticism too personally. “Watching it with an audience, I had some severe critiques of it as well,” he says now.
Black also reveals he "begged, borrowed, stole, and used my own money" to re-edit the low-budget film, which is now playing in select theaters. Besides discussing his cinematic labor of love, Black also unveils the secret of Mormon undergarments, what Obama’s support of marriage equality means to young people in the South, and plans for a film version of his play 8.
The Advocate: Virginia is obviously a very personal film. What inspired you to write the screenplay?
Dustin Lance Black: I wrote it about eight years ago as a writing sample to get the job on Big Love. If you know me you and you know somewhat autobiographical some of the scenes are, you know it’s me tackling my young childhood issues. I’ve gone on to other things, but this project has always been there for me to work on. The premiere last night was like a graduation for me. It will be strange to not have Virginiaon my plate anymore.
My guess is that the character of Emmett, who is desperate to escape his hometown and schizophrenic mother, is a composite of you and your brothers.
If Virginia is a composite of the women who raised me – not my mom, let’s be clear – then Emmett is definitely a composite of me and my brothers.
Toby Jones plays a repressed gay man who resorts to cross dressing to have sex with other men. Did you know someone like him?
The atmosphere in the South I grew up in was you were not allowed to come out or great harm would come to you. One of the solutions you’d hear about was that some of these gay men would dress up in women’s clothes and seduce guys. I don’t know what happened in the bedroom but they would mask their identity. I think it’s heartbreaking. Like anything in this film you find the humor, but it’s coming from a broken place. For Toby’s character I think if you are cross dressing and you put on your gender non-conforming attire you should do it because you love it and it’s a part of who you are. I celebrate that. Unfortunately Toby Jones’ character is hiding and keeping himself safe.
It’s a complex film. What do you see as its theme?
It’s about rising above your station and the power of dreaming. When I was younger and I’d go out drinking with friends, we’d try to out childhood trauma each other. I’d talk about the trying circumstances of growing up in a very poor home in the South with a disabled single mother. People would say I’m sorry. In the South we wear our trauma like a badge of honor. We celebrate it. I don’t think we’re judged on it, but rather on how big we dream and try to rise above our station. I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a Southern dreamer.
What did you borrow from your own upbringing to tell this story?
There are two kinds of people I know personally who live that way. One was the family member who helped raise me, who not only dreamed, but absolutely believed in those dreams. All of the Mormon men I was surrounded by when they spoke about the afterlife it sounded really dreamy. It was all very comforting to me as a kid. I felt that if things were uncomfortable to me as a kid, then it was OK to dream. It’s OK to believe these things that might not be true because they make me feel better and they make living more bearable.
There’s a scene in the film in which Ed Harris’s character is seen in his magic Mormon underwear. Explain what these are for people who have never dated a Mormon.
[Laughs] Garments are what they’re called, actually. There are churches and temples. Once you’ve gone through the temple and the temple ceremonies you can wear the garments, which are symbolic in many ways but they also have a lot of TK around them about protecting you from evil. It’s a longstanding tradition to wear them. Men get them when they’re about to go on their first mission and woman get them when they’re about to get married. You’re supposed to wear your garments under your clothes at all times. In Mormon culture people will look to see if you’re wearing the garments, if they’re sticking out from the neckline or sleeves. They go down quite low. Women will sometimes feel the leg of the man they’re going on a date with to see if he’s wearing them to see if he’s a good Mormon. If you’ve got them on then you’re a catch.
Let’s do a 180 and talk about the op-ed you wrote for The Hollywood Reporter last month that criticized President Obama. You took some heat for it, including an opposing op-ed published on The Advocate’s website.
I got beat up for four or five days, but then I got some of the loveliest apologies I’ve ever received in my life. I’m fine with criticism. It opened up a lively debate. It’s always hard for a second. I also didn’t write that without passing it by a couple of my friends who are closer to the White House than I am.
Some gay Republicans and others criticized Obama for not speaking out in favor of marriage equality before the vote in North Carolina. Do you think it would have mattered?
It might have made a difference. It just seems like such a sour grapes argument to me. I have a lot of gay Republican friends It seems that’s grasping at straws for something negative. I actually think timing wise it was critical. I might see the other side of it because it might have affected the vote but by doing it the day after he took what was likely devastating news to the activists there and the self-esteem of the young people there and sent one of the greatest signals of hope we’ve ever heard from a commander in chief. I am assured that young people who might have started spiraling because of the news from North Carolina and the feeling that their government no longer valued their lives and their families. To hear from the commander in chief, “Wait a minute, I’m the president of the United States and I care about your lives and your loves so much that I think they should be equally protected in this country.” I think that was life-saving. In terms of timing I think the president saved lives doing it the day after. It certainly wasn’t a political slam dunk to do it at all, but in doing it he saved lives.
The Los Angeles production of 8 in March was a huge success. How much money has the show raised for AFER so far?
One million dollars in New York and 2.5 in L.A so 3.5 million dollars all together. If you go to 8theplay.com, you can see where it’s being produced around the country. I gave that away. My poor lawyers! It’s royalty-free. It’s now just an educational outreach tool. We’ll see what the state of the case is in six months and if we go to the Supreme Court with it, we may do it again as a fundraiser. For now I think it’s time to educate the country on why this case is so historic.
I understand there’s a film adaptation in the works with Rob Reiner directing. What can you reveal about it?
Thankfully, there was some studio interest and through Rob Reiner’s company Castle Rock so we’re creating a film version of 8. It will have to be more personal. The play is built for a theater audience, who has to be patient listening to the legal arguments that unfold. With a film audience I think it’s important to personalize it more. It will still have all the legal arguments, but I want to delve more into our plaintiffs’ lives. They’re pretty remarkable. The more you get to know them the more unlikely their romance and the more lovely they seem. Rob and I went up Easter weekend and interviewed Chris and Sandy, the two lesbian plaintiffs for two days. I already loved them but after spending two entire days with them hearing their stories, I fell desperately in love with them. I’m very excited to bring their story to the big screen.