“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.