Home Others Twenty years on, Boys Don't Cry can still teach us a lot

Twenty years on, Boys Don't Cry can still teach us a lot

Arts & Humanities

Kimberly Peirce ’96SOA, director of the seminal film about the life and death of a young trans man, reflects on the making of a modern classic.

By Paul Hond |15. June 2020

Noch aus 'Boys Don't Cry' (Fox Searchlight).

In the fall of 1993, Brandon Teena, a young, bubbly, charismatic drifter, traveled a hundred miles from his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to the small town of Falls City, where he courted seventeen-year-old beauty Lana Tisdel. A passionate romantic, the twenty-year-old showered his girlfriend with gifts bought with counterfeit checks and won the trust of Lana's hard-drinking, hellish friends. But when two of those friends, ex-convicts Thomas Nissen and John Lotter, learned that Brandon was transgender, they raped him and shot and stabbed him days later.

The story of Brandon's final days was told in the 1999 film Boys don't cry , co-written and directed by Kimberly Peirce ’96SOA. The film challenged sensibility and pushed viewers into moral uncharted territory, while achieving an artistic unity rarely found in a debut.And as the awareness of trans life continues to develop, Boys has also been the subject of lively debates over terminology and presentation.Last year, on the twentieth anniversary of the film's release, Peirce spoke at screenings across the country. One was at Columbia's Lenfest Center, which featured film students from the School of the Arts who had attended a masterclass with the director earlier that day. A Panel discussion was scheduled after the screening, but before the film even started, Peirce took the stage and asked the audience to imagine what it must have been like to be Brandon Teena twenty-seven years ago.

Try, said Peirce, to imagine the power of Brandon's desire to be himself in a place where nothing and no one would support him. Rural Nebraska wasn't New York City or San Francisco. Google didn't exist. There was no social media, no concept of sexual fluidity or continuum, and in most cases no tolerance for someone living outside the binary paradigm as it was understood at the time. Much of America couldn't take up Brandon Teena's idea, and yet he went out into the world and tried to live authentically.

Peirce said I wanted to capture the power of his need to form what he was because that was extraordinary.

At the time of Brandon's death, Peirce was studying film at Columbia and living in the East Village. But even there, in a mecca of sexual openness - a million clairvoyant miles from Falls City, Nebraska - Peirce struggled to figure out her own sexuality. I remember cycling past the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and thinking, 'Maybe I'm gay, but I don't know how to be gay and I won't be good at it,' she told the audience. I was blushed when my identity emerged and I knew I wanted to tell a story about someone who lived as a man.

Kimberly Peirce speaks at Columbia (Christian Balmer).

But her ideas didn't work out and Peirce was frustrated - and scared. Then, one night in April 1994, a colleague at the Midtown law firm where Peirce worked part-time brought up the latest edition of the Village voice . There was on page 24 an article by Donna Minkowitz entitled Love Hurts with the subtitle: Brandon Teena was a woman who lived and loved as a man. She was killed for taking it with her. Tied up, Peirce read the long article straight through and was aware of a strange but unmistakable flame inside it. I felt like I was baptized in the fire, said Peirce. I was in love. It was the strangest thing: I was just obsessed. I had to find out who Brandon was and how he lived.

Peirce began her thesis project, a short film about Brandon's life, but her money ran out and the footage ended up at DuArt, a post-production facility in Manhattan. Then producer Christine Vachon - the soon-to-be founder of Killer Films and the hottest name on the New York indie scene - found out about Peirce's project and invited her to a meeting. It was an opportunity any film student would die for, but Peirce had nothing to show for. She asked Vachon if she would get the daily papers from DuArt. Vachon did, and after watching her, explained that the story should be a feature. While Vachon was looking for funding, Peirce entered the world of Brandon Teena.

She first traveled to Nebraska with an activist group called the Transsexual Threat to participate in the Nissen and Lotter murder trials. She read court transcripts, interviewed Lana Tisdel and learned all about Brandon's early years growing up in a trailer park. And she spent three years doing the toughest job of all: finding someone to play Brandon.

At the time, she wasn't even sure how to define Brandon. Was Brandon a transgender man or a butch lesbian? The terminology was also changing, always a few steps behind the lived reality of those who did not fit neatly into established categories. We really thought we'd either find a trans person or a butch, said Peirce. We all brought hot drag kings with us. Some of the people she auditioned identified themselves as butch lesbians but now identify as trans men. You didn't get straight people because playing gay was a dangerous thing at the time. Then, in April 1997, comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay, a cultural turning point that Peirce reflected in her auditions. It was then that cisgender straight women came into play, and they wanted to play the role. It was interesting because they came in with a sock in their pants and their hair tied back and said 'Hi'. Peirce knew they couldn't internalize masculinity the way she wanted to. The film needed the person to pass the other actors off as a man, Peirce said. If it failed, there was no authenticity.

Meanwhile, Vachon found two producers who would fund the film, and casting director Kerry Barden put together a stellar ensemble, with Chloë Sevigny as Lana and Brendon Sexton and Peter Sarsgaard as Nissen and Lotter.

Four weeks before filming, Peirce panicked. Barden had gone to hundreds of actors to play Brandon, and each one was worse than the other, Peirce recalled. Then one day, during Barden's lunch break, a young woman in a cowboy hat walked in. She happened to be from Lincoln, Nebraska, Brandon's hometown. Barden knew her - she'd auditioned for Whit Stillmans The last days of the disco who had cast Bard, but she didn't get the role. After auditioning for Boys don't cry , Bards FedEx sent the tape to Peirce. Two nights later, Peirce and producer Eva Kolodner were in the Killer Films office in Lafayette 380 and put the tape into the VCR. It was 10 p.m. and they were exhausted. They watched the millionth would-be Brandon walk on. Peirce shivered and pressed pause. Oh my God , She thought. That's him .

There was a human on that screen, Peirce explained. We had never seen it all at once. This person had androgynous jaws, had ears and forehead, had some sort of boasting and sex appeal, and was smiling. That was what hit me - that person put magic on the screen. We brought that person in and that person came in and it was just clear that the person we had dreamed of was there. And it was a miracle.

Hilary Swank, a relatively unknown person, would win the 2000 Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as Brandon Teena in an Oscar field that included Meryl Streep, Annette Bening, and Julianne Moore. In her Acceptance speech , Swank thanked Peirce for her wild tenacity and vision and ended with a tribute to Brandon: His legacy lives on through our film, Swank said using a globally heard pronoun to remind us to always be ourselves, to follow our hearts . not to conform.

After the Lenfest screening, Peirce was accompanied on stage by members of her creative team, including actors Sexton and Sevigny; Cinematographer Jim Denault, who had made a number of Columbia student films and first met Peirce through this network; and Andy Bienen’96SOA, Associate Professor of Film at Columbia and co-author of Boys don't cry .

Peirce's student film was fictionalized, and during the panel it was revealed that for the feature film, producers convinced Peirce to use real names, adopt the real story, and then take any narrative license she needed to improve the film. For Peirce this was the decisive breakthrough. It is a brave step to become real, she said.

Sevigny certainly got it right with Lana, the character Peirce said is the path into the film for many viewers. The actress spent a lot of time meditating on pictures of Lana and Brandon, mesmerized by their attractiveness and outlaw vibe. I remember looking at these photos and being so obsessed with Brandon's prey and how he owned it. I was in love with her and her love story.

When I first met Lana we thought the key to the script was: When did she know Brandon was a female? said Peirce. At that time you used the term 'girl'. I said, “When did you know Brandon was a girl?” And she said, “Oh, I always knew Brandon was a girl.” And I thought, Oh god, we don't have a movie . I said, “So you always knew Brandon was a girl?” And she said, “No, I didn't know that until we got undressed.” Peirce realized that Lana was an unreliable narrator with a shifting understanding of Brandon had that under ... the influence of her own feelings and society's need to define him. This required subtlety in the script: it was important to Peirce that the viewer be immersed in Lana's desire for the person Brandon, even as she went in and out to acknowledge or know that Brandon was trans and weigh how important it was , you.

One of the most indelible scenes in the film is the rape of Brandon by Nissen and Lotter. After the first take, Sexton went off on its own and lost it. I just cried for forty-five minutes, Sexton recalled, still visibly shaken because I'd seen the movie for the first time in twenty years. For Peirce, who was open about her own history of physical and sexual abuse, the decision to film the rape was a difficult one, but she felt she had insight into it and was committed to it in a non-pornographic manner to represent. She said.

The film honors Brandon and was honored in kind. Last year, Boys don't cry was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Peirce went on to direct Stop-Loss (2008) on young soldiers returning from the Iraq war, and Carrie (2013), a remake of the horror classic, and recently directed episodes of the Netflix show Dear white people and show times joke , mit Jim Carrey.

Twenty years after the publication of Boys don't cry 'Still, Peirce is amazed that the film happened and she never thought it would be hugged so passionately. I was a kid, she said. I had a year of film school behind me. I didn't know anything. I hadn't made a film. I said to myself, 'I have to be a good writer and director to serve the film. I have to do this right. Even today she remembers what a miracle it was that she made the film and gives this mission an almost religious fervor.

Boys , she said, was just the greatest calling in the world.

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