I think [Jennifer Connelly] brings to this a real understanding of what it means to be a mother, the successes and failures combined.
Dustin Lance Black is a screenwriter, producer and director who burst onto the scene in 2009 with Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which garnered him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Additionally, Black wrote Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar and drew on his devout Mormon childhood experiences in San Antonio, Texas, as a writer and co-producer on HBO’s hit polygamist drama Big Love until the third season wrapped in 2008. Beyond his film work, Black is also a civil rights activist. He’s a founding member of AFER, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which backed the federal case against Proposition 8 in California, and serves on the board of the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ teen suicide hotline. For Black’s far-reaching contributions in both life and entertainment, Out Magazine named him one of the 50 most powerful LGBT leaders in America.
2012 sees the unveiling of Black’s first narrative feature as writer/director. Based loosely on his own upbringing in the South, Virginia stars Jennifer Connelly in the title role as a beautiful yet unhinged single mother who struggles to raise her son, while dreaming of fleeing their small Southern boardwalk town. Her long time affair with Sheriff Richard Tipton (Ed Harris), a devout Mormon who’s married with children, is thrown into question when he decides to run for public office. Virginia and Tipton’s relationship grows increasingly strained when Emmett becomes romantically entangled with Tipton’s daughter, Jessie (Emma Roberts).
Anthem sat down with Black in New York City to discuss Virginia, which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
How did the New York premiere go over yesterday?
It was incredibly positive, which was such a welcome shift for this project. We had a tough time at the Toronto Film Festival—the vibe was rough. It might’ve been me projecting my own feelings because I had a film that wasn’t complete and ready to screen at Toronto. I’ll never make that mistake again. I’ll fight and scream, and do whatever necessary to keep that from happening from now on. New York was, really, the first time I premiered the film with an audience in its completed form. I was very nervous. Certainly, in that moment, where you walk into the little reception afterwards at the Crosby Street Hotel—ask any filmmaker this—within three seconds, you can tell if the vibe is genuine or not. You can tell whether people found something of value in it or if they’re just being nice and, usually, the most telling thing is how long they stay and how long the party lasts. [Laughs] Walking in, there was such warmth and I didn’t have to go up to people because they were coming to me. It has been my experience on this film where women in particular have had a very strong response. It was mostly the women in the room that were coming up to me with a defining moment that they wanted to share, some still with tears in their eyes. It felt really good for a project like this, which I struggled with for so long. It took almost a decade to get made. So, the people stayed and we got really drunk, which is also a really good sign. [Laughs]
Sounds like a good time.
It was a great night and, you know, it’s not necessarily a film for everyone, but the people who love it, boy, they certainly really dig it. That means a lot to me. It was 8 years ago that I finished the first draft of this.
It was a long journey.
It was a long journey. It has grown increasingly tough to talk about creatively because, like anyone, we all mature. We all learn our lessons and there’s been this constant for almost a decade of Virginia, this movie about the emotional world that I grew up in. After last night, I can finally move on and deal with the emotional world of now.
Within those 8 years, did the film go through many manifestations or is the final product pretty much what you had envisioned at the very beginning?
No, it’s not at all like what I envisioned at the very beginning, but I think that’s the answer that you’d get with any film to be perfectly honest. It’s very different. I did a lot of rewrites along the way. It got shorter and I condensed a lot of things. It used to be more of a pastiche of characters in the South. Now it’s really focused on Virginia, specifically. Some of that happened in the rewrites and some in the editing room during its last pass where we really focus in on Jennifer Connelly, her character and her performance. Those are sizable changes. The landscape, the themes and the tone have always been there in that they were always risky and I hope this is clear to people. It’s this thing I experienced growing up where I would talk about my childhood.
What was your upbringing like?
Everything from being from the South, being Mormon, being in the military, being very poor with a physically paralyzed single mother, and also being raised by a family member who has the same brand of schizophrenia that Jennifer portrays in the film. I lay out all of these things that I had to go through in order to survive and people look at me like it’s some sort of tragic story. Then I have to correct them and say, “The South isn’t bad. In the South, we wear our trauma like a badge of honor. We’re more defined by our dreams. When we’re disconnected from our realities, often times, the better. You just have to read some Tennessee Williams in order to know that it’s true.” Where did you grow up?
You’re kidding. Where in South Korea?
Seoul. I moved to the States when I was 8, so I feel much more American for obvious reasons.
My stepdad was in the Air Force and he was in Seoul in like 1988 or 1989. I have this fascination with South Korea. Do you go back there a lot? I’m going to start interviewing you now. [Laughs]
I haven’t gone back. I don’t think I want to be gay and live in South Korea. Or at least my mom discouraged me from doing that and I agree with her in a lot of ways.
That’s why I have to win this federal court case in California. You should be allowed to marry your future husband.
What was the collaborative process like between you and Jennifer? Did you give her a lot of creative freedom?
Yes, and it was a dream come true for me. Considering all the problems that this film encountered during production like the financing, the horrific weather in Michigan, having to re-cut the film, we were truly blessed to have Jennifer Connelly there. We had an initial meeting via my agent 5 years ago when I was still a kid TV writer for Big Love—I wasn’t even producing that show at this point. I flew out to New York and met her at the Bowery Hotel restaurant, and she was the most beautiful woman that I’d ever seen in my life. It was enough to make any gay boy question their sexuality. [Laughs] It was cold out and I was sweating just talking to her. She noticed that within the first 10 minutes of our meeting, but she completely disarmed me. I found her to be really funny and brave. Oftentimes, you meet actors of her caliber and you sense a lot of this defensiveness ego, and there was absolutely none of that there with Jennifer. I saw so clearly what my agent had told me, which was that she could fulfill this role in terms of both the emotion and the humor.
Did you strike a deal during this first meeting?
Jennifer signed on right then and there. I told her, “I would very much like for you to do this movie,” and she responded, “Well, I would very much like to do this movie!” How did this just happen? It was a miracle. My life was turned upside down because this tiny movie that we never thought would get made became this project all of a sudden. But I did step away from it for 2 years to just take care of Milk. When I came back, Jennifer was still interested and we got it made. Every day, she was just fearless. This was the first movie for a lot of people involved, including myself, so when I ran into trouble, Jennifer was always there for me as a creative collaborator. I don’t think you get that a lot in this industry. I’m just going to gush about her because I do love her so much. I think she brings to this a real understanding of what it means to be a mother, the successes and failures combined. She understands that in a real way, being a caring mother herself in her personal life. She was also willing to do insane things that I think a lot of people would shy away from.
Can you recall something specific from the shoot?
There was this scene, a very emotional moment, where Virginia is walking home with her son after attending a political debate where they sort of stop to talk. There’s this moment where he gives Virginia a piggy-back ride and she really felt all the beats of the scene. It was one of those few moments where she connected with her son in the movie. And she was shooting these scenes in her little summer dress when it’s below 30 degrees. It was like that for the entire shoot. We were trying to match West Michigan for Virginia in the summer and it was below freezing. There was ice everywhere. Jennifer was willing to do it take after take and shivering in the van in-between takes. Through her shivering, she would ask if there was anything else that she could do.
I think I just fell in love with her.
[Laughs] She’s so committed. She’s so good at snapping into the moment and embody her character, despite all of these external forces working against her. Without her, we wouldn’t have the film that we have.
Has your mother seen Virginia by any chance?
My mom saw the first version in Toronto. She wasn’t able to come up for this in New York last night, unfortunately. This was always her favorite script of mine. She already knew what it was about since she reads everything that I write. Oftentimes, she gives me the same response to my work like when she watches Big Love. She goes, “Do you find it necessary to share that with the whole world?” [Laughs] I tell her, “As long as you don’t tell the whole world which moments are based on our factual history.” This goes for Virginia as well. Although it’s not pure autobiography—my mother isn’t mentally disabled, she’s physically disabled—she certainly recognizes, thematically, what comes from our lives because it’s pretty obvious. Having said that, she loves this film. I have a really great mother and she’s a strong woman to have survived everything that she did, and I think she knows that. Yes, we lived a troubled life and had to do things that she wishes we didn’t have to do, but she knows that she’s coming from a really good, strong place. She did the best with what she had. I don’t think she’s apologizing for anything. I think we turned out pretty well, us boys.
Maybe this film could serve as a gift for your mother.
Maybe… I think she would rather have me make a romantic comedy with a really happy ending. That would be the gift that she would really appreciate. She has asked a couple times why I can’t make a happy film. [Laughs] So, that would be my gift to her.