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Talking with Kimberly Peirce of CARRIE

The name Kimberly Peirce is most closely identified with Boys Don't Cry, her award-winning independent debut that saw an Oscar win for star Hillary Swank. Just as much as Boys Don't Cry is a real life horror story, the Stephen King classic Carrie is grounded in issues of schoolyard bullying and overbearing parents. I sat down with Kim to discuss her take on the Carrie story, how she physically and emotionally transformed Chloe Moretz and Julianne Moore, the use of visual effects in storytelling, and her favorite Stephen King movie adaptation.

What was it like for you to work on a Stephen King story?

Kimberly Peirce: It’s an honor. I’m a huge Stephen King fan. I was in a book club so I read the book as a kid. I was a literature student at the University of Chicago so  I read it when I was in college and then, of course, I re-read it when they came to me to do the movie and I was just blown away by how amazing of a story teller he is. It’s a classic tale that is incredibly timely to his era but it’s also incredibly timeless and is more relevant today than it was then. The things that blew me away about it when I went back to it was that I always love a good central protagonist. It’s what I love about movies. I love Carrie White. I love that she’s this misfit and this outcast who wants love and affection, which is what we all want. She’s up against huge obstacles. Certainly the girls at school don’t want her to have it and when she’s at home, her mother is also constantly feuding with her because her mother thinks that she’s the seed of sin. She represents the mother’s sin of having sex and enjoying it and so they’re locked in a love affair in a feud right in the very beginning, in the new scene that I added. That escalates all the way through and then I amplified the climax so that that’s even stronger.

The other thing we give you that’s extraordinary is that, at the end of the day, it’s a superhero origin story. Carrie discovers she has super powers and those super powers make life, which is largely intolerable and painful, acceptable. Talent makes life bearable and that’s what these superpowers do. I love that she explores it and doesn’t have control of it. She doesn’t understand the magnitude of it. When she goes to prom, we don’t know if it’s gonna come out. I absolutely love that it’s a Cinderella story.  What does she want? Love and acceptance. When the handsome boy invites her out, one, Sue should not have asked Tommy to ask Carrie out. Sue should have said, “I’m sorry.” Sue is doing what rich people do. She’s relying on charity. Charity doesn’t always solve problems. Tommy comes Carrie’s way and Carrie can’t say no. The most handsome boy in the school, why is he there? There’s something up. But the desire to have the Cinderella night and to wear the beautiful dress and go to the ball and dance with the handsome boy and have the night that we all dream about having, she just can’t say no. We can’t say no. We fall in love with being the Cinderella.

I’ve debated about this with people, and you can agree or disagree with me, but we want to take her to the height of the Cinderella night but then we crave seeing it turn on its head. I think we want to see it all go badly. When it goes badly, we stare, because we’re glad it’s not happening to us. We’re glad the blood is not on us. Then I think what’s amazing is that we desperately want her to get revenge on the people who did this to her. We all want to get even with the bad guy. That’s amazing to me. To me, the equation was: we had to fall madly in love with Carrie White and only by being madly in love with Carrie and wanting to see her succeed would we ever support the revenge tale. If we do, then it’s a blast because everyone loves a revenge tale.

One of the things that really distinguishes this version from earlier version of the story is the visual effects that you’re using. How did having access to advanced visual effects alter your approach to telling the story?

KP: I think what it did was empower me. When I read the book, I see in my mind’s eye this largely entertaining, using superhero powers and the world being affected by Carrie and her powers. She can move books but then she loses control. In particular, at the prom, when she wants to get revenge on somebody, she can move them out of the way, she can throw them into a door. The scene with Chris going through the windshield took a lot of time to think through because I had this vision where it was “let the punishment fit the crime.” The beautiful girl Chris is a total narcissist so what’s her punishment? We’re gonna eff up that face. Well how do you eff up that face? She had to go through the window. What’s fun about my job is how do you put someone’s face through a window? You can’t put an actor’s face through a window. You can put an actor’s face through sugar glass or you can put an animation through fake glass or an actor can fly forward on a green screen, so that’s a series of a ton of composites, which was really a blast for me. It’s a real actor, it’s an animated version of the actor, it’s real glass, it’s fake glass, it’s drawn glass. That’s really state of the art because there are all these layers and you’re using animation to visualize it and then you’re affecting the speed of it. There’s a lot of work on how fast she hits and how slow she comes out the other end. It’s all expensive so the more precise you are, the better. I direct the CG the same way that I direct the actors, which is what is the story, what’s the need, what’s the action? It was fantastic. It was really fun also having the car crash into an invisible wall. You can’t have a car hurling towards a human being, certainly not a minor. There are no invisible walls that I know of.

In this film, the revenge sequence is much more drawn out and taken beat by beat than, say, Brian De Palma’s version and that is largely due to the available effects. It’s hard to not enjoy getting more visual about that whole revenge portion.

KP: Good, that was my whole goal. I wanted you to have the most satisfaction and the most enjoyable. The whole movie, I was building up to how do I make this really fun. What I love is the Chris and Billy relationship. Chris has Billy wrapped around her finger and she’s calling her dad, and he’s like, “What the hell are you doing?” and she’s like, “Well what the hell are we gonna do?” and he says, “We’re gonna leave town.” The question is: is she willing to leave town with him. When they get trapped, I just love when she says, “It’s Carrie” and they’re hurling towards her and she says, “Run her down” and he looks at her in disbelief and is thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not gonna kill someone for you.” “Run her down. Run her down. Run her down.” That’s their whole relationship. Again, you’re supposed to get reignited by them being jerks and therefore Carrie really having a right to punch it to them. If you notice, Carrie doesn’t though. She lets Chris destroy herself. For the revenge tale, it was vital that that worked.

How many times did you guys have to film the pig’s blood scene?

KP: Twice. I was actually told that I could only do it once because the clean up on it was huge.

Getting it off her skin must have been brutal.

KP: Well one, it’s a whole rig. Two, it’s gonna splatter all over the stage, because it’s a wide shot. Three, if it hits her and it’s on her, she’s a minor so I could only do it once in a day because I would lose three hours for her clean up. I was told, “If you can do it in one that’s great.” So I said, “How many cameras can I get?” and they gave me three. I got three and put them at all the best angles. I would have gotten more but I didn’t. The first time, I was a nervous wreck because I didn’t think it was gonna work. We did all this R and D and sometimes it hit, sometimes it missed, but it hit perfectly and then of course, the DP said, “I gotta do it one more time” so we did it one more time. That was it though, we couldn’t afford more because of the clean up time. You don’t think about it but with a minor, they can legally only go so many hours so that is that.

For me, one of the scariest parts about the movie is Carrie’s mother’s devout Christianity where she believes that everything she does, including attempted infanticide, is for God and blessed by Him. I’m wondering how you think devout religion can such a scary thing these days?

KP: I want to make it really clear that Margaret (Carrie’s mom) has her own religion. She was in a recognizable religion at some point but she had sex with her husband, she got pregnant, she defined it as a sin because she enjoyed it and then skewed off into her own religion. That religion is something that she defines and she has her own iconography. As Carrie says, she changes things in the Bible to mean what she wants and as Julianne will tell you, she’s delusional. In her mind, her utmost responsibility is to protect her daughter. She believes that she protects her daughter by using corporal punishment and by repressing her. At the end of the day, her daughter is her evil and she exposes her sin by infanticide.

You did a great job at disguising Portia Doubleday in this film, she has such a different look and character type usually. Same goes with Julianne Moore who is equally playing against the loving, if spunky, persona she usually inhabits. It’s interesting to see these performers playing against type here.

KP: What I told Chloe when I hired her, “You are an incredibly talented, precocious star. You have a family around you who always loved you. You could not be further from Carrie White.” She has to be a misfit, has to be fragile, has to be scared, has to be timid and broken down. For me the fun is moving Chloe from her to her, very much like I did with Hilary Swank to Brandon Teena and even Channing Tatum to the solider, which is now a role that he plays a lot. That transformation ins everything for me. Not for the sake of transforming but generally, you start with a person who is her and a character who’s here, and at the end of the day, the character is generally the original person plus a big change. Chloe had to be fragile and timid and scared and have a lot of hostility at home, which she doesn’t have in real life, but when she gets to prom, then you see glimpses of the Chloe Moretz that you know. The same with Julianne. I knew that Margaret White is going to be fiercely devoted to religion, I know that’s she’s going to use corporal punishment., I know that’s she’s a scared woman, so then I hired Julianne Moore who is warm and charismatic and brilliant and beautiful and loves her children because when she makes that transformation, then there’s subtext. There’s all that stuff underneath. Yes, they’re transformed but I want them to leak through. I want you to say, “That’s the Portia that I love and know,” not, “I don’t even see Portia in there.”

With Julianne, beneath the intense religion fundamentalist woman who’s willing to use corporal punishment, you have that warmth there to draw from. One of my favorite lines in the movie is one that Julianne and I picked out of the book. She says, “I’ll be the preacher, you be the congregation” and Chloe just surrenders down to it because Carrie surrenders. Carrie just really wants her mother’s love, and thinks she’s gonna get it, and does, because the mother is tortured.

Were Chloe and Julianne always your first choice for these roles?

KP: Yes. For Chloe, we looked at a easily a few hundred girls throughout the states and throughout the world, because now you can get test tapes from all over. Myself and the brilliant Avy Kaufman were casting it and she was my first choice once I’d seen everyone who was out there. Really, I’m very much a structuralist so I knew that you needed to fall in love with Carrie White and want to adopt her. The movie didn’t work unless you loved her. Chloe has the ability to make you love her. I wanted to adopt her. You needed that. It’s an amazing thing that she has that ability onscreen to make you feel that way because if you look at her roles onscreen, Let Me In; she’s odd and dark and strange; in Huge, she’s beguiling, and then Kick Ass. It’s really a testament to her that once we defined what make the character tick, that she was able to bring that to life.

Other than the prom scene and the crash scene, do you have a favorite scene that you worked on?

KP: I would say I love the sequence where Carrie comes home. She’s got blood all over her and crying, “Momma, momma, momma.” I wrote that in because I wanted her to regress to being a little girl again. I also love the bath scene. She’s looking at her hands and saying she’s sorry, she’s crumbling back to being a vulnerable girl. I almost cried when she was doing that. It’s beautiful. She’s just a child. I love when she gets up, she really thinks there’s a chance. “Momma and I are clean. I can forget about the prom. I didn’t want to pray at the beginning but, you know what, screw you and your religion, I’ll pray. I’ll pray all you want.” That scene was like going to prom, you’re like, “You must be kidding? You’re gonna go to prom with the most handsome boy? That girl’s got it out for you,” it’s the same thing here. This woman, since you’ve been born, has been feuding with you and loving you. Relationships don’t change but she still surrenders because she so desperately wants love and acceptance. To me, I always love to stay on point and it’s a continuation of what we set in motion from the beginning. I love their fight. I amplified that and I love how we see the cuts on the legs and on the arms. I wanted that to be as violent as I could make it.

It comes out of this tender moment that they’re sharing which makes you realize that even though Carrie has powers, she is still very much the child to her mother.

KP: Yes and her powers protect her. When the mother does that to her, the powers shoot out and subconsciously  protect her.

Stephen King is an undisputed master of horror and has really touched on every area of fear. What is it that scares you the most?

KP: Certainly the dark in the specter of something coming out of nowhere and attacking me. It’s absolutely terrifying. If I’m watching a scary movie at my house and the drapes are not drawn so you can see out of the window out into the night, I don’t like that. The unknown. It’s interesting as a filmmaker because it’s showing restraint. I love horror films and I love when they can scare me or when I don’t get scared. I love when I’m with friends and I’m being tough because I didn’t get scared but I’m betraying myself. I’m a filmmaker so it’s easy to not get scared so then I’m like, “Get scared.” I love when your friends are watching or you’re on a date and they’re clutching you and you’re feeling brave. Scary movies are great because there’s something so human about it. We’ve been scaring ourselves and have been afraid of the dark forever, telling ghost stories and whatnot. It’s fun to be part of that and having audiences wanting to go to your movie and get scared.

In the final scene, much like in the original, there is this foreshadowing element where the crack runs up the gravestone that leaves it somewhat open-ended. Is doing some sort of follow up something that you may be interested in pursuing?

KP: I certainly couldn’t tell you the answer to that question outright but I can say that if this movie is successful, we love Carrie White and we love who she is and what she wants and her powers. Her powers have a yearning to want to stay in the world either with her or somebody else. It was honoring our love of Carrie and the mysterious and the magical and the unknown.

What advise would you give aspiring filmmakers just getting into the field or pursuing that career?

KP: Make sure you really love the job. I find a lot of people will say that they want to be a director but I think a lot of people think that it’s glamorous, and there are moments when it touches a kind of glamour, but the bottom line is: you have to love character and story and work. When my family comes and visits set, they go, “Oh my God.” It is 100 hours a week but what it is is an obsessive attention to the love of character and the love of creating them. Every detail is under your purview so I just feel like I love it. All hours of the day I’m thinking about it. But not everyone would love it. If you do, take the time to take the right classes and study with the right people. I was lucky enough to go to Columbia University and study filmmaking and writing and directing and I studied acting for years, I also went to Sundance and studied there. If you have talent, it’s not enough. You have to work really hard and study a lot and also really have to love story and character. If you do, you can create great things. It’s a great, great business but it’s a lot of work, but it’s good work. You’re always telling your story and then protecting it. Just dive in and tell your own stories. If you’ve got some crazy family, then tell that story. If you’ve got a great story about race, religion, gender identity, whatever your way of moving through the world is, you’re probably gonna have a life experience that other people don’t have and that could be interesting. 

Carrie aside, what’s your favorite Stephen King movie adaptation?

KP: It’s obvious.

It is. 

KP: I'm just gonna say it. The Shining.

Yeah, obviously.

KP: It’s a perfect movie.

It’s one of my favorites.

KP: But it’s also what I love about this which is an amazing main character. Even when Jack Torrence is doing bad, I love him. I love the house. I love the family drama of it. I love the red. I love the introduction of Steadicam. I used that Steadicam quite a lot in this movie pulling Carrie through the house. Also just his love of character and story. I would aspire to be as good as Stanley Kubrick. And his thoughtfulness and his sense of humor and his oddness. He’s fantastic.

Agreed. It had to be The Shining.

KP: I do love Misery too. It’s amazing that that worked and I love what Kathy [Bates] did. I do think what Brian [De Palma] did with Carrie was phenomenal too. It’s really amazing if you think about the fact that he was the first one to do it and his understanding of camera angles and casting just made for great stuff.

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