Exclusive Interview: Kimberly Peirce revisits her Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry for TCM’s Reframed series “I’ve been protective of Brandon’s story since the moment I heard it”

Some movies are so forgettable that a few years later we might even struggle to recall whether we’ve seen them or not, while others make such a lasting impression with one viewing that they become seared into our very beings. For me, Kimberly Peirce’s late 1990s indie Boys Don’t Cry is one of the latter. I can vividly recall where I saw it, on a Friday afternoon at Fox’s preview theatre on Soho Square in London, even down to the seat I was sitting in, and more importantly how it made me feel. Having fallen in love with Brandon on screen as played by Hilary Swank, I was traumatized by how he was treated, and moved by how beautifully and sensitively Peirce had told the story with Brandon at its centre. It was all the more troubling of course because it was based on real events. Brandon Teena was a young trans man who was murdered in Nebraska in 1993. Boys Don’t Cry opened up meaningful conversations with people around me about the expansiveness of gender at a time when there was a lack of nuanced understanding or acceptance of trans and gender nonconforming people, both in mainstream culture and within the then far more disparate queer community, usually defined as gay and lesbian rather than LGBTQ+.

Chloë Sevigny and Hilary Swank were Oscar-nominated for their performances in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Photofest.

Boys Don’t Cry and its message of acceptance of diversity, and the lethal consequences of hatred, continued to resonate long after its world premiere at Venice in September 1999, through the wave of international film festivals that followed, and in the media coverage leading up until the 72nd Academy Awards, with both Chloë Sevigny and Hilary Swank Oscar-nominated for their performances. All of which came ahead of the film’s US theatrical release on the Friday after the Oscars, March 31st, 2000. At a time when there was precious little LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream media, let alone positive coverage, having a well-informed ally like Hilary Swank use her Best Actress speech to talk about the young trans man she portrayed in the film was significant. The words that she ended on echoed in my mind for years afterwards: “I pray for the day where we not only accept our differences, but we actually celebrate our diversity”. Looking back, that in itself it might now be seen as culture-shifting moment. Although there has been much progress in the two decades since the release of Boys Don’t Cry, more visibility has led to an increase in hateful rhetoric, lethal violence, and legislation against trans and gender noncoforming folks and their families.

Hilary Swank in her Oscar-winning role as Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Courtesy of Photofest.

This Saturday, November 26th at 10:15pm ET / 7:15pm PT, TCM will air Boys Don’t Cry as part of the final weekend of its 16-film, month-long Reframed: Films That Shaped Our Culture season, with Peirce discussing the film with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. On Sunday, November 27th at 10pm ET / 7pm PT Mankiewicz and Peirce will revisit Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain as the final movie in TCM’s Reframed series.

Filmmaker and activist Kimberly Peirce was the recipient of Outfest’s Achievement Award in 2013. Courtesy of Outfest.

Following Boys Don’t Cry, Peirce wrote and directed the award-winning Stop-Loss released in 2008, starring Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish, and Ryan Phillipe, which was inspired by real the experiences of US military personnel—including her own brother—serving in Iraq. In 2013 she went on to direct an adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel, Carrie, starring Julianne Moore and Chloë Moretz. Her television credits as director include American Crime, I Love Dick, Dear White People, and P-Valley. Most recently, she co-produced and contributed on screen to Queer for Fear: The History of Queer Horror on Shudder. The recipient of the 2018 Women In Film activism award, Peirce is a founding member of ReFrame which aims for a more gender-representative industry on all levels, and heads the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Diversity Committee for Directors.

Peter Sarsgaard, Hilary Swank, and Brendan Sexton III in Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Photofest.

Ahead of Boys Don’t Cry airing on TCM this weekend, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Kimberly Peirce about why she was initially drawn to tell Brandon Teena’s story and the impact that the film continues to have.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what does it mean to you to have Boys Don’t Cry included in TCM’s Reframed series?

Kimberly Peirce: “It’s extraordinarily important to me and to the queer community. Boys Don’t Cry is like my child. I’ve been protective of Brandon’s story since the moment I heard it and fought like hell for five years to turn it into a movie. I was in grad school when I made it. I was a kid who loved this story that in some ways was a reflection of me and my friends and how we had sex. I’m a trans butch. I’m a female-bodied person who loves being female-bodied, but I’m also a male. So rather than trying to aim to be fully female or fully male, I kind of live in the ever-changing middle. It took me a lifetime to figure that out. So telling the Brandon Teena story was autobiographical and it was reflective of the trans community and of my friends.”

“It was an honor to tell the story. It was really hard to do, and it hadn’t been done like that before. So all these years later to have Turner Classic Movies show it is extraordinary. I think what Turner is doing is amazing because they’re protecting the cinematic form and they’re showing great movies. They’re bringing many of us in to work with Ben Mankiewicz, or Dave Karger, or Jacqueline Stewart, to give our perspectives on these fantastic pieces of cinematic art and storytelling in a way that I don’t think you’re seeing anywhere else.”

Chloë Sevigny and Hilary Swank in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Photofest.

“I’m a huge cinephile and I’ll do anything to protect the art form. It’s important that TCM show movies and they protect the history, but they’re also framing them and saying, ‘Hey, pay attention to this movie that you really like and let’s look at how it changed the culture, or affected the culture, or how it was reflective of its culture. And why does that matter? Well, I think oddly enough, we’re in a period of ahistoricity. I mostly make movies and television. I write and direct and produce, but I also teach a lot, and compared to 20 years ago there’s a lot less fascination with and interest in history and there’s a narrowing of cinema.”

“I’m still amazed at the affect Boys has. Everybody I meet has seen that movie and generally loves it. All these years later—and I say this with total humility, because it still blows my mind—people I run into are like: ‘that movie helped me come out’; ‘that movie helped me understand my gender’; ‘that movie helped my parents understand who I am’; ‘that movie helped me understand a person I didn’t understand’; or ‘my kid is trans’ or ‘my kid is is gay’, or any of the terms. That in and of itself on a human level blows my mind. Then to see it included in this collection of great movies on TCM is an honor and it’s also embroidering the film into the culture and helping people to understand the importance of making meaning.”

Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Photofest.

How conscious were you at the time of the film’s potential to shape culture, or at least to open conversations about things that perhaps people hadn’t thought about before?

“Zero, and that’s really important to remember. I was at Columbia University and I tried to make Boys Don’t Cry as a short film. Everybody was like, ‘It’s so much bigger’, and I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’m in the first year of grad school, I can’t make a feature. That’s not possible, I don’t have the means to do that and I have to make a short’. It was my Jewish stepmother who kept saying, ‘You’ve got to make it longer’.”

“The idea that it would have an audience didn’t quite make sense to me and the idea that it would ever change culture or affect culture was a pipe dream. What kept me going was simply that even if it was an audience of one—myself—I felt I owed an obligation to Brandon to understand who he was and how he lived and to bring him to life. So when they would tell me, ‘You should cut this down because you’ll get a wider audience’, I was like, ‘I don’t care about a wider audience, I just want it to be good for me and then I want my friends who I know are invested in the story to care.’ That was a really healthy young attitude towards making art; that I just needed it to be good, it didn’t need an audience. Then an evolution and maturity happened very quickly. I was told, ‘You’re kidding, you need an audience’, and I was like, ‘Why?’ And they were like, ‘Because that’s your job. You can’t make a movie and lose money. You can’t make a movie without an audience.’ So it was a healthy artist attitude and then a healthy secondary, mature artist attitude of, ‘Oh, my job is to have an audience’.”

“For a long time, the rape scene was too violent for most people. But I come from a history of sexual and physical abuse and a lot of therapy and understanding, so I was like, ‘Well, I can take it’ or I’d say, ‘Brandon was raped all night long’, but then I’d get, ‘But you’re not the only audience.’ So another big epiphany for me was that the audience is good, not because of my ego, but because I owe it to an audience to understand.”

Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Photofest.

“I couldn’t have known that it could have this effect, but I think that my purity and my love of the material is probably why it did transcend and because I wasn’t trying to get a big audience, I was just trying to get the right audience. James Schamus was one of my professors. He ran Focus and was Ang Lee’s producing partner and is really brilliant. He said to me, ‘You have to make the gays happy’, and I was like, ‘How can I make the gays happy? I don’t know all the gays’, and he was like, ‘Your movie needs to play for your audience.’ That idea was foreign to me, but it was actually really true. If the queers liked it—and we didn’t even use the word queer back then as much, we used gay and lesbian—but it was like, if your people, my people, liked it and it was authentic, that was the definition of how it then could cross over. So the minute it worked for me, that meant it worked for my friends, then when it started to work for my queer community—trans and butches and all of that—it had the seeds to then continue and do the cultural work that it needed to do.”

“Now cut to all these years later and look where the culture is. Boys may have had a role in that. I would like to think so, I’d be humbled. Boys is in the Library of Congress and it has an Academy Award. Actually, when Hilary won my feeling was that Brandon got an Oscar. Brandon, this person who was marginalized and was raped and was destroyed and was misunderstood and didn’t even make it to the city, didn’t make it to New York or LA like I did. I wish that person was alive, but they’re dead, and now the culture has honored them in a way that other people, even beyond seeing the movie, can recognize. When somebody wins an Oscar there’s honor to it.”

Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena and Chloë Sevigny as Lana Tisdel in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Photofest.

“It was back in the day, and I was on the Oscars red carpet being interviewed by Joan Rivers and her daughter, and she asked me to explain the movie. I said, ‘It’s a story of a girl who lives as a boy.’ Now you wouldn’t say that, but that’s what you would say back then; ‘he lives and loves as a man.’ Then she was like, ‘Oh, Brandon Teena, who lives and loves as a man.’ Well, that was the first time in a major way that a celebrity of that caliber was normalizing Brandon’s experience of living and loving as a man, as opposed to being described as someone who “masqueraded as a man”or “pretended to be a man”. Then I looked up on the Jumbotron and it was like, “Brandon Teena who lived and loved as a man”. It was a culture-changing moment.”

“You’re not supposed to have your phone on the red carpet, but I had a phone with me and it went off and all the dykes who were watching at home were like, ‘You just said butch lesbian and trans on the red carpet and millions of people heard you!’ If you think about having cultural influence, that was a moment of normalizing. To me, the idea that we have to normalize being queer is a crime, but we do because being gender outlaws and being queer outlaws, they’ve criminalized us.”

Hilary Swank Wins Best Actress: 2000 Oscars

Looking back at the Oscars, there actually seemed to be an evolution in terms of language even from the way that Hilary was introduced to the stage, to the speech that she then gave. The announcer used that phrase, ‘a girl living as a boy’, then Hilary spoke about Brandon in very different terms and really honoured him. What she said struck me at the time and many people who might never have seen the movie, as you mention, would have watched or heard about that. Awards can be very important in amplifying a film’s message.

“And you see that for the African American community, you see it for women, and you see it for queers. When we get these awards there is a major “you’ve come to the table” moment for these underrepresented groups. It’s really interesting what you bring up. Of course the announcer was going to say it as a reflection of where the culture was then, whereas Hilary had been working with me and trans people and butches and was a beautiful actor who spent the time in the community. Hilary was able to talk about it in terms that were more respectful and more coming from within the community. So the Oscar not only gives you the Oscar, so everybody wakes up that next morning and says, ‘Oh, okay, this is a valuable movie’—that’s a win—but then you also have Hilary, who is a fantastic actor, out there promoting it. These things all matter. A lot of times people hate on Hollywood and they don’t understand it. As a person who’s inside it I’m like, ‘Hey, these are the gears of culture. This is how we make change. This is how we are seen.’ I’ve been an activist for the queer community my whole life and it’s a constant thing. I love it and I’m moved by it and it intrigues me.”

Kimberly Peirce attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards Nominee Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 5th, 2018. Photo credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

As you were saying, it’s a film that has meant a lot to people and they’ve mentioned that to you as you’ve met them over the years.

“So many people and I’m humbled at the power it has. The movie did that, it’s lived on beyond me.”

And it won the GLAAD Award.

“It won awards from GLAAD, Lambda Legal, and the Anti-Violence Project, and I did the trans keynote speech at Yale in 2014. There’s just so much in the fabric of what that movie has done.”

I wanted to mention that in the context that there has been some criticism of the film recently, and it was included in Sam Feder’s Disclosure. I wonder what you make of that criticism, which is coming two decades on? At the time it won those awards, but it’s sometimes seen through a different lens these days from certain people.

“What’s your question? Because there’s a whole bunch of tapestry and complexity around this. Disclosure was quite complimentary to the movie. There may have been strands that you’re picking up, but overall when you watch Disclosure, fundamentally, the takeaway is quite positive. Everybody warned me because they’re friends with me, they were like, ‘We hope you like it’. Now, if you want to pull out a particular concern you can focus me, but I don’t focus on those concerns because I know the bigger picture.”

Peter Sarsgaard as John Lotter and Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Photofest.

The thing that I picked up on was that it was a film that depicted violence. Obviously, it’s based on a true story.

“Okay, I’m a homo and I’m a Jew and I’m a lot of things. So if I’m going to tell a story about the Holocaust, am I going to have violence? Yes. That’s what happened. Now, my thing is—and I talk about this a lot in my work and my teaching—I do not believe in the pornography of violence. I have been on the other end of sexual and physical abuse and I spent a lot of time on my depictions of violence. I think that they are reflections of the reality of the human experience. I don’t think that you will watch something that I ever made—hopefully, unless you’re a psychopath—and feel like, ‘Yeah, I want to go commit some violence’ or ‘I don’t like Brandon and I’m glad he got beaten up’.”

“We screened the rape scene seven times and every time we screened it people would say, ‘I hate it’ and I would think at first, ‘Great, you shouldn’t like a rape scene.’ But then I had my eyes opened and I was like, ‘Oh, they need to not like it, but like the representation.’ So the point is, is there violence? Well, we’re storytellers and if the violence happened…I just watched All Quiet on the Western Front and it’s horrifically violent. I don’t think that the answer is not showing the violence, I think the answer is showing it responsibly and not encouraging it against underrepresented people who are the objects of violence and that’s been my life’s mission.”

Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Photofest.

Also, the film is through the eyes of Brandon, that’s the character who we’re following throughout.

“Always. Boys got an X rating, which is now an NC-17. I was like, ‘Wait, why did it get an X rating?’ It’s a complicated process and if you watch This Film Is Not Yet Rated I talk about it a lot. I compared it to all the other rape scenes in other movies where people are getting off on the rape. In general, the rape is eight or 10 minutes and I don’t know who’s perspective it’s from—it’s not from my perspective—but it must be some man who wants to see a rape. If anything, mine is a necessary rape because it really happened, but it’s way shorter than it happened in real life. The point of being an artist and telling stories is that you should always be on the line, you should be questioned: is this encouraging inhumanity? Because if it is, then you’ve got to change it. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all. I think you have to go there with your heart and your mind and your soul and you have to say, ‘Am I doing a good job? Am I helping the situation?’ That’s my sense of responsibility.”

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain. Photograph: Kimberly French. Courtesy of TCM.

As well as Boys Don’t Cry, you’re also going to be talking about Brokeback Mountain. What are your thoughts on that film as you look back on it all these years on through the lens of TCM’s Reframed series?

“I don’t really know Brokeback’s impact on culture, but I know Brokeback’s impact on me. It was beautifully written, beautifully acted, and wonderfully directed. My old professor James Schamus produced it. I know Ang Lee too. I love that film, it’s fantastic. Did it make homosexuality more normalized? Probably. Did it allow people to see two men loving each other as a positive thing? Probably. It brought homosexuality into the mainstream and if that’s going to stop them from legislating against us and killing us and denying us anything that we deserve, then that’s a win.”

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain. Photograph: Kimberly French. Courtesy of TCM.

I think the casting was quite a major part of the film’s success. Nowadays, there’s a lot of conversations about casting queer actors in queer roles and obviously with Heath and Jake they were straight men taking on the roles, but I know the film played in quite conservative places and apparently theatres added extra screenings because it was so successful and part of that was two big movie stars of the time taking on the roles.

“I don’t want to lecture to our community, because I think everybody’s going to have their opinion. Some people might say, ‘Oh, they should have cast gay men.’ Well, they could have and the chances are that if they did cast gay men back then, those gay men—if they were out—wouldn’t have had the careers that those two actors had at that moment. This is not me judging. I don’t know what their real sexuality is, I don’t really know what they do in bed. I know that they present as heteronormative men and those heteronormative men are consumed by multiple people in all kinds of roles. Now, I’m not saying right or wrong, but that was probably an entry way for many more people. Can we now maybe cast queer actors—we don’t really know who’s queer—but actors who are out and queer? I think maybe we can and if that’s progress then maybe that was a stepping stone towards it. As a student of history and a student of Hollywood, I tend to look at these things in terms of historical movements.”

The Boys in the Band (1970) directed by William Friedkin. Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Frederick Combs, Laurence Luckinbill, Keith Prentice, Robert La Tourneaux, and Reuben Greene. Courtesy of Photofest.

Do you have any thoughts on the other queer films, Philadelphia and Boys In the Band, that are part of TCM’s Reframed season?

“I love Philadelphia, and I just rewatched Boys In the Band. That is exquisite. It’s of its era. It’s amazing that it all takes place pretty much in that one room. The repartee is fantastic. You can see so many elements of queer lives. I’m a little bit younger than the people who were in that, but you can see the way they were congregating, the way that they’re closeted, and the way they’re not closeted. It’s a real piece of art and an explosion of a certain moment. It’s one of my favorite movies ever and so beautifully filmed.”

By James Kleinmann

On Saturday, November 26th at 10:15pm ET / 7:15pm PT Kimberly Peirce will discuss her Oscar-winning film Boys Don’t Cry with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and on Sunday, November 27th at 10pm ET / 7pm PT Ben Mankiewicz and Kimberly Peirce will discuss Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain.

TCM’s Reframed: Films That Shaped Our Culture 16-movie series continues on Turner Classic Movies on Saturdays and Sundays in November 2022.

Boys Don’t Cry | Memorable Moments | Searchlight Pictures

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Kimberly Peirce revisits Boys Don’t Cry for TCM’s Reframed: Films That Shaped Our Culture season

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