Nobody knew quite what to expect from “What’s Wrong With Virginia,” Dustin Lance Black’s directing debut, when it premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. But few expected the critical backlash that followed.
The Southern-set film, based loosely on his childhood experiences, stars Jennifer Connelly as schizophrenic mother engaged in a long-time affair with Mormon sherrif Richard Tipton (Ed Harris), who’s struggling to raise her son who also has the hots for Tipton’s daughter (Emma Roberts). That’s a heady plot for a newbie director, but Black wasn’t just any newcomer. Prior to arriving in Toronto, the California native was fresh off of winning an Oscar for penning the screenplay to “Milk.” In the process he became a gay icon and had just completed collaborating with Clint Eastwood on their J. Edgar Hoover biopic. Black was experiencing a career high.
That ended with the reviews for “What’s Wrong With Virginia.” Although Connelly earned praise for her performance, critics were less kind to Black. The Hollywood Reporter said the film was “tonally all over the place,” while Cinema Blend wrote, “Black comes to ‘Virginia’ armed with dozens of ideas and pastiches from other films, none of which fit comfortably into this small-town melodrama.”
Following its chilly reception, Black enlisted a new editor to help salvage a project he’d been working on for seven years. The retitled “Virginia” (in theaters this Friday) is the culmination of their efforts.
Indiewire sat down with Black in New York the day following its New York premiere, to discuss his experience at TIFF, what he thought of the initial cut and how he feels finally sharing “Virginia” with the world.
Congratulations on finally getting “Virginia” into theaters.
Oh my God, it’s been a long time.
So tell me about the journey post-TIFF the film that you’ve have gone on with the film.
I just remember that moment sitting in the audience at TIFF with this film. It was the first time I had sat with just a general audience. I remember going, “This is not exactly what I thought it was.” I hadn’t had the luxury that we had had on other projects where you get to sit with people, a general audience, before you lock the picture.
The critics were brutal and the audiences were great, and I was somewhere in the middle, I guess. I walked up to Christine Vachon [producer] and just said, “We got to recut this.” Certainly reviews confirmed that. Some reviews were just brutal and I didn’t understand where some of it was coming from. But there were certain things that were shared, certainly about tone and the clarity of the narrative, that I knew we could work on. We shot at least enough to make it better. The question became, could we afford the time and another go in the editing room?
That question was out there for a while. We had distribution interest even with the hardships of Toronto, but I wasn’t comfortable putting it out there as it was. Thankfully, I had support from Christine and Tick Tock Studios. Then it was just a matter of who could edit it. Christine introduced me to Beatrice Sisul, who I handed the script to. She read it and said, “Why didn’t you just make this movie?” I said, “Well, I thought I was.” We talked about getting it back to the way it was as a script.
I kind of fell in love with her as a human being. A lot of this whole adventure for me has been finding those creative collaborators. I was successful in some areas and not so successful in others. My designers, I love. Certainly I want to make every movie with Jennifer Connelly. But there were other departments where it just wasn’t a good fit.
In the end, I also feel like I met this editor who, I feel, makes me better. That’s invaluable. I’ve seen that with the other directors I’ve worked with. They all have that.
It’s a strange experience re-editing a film that you shot, at that point, a couple of years ago. You have regrets when you go in two weeks after production. Imagine two years! But she was very encouraging and we just kept going untill we did as good as we could. It was nice, because the enthusiasm level with the distributors was higher. People got excited again.
You did an interview with Movieline in Toronto shortly following the premiere…
They were one of our fans!
Yeah. At the time you said you were really proud of the film, and seemed pretty happy with it overall…
Listen, there was the criticism that I agreed with had to with tone. It was supposed to be told from the mind of this schizophrenic woman and I knew that was risky. I hadn’t really gotten it right and I could see that clearly just sitting in the audience. The first hour was this bumbling half farce, half drama. It just hadn’t struck the balance quite right. There were other things said that were just cutting me down to size. Some got very personal. They hurt, I’m not going to lie.
At the same time, it was my turn to get hit a little bit. I had a lot of success for many years, and the critics had been so kind. Sometimes it’s good to get cut down to size a little bit. I do think it was helpful, maybe that’s what you’re getting at.
I feel like I’m in therapy right now.
We’re getting deep.
It’s kind of amazing [laughs]. Within a few months, or weeks even, it started to seep in. When you get humbled in that way it takes your perspective back down to earth. It’s a good place to be making a movie. That’s where I did my best work, was with my feet on the ground. Certainly with “Milk” — me and a credit card driving to San Francisco.
It’s like the whole mourning process — you had to go through the pain, anger and loss of it all, and get around to what good came out of it.
And a good film came out of it.
Aw, thanks. It’s changed a lot.
I didn’t see the initial cut.
It sucked [laughs]. There were things I liked about it, but it had the wrong setup. When you arrive at these scenes, you’d go, “God this is just wacky, but for no reason.” Beatrice gave it perspective and tone, and made it more cohesive.
There’s always stuff that could be redone. Certainly if I could go back and shoot things, I would.
That must be the toughest part.
It is. For me, I’ve changed so much over the past three years.
You made “J. Edgar” after this, right?
Yeah. I mean I was working on it in coffee shops on the weekends when we were making it. But yeah it was after this, “8” was after this, my collaboration with Ron Howard came after. I feel like I’ve been through a whole other lifetime of filmmaking.
I was talking to a filmmaker friend of mine on the plane on the way over here and I said, “Have you ever had to wait this long for a film to come out?” He looked at me like I was mad. I think three years is a very long time.
You should talk to Drew Goddard, director of “Cabin in the Woods.” I’m sure he could relate better than your friend.
Yeah [laughs]. We’ll see how critics feel about this cut. Some people just really hate it. But women love it, that’s the strangest part.
Are you a fan of it?
I didn’t watch it last night. But I was a fan of it when we locked the picture. I know what we were up against, and for that I put it in a certain group of films. I do the jury for the Independent Spirit Awards, so I kind of see where we fall. The reality is I get judged against the things that cost a lot more. That’s just the reality of it. This cost less than a single episode of “Big Love,” shot in just about as many days, with a new crew that didn’t know each other.
I don’t want to keep making excuses, though. No, I love it. You know what I love most about it? I love Jennifer Connelly. She was so brave. She was brave to do it…
She was brave to dye her hair blonde.
Brave to dye her hair blonde! Which by the way was in the script, but I never asked. She brought it up. That had to do with our meetings with the psychologist who could talk about this brand of schizophrenia. The only thing you can control is color. You can’t control sound, in fact that’s what usually drives many schizophrenics mad. In the film she controls color in some strange and wonderful ways — her hair being one of them.
Also in the film, she just brings such humor to it. She shows a side of herself that she hasn’t shown before. I think she’s spectacular.
She doesn’t typically play characters as brazen and unwieldy as Virginia.
Yeah, never, which is strange because she’s got that brave spirit. The first time I met her, I was taken with her for those very reasons. You don’t always get that. You meet some of these actors and what you meet first ego, particularly if they’re trying to hide it. But you just don’t meet that with her. She’s up for the challenge. I hope that she gets to do more things like this, because there’s that really interesting side to her that I hope she continues to share. I hope she’ll continue with me in future projects.
So you do want to direct more?
Oh yeah, for sure. I want to keep writing for other directors too. I love the true life stories and the biopics — people say I’m pigeonholed, but it’s a fantastic kind of pigeonhole — but it’s tough to then go and direct it because I know all the real people. I’m probably too married to it all. I don’t have the objectivity. You’re hungry for that outside voice. I’ve been blessed with really cool collaborators who have brought even more insight into the project.
The things that I’m interested in directing are fiction, because then you’re not married to a particular reality. I can eat these words in the future, but I just feel with the biopics it’s great to have a collaborator. With the fiction stuff, I feel I have something to still give it.
I have a couple of those that I’ve written and that I’ll start casting soon.
One last question. Why is this being pegged as your feature narrative debut, ’cause it’s not.
Well, it is for me.
You directed “The Journey of Jared Price” in 2001. It’s on IMDb!
It is. It’s sort of like where they take the movie that Julia Roberts was and extra in, and they cut it so that she’s the lead. It was one of those situations where I did this college video project, and then it gets cut by this company without my involvement. I was a kid, so there’s nothing I could do about it. It was made over four days with $2,000, and we just shot this video project. So when people say, “What about ‘The Journey of Jared Price?” You ask my friends… I turn red with shame.
This was the first time that I had attempted to direct a film that I had written, and cared to be associated with. Goddamn “Journey of Jared Price.”