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.