Dustin Lance Black had a rude awakening with his directorial debut “What’s Wrong with Virginia?” when it first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2010 — critics hated it, including The Playlist. Even though he’d won an Academy Award for his screenplay of “Milk,” Black discovered that the goodwill from his Oscar acceptance speech only went so far. But if it had been up to him, he wouldn’t have shown the film before he was confident with what he had shot. “We were out of money, and out of time, in a big way,” he told The Playlist. “I was being told, ‘You’re finished,’ and so it was a bit of a cross-your-fingers situation, which is never a good way to show your film.”
People were not kind — and the headlines mirrored the film’s title. Even though Black expected the criticism, “it didn’t make it hurt any less. It hurt.”
After Black went through “the stages of grief,” he said, he decided that despite distribution offers, he should take some time off from the film, go earn some money from a “nice-paying studio job,” and then use that to re-edit the film. “That was dangerous,” he said. “I heard warnings, ‘You have distribution offers, and those might not be here in a year. You have heat now, and you want to move forward.’ But I wanted the film to be the best it could be.”
So Black read the reviews, even the “nasty” ones, and the critics confirmed something that he’d been wondering about. “There were some that talked about tone and narrative and how it wasn’t finding its way or walking that line well,” he said. “And I agreed.”
Black found a new editor in Beatrice Sisul, who didn’t like the film any more than the critics did, but was at least open to reading the screenplay. Black said she told him after reading it, “I love this. Why didn’t you make this movie?” She encouraged him to go back and rediscover the simplicity of the original story, which on the page did not have a lot of the “incredibly unnecessary” voiceover that had been added in post-production “out of insecurity.” For instance, instead of just meeting Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly’s characters, seeing their “lovely and strange” relationship evolve while figuring out that he’s got some other life with his wife and realizing she’s not quite sane, it was told to you.
“That was no good. It was all this talking, talking, talking, explaining, explaining, explaining, and it gave the movie a dramatic tone,” Black said. “It took you out of the occasional farce it should have been, the dream world you live in when you’re poor and in the South. It must have been awfully confusing for an audience — they didn’t know what movie they were in.”
Sisul’s cut also eliminated a character — Connelly’s son tells his story to his imagined father, a race-car driver in the original cut. “It made people feel like they couldn’t trust the narrator at all,” Black said, “because you have this dueling narration, and they both seem a little bit mad. And then you’re at sea.” By removing this aspect, Black felt that the son became a reliable narrator, “in direct contrast to the more delusional perspective” of Connelly’s character.
“Beatrice brought clarity and objectivity,” Black said of editing the film (you can see the new trailer here) “She made me feel brave and confident that this was more the movie I was trying to make.”
Black said that he’s learned a lot from the Toronto experience, including not to bring a non-finished product to a film festival. “But wasn’t that the tradition, in the past? You did the best you could with the independent money you had, you premiered it at a festival, and the distributor looked at it for its potential so you can make improvements,” he said. “I think the Weinsteins still do that. But it’s more difficult to distribute a movie like this, so a lot of people don’t want to make that investment of time and money.”
The writer/director also doesn’t expect critics to make an investment of time by seeing the movie a second time around, even if it is different now. “There are some people who won’t give it a second chance,” he admitted. “And there are some people who just don’t like this kind of film, the boy bloggers. I’m not sure if they’ll ever connect with it, and that’s okay. I’m sure there are films that they love that I don’t.”
But even with those barriers, Black said the New York premiere this week of the re-titled film — now called “Virginia” — gave him new hope. “It went really well,” he said with a sigh of relief. “Thank God. Thank goodness. It’s such a different gauge for this film.” And since he plans to direct again, he promises he’s learned a lot from the experience and won’t make the same mistakes the next time out: “Unless I’m barred from the business!” he laughed.