Kimberly Peirce’s 1999 debut “Boys Don’t Cry,” the grim story of a trans man raped and murdered in Texas, scored Hillary Swank an Oscar and announced Peirce as a major filmmaking talent. It also established expectations she still resists, almost 20 years later.
“A lot of people think I’m Mr. Tragedy because of ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’” the 50-year-old director said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “But I have been wanting to move into comedy for a bit. Let’s be honest. A lot of comedy doesn’t that have much sophistication. It’s funny, but there’s a level of predictability and normativity.”
So she’s moving into comedy, but in her own way, most recently by directing Episode 4 from Season 2 of Netflix’s “Dear White People.” The riveting, unpredictable story of a young black woman wrestling with whether she should have an abortion is also one of the series’ very best episodes.
It’s not obvious comedic terrain, and as such, called for a non-obvious director. While Netflix’s Emmys campaign for “Dear White People” lacks serious momentum, the network submitted Peirce for her work on the episode, and a peek behind the scenes illustrates how much she guided the material into daring new terrain.
Justin Simien’s adaptation of his 2014 feature has been riotous and innovative in its subject matter and tone as it explores the racial divides of the fictional Winchester University. The second season is rich with conflicts and personal hardships, several of which revolve around iconoclastic radio host Samantha White (Logan Browning). However, the fourth episode is a self-contained look at a complex figure grappling with her past and present: Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Anoinette Robertson), the ambitious treasurer for the school’s Coalition of Racial Inequality student union, who accrues much of her popularity on campus from the white people drawn into her orbit.
For much of the show, Coco’s perspective on race and power make her a divisive social climber. However, Peirce’s episode burrows into a more personal side. When Coco finds out she’s pregnant from her relationship with Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the jittery, drug-addled son of the school’s dean, she’s forced to contend with two possibilities — embrace the prospect of motherhood and give up her scholastic dreams, or terminate the pregnancy. For a show steeped in fast-paced comedic rhythms, it’s a striking emotional conundrum that veers in a series of unexpected directions — down to a prolonged finale that finds Coco, after much deliberation, choosing to go through with the abortion.
Peirce first explored comedic terrain by directing the second episode of Jill Soloway’s Amazon series “I Love Dick,” which premiered at Sundance in 2017. Later, she met “Dear White People” producer Stephanie Allain through ReFrame, an initiative to push for gender balance in the industry. Allain recommended Peirce for the show, and invited the filmmaker to a Netflix Emmys party hosted by Lena Waithe, where Peirce connected with some of the show’s cast. Then Simien, a teen movie buff when “Boys Don’t Cry” came out, gave her a call.
The show creator, who crafted the storyline with episode writer Njeri Brown, said he knew the delicate material would require a director capable burrowing into the material rather than blending into the show’s established voice. “We’re always looking for people who understand the difference between storytelling and cinema,” he said. “Kimberly is one of the most thorough people I’ve ever met. When she takes on a story, she just lives it in her bones.”
Peirce took charge. Since she was hired at the start of the season, she had time before pre-production to shadow Simien on set. “I had to hang out with him every day,” she said. “It’s important to me, because I’m white, to assimilate the best I can and feel the rhythms of his world.” She also got to know the actors, and began to cultivate a relationship with Robertson in advance of a read through. “We were very, very open,” Peirce said.
Robertson was keen on making her character more accessible. “I feel like young black women are never at the center of this abortion narrative,” she told Fashion Magazine. “I’ve never seen it told in a way that shows both sides of the narrative, and that also gets us to feel compassion for this young girl and the decision that she made.”
That led Peirce to a revelation. After the group reading, she called Simien about adding a sequence to the script. “The biggest thing I noticed was that it was a foregone conclusion she was going to get rid of the baby,” Peirce said. “My argument was, if you have this narcissistic character, we need a significant sequence before the end where she’s vulnerable, goes deeper, and in fact falls in love with the possibility of having a child.”
Her solution: a radiant fantasy sequence in which Coco stands in front of the mirror staring at her stomach, and suddenly sees it fully enlarged, as if in the throes of a third trimester. It was a daunting concept for an episode conceived with three days of prep work, but Peirce felt it was essential. “She’s got to love the body that’s transforming into a pregnant body,” Peirce said. “She has to project that onto her future self. I was wondering how I can bring the audience into that as quickly as possible. This was an important shot for cinematic and emotional reasons.”
Peirce commissioned a fake stomach to attach to her actress, which wasn’t easy. “The stomach had to look real,” she said. “It wasn’t going to be the right color for anybody, particularly a person of color. We had to get the right shade of belly, and the right makeup to make it reflect her actual skin color. The belly had to be big enough, the camera angle had to be just right.”
That challenge paled compared to the episode’s tricky finale, one of the great fakeouts in modern television. (Yes, major spoilers follow.)
After Coco goes to an abortion clinic with her roommate, she decides she can’t go through with it. She tells Troy, explains to him that he’s not a responsible father, and — following in her mother’s footsteps — leaves school to raise the child on her own. The episode’s last five minutes take place a full 18 years later, exploring a future in which Coco celebrates her “intersectional feminist daughter” getting into Winchester, while Troy remains on the sidelines. As Coco slips into a lengthy monologue about how well her daughter has been prepared for future successes, the episode returns to the present day, revealing that the preceding minutes took place in Coco’s mind while waiting at the abortion clinic. Considering her own mother’s sacrifices, and her own professional determination, she marches forward to her appointment.
“The ending had to be deftly handled,” Simien said. “We didn’t want people to know the game we were playing right away.” For Peirce, that required some deft camerawork. She insisted on using a Steadicam shot and several long takes as Coco and her daughter stroll into Winchester for her first day of school.
“It could have been completely cheesy,” Peirce said. “We were using the same set, so we had to shoot it differently. We had to age our characters up, cast a new girl who’s a reflection of Coco, and we had to show how Coco has evolved — she still has the finger-pointing and the narcissism, but she’s evolved. That was part of the performance.”
The camera keeps rolling as Coco unloads a series of hyperbolic compliments until it becomes clear that she’s really talking about herself. “We’re seducing you into the possibility of the future,” Peirce said. “We had to keep pulling you into it. Not cutting is a very powerful tool if you use it right.”
The ability to engage in cinematic terms with such a sensitive issue on television was a marked change from the era of “Boys Don’t Cry,” when queer narratives were rarely seen in a mainstream context. “I’m amazed with what the show gets away with,” Peirce said. “It’s very rare that a show can keep up with the changing times. This show does that.”
In a broader sense, Peirce said that she feels like the energy of the ’90s American independent film scene is reemerging in the television landscape. “A lot of us filmmakers came to Hollywood, and Hollywood gave us money, but my stance was that it came with a loss of control,” she said. “The kind of control I had on ‘Boys’ is similar to what Justin is having on television.”
In the years since “Boys Don’t Cry,” Peirce has struggled to make movies that reach the same level of acclaim or popularity: Her sophomore effort, “Stop-Loss,” came out nearly a decade later, and 2013’s “Carrie” remake received mixed reviews. Now, the speed of television has rescued her from development hell.
“It’s an echo of why the independent scene was so powerful in the ’90s to me — go make art,” she said. “You’re getting great writing in television because people are making a living and getting produced.”
With several television credits behind her, Peirce is revving up several movie projects at once. She’s developing a dark drama at Amazon, “This is Jane,” based on the real-life story of underground abortion activism in the ’60s with Michelle Williams set to star. This reunites her with the studio’s head of production, Ted Hope, who worked with Peirce on “Boys Don’t Cry.” “I was hanging out with Ted at a meeting and it was like 20 years ago,” she said. (The movie is also produced by “Birdman” Oscar-winner John Lesher, who was Peirce’s first agent.)
She’s also making a foray into the non-fiction arena, developing a mysterious documentary project with investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald. The two went to high school together, though Peirce didn’t make the connection until recently. “I’ve been reading him all these years and loving his work, not knowing it was that Glenn,” she said. Then she spotted him in Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” and it clicked. “I was like, I know this fucking guy! I wrote him, he contacted me, and we’re doing the most exciting documentary we want to announce soon.”
Then there’s the “butch sex comedy” she wants to make next year. When she called around late morning, she had been up since 5:30 a.m. tinkering with the script. “It’s an amazing story of modern love that’s very sexual, very funny, and very queer,” she said, suggesting the lead character would be like “Brandon Teena all grown up,” referring to the real-life trans character played by Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry.” She hoped it would be “utterly relatable,” adding, “my Jewish stepmother said not to make ‘a little gay movie.’” She laughed. “Put that in quotes. I’m not doing that.”