Kimberly Peirce’s home, perched on a hill in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, is overflowing with books, DVDs, and black-and-white photos of Hollywood past. When I arrive around 5pm one day this fall, the filmmaker is putting the final touches on a new script that’s due… that night. She describes it as a “butch-femme romantic sex comedy” and says it’s been in the works for more than 10 years.
Unbelievably, it’s been double that time since Peirce shot Boys Don’t Cry, her most famous project, on a shoestring budget in a dusty Texas town made to look like Nebraska. The movie tells the real-life story of a trans man named Brandon Teena, who was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1993. Its legacy has been a point of contention: Some trans people object to the fact that Hilary Swank, a cis actress who won an Oscar for her performance, plays Brandon, while others find its brutal violence—including a graphic rape scene—too much to bear.
The pushback surprises Peirce, who consulted with a long list of trans people for the film she wanted to create, and sunk nearly half a decade into researching Teena’s life and death, including interviewing scores of sources who knew him in his adopted hometown of Falls City. (Despite, or perhaps because of, the polarization it generated, Boys Don’t Cry makes frequent appearances in gender and film studies journals; Peirce says she receives around four notifications a day from Academia.com.)
Here, Peirce discusses how and why she cast Swank as Brandon Teena, what it was like conducting this kind of research in Nebraska as an out lesbian in the ’90s, and why Joan Rivers (of all people) helped affirm Teena’s trans identity to an audience of millions.
What first drew you to Brandon Teena’s story?
In 1993, I was working late as a paralegal in New York, and at around three in the morning my best friend—who was also queer and studying with me at Columbia University’s film school—put The Village Voice on my desk and said, “This is the story you want to tell.” At the time, I was writing a script about a woman during the Civil War who was living as a man in order to survive and pass as a white Southerner, but I fell so madly in love with Brandon—with his charisma, his agency, his interest and ability to shape into this fantasy of himself. I was also devastated by the fact that he was stripped, raped, and murdered. That night, I adopted him.
I was in my first year of grad school and had no ability to do anything, but even Andy Bienen, who co-wrote the script with me, said that he remembered running into me the next day on the lawn [at Columbia] with this ravaged copy of The Village Voice and me telling him, “This is my next movie.”
And what did you make of the Voice’s Donna Minkowitz later retracting her article about Brandon and regretting how she characterized him as a butch lesbian rather than a trans man?
I mean, it was important because it showed the lesbian version of Brandon, but that didn’t mean it limited what I would do. When you look at oral histories, some people thought of Brandon as a lesbian. I didn’t see Brandon that way, but it was important that I read the thousands of articles [about him] to keep understanding how the culture was interpreting him. That’s what Shakespeare did. It’s like, yeah, there are multiple versions of Romeo and Juliet. The one Shakespeare finally told was culled from multiple oral histories.
How did Brandon end up consuming the next half-decade of your life?
I had adopted this person and was like, I have to speak to trans people and butch lesbians and figure out who Brandon was and how he might have seen himself. I always called him a he. I always wanted to do right by him. This is really important for readers to know: Nobody knows who and what Brandon was. We’re all sophisticated and queer now looking back, but we have to understand: This was a person, we knew stories that were told about this person, but nobody has the drop on Brandon.
As far as we know, Brandon never had surgery or took hormones. That doesn’t mean Brandon was not a trans person. That just means that he, unfortunately, was killed in a nascent stage of acting on his identity. It may have been fully embodied within himself, but the culture had not yet given him the resources to fully make sense of who he was and where he would go. We don’t know if he would have ended up in New York or San Francisco living as a trans man. From what I saw, while he may have had that identity, he also was very attached to living in a straight heteronormative environment at that point.
I decided to interview trans people and butches to try to get underneath it all. I found out about an activist group called the Transsexual Menace, founded by Riki Wilchins and Denise Norris. [The group was created in response to the exclusion of transgender people from Pride marches at the time.] They were going to Lincoln, Nebraska, to protest outside the courthouse during the trial of Brandon’s killers. Somebody had dropped out and they asked if I would buy their plane ticket, so I spent $200 and flew there.
Wow, what was that like?
We all went to the murder trial and had bottles thrown at us outside because, you know, I looked dyke-y, and they looked however they looked. Brandon’s murderers, John [Lotter] and Tom [Nissen], were on trial, and Lana [Tisdel, Teena’s former lover] and her mom would go every day. The courtroom was pretty full, and I felt like I was seeing the town in action. It was horrifying but amazing. When it came time to leave, I just broke down in tears. I said, “I’m gonna cancel my ticket. I have to go back.” I was going to rent a hotel room, and Kate [Bornstein, a trans scholar, playwright, and Pierce’s friend] was like, “I think it’s dangerous alone. I’m coming with you. I’ll be your mom and you can be my son.” So we checked into a small hotel in Falls City, and we just went to the trial every day, sat and absorbed it.
I ended up interviewing the people at the gas station where [Brandon and his friends] hung out. I interviewed the court reporter. I went to the police station. I went to the teachers who knew the kids in town. I interviewed a ton of people.
What was it like interviewing Lana?
The day we were supposed to meet, I stood by the door for an hour waiting for her and her mom to let me in. When they did, I sat there for a little bit, talked with her mom, recorded everything. And finally Lana came out and she was like, “Oh, you remind me of Brandon.” I could have fainted. I asked her everything about her history, her life, her assumptions. She told me, “I didn’t find out Brandon was a girl until they stripped him.” I responded, “Well that makes sense. That’s when you saw his body parts and realized he was a female-bodied person.” And she responded, “No. Well, I knew…”
And then she gave me another inflection point and then another, and I immediately thought, I have no movie because it’s a constantly shifting moment when she knew Brandon was female-bodied. She knew and she didn’t know, and it depended on what her greater need was at that time. There was something so human about that.
How long did it take you to cast Brandon?
When it came to finding somebody who could play the role of Brandon, I initially only looked at trans people. I auditioned Silas Howard, Harry Dodge, Texas Tomboy, to name a few. But nobody could capture the role. Three years passed. Ellen [DeGeneres] came out, and suddenly all of these straight people wanted to play the role. But they were foreign to me; I wasn’t used to seeing straight people try to play queer, nor was I used to seeing cis women trying to play trans masculine or masculine of center. They put socks in their pants and kind of walked around, and I was like Oy, okay. I told them they needed to lower their center of gravity and feel their masculinity in their cock. And then they got so excited.
But each person was worse than the last. When the female-bodied actors became masculine, they often lost their charm. They would tense up and refuse to smile. And then this person came along with this square jaw and these huge brown eyes and these great cheeks floating across the screen. They blurred the gender line, but the main thing was that when this human being said the lines, you just fell in love with them. They were so full of desire and love and warmth, and that was something Brandon needed to make all those friends.
How did you help Hilary Swank embody Brandon?
After offering her the role, we went to Astor Place, where the B-boys get their haircuts, and gave her a straight-up boy haircut and dyed her hair brown. I think it grounded her in his maleness, the darker hair. And then she and I walked from Astor Place all the way back to the office of Christine Vachon [the film’s executive producer], which was only about three blocks past the Public Theater. And I couldn’t believe it: It felt like this person had been born and was then doing everything to bring Brandon to life. Swank met with my trans scholar friends and they all told her, “You’re going to have to go and live as a boy and just see what happens. Go to the grocery store, do your laundry.” And so she did all that for a month or two.
And then you started filming. How constrained were you budget-wise?
It was ridiculous. Our first assistant director was throwing up every day because he was so nervous. He just thought, This movie is not makable. We didn’t have enough days to shoot, but I didn’t know the difference. And the script was too long when you typed it up in a professional format: It was 140 pages—not 120, as I’d originally thought it was. I was like, “Well, then we need more time.” And they were like, “You’re not getting any more time.” That was that. We had 30 days. We were shooting six-day weeks, which literally should be outlawed. Six pages a day.
I actually got really lucky—I was so sick that by week three, I had pneumonia and was laying down directing when Texas got hit by a flood. I was literally going to die, and then we had to take a day off because of the flood. It saved my life.
What was it like for you, the cast, and the crew to simulate Brandon’s rape?
I’m a survivor of physical and sexual abuse and, at that point, I had done around 15 years of interesting therapies around my own traumas. I think I was always terrified of that rape scene because I love Brandon so much, but I do believe that my experience in therapy allowed me to be the calmest person on set.
When we shot the rape, there was an amazing fog that had descended. We didn’t have much time, and we were rehearsing using a car seat, and then, all of a sudden, we couldn’t find Brendan Sexton [the actor who was playing Tom, one of Teena’s murderers]. Finally I found him and he had his face folded into his hands. He had been crying and he said, “I’m not doing the rape because I don’t want to bring this image to life.” I told him we were doing this to honor Brandon and people like Brandon who are at the other end of physical and sexual abuse, and to understand the people who put them there. I told him, “You are a conduit for us to understand our own humanity.”
It’s the brutality that makes the film divisive among viewers. A trans friend of mine said it was traumatizing to see himself on screen for the first time in the form of Brandon Teena because of his rape.
Well, if it wasn’t painful to watch, I don’t think it would be honest, right? It’s a tragedy by definition. If I watched a Holocaust story and wasn’t upset, I don’t understand what that story would be doing, because my ethics says that what happened to Jewish people, gypsies, and homosexuals was upsetting. So while I have concern for anybody who was upset, I don’t understand how and why you would make a version of a story like that that didn’t have authenticity in it. But I do think it’s our responsibility as storytellers to make sure the violence isn’t pornographic.
Did you imagine, when you made this film, that it would become this landmark of representation for trans men?
I was in my own little queer world, and I honestly thought that, best case, I would watch the premiere at Two Boots [Pioneer Theater], down in the East Village, with a piece of pizza. I always knew that as long as my friends—Kate Bornstein, Riki, and all the people I had shared this desire with—liked it, I was fine. Then we got nominated for the Oscar, which in and of itself is a miracle. Little movies did not win Oscars. Little movies didn’t even get nominated. [Swank won Best Actress, beating out Annette Benning, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep.]
Every step of the way was a fight to protect this movie in a culture that didn’t have a space for it yet. When I got on the red carpet, I was being interviewed by Joan Rivers and she said, “So, tell me about your movie.” And I responded, “Oh, it’s a story of, you know, Brandon Teena, a female-bodied person who lives and loves as a man.” And on the chyron they wrote it up as “Brandon Teena, who lives and loves as a man.” My mind was blown because I knew that it was an authenticating moment. I had always been saying the language correctly, but oftentimes the media would write that Brandon “masqueraded” or “pretended” to be a man. This time, they actually got it right.
The thing was that this movie was always overly ambitious. Christine and I were two butch lesbians making a movie about a masculine-of-center, female-bodied human being. We all were so personally invested. We weren’t just making a movie in Hollywood—we were making a text that was an expression of our deepest love.