Kimberley Peirce shot to fame with her first feature film Boys Don’t Cry in 1999, in which Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, a transgender person who was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in 1993. Not shy of dealing with tough subject matter Peirce has chosen to focus on the bullying aspect and the mother daughter relationship in her film version of Carrie. We had a chat with Kimberly about her vision for Carrie, the actresses she cast and her love for Spider-Man...
Starburst: It was interesting that you chose to adapt Carrie into almost a superhero origin story. Can you tell us about your decision to go in that direction?
Kimberly Peirce: I’m glad you noticed that! Well there are a couple of reasons; I fell deeply in love with Carrie being a social outcast who desperately wants love and affection, is bullied at school and has such a hard time at home. I make some changes in Margaret’s character to show how difficult it is for Carrie to get this love. But to me, if you ask me about the superhero origin story specifically, I saw the power in a unique way. I thought that they were a good thing for her. I thought they would be something she would be excited about. I have her exploring them. I have her seeing them in many ways as a salvation, for a chance at succeeding in the world, and that is certainly in the same vein as a Marvel comic such as Spider-Man, so that’s a very typical superhero origin story. You have a nerd and their powers help them. She doesn’t think they make her powerful, she thinks they make her normal. But she doesn’t master them, that was really important to me. In the books she goes haywire. So it’s an opportunity but it’s not mastering.
Speaking of Marvel, did you look at any superhero films or was it based on your prior knowledge of the comics?
I’ve seen most of them and I’m a huge fan. I used to collect comics. When I was eleven years old I would buy them and would sell them at school. I used to make Super 8 movies, draw cartoons and film them too. I’m really excited that comic book movies are so good now. For me it was exciting that I could work within that genre.
What comic books in particular were you a fan of?
I used to get up at 6am to watch Spider-Man. That was a big thing in the US when I was a kid. From the opening scene I was obsessed with it. Once I got a hold of some money I was collecting Mad Magazine, DC and Marvel stuff.
Do you still have them as prized possessions?
I still have them! I haven’t looked backed at them. I still have a lot of the Mad books. There’s a beautiful comic book store on the street where I live and I go there at least two or three times a week.
The casting choices were superb. Why did you choose Chloe Moretz, Julianne Moore and Judy Greer?
Let’s start with Julianne Moore. In many ways I think Julianne was the only one who could play the part. If you think about the way Margaret treats her daughter she’s a woman who really loves her daughter and that was really important to me. She beats her up, she inflicts harm on herself, she cuts herself, she bangs her head. You needed somebody who could do all these things but you could also believe that they loved their daughter. You needed someone who has an inherent level of warmth. Julianne is a very warm person. You needed somebody who was beautiful to offset the more non-beautiful elements of the part. You needed warmth to wash down the brutality. I think you need authenticity to believe any of it. She’s a very extreme character. I also think you needed somebody with movie star charisma quality. She’s a very committed actress. She’s lively, she’s fun. She was a wonderful person to work with. She was the first person I went to and I hoped she would do the role. She was already telling me how she was going to play it. America’s a very religious country so particularly when you’re going to represent religion in the media you want to show respect to it but you want to show its specificity. In Carrie it’s really extreme so we had to make it clear that Margaret makes her own religion. Julianne was fantastic at that.
In terms of Chloe I wanted someone who was about the right age. This is a story about a fifteen year old who is bullied and who is given a hard time but she is also a child to her mother. It was so important to me that you believed the mother/daughter relationship. It had to be real. I believe Chloe captures that. You needed her to be engaging. I think Chloe is very engaging, very charismatic and is a very good actress. Interestingly I had to do a lot of work with her because she was overly confident when I met her. She has the strongest handshake, she was working with Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton and that gave her a level of confidence which is great for an actress but it wasn’t what I wanted for my Carrie. I wanted her to be a victim, a social outcast, beaten down, scared of her own shadow. She had all these elements but we spent months breaking down her confidence and I think we achieved quite a lot.
And of course Judy Greer who I just adore. She’s very beautiful, very funny and very grounded. When I met her for lunch she was already telling me about the character before I hired her. She adopts this girl and starts taking care of her but she’s kind of grossed out by her, finds her kind of odd and is frustrated with her.
The idea of motherhood and female bonding was dealt with really interestingly. And also the way you’ve dealt with the teen element – perhaps this wasn’t intentional, but it has a Pretty in Pink vibe to it with Carrie making her own dress for the prom…
At its core I saw the book as a story about a mother and a daughter and the scene in the beginning is a whole new scene which I was really excited about. I think the bond between mothers and daughters is huge and dramatic and there’s not enough about it in movies. I particularly love Carrie and Margaret’s bond. Margaret is afraid of the world, she’s afraid of herself and her sexuality. We know she had sex but she tries to block that out. She even blocks out the knowledge of being pregnant so when this thing is coming out of her she thinks it’s a cancer. When it comes out of her, her reaction is to grab a knife… but then she falls in love with it. She embraces it and that is the conflict in the relationship. It’s one of huge ambivalence. And the thing about a mother/daughter relationship is we do expose our mothers and we hold the truth of our mothers, and we can’t change that. And that may be frustrating and that may be terrifying but it’s true. As women we know everything about our mothers and that may be something that a mother who is a narcissist, who doesn’t want the truth out there, will be at odds with her daughter. You’ll notice Margaret will beat herself and then she will beat Carrie. Carrie will be beaten and feel terrible but she will forgive her mother because that’s her only bond in life and she loves her mother. And her mother will reach out to love her. Even though her mother is beating her she is doing it out of love, to protect her, that to me is wildly complicated and very interesting.
Of course at the very end Carrie returns to the house ridden with guilt for what she’s done. She wants to cleanse herself. There’s a line I gave to Julianne from the book “you be the preacher, I’ll be the congregation” it’s one of my favourite lines. The mother really wants to restore herself to a point of power and she puts the daughter in a place of disempowerment. The fight to the death between these two is the heart and soul of this movie.
Let’s talk about her making her own dress. What I love is it’s also a story of class. Margaret and Carrie don’t have a lot of money. The other girls do have a lot of money, they go shopping and they buy the beautiful dresses. It’s a story of privilege and lack of privilege. Carrie has to sew her own dress because she doesn’t have the money to buy her own dress. She’s a seamstress’s daughter so she’s also now becoming her mother.
CARRIE opens in UK cinemas November 29th.