A multiple murder in a small Midwestern town is not, for all its echoes of In Cold Blood, the sort of thing that generates national headlines. But the 1993 killing in a Falls City, Neb., farmhouse was different: One of the victims was a young woman, Teena Brandon, from Lincoln. And not just any young woman: Until shortly before her murder, she had lived in Falls City, and even fallen in love, as a man. When a routine police checkup on a traffic violation revealed her true identity, her own friends turned on her. Two of them, not satisfied with exposing her, raped her and then, after she reported their crime to the police, murdered her.
Kimberly Peirce was a film student at Columbia University in New York when she first heard about the crimes. Already interested in the subject of sexual masquerades, she went to Nebraska to learn more about Teena Brandon, and quickly became convinced that she had found a story of great resonance. Her film, Boys Don’t Cry, a richly detailed, revealing and painfully emotional drama that cuts through the gossip and the hero(ine) worship to create a dark yet human picture of broken, frustrated lives in a fading, forgotten town. With a magnificent performance by Hilary Swank as Brandon, so achingly perfect that it’s easy to forget the cross-dressing and just see a shy, awkward young boy, Boys Don’t Cry cuts through the sensationalism and the proselytizing to reveal a real and human tragedy.
While waiting for her film to open nationally and keeping tabs on pre-release developments (including the threat of a lawsuit from one of the film’s real-life subjects), Peirce traveled across the country on the film festival circuit. I caught up with her in late October, when she discussed the story, the sensationalism and the popular misconceptions that haunt both the film and its subject.
The reviews have all been positive, but some writers have presumed that the film is an old-fashioned “message” movie about prejudice and hate crimes, even distorting some details in order to make Brandon more sympathetic.
I don’t want to start a debate [with critics]. What I’d rather do is tell you my movie. I spent five and half years working on it, so I’m pretty thorough with the research. When I started reading about Brandon Teena I was compelled and fascinated with why, when she dressed up as a boy, these guys befriended her, and why, not only was she a more effective boy than they were, but when it turned out she was a girl, it dealt such a double-blow to their masculinity that they struck back and destroyed Brandon. I was also equally compelled by the tragic love story.
Now, I didn’t set out to make a historical document, but I think that in a way I did, simply by the fact that I was taking a story that was not a story yet. There were so many different portraits of [Brandon] in the media and most of those portraits were very sensationalistic … and I saw that people were turning Brandon into an icon. They were mythologizing. I wasn’t setting out to make a myth of Brandon. What I was setting out to do was get in touch with a human being. ...
Did you feel any obligation to respect the myth that has developed around this story? The other myth? The myth that he was a Don Juan? That he was cool?
The myth was that Brandon was cool, a Don Juan. But if I had shown that, I would have had a bad character. As [co-author] Andy Bienen and I probed into the material, we found that Brandon wasn’t cool. If anything, most of the time she was fucking up. … What we fell in love with was her humanity. Had we made her cool from the beginning, the audience would have hated her. If she walked out the first day and totally passed and was a super stud—what a jerk! If anything, the fact that it was a girl trying so hard to be a boy and at the same time having all the faults that the rest of us have, that’s what makes this character lovable. And that ultimately is better drama than the mythology. ...
Having interviewed the people who were close to Brandon, did you feel an obligation to get their points of view across?
I have a number of obligations to the real people, to be truthful to them. When I interview them I try to be straightforward. I also have an obligation to dramatic truth. When that audience gets in there, I have to keep that story moving, keep it organically unified the way Aristotle talks about it, and tell a good story. By nature, I love all the characters so I tend to amplify them. Lana [Tisdel, Brandon’s girlfriend, who attempted in October to stop the film’s release] had said that she was unhappy with previous portrayals. ... I feel like I did her justice. … I feel like I’m sharing the story with the world in a way that shows good on her. We won our case. The judge said, a) I had a right to tell the story because it’s in the public domain, b) I had a release and, c) every review says that it sheds a good light on Lana. There’s not a case. ...
My job was to make [Brandon] understandable and empathetic and to create the story in such a way that audiences can participate in it. This is a grand adventure. ... The more you humanize something, the less different it is and the harder it is to hate and lash out at it. Look at the love affair. Let’s understand why Brandon and Lana fell in love and how they managed to stay inside that fantasy as the terms of acceptance kept changing. In the end it’s a story about someone coming to their true identity through a love affair. The truth of it is: Here’s a person who lived the way they needed to live and found their true identity through love.