In a span of 14 years writer-director Kimberly Peirce has only made 3 films. She hit the scene in a big way with 1999’s Boy’s Don’t Cry, and she didn’t follow that picture up until 2008’s Stop-Loss. In that nine year gap Peirce struggled getting projects off the ground. Being a writer/director who focuses on personal stories is never going to make life easy.
She’s now returned with her first adaptation, Carrie. Her remake of the 1976 film is notably different. Structurally it’s reminiscent, but Peirce’s interpretation has a warmth that wasn’t a part of Brian De Palma‘s project. There’s a more humanistic approach to Carrie’s relationship with her mother, which was a key ingredient to Peirce’s motivation to taking on the project.
Here’s what Kimberly Peirce had to say about the film, telling personal stories in a commercial system and more.
What gave you confidence that you could bring your personality to a remake of Carrie?
I think because I’m a writer/director I’m able to look at the whole thing and say, “What do we have? What’s the best version of this?” I was able to go deeply into the novel and see four things off the bat I’d be able to do that with. For one, I can modernize this, because I’m a filmmaker in the more modern era. There’s a number of things I could do to make it more contemporary. Secondly, I saw a phenomenal mother-daughter relationship story, which is clearly in the original film, but I thought we could go deeper into this unconditional love. The mother thinks the daughter is potentially evil and represents she had sex and enjoyed it, which is why I added that scene at the beginning; it’s a part of the idea’s DNA. I wanted to follow that duel until the end where they come to blows.
Thirdly, I made it a superhero origin story. Having seen all these great comic book movies, I thought, “Wow, here’s a girl discovering her power, playing with it, and not mastering it.” That’ll engage an audience. By the end, I want you to want Carrie to succeed at prom, despite having this awful feeling of her going. The fourth thing is just a good ‘ol fashion sense of American justice, meaning if I can get the audience to fully identify with Carrie and you identify her need of love and acceptance, then when they ruin her night at prom, you want to see her get justice. In getting justice, it’s an old fashioned revenge story.
I am not a typical gun-for-hire, because I typically write and direct. I fell deeply in love with this story and felt okay about needing to change it around for it to work. I was able to rewrite it, re-imagine and push it. How do I put my own way of filmmaking into it? You rewrite it, cast it, and shape it.
Did you want to strike a balance between art and commerce?
Well, that’s exciting. I think most filmmakers would say they want every movie to be as commercial as it can be, reach as many people, and be as satisfying as possible. Everyone wants that, but then there’s the issue of: what are you given? I was given a project inherently commercial and entertaining. Stephen King is a genius and “Carrie” is a fantastic novel, so I started off with an amazing character and a mother-daughter relationship.
All that stuff I was talking about I thought could be made stronger in cinematic terms. I don’t think individuality and commercial success are at odds. Sometimes they are, but there’s no reason they should be. The greatest movie in the world should be both: it should be entirely personal and commercial. I haven’t seen Gravity, but that’s probably what that is. Commercial just means people love it and it does well. I mean, there’s plenty of bad movies that do well, but we’re not thinking about those.
Those are tough movies to get made. Is that why we don’t see a film from you every two or three years?
I want you to see a movie from me every two or three years. I want to make a lot more movies a lot quicker. I don’t want to make excuses because I want to make a lot of movies, but a movie is…you need a great piece of source material, whether it’s from a novel or a good script. The stories that are generally the best take a long time to become that good. Then you need good casting, good money, and a good release date. I don’t want to bore an audience with these things, because all I want is to entertain people, but the reality is it’s a miracle movies get made. My family always says, “My God, that’s what it takes to make a movie?” Every word that is uttered has been written and rewritten, performed and performed again, edited, and tested. Everything is…
Under a microscope.
Everything is under a microscope until it really works. After that, there’s an allowance for it to be what it is, which is always really great.
When do you know it really works?
It’s a combination of things. Those four points I talked about was what I knew I needed to make this structurally work. Then it goes out there and Chloe [Moretz] reads it, saying, “I love this.” Then Julianne [Moore] reads it and is all for it, but says, “Well, I want to improve that.” Okay, that needs improvement, so then you go out there and get it right.
Interestingly, as long as you keep bringing in people who have the movie’s best interest at heart, then the best idea rises to the top and makes the movie better. In some ways it’s your personal vision, but it’s, like, if you design an engine because you have to start the car and see if it goes.
Do you think that process kind of squashes the idea of an “auteur”?
Perhaps. I strongly believe it’s a collaborative medium. If we are painters, then we paint with other human beings. So many people have input and we use other people’s bodies. I’m always speaking through someone else’s body, camera movement, or my dolly grip. What I think that collaborative medium needs is a loving and powerful director who is willing to listen to everybody. That’s what everybody shows up for. A director is a tuning fork, because they want a director to understand what their best take is and what’s not their best take. A really great actor can say they think take two is the best, especially if they’re right.
When the movie is working we’ll all see the same things. There’s just pure joy when the best idea wins. Michael Powell said he was the guy who made everyone do their job better. I learned a lot by reading great directors’ autobiographies. I went, “Wow, I want to be that great coach.” A movie can’t guide itself. We all want to make the best material. The studios are no different, because they want to make the best movies.
You’ve said before how studio systems generally push directors out of their vision and filmmakers have to muscle back in. How exactly do you muscle back in?
For one, you do your research and hire the right creative people. The system doesn’t necessarily trust the idea that one person could be able to push their product to the best place. There’s a system that thinks you need all these people involved, but artists and good producers all know: let us do our job and we will do a good job. The muscling is being able to have all your creative partners there.
I was a part of the writing and directing lab at Sundance and they told me, “You have to learn to sell your movie every day to your crew, your producers, and then your audience.” Because I was a kid, I thought, “Why do I have to sell the movie? I’m a director.” They said because I’m “the communicator,” and that was the greatest lesson I ever learned. If you understand your craft, you’re going to succeed.
Carrie is now in theaters.