6 Filmmaking Tips from Kimberly Peirce

By  · Published on October 18th, 2013

It’s a shame that Kimberly Peirce has only made three feature films in 14 years. Boys Don’t Cry was a stunner of a debut, announcing a bold new talent to keep tabs on. Stop-Loss wasn’t quite as strong but it was still absolutely powerful enough to make her a sophomore with a bright future.

For whatever reason, that future dimmed, but with Carrie coming out this weekend, it hopefully puts Peirce back on track to be artistically in our lives far more often. After all, it was her name that provided a much-needed legitimacy to a remake no one was asking for (of a De Palma film no less) and the optimism that the story could tackle difficult interpersonal drama underneath all the blood-drenched screaming.

It’s fantastic to have her back, so here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a director who has been away too long.

Research Can Reveal What Your Movie’s Really About

Peirce conducted interviews with military personnel in preparation for Stop-Loss not knowing what the film was going to be.

“There were times when I was doing it for the documentary and I was filming them saying, ‘We’re collecting these stories and we’re not sure if it’s going to be a documentary or a feature film.’ Once it was a feature film, it was moving at a very fast rate. Then I was generally calling saying, ‘This is our story. This is what we are doing. We need you to tell us more about this particular situation.’ Like, ‘We’re writing a story about this and we need to know exactly what happens when a soldier comes back from battle and he’s checking in his gear. What is he feeling? What are the obstacles? What are his desires? We need to know.’”

I mean, we filmed the homecoming of a thousand soldiers from Paris, Illinois, the 1544th. They were the National Guard that had the highest rate of casualty, the highest combat hours. They weren’t supposed to have that much, but because they’re transportation ‐ they were transportation to and from Abu Ghraib for the generals ‐ so they’re being shot at. They were getting in combat, so that was an incredibly moving story. We went to the homecoming. We filmed it and as we were talking to people, we told them we’re either going to make a documentary [or] we’re going to make a feature. But the questions were the same. ‘Tell us about your family history. Who’s been in the military?’ They had all these people in different generations in the military. We were like, ‘How long has your soldier been gone? What was it like for you? How did you spend your days?’”

Research is typically heralded for its obvious illuminating benefits, but here are two additional qualities stemming from Peirce’s methods. One, the innocuous nature of research versus active creation allowed her a better opening with interview subjects that might have otherwise been closed-mouthed. Two, she learned in the interim what the plot focus of her military project should be.

Recognize an Inequality But Don’t Fall Into the 1-to-1 Delusion

“I think it is very much an issue. I think that, fundamentally, like likes like. As a queer person ‐ though I don’t want to limit myself, because I’ve had boyfriends ‐ and certainly as a woman, you become hyperaware of power, unfortunately, because you realize you’re not given it off the bat. On this movie, it’s become very clear to me that it is not a given. I have found pockets of sexism that I have never seen before. My eyes were opened. They don’t care about the queerness, but the girl-ness is an issue.”

When asked the same question that everyone always asks in regards to her work on Carrie ‐ whether it matter that a woman is at the helm ‐ Peirce refuses the correlation for an important reason.

“The minute we say [it is better], we’re buying into the argument that only a man can do this, and only a straight person can do that. So let’s not buy into that.”

It’s an example of true equality in motion, but it’s also a realistic bit of fuel for a project. Not an outright violation of Write What You Know, but a clear path toward telling the story you want no matter who you are or what personal attributes define you.

It’s both clear and important that Peirce has done work featuring queer characters (from Boys Don’t Cry to The L Word to a new gender twisting sex comedy with Judd Apatow), but that focus doesn’t mean her sandbox can’t be far larger. Even if we can’t help but take a sexual political read on anything she does.

Everything Can Be Art Fuel

Still Shots Can Aid The Motion Pictures

“I quit college when I was 19. I got my first camera and went over to live in Japan. I lived there for two years, which I think really helped my directing. You spend a lot of time as a photographer looking, particularly when you’re in a foreign culture like Japan. Not fully understanding the language, you have to make sense of gestures and what people are doing. You have to kind of understand it by watching, and the great thing about being a photographer was not only was I watching, but I was trying to capture human relationships in a moment. I did that for a number of years, and then I realized that I wanted to move into moving pictures. I mean, I had made little super 8 movies as a kid, but I really took it very, very seriously once I went over to Japan.”

And with a side of cultural isolation, the lens might be a useful tool. We tend to give directors credit for a lot on set that they might not necessarily earn, but having a DP’s eye can only be a good thing.

Look Beyond The Intrigue to Find the Story

Clearly, Peirce is a giant fan of research, but even when digging into something interesting, you’ve got to keep your eyes open for what the story truly is. An interesting idea, a fascinating concept, might not get you to 120 pages. Here’s how she took on the real-world story behind Boys Don’t Cry:

“I started looking at all the other coverage and a great deal of it was sensational. People were focusing on the spectacle of a girl who had passed as a boy because that is so unfamiliar to so many people. Where to me, I knew girls who had passed as boys, so Brandon was not some weird person to me. Brandon was a very familiar person.

People were also focusing on the crime without giving it much emotional understanding and I think that’s really dangerous, especially with this culture of violence that we live in. In duplicating any sort of hate crime, I think you have a responsibility to figure out moment by moment what was motivating this violence to happen, keep it personal, keep it up close, keep it dramatic.

The work was informing me about how I wanted to represent it. I wanted the audience to enter deeply into this place, this character, so they could entertain these contradictions in Brandon’s own mind and would not think she was crazy, would not think she was lying, but would see her as more deeply human.”

Another element there: if you have a special way you see things, or if there are elements of life that some might find unusual but that you understand, you’re in a unique position to focus on the human situation beyond the curiosity.

You’ll Probably Need to Experiment to Find the Right Amount of Blood

What Have We Learned

Research, research, research. That seems to be the main takeaway from Peirce’s conversations. It may not be ideal for every creator or every creation, but it’s also hard to imagine a time where more information could be harmful in the process. Just as long as you don’t get stuck in neutral or lose sight of what you need the knowledge for.

Beyond all of the practical help that research can provide, the core principle here is to be curious. Go out and learn more. Make your great ideas even richer.

Find out how much blood you’re going to need.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.