Dustin Lance Black Talks Re-Editing & Taking A Second Stab At His Directorial Debut 'Virginia'

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by Jen Vineyard
May 18, 2012 4:40 PM
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Dustin Lance Black had a rude awakening with his directorial debut "What's Wrong with Virginia?" when it first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2010 -- critics hated it, including The Playlist. Even though he'd won an Academy Award for his screenplay of "Milk," Black discovered that the goodwill from his Oscar acceptance speech only went so far. But if it had been up to him, he wouldn't have shown the film before he was confident with what he had shot. "We were out of money, and out of time, in a big way," he told The Playlist. "I was being told, 'You're finished,' and so it was a bit of a cross-your-fingers situation, which is never a good way to show your film."

People were not kind -- and the headlines mirrored the film's title. Even though Black expected the criticism, "it didn't make it hurt any less. It hurt."

After Black went through "the stages of grief," he said, he decided that despite distribution offers, he should take some time off from the film, go earn some money from a "nice-paying studio job," and then use that to re-edit the film. "That was dangerous," he said. "I heard warnings, 'You have distribution offers, and those might not be here in a year. You have heat now, and you want to move forward.' But I wanted the film to be the best it could be."

So Black read the reviews, even the "nasty" ones, and the critics confirmed something that he'd been wondering about. "There were some that talked about tone and narrative and how it wasn't finding its way or walking that line well," he said. "And I agreed."

Black found a new editor in Beatrice Sisul, who didn't like the film any more than the critics did, but was at least open to reading the screenplay. Black said she told him after reading it, "I love this. Why didn't you make this movie?" She encouraged him to go back and rediscover the simplicity of the original story, which on the page did not have a lot of the "incredibly unnecessary" voiceover that had been added in post-production "out of insecurity." For instance, instead of just meeting Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly's characters, seeing their "lovely and strange" relationship evolve while figuring out that he's got some other life with his wife and realizing she's not quite sane, it was told to you.

"That was no good. It was all this talking, talking, talking, explaining, explaining, explaining, and it gave the movie a dramatic tone," Black said. "It took you out of the occasional farce it should have been, the dream world you live in when you're poor and in the South. It must have been awfully confusing for an audience -- they didn't know what movie they were in."

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