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"It Reaches the Level of Myth" - An Interview with Kimberly Peirce - Director of Carrie

Interviews
by Kerensa Cadenas
October 17, 2013 2:00 PM
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Kimberly Peirce

Kimberly Peirce is taking a stab at reimagining one of the most iconic horror classics, Carrie, which arguably stars one of the best horror heroines in the genre.

Hitting theaters on Friday, Peirce's modernized version of the classic stars Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie, an ostracized teen, who learns that she has telekinetic powers that get wildly out of hand alongside dealing with her nightmare of a mother played by the amazing and frightening Julianne Moore.

Moretz plays Carrie with a kind of rabid ferality that emanates in all her scenes--her wanting to be a normal teenage girl echoes throughout. With an excellent supporting teen cast (Ansel Elgort and Portia Doubleday are standouts), Peirce uses modern day to heighten Carrie's outcast status, so when the inevitable happens, it feels even more tragic.

Classic lines ("dirty pillows" anyone?) and scenes alongside Peirce's interpretation of the text (she expands more on Stephen King's novel than DePalma's 1976 film version) make the film very much her own including a standout opening scene and a nail-biting climax.

Women and Hollywood got the chance to speak with Peirce about reinterpreting Carrie, reading it as a feminist text and her advice to filmmakers.

Women and Hollywood: How did you get involved with reimagining Carrie? Were you nervous to reimagine a film that is so iconic and enmeshed in pop culture?

Kimberly Peirce: Absolutely. John Glickman of MGM contacted me to do Carrie. My immediate question was 'Well, should we do Carrie?' I took a look at the book but first I called Brian DePalma and said 'how would you feel if I did this?' because we are friends and I respect other directors. He said, 'I think you should do it.' That was important to me. I wasn't going to tread on someone else's territory.

Then what I did was dive deep into the book. I had read it as a kid and then reread it as a literature student. I really took the time to go deep in it--I was flying to Istanbul, so I was on a very long flight. I got through it and literally when I finished it started it again. What really blew me away was just how phenomenal Stephen King's storytelling is. I think his writing of the Carrie character is wonderful. She's strong. I love her sensual need for love and acceptance. What he wrote about the mother/daughter relationship is amazing. I think he wrote a book that is timely and timeless. I think it's so good it reaches the level of myth--like Shakespeare, like Oedipus. Right there, it was like this was amazing.

When I thought about what kind of adaptation would I do, what kind of movie would I make, there were a few concerns. One is that I wanted to modernize it and I thought that would come about naturally because I am of another era. I wanted to make sure that the kids felt of this era. The second thing was to go back and make sure that mother/daughter relationship was the heart and soul of the movie and it was the engine that drove everything forward. So I came up with the opening scene. I don't want to give anything away but the reason I wrote that scene at the beginning is because I felt like that the engine of the movie and its DNA is contained in that scene, and we want to know that right off the bat. We want to know that these two are madly in love and they are completely in conflict. And that is not going to stop. That is the spine of this movie and we are going to keep marching forward.

The next thing that was really important to me was that it be a superhero origin story. That was wildly exciting. Now I have the benefit of the years that have come between the two movies because we've turned superhero stories into fantastic movies with great actors and fleshed out characters. And that was something I thought we could bring to this. Here's a girl who is a misfit who wants love and acceptance. She's not getting it at school; she's not necessarily getting it from her mom. She discovers she has a special power--that special power is the equivalent of you having talent as a writer, me as a director if I have any [laughs]--whatever it is that gets us through the day, that's what that is. The next thing that was really important to me is that we saw her discovery. She tries it, tries the books, maybe that doesn't work. She can't have mastery over it. She's got to be figuring it out, so that when she has these powers in one hand and the boy comes her way, Carrie thinks it's love. Love is the complication. Love makes her think she can go to the prom and everything will be ok. The only way we can say go to the prom is if those superpowers have engaged us. That was important that there was a tragic inevitability to what was going to happen when we see those powers play out.

It was also important is that I went back and gave it a sense of justice. Not to say DePalma didn't have it because his movie is brilliant--I wanted you to fall madly in love with Carrie, identify with her need for love and acceptance, because you want her to succeed at prom. But you understood why Chris was pissed off, everyone was helping Carrie. You understood why she was going to play that prank. When Carrie gets there, it's important that she doesn't have mastery over the superpowers, so that they are leaking out beyond her control. It's a story about justice; it's a story about revenge. It gives you permission to enjoy it. We all love a good revenge story.

WaH: I love that you mentioned the superhero origin because that was something I zeroed in on in the press notes. I felt like your characterization of Carrie was vastly different. She seemed like she had much more agency and was very active in the process of discovering her powers. Was that purposeful?

KP: Completely. I feel very strongly that a great protagonist is somebody with a huge need--in Carrie's case, love and acceptance. That need is universal, something we can connect to. And that the character is completely active in satisfying that need. It's the most important thing. Carrie is trying to get love and acceptance at school and home and she might fail. When she discovers those powers, she's going to play with them. And even if she can't master them, we are going to see her try. You never want your character to be passive. You want the satisfaction of their quest--and the success and failure of that is how the story moves forward.

WaH: I read an interview you did earlier this year with The Advocate, and you mentioned that you saw King's Carrie as a feminist text. Why did you interpret it in this way?

KP: It's a story about a mother and daughter--two women relating to one another. Chris and Sue are best friends and they perpetrate something on Carrie. As a result of what they've done, they feel guilty and Sue takes on the role of getting rid of her guilt by doing the "charitable" thing for Carrie. What does Chris do--she's a very privileged girl who is used to being queen bee. When her best friend, father, principal and the teacher take in the disempowered, she gets enraged. She feels like she's losing power.

Carrie has two moms--Ms. Jesjardin at school and her mom at home. Carrie is the central character. With the period comes the power. How many movies have a period? How many movies even talk about periods?

It's essentially a story about looking at the disempowered and trying to give them power. In the same way, it's a queer story--how do the disempowered gain power. Why don't they have power? There are a ton of scenes that pass the Bechdel Test. I would say we top it. Not only because we have scenes where women are talking about anything not related to a man but we have two women, Chris and Sue, who whenever they are alone with their boyfriends, they are always talking about Carrie. I mean, they interrupt sex to talk about Carrie! It's a feminist triangle.

WaH: Carrie is your third film--why only three films so far? And how do you feel like Carrie fits in with your body of work?

KP: Well, three films for now! There's a lot more coming. Honestly, for a woman, that starts to be a record breaker. I'm going to make a lot more and hopefully women are going to make a lot more. We are going to change the tide.

I'm really proud of it because at the end of the day, I love Stephen King. He wrote such a great book--it was an honor to adapt it and put it onscreen. I think it follows very naturally from Boys Don't Cry--there's a protagonist we love, that is a misfit, someone who wants love and acceptance and are willing to do anything to get it. Brandon lives as a man; Carrie goes to prom when maybe she shouldn't. They have intense consequences. They come into great conflicts with the people around them. There are so many similarities it's amazing. But as an audience member, to me, they feel the same. They have an emotional quality--when I write and direct I like to get inside and love my characters. I love all of them. I love that mother/daughter relationship. It's intimate, complex--it's emotionally and physically violent--all the stuff I really get connected to. John and Brandon have emotional and physical violence. Carrie and Margaret have it. It's a continuation of a work and yet it's not the same movie.

WaH: What advice would you give to other women filmmakers?

KP: It's the advice I'd give to any filmmaker, if you want to make movies the way I make them and not everybody does, fall deeply in love with character and story. I give my heart to those characters. I take it on as a responsibility and then it's up to me to teach myself and become better at my craft in order to serve those characters. Every day I learn. Put my best foot forward and listen to what the brilliant Julianne Moore says about her character. Listen to what Chloe's saying about her character. Listen to what my cinematographer is saying. Be as open minded as you can. Know your craft inside and out. Be very open to the brilliant people that you hire, make it the best working environment and let the best ideas come forward. And don't have any ego, there's no place for that. It doesn't matter. Honestly, you can learn things and the work can get better and better if you create an environment where you can allow it to be better. If you do all that, you will succeed. I know you will because not enough people do that. Human beings need stories. Human beings love stories. Get better at your craft. Tell better stories. And you will do well.

It's okay to be afraid to fail but don't ever let it stop you from making art or doing anything. You want to tell a story? You don't think you are good enough. You don't know what to do? Try to do it, go out there. Put it out there. Listen to the audience. There are things in Carrie I got right; there are things I got wrong. The audience taught me and I fixed it.

People ask me, "aren't you scared of failing in such a public space?" Yes! Of course I am, but it doesn't matter. You'll fail, you'll get back up, you'll do it again, and you'll succeed. I think that's the biggest thing I would tell anybody--it doesn't matter. Nobody is keeping score except for you. For women, yes the odds are against you. Yes, the statistics are too low but so what? That's not to minimize it. But that's to acknowledge it, we want it to be better. But if you put your heart and soul into it and you are good at what you do, you'll succeed. And have fun! I think the more fun you have and the more you love it, if you put in what you want it'll come through.

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