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Dustin Lance Black on Virginia, Mitt Romney, and Recutting His Movie at the Last Minute

Dustin Lance Black. Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for Dustin Lance Black. For starters, his directorial debut, Virginia, is finally hitting theaters, after a postproduction process that involved him dramatically recutting the film after a critically blasted Toronto Film Festival premiere (more on that later). But this also happens to be just a few days after President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage, an issue for which Black has been actively organizing for years now. And of course there’s the whole Mitt Romney issue — Black was raised Mormon, and still has Mormon family he’s close to. (He’s also written for Big Love.) So it’s understandable that when we start our chat he admits to being simultaneously wired, overjoyed, and rather exhausted. “I’m overcaffeinated right now,” he says. “I was out last night drinking, celebrating the movie. My mom just sent me pictures, and I want to see if I look like crap or not.”

This is good news, by the way, that Mom is onboard with the movie. Black has become something of a biopic specialist (he won an Oscar for writing Milk, and he also wrote last year’s J. Edgar), but Virginia is a biography of a different kind: The dreamy, tonally offbeat tale of a mentally troubled woman (Jennifer Connelly), her sadomasochistic affair with a local Mormon sheriff/politician (Ed Harris), and her dedication to her teenage son, is based on the writer-director’s experiences growing up in the South. So, what does his mom think of Virginia? “She loves it! She always loved the script,” he says. “But when she saw the film at Toronto, she said the same thing she said after certain episodes of Big Love: ‘Do you really have to share everything that went on in our family with the whole world?’ And my response to her is always, ‘As long as we don’t tell them which specific episodes come from us, no one but us is going to know.’” Black spoke to us about Virginia, gay marriage, Mormonism, and what it feels like to recut your own film.

What possessed you to make a movie about yourself, after writing screenplays about these big, important figures?
I think of the biopics I’ve written as exploring a more grown-up side of myself, through other characters’ lives. But this one is more personal, and I actually wrote it eight years ago, before those other films. Years ago, I would tell people the story of my childhood — you know how it is in L.A., you go out to a bar and have whisky and compare childhood traumas — and I’d talk about growing up in the South in a military Mormon household with a single parent who was paralyzed due to polio, and about this one family member who came to take care of us who suffers from the same kind of schizophrenia that Virginia suffers from. I’d get these long faces from these Angelenos saying, “Oh, you poor thing, I’m so sorry.” And I’d say, “Don’t worry, the Southern reaction to trauma is to wear it like a badge of honor.” We celebrate it, and we come up with an alternate narrative, we come up with a dream. 

You actually recut the film after your premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, of your own volition. When did you know you had to change it?
Well, we never felt we had enough time in the editing room, unlike Milk or even Big Love. We didn’t even have time to watch it with an audience. We showed it to friends and family — which I’m now thinking is a terrible idea, because they’re always going to say they love it and that’s not very helpful. And although the audiences in Toronto were very supportive, just watching the film through their eyes, I felt like I was watching a film that didn’t know if it was a drama or a comedy, until maybe about an hour in. For me, that was too late in the film. And for the critics, that was definitely too late in the film. And I got beaten up by critics, in some ways deservedly so. So I went to my producer Christine Vachon and I said, “We have to cut this thing.” It was tough, because we had distribution offers, and people said, “If you don’t take them now, these will go away.” So it was a bit of a fight. I had to pony up some of the money for the reedit.

Did other directors think you were crazy for doing this, recutting your film in the wake of bad reviews?
Not really, because I started the conversation with what I wanted to change. There were scenes we’d cut that I felt needed to go back in. It was really a sense of going back to the film it always wanted to be. I did call up Gus Van Sant, and he told me a story about recutting a film [Even Cowgirls Get the Blues] that didn’t go well, and gave me some advice about what to watch out for.

The thing that really made the difference was me being introduced to Beatrice [Sisul], my new editor. She liked the film but agreed there were certain problems with it, and she asked to see the script. After she read it, she said, “I love this. I see now why people signed on to do this project. Is there any way we can get back to this?” I really love and admire my other editor, but it became increasingly clear that I needed someone to make me feel confident, a real creative partner. Now I understand why directors so often work with the same editor. She said, “Just give me a couple of weeks with this,” and she took it and after I came back, she had something that was so much closer to what I had in mind, and so much closer to what the actors must have been thinking they were signing up for. It was much simpler. And we worked for two more weeks to make it even simpler, to make it more tonally cohesive. I think the film works so much better now. I’m really pleased that I’m finally hearing much nicer things about it. It’s a nice change!

It’s funny that the film has taken so long to get made and get released, because there’s a scene where Ed Harris, playing a Mormon politician, recites “America the Beautiful,” and it’s hard not to think you’re taking a shot at Mitt Romney, who was doing the same thing on the campaign trail a few months ago.
It’s so strange. It’s found its parallel in real life, but if you’re being honest about such things you figure it probably would have found its parallels in any time. At one point when I was shooting, the whole John Edwards thing was blowing up, and people were saying, “Oh my goodness, it’s about John Edwards!” And now, here we are, and it’s taken a couple of years for it to come out, and now we look like we’re targeting Mitt Romney.

Speaking of politicians, you’ve written two biopics: One, Milk, is about a very out gay politician, and the other, J. Edgar, is about an extremely closeted gay politician. What kinds of similarities did you find between these two seemingly very different characters?
Yeah, the two films are kind of mirror-images of each other, aren’t they? Other than the fact that they were gay men growing up in a time when it wasn’t considered okay, I think you see that being closeted is the worst thing you can do to yourself. One chose to do that his whole life and he became monstrous. The other chose to come out, and it was liberating. When I got the deal to do J. Edgar, which was really the brainchild of Brian Grazer, Milk hadn’t come out yet. We had just completed principal photography, and it was still basically this little film where we just really hoped someone would see it. I mean, yeah, we had Gus Van Sant, and we had Sean Penn, but you just don’t know how these things are going to play when you haven’t seen an edit or anything. And I always think things are going to turn out horribly. So when I got the J. Edgar job, I thought, Maybe I can address these issues from a different angle. So once I’d done the research and felt confident that J. Edgar Hoover was a gay man, then I set out to write a cautionary tale, and it turned out to be very much the mirror of Milk.

Which are you getting asked about more this week: Mormonism or gay marriage?
Both! [Laughs.] I find myself in the strangest position since Proposition 8 happened. I’m a gay activist who grew up Mormon. On the one hand I love it, because I’ve been working with the Mormon Church to try and make them more accepting of gay and lesbian people, and we’ve made a lot of progress. Unfortunately, their candidate for president doesn’t seem to be making as much progress as they are. I have Mormon family and he’s to the right of them, for sure. I took a lot of heat a little while ago for saying in The Hollywood Reporter that we might want to take our support away from [Obama] if he doesn’t finish his “evolution” on the issue. It was a tough stance — an activist stance.

So, what’s your response to his comments last week in support of gay marriage?
“Thank you!” He acted sooner and more decisively than I ever thought he would before the election. People become skeptical and think that this is all politics. For me, from my perspective, this was no political slam dunk. I feel I can say with certainty, that there are young people alive today who will have self-esteem, may even survive their teens, because of what the president did. You have to not be afraid to ask for something really big — Harvey Milk said you can never ask for crumbs, because that’s exactly what you’ll get.

I find Andrew Sullivan’s take on this interesting. The notion that Republicans shouldn’t be afraid of this because it’s actually a conservative value as well, the idea of marriage.
When we built the case for marriage equality, the thing we were most excited about was the fact that we had [former Reagan solicitor general] Ted Olson on our side, who wrote the piece “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” And I don’t know if you saw this leaked memo recently, but it basically quotes that idea back at us, that it’s time for Republicans to start considering the fact that this is a conservative issue. It was so heartening to read that, because that says to me that this is becoming a real civil rights issue. It can’t be a real, true civil rights issue until it’s taken out of the red-blue divide. And we’re reaching that moment — where both sides can agree, because each side can find their own values in it. Unfortunately, it’s coming at a time when there’s a presidential election coming up, and their candidate is more to the right than George W. Bush!

Dustin Lance Black Agreed With Virginia Critics