Dustin Lance Black's scripts are always somewhat personal. His stint writing for HBO's Big Love wasn't just assigned to him because of his skill with dialogue: he was raised Mormon in the south, and sees the social effect of sexuality in a religion that's as insular as it is family focused. His last two scripts were biographies about important men with sexualities that defined them: Milk starred Sean Penn as the America's first openly gay politician and J. Edgar starred Leonardo DiCaprio as the potentially closeted FBI founder and rumored cross dresser. His upcoming projects only get bigger: he's preparing to shoot Barefoot Bandit at Fox and researching to write the Ron Howard/Brian Grazer adaptation of non-fiction book Under the Banner of Heaven, the story of a family murder committed by Mormons extremist brothers.
Unlike most debuts, Black's has an embarrassment of casting riches. Jennifer Connolly plays the schizophrenic title character, a single mother who loves her son (and the married town Sheriff, Ed Harris) but lacks the ability to take care of herself. She falls in line with the strangely glamorous and occasionally comical mad-mother so prevalent in southern literature, and so beloved in queer anecdote. The overlap makes this story a sincere dovetailing of genres, but it's hard to talk influences when it's all so biographical. Black spoke to us about the very-American lure of the Mormon afterlife, the joy of southern family and why gays glamorize their troubled mothers. True story! Read on...
While it sounds like Virginia is your story it's also consistent with a genre: Gay storytelling LOVES glamorous and disabled mothers.
That's also consistent with my life. My mother was disabled from polio. For a long time it was just her and her 3 boys and we had to take care of her. There's a different disability in this film but the same dynamic. My mom did all she could to make sure we didn't know we were poor. We were on church assistance—LDS (Latter Day Saints) doesn't like its members to be on government assistance. She was paralyzed by polio, on crutches, working 12 hours a day and driving to discount stores to get the things she thought would make us feel equal at school. Here you have a mother with a disability who wants more out of her life—she wants the joys other people have and doesn't quite know how to do that but is trying her best. In that way it's very thematically autobiographical. My mother wasn't schizophrenic—that's based much more on another family member who helped raise us. I loved her. If you bought into her delusions it was a very safe and lovely place to be and it wasn't until I was much older I was told I shouldn't believe all she said. I was alarmed by that because I thought she was the most magical person, just the most ideal adult in the world-childlike in her ways but so comforting.
You make it sound like the south has a different orientation to illness.
There's something in the south where we don't pity the disabled as much. This is my experience, of course. You figure out how to incorporate them and work with people so everyone's included. Some of this isn't actually that healthy, like when it involves denial. Like, when you're not going to turn a person in to Child Protection Services because you want to pretend everything is ok.
That's very pack oriented.
It's family oriented but cliquish and our neighborhoods are cliquish. You see that in all the best southern plays—I think of Steel Magnolias—and it seems like the more trouble there is in the area or in the family, the more extreme their dreams are, and the more exaggerated their sense of self; Tennessee Williams is the master of that.
And Virginia's costumes...they were actually costumes—she didn't just dress, she dressed as someone else. Were those designed to signal "crazy?"
It's funny, costume designer Danny Glicker brought me the sparkly hoodie she wore in that scene-
The one where she says, "we have to have a talk, I'm thinking the Sizzlers."
Yes! So Danny and I both went "that's completely right and I know exactly the yard sale back home she got that from, but can we do it?" Jennifer (Connolly) said, "Let me try that on" and we all said, "Let's give it a shot it's...brave."
That's hilarious. She had lots of dresses that look okay from one direction but the light hits them and you think, "She shouldn't go outside in that."
Ha! He'll love to hear that. I mean...I don't know how Danny feels about it, I should check back in with him.
Virginia's delusions and costumes, seems to rhyme with drag.
It's interesting you call it drag, it's costuming for sure.
Well, it's not drag like what Toby Jones does in one scene but it's still attire that alters identity.
It's about rising above your station and about this idea that you're better than your situation. That's very southern. It's also very Mormon. There's a line in the film where Ed (Harris) says to Jennifer "This life is but a grain of sand in time; it's the next life that counts," and the idea is we're suffering through this test to become our better selves. Some of the promises I heard [in the Mormon Church] were that you'd have a perfect body and a perfect family on your perfect planet. Knowing that you're better than your circumstances is crucial in southern poverty and to Mormonism. Also, it's why Virginia finds the Sheriff's theory of the afterlife so alluring and real. Not to give away all my mother's secrets, but my mother was paralyzed by polio and it was in a children's church that she met her first Mormon missionary—those promises sounded lovely and she converted.
It's interesting we're having this Mormon moment right now, because the religion has one of the grandest reward systems and afterlife promises of any faith and during this recession, when people are having such a hard time paying the bills and looking for hope that they find this church with the most American of rewards system—it's easy to see why Mormonism is having its moment in the sun.
Why do you characterize it as American?
It's the biggest, fastest growing American born religion; the only other I can think of is Scientology. It was born here, created with ideals of hard work, family first, self-reliance—it calls on all of these American ideals that sprang from the time the religion was created 150 years ago. I think the reward system of the religion is American in spirit. It's all about owning property, having kids, caring for your offspring, but in this case it's big piece of land—a planet—more offspring and more wives to make offspring with.
How does LDS see Virginia? Acceptance? Rejection? Is anyone mad?
I don't know. I should ask. I still work closely with the church on LGBT issues, to be more accepting of LGBT youth and get their teen suicide numbers down—rates are high in Utah. I'm not religiously active anymore, though I have friends and family there. I don't know, but I think they won't be pleased. It's a very private religion and it doesn't like being discussed, especially in a black comedy. It's not an attack of the church or its principles, I'm just talking about my experience growing up so there's nothing in there I had to research, it was all about what I saw and heard as a kid.
Your cast is a parade of high pedigree actors—how did those stars sign on?
It was before Milk, before I was close with Gus (Van Sant) that I met with Jennifer in NY at the Bowery Hotel's restaurant. She read and loved the script and at this point just had faith in this kid on a TV show in California. I then got wrapped up in the tornado that was Milk—my feet didn't hit the ground again for a year or two. At that point I met with Ed Harris and he already has such a great relationship with Jennifer so that was a natural fit. And I started adding on from there Toby (Jones), Emma (Roberts), Carrie (Preston). It added on for years—I wrote this so long ago. And Gus came on because he was a good friend and it helped with financing. It helps selling some foreign markets. And he did come to the set and help out and we chatted about some creative—watched film and talk about cuts—but I can't say enough about Jennifer. She was a partner with me well before anyone gave a damn about who I was. She was there through thick and thin, and was a great ally. It was a tough production. We were slammed with the worst fall in Michigan history. The sky was grey and sleet was falling and it was supposed to be Virginia in the summer. I was used to doing things with budgets and we had to just go with it. In one scene, Jennifer's walking with her son at night and it's 29 degrees outside and she's wearing a summer dress.
Virginia has plastic bottles full of colored water all over her house.
That's about control. Jennifer and I would meet with this psychologist to learn about this kind of functional childlike schizophrenia that has one or two key delusions—it's what Virginia had. How that schizophrenia relates to the more severe kinds is people with that kind have a hard time filtering out one sound over another. If people have too many ambient sounds they can't focus on one sound around them. In the most extreme conditions they cover their ears and rock back and forth. Sound is the most difficult stimuli to filter and focus and control. What they can control often is color and light and you'll see that in the way they decorate things. I had that in my mind in terns of design and we were location scouting and we came across this old home with a stained glass window and I got closer and saw it was actually old bottles with food coloring in them and there were three or four lined up next to each other. I thought, "Virginia can afford this!" And she can control and change the color of her environment as she needs to. It's whimsical and fits her and it leads me to my color theories but for her as a character it's about finding the stimulus she could control and creating an environment that's fits her moment. With them she could build her heavenly universe in her house. What did you think of it?
Well, it looked like the tradition of hanging bottles off trees in the swamps, but it also seemed like a veil-like —there's something taking up space in the bookshelves but nothing of substance.
A veil is a good word for it because you have to walk through the veils to get into heaven, but it's this idea of creating otherworldly, heavenly space and that's something she can control and handle. To her it must be like heaven. And she can change it when that moment changes.
Virginia had a kind of long trip from fest to screen.
This one's been quite a journey. I wrote the script around the time I was doing Big Love, so that's eight years ago, and finally I was casting it on the break between Big Love and Milk. We shot it after Milk, so that's 3 years ago. It was very small budget and there were post issues and TIFF wasn't the warmest opening so getting it to this point has been a while. Many films have come and gone but Virginia's always been there.
That's an eerie way to put it.
I guess it sounds eerie. It was one of the scripts I used as a sample to get the Big Love job. It was really about my experience growing up in the south as a Mormon and how the aspirational nature of the Mormon afterlife matches up with the aspiration life of growing up poor and southern; they share a dreamy quality. Southerners in poverty dream a good bit more than folks from other regions who are broke and certainly you get this incredible reward system afterlife from the church and it sounds great: you get your own planet, a huge family, you're never alone and you're always surrounded by people you love. There's just nothing more southern than that.