Interview with 'Virginia' Writer Dustin Lance Black

Photo Credit: Photo by Steve Granitz – © – Image courtesy
June 1st, 2012

Being a writer in Hollywood has to be one of the toughest jobs in the business and I was lucky enough to talk with one of the best out there, Dustin Lance Black.  Lance tells Movie Room Reviews all about his new movie Virginia, plus, his success as a writer with films like Milk, and J. Edgar

Nick- Hey Lance what’s going on?

Lance-  Hey Nick, where are you at?

Nick-  I am in Ohio.

Lance- Oh very good.

Nick- Close to Detroit in Toledo.

Lance-  Oh OK, I drove through there just a couple months ago coming from West Michigan we went right through there.  I stopped at the Home Depot and got a warmer blanket. 

Nick-  In Toledo you did?

Lance-  Yeah the Home Depot in Toledo.

Nick-  What did you think of Toledo?  Where you surprised at how flat it is here?

Lance-  I dug it actually.  I was ready to be out of Michigan.

Nick-  I saw that you filmed your new movie Virginia in Holland, Michigan.

Lance-  Yeah that’s true we were in Holland, Michigan which had the best tax break at the time in Michigan.  I think you got 42 cents instead of 40 cents or 38 cents back on the dollar so the producers wanted to do that.  It seemed like a great idea when I was scouting it in June, come September they had the coldest fall in history.  The leaves are turning red, there’s sleet coming, then the sleet would disappear and turn to sunshine for about an hour before rain storms, all while we were trying to recreate Virginia in the summer.  It was trying.

Nick-  Was this a couple years ago now?

Lance-  Yeah we shot this film years ago.

Nick-  Well I was just in Holland last September for a wedding of a friend of mine who’s from Holland. 

Lance-  And was it sunny and beautiful?

Nick-  Yes it was when I was there.

Lance-  Of Course! That’s what they promised and we ended up with the coldest wettest fall in West Michigan history.

Nick-  It is beautiful up there though.

Lance-  Yeah it was beautiful in June when I scouted it.  I was like this is no problem.  There are all these colonial homes, we can use the lake as the ocean, and we can do these types of things quite easily, but the story changed. 

Nick- Did you have to adapt around the environment?

Lance-  Yes.  We didn’t have very much money for this film so it wasn’t like there was a huge effects budget.  That means not being able to shoot red, orange, yellow trees and that’s all there was at a certain point.  The trees really thought it was October or November.  Then the issues we had with the rain because it was raining everyday so tarping, tarping, tarping.  Sound was also difficult.  Moving scenes inside that should have been outside and having to cut things short.  It was a weather disaster.  We ended up adding a couple days on to make up for it but when you’re doing a movie of this budget you kinda just have to roll with it.  So that’s what we did.   There is one scene in particular where Jennifer Connelly is walking at night with her son and it was 29 degrees outside and she is in this light summer dress.  It was a real testament to her abilities because I don’t think you can tell except there’s some steam coming out of the ground and she was able to focus and give this really moving performance in that scene I think.

Nick-  I love Jennifer Connelly and I was really happy when I saw she was in the movie.  There’s something about her that is amazing and I really like a lot of her films.  It’s weird in this movie though because she is blonde and I am not used to that.

Lance-  Yeah she went blonde for me.  Well you know this movie talks a lot about color and she has a kind of schizophrenia that is like a family member of mine which is functional, but they still have trouble controlling things, especially stimuli.  Sound is the most difficult to control but sometimes color and light are the easier things to control.  She would change her hair and she would fill up water bottles with food coloring just keep herself in control of the color.  That was one of the things where Jennifer and I went and visited some psychologists who described for us that level of schizophrenia and it just felt right. 

Nick-  Just from watching the previews, I don’t know if this is true or not, she seems kind of like that girl that you would meet who is really beautiful but then you get to know her and you’re like, “uh-oh.”

Lance-  Haha, yeah  but the funny thing about the “uh-oh” is that some people see the “uh-oh” and they walk away, and then there’s others where the “uh-oh” is the whole allure.  I think that’s what happens here, she ends up meeting this very conservative Mormon guy and all of the sudden he’s met this beautiful woman who is incredibly open and a bit wild.  You don’t meet a lot of open wild woman in the Mormon religion, so for him it’s rather exciting. 

Nick-  You yourself grew up Mormon right?  In Texas I think I read.

Lance-  Yeah I grew up Mormon in San Antonio Texas.  Most of my family are in Utah but we were military so we were out in Texas. 

Nick-  You wrote the movie so did that give some inspiration?

Lance-  Sure.  I wrote this movie before I wrote Big Love.

Nick-  The TV series about the Mormon family?

Lance-  Yeah the TV series.  So I wrote this some time ago and at the time I was exercising a lot of my Mormon demons either through the TV show or this script.  This to me was about the experience about growing up Mormon in the south, and how it’s different from Utah where everyone believes what you believe.  Here, this reward in the afterlife sounds rather outlandish to many people but you say it in the south, and you say it to someone like Virginia, and they just find it magical.  It has this sort of southern aspirational dream-like quality, this afterlife promise.  So that was my experience in the south growing up Mormon.

Nick-  Well you’ve written a lot of great stuff including J. Edgar and Milk, which you won an Oscar for, and now I’m really excited to see this movie.  It comes out on May 18th right? 

Lance-  Yeah it does.  In terms of my creative development, this was written before Big Love and directed around the time of Milk.  It’s just now coming out because I ended up having to re-cut the whole thing.

Nick-   I read something about how it screened at the 2010 Toronto film festival and then you took it and re-edited it, what did you do to it? 

Lance-  Well, in Toronto it wasn’t received particularly well.  It had its fans, but the detractors all seemed to agree on a few points.  I stepped away from it for a little bit and re-watched it and  thought it could be better in certain ways.  I needed to find an editor who could be a partner in re-crafting it and I did that.  I gave her the script and she really loved it and it was the script that had gotten the cast, it was the script that had gotten the financing, and she said “how about we try to get back to what this was?” I said “sure, let’s do that.”  She simplified more than anything.  Made it totally cohesive and shorter- the proper length for a film of this tone.  It was great to find that creative collaborator and to fix the things that were broken.  It’s often this antagonistic relationship between critic and filmmaker.  I actually know a lot of these critics and some of them are great filmmakers and in this case, especially where they all agreed, maybe I should listen. 

Nick-  I give you props because it’s hard to look at your work from a different perspective and see someone else’s opinions as valid.  

Lance-  It was eye opening, and in the end it’s still my film.  It was the objectivity I needed.  It’s also by the way traditionally how these films used to get made.  We don’t have the luxury of a long schedule as an independent film and this film did not have a big budget.  We don’t have test audiences, and we don’t have all these things that help you get a finished cut before you present it for the first time.  In the past, in independent cinema, you would have these distributors go and they would buy a film and they would help with the finishing funds to really get it ready for an audience.  That’s just not the way it works anymore.  It’s a much faster process and you better have it finished exactly when you first premiere it at a festival.  In a way, it’s taking an old school route to re-edit once you audition it at a festival. 

Nick-  I know you changed the name and a few other things, I don’t know exactly, other than the name.  What was the original title?

Lance-  It was called What’s Wrong with Virginia.  Partly what we did was refocus the film on the main character.  The What’s Wrong with Virginia was sort of making a comment on both the state and the character.  Here we just wanted to focus on Jennifer Connelly and her story, her character, and her performance.  That’s what the script had been anyway, but the whole thing was about focusing. 

Nick-  You’re such a prolific writer, and one thing I always wondered is when you are writing movie like this, is there a scene that you write that you especially think is going to be this memorable scene, or a line, and it turns out to not be and the one that you don’t think is going to do anything, turns out to be the one that people remember the movie by? 

Lance-  Sometimes.  Occasionally there’s a performance that brings a line to life in a way I didn’t see it before.  I think Josh Brolin did that in Milk.  There was a scene where he confronts Harvey Milk, it was a story point, but he made some choices in performance that he came in and he was absolutely drunk.  It wasn’t scripted quite like that, and it was brilliant, and we all knew it when we were shooting it and a lot of people remember that scene when they think of the film.  Every now and then, sure, there’s a line where you are certain this line is going to get a real laugh and then it’s a complete stinker.  You’re thinking that this is going to be so embarrassing and sometimes they stick out too much and they don’t feel natural.

Nick-  I’ve always wondered about that because you can't always plan for a performance and you don’t know you is going to be playing the role.  Virginia is technically a comedy right?

Lance-  Yeah it’s a black comedy.  That’s what growing up in the south as a poor kid feels like.  It’s true to my feelings about it, and that’s why it’s a lot closer to Big Love, and probably will be liked by that audience even more than the folks that have come to see the political films I have done.  It’s funny. 

Nick-  I bet it is and I can’t wait to see it.  I am excited to see Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris work together like they have done in the past.

Lance- Yeah they’ve done a lot of movies together like Pollock.  They’re great together and boy were they fantastic on the set. 

Nick-  I love seeing Ed Harris as the guy who has that secret life like he does in this movie.  He’s the conservative sheriff doing all this crazy stuff.

Lance-  And his wife Amy Madigan is playing his wife in the film he is being rather unfaithful to.  I don’t think it carries over into the real world though, haha. 

Nick-  Well it looks like a great movie Lance and I thank you so much for talking with me here at Movie Room Reviews.  I can’t wait to see it and I’m sure our audience will love it.  Is there anything else you got coming out? 

Lance-  Nothing that’s coming out.  I will probably go into production on the Barefoot Bandit next, but I am really focused right now on writing Under the Banner of Heaven for Ron Howard.  So I’ve been spending a ton of time in Utah working on that.

Nick-  Well good luck to you and I can’t wait to see Virginia, and I just saw J. Edgar for the first time recently and I thought it was great.  Thanks so much Lance.

Lance-  Alight, Go Toledo!

Nick-  That’s right!