Dustin Lance Black is best known for writing politically charged biopics like Milk (which won him the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2009) and most recently, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. The ex-Mormon was also a staff writer for the first three seasons of Big Love, a gig he got in part by submitting a script based on his childhood growing up poor in Texas with a disabled mother who required more care than she could give. That script is the source of his newest film, Virginia (out May 18), which he also directed. Black recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about his first impression of Virginia star Jennifer Connelly, the challenges of writing biopics vs. narrative films, and the changes he made after the film was poorly received at the Toronto Film Festival.
The A.V. Club: You do a lot of research by interviewing people when you’re writing a biopic. How was the process different for you with Virginia, since it’s based on your own experiences growing up?
Dustin Lance Black: I kind of didn’t need to do that much. I did research in the schizophrenia department because I wanted to make sure—even though I have a family member who has the same condition and at the same level. I didn’t know the science behind it, and I really wanted to understand it better, so I did record an interview or two with both a clinical psychologist who specializes in it at Cal State Northridge and a couple of people who have the condition who were willing to talk, which was surprising. And then I took Jennifer there as well. She met with this professor who was lovely and who would act out the different levels of schizophrenia. It was lovely to watch this professor acting in front of Jennifer, and we were just giggling ’cause she was so good. But that was really it. ’Cause the rest of it is just pulling from my own…
AVC: How much of Jennifer Connelly’s character is based on your mom?
DLB: You know, my mom is disabled in a different way. She had polio, so she’s paralyzed. It’s an algorithm of her and this other family member that raised me who had that brand of schizophrenia. It’s based on the idea of all of that, which is, I grew up in the South. I grew up Mormon. I grew up very, very poor with a mother who needed more care than we did, oftentimes. And so the caretaker relationship was a bit different. I would tell that story especially when, you know, you’re with new friends and you’re a little drunk and you’re in a bar and you start telling your life story. You start trying to out-trauma each other. [Laughs.] And often I would win. They would look at me with, like, real compassion and pity. Then I would just laugh and say, “You don’t get it at all; we were Southern. We wear this stuff as a badge of honor. It’s like, ‘This is who I am. This is what I went through.’” In fact, you know, I think what it makes you do is become more aspirational, dream bigger, and do more outlandish things to survive. In the South, you’re kind of celebrated for being that bigger dreamer, being a bit more aspirational, and being a bit more of a character for having had that trauma. Tennessee Williams is the master of bringing that to life. I was just so curious. I thought, “Wow, I would really like to bring this to life. This situation.”
AVC: And one of the main themes in Virginia is that of the American Dream and how hard it is to achieve. Was that on your mind at all when writing?
DLB: Yeah, because it’s what we have. It’s what we have when we’re down and out. We have our dreams; that’s all we have. We’re in that time right now. It’s interesting that this is coming out now, after eight years. It’s coming out at a time when people are forced to dream again, and to live in their dreams again. People are down on their luck. In fact, we have a Mormon running for public office. So it’s all sort of playing out in this very strange way. What better people to bring to life this idea that in tough times, our dreams are our salvation, but a Mormon guy who’s living his whole life for the afterlife? And to a lot of us, that afterlife sounds like a pretty wild dream. A planet and your own creatures, your heaven-children and heaven-wives—and the schizophrenic is willing to buy into it, believe it, and celebrate it. We have these two ultimate dreamers who absolutely believe their dream, for different reasons. I think that’s the place we find ourselves in today.
AVC: And they’re both living in a warped reality of sorts.
DLB: I would say so. That was my experience growing up with this one family member. If you’re willing to buy into the delusion, you can get along with him fine and have a lovely relationship. You would just have to kind of sign off and accept it, and then they would keep you in their fold. It was a very warm place to be, so that’s what I wanted the film to feel like. You come into the film from the perspective of Virginia. You’re being welcomed into this world of a woman who’s schizophrenic and has some delusional beliefs in a man who also has what a lot of people would call delusional beliefs. [Laughs.] You’re being invited in, and I wanted the film to feel like you were also there in terms of color and light and the way it was made. I hope you feel like you’re living a little bit in her mind.
AVC: The narration by Connelly’s character does have a fairytale aspect. She’s been involved with the project for a number of years, right?
DLB: Yeah. She’s been with it for about five years. I wrote this about eight years ago, and it helped get me the job on Big Love, but then I was doing Big Love and I was busy. Then I took a break from Big Love, or there was a break—I don’t know if it was the writers’ strike, or what was going on—but that’s when I was introduced to Jennifer. I was just like a baby TV writer at the time. I met her out here in New York at the Bowery Hotel restaurant. I walked in, and she was so gorgeous. Even as a gay guy, I was like, “Oh, man. Maybe I’m a little bit heterosexual after all.” [Laughs.] Which isn’t true.
AVC: She’s very attractive.
DLB: She’s very attractive, and so winning. And that was the thing—she’s disarming, funny, vibrant, and a little irreverent. I was like, “Where has this Jennifer Connelly been? Can we bring this to screen?” And she said, “Yes,” and she was in. We started working to put it together, but in the meantime, the spec script for Milk caught fire. Then it was another two-year break.
AVC: When you first wrote the script for this, was it just for yourself?
DLB: This was very much for myself, and then the people at Big Love were asking for sample scripts. I sent them this and Pedro. Now both of which are made. They liked those a lot, and they loved the fact that I had grown up Mormon, because they needed that on the show. That’s how I got that job.
AVC: Were you referencing a lot of moments that you experienced growing up when you were writing for the show?
DLB: Mmhmm. It’s funny. My mom’s response to both this film and Big Love was, “Do you have to share everything that happened when you were all growing up together?” [Laughs.] “Do you have to tell them that?” And I said, “As long as you don’t tell anyone, they’re not gonna know where this is coming from.” But that’s what we’re supposed to do as writers. Woody Allen’s the best at it. But, you know, bringing this sort of fictionalized version of yourself to screen, it’s hopefully specific enough in the particulars that it becomes universal.
AVC: Is it painful for you to write when it’s so personal?
DLB: It’s always painful to write. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do. It’s lonely and introspective. Even when you’re writing comedy, it’s sort of lonely and introspective even with this, which has a more bumped kind of fun Woody Allen tone. You still want to be honest. And if you’re going to be honest, you’d better be digging into things that might be uncomfortable. Even if you’re doing a biopic or true story, you’re still drawing on your own experience as a human being and investigating what it would mean to be a human being in that situation.
AVC: Is one easier or harder for you?
DLB: The biopics take a lot more time. They are more work-intensive, because there is, for me at least—I’m not comfortable just going with the conclusions of another author, even if it’s based on something—I’m going to find out for myself. It’s usually a year of just interviews every few days, transcription and hunting down more sources. That’s tough, and then what’s very difficult with a biopic is taking all of that information and trying to figure out how to bend it in a way that it fits into two hours without snapping it, and without having it lose control. That’s really difficult. Then objectivity is a challenge, because you know the real story, and you’re so married to the real people and their real stories. You have to condense and telescope a story. There’s all those challenges, and it’s tough to remain objective, ’cause you fall in love.
AVC: Do you feel a responsibility to the people you’re writing about, to tell their story?
DLB: Yeah, I feel a responsibility to the truth. If I’m going to put in front of you “based on a true story,” I feel a responsibility to the truth. I wouldn’t take the job unless I felt I could somehow build it in a way that was also dramatic and moving, but with a fictional piece, you don’t have all of that. There is a freedom. It’s funny, because sometimes you’re doing a deal with a studio and they’re like, “Well, this is based on a true story, so he’s already got a lot of the work done. We can pay him less.” I’m like, “Wow, if you really knew.” Nowadays, when I pitch fictional stuff, I say, “Well, you know, I’m gonna have to come up with this from scratch, so you’re going to have to pay me more. [Laughs.] In a way, fictional stuff is less work, but none of it is ever easy. Once you sit there and you try to write, it’s never easy.
AVC: In Virginia, there’s such a fine line between comedy and drama. One minute it’s hysterical, and the next, it’s heartbreaking. Were you conscious of the shifts in tone when you were writing?
DLB: Yeah, I was aware of it, because that felt very true to my experience. When you’re growing up in dire circumstances, you find yourself laughing a lot because things are ridiculous—the situations feel ridiculous, and the characters are extreme. There’s a rawness to the truth that often becomes comedy. It’s often we laugh the hardest at the jokes that feel really true and raw. It is a fine line, and certainly the first cut of it that aired in Toronto was not walking the line terrifically well, which is why we put it back in the editing room.
AVC: What was changed?
DLB: There used to be a lot more narration that we added in post, and the narration was rather dramatic. In the beginning of the film, it gave too much away, and also set up the audience, I think, to be in the frame of mind to expect realism. It was all supposed to be real. Then all of the sudden, these heightened moments start happening, and you’re like, “What the hell is that? That doesn’t fit in the movie I’ve set up to see.” It was really bringing in a new editor [Beatrice Sisul] after Toronto and her saying, “Can you please just get back to the script that everyone loved? Get rid of all this stuff—these things you created, this voiceover and these moments you created, probably out of insecurity, and let’s get back to what you meant to do in the first place.”
AVC: There are so many wonderfully heightened moments. Some of the best are with the sheriff and all of the S&M stuff he’s into. It seems like that’s even the most humanizing part of his character. Was that something you had in mind when you were writing it?
DLB: Yeah. God, I can’t name names, but I grew up in a conservative Mormon family, surrounded by conservative Mormon men. I can’t tell you how many, uh, little stories would slip out about the kinky stuff going on. You just have to look at some of the statistics of where divorce is most prevalent and cheating is most prevalent. It’s in these sort of conservative areas. I think when you tell people that it’s absolutely forbidden to do anything, they’re going to find ways to do it. and to do it in the extreme. That said, I also didn’t want to bump character. I mean, he’s still a Mormon guy, and he’s kind of a folksy Mormon guy. When they’re going to do their S&M, they’re probably laughing their way through it. [Laughs.] Like, you know what I mean?
AVC: There’s definitely a playful quality. Most times when you see kink in films, the characters are tortured and evil. But these are just regular people having fun.
DLB: Yeah, regular people trying some stuff out. [Laughs.] Exploring their dreams, you know. But in the end, it’s a character thing. They should still be themselves, and that’s what makes it funny. But you know, I’m not making this stuff up; this is all from experience.