By Bill Stamets

Movie director Kimberly Peirce cites a torrent of influences ranging from Georges Melies to Kenji Mizoguchi. But when asked how her parents influenced her, she clams up. “They’re not really relevant,” she says. “I don’t have contact with my family.” Instead she talks about her arrival at the University of Chicago in 1985, where she studied English literature. “It was a good dream come true,” she says. “There are all these bookstores, all these supersmart kids. We would study all day and go dancing at night out to Smart Bar, Cabaret Metro, and Berlin. It was just such a gift. You could have all these identities.”

Inventing an identity–and finding a new family–is the central theme of first-timer Peirce’s feature film Boys Don’t Cry, which showed at the Chicago International Film Festival and opens commercially here this weekend. Based on five years of obsessive research, the movie recounts the rise and demise of Teena Brandon, a young Nebraska woman who lived and loved disguised as a man until two of her rural underclass buddies discovered her secret and raped and murdered her in 1993.

Dressed in black from head to boots and sporting dark blue nail polish and a matching wisp of blue-tinted hair, Peirce deploys phrases like “in my culture,” sounding more like a pretenure professor at U. of C. than a fledgling director on a publicity tour. To learn her craft, she improvised her own tutorial with the help of a friend who was in charge of the university’s film collection. “I started watching tons of films. He would project them for me alone in Cobb Hall.” Midway through her studies she took a two-year hiatus and went to Tokyo, where she taught English to lawyers. “They were the guys who went to the imperial university and they represented the Mafia, so they had tons of money and they were willing to pay me just to talk to them about J.D. Salinger.” She took pictures of geisha, yakuza hoods, and sumo wrestlers. Though she had started to learn a little Japanese, her sense of estrangement fit her dramatic impulses. “Just the whole idea of being an outsider–as a dramatist it’s perfect because you want to sit across the room and watch people move and try to figure out their emotions without knowing what the hell they’re saying. It’s like Keats’s ‘negative capabilities.’…You’re in a place in the unknown and it feels uncomfortable, and yet you sit with the uncomfortableness because it’s a way of finding a new path to something deeper. That’s what it takes to create.”

Peirce compares her transformation into a filmmaker to Teena turning herself into Brandon to actress Hilary Swank’s morphing into a boy for the role. “Got her a voice trainer. Got her a physical trainer. Said bind your tits, put on the pants, go out and pass like a boy and if you fail, go home and figure out what gave you away. Was your butt sticking out like a girl? So that was about the process of becoming yourself through trial and error. And that’s what a screenwriter is.” Peirce and her cowriter used the same method–they told variants of the story over and over to others until they knew what worked and what didn’t.

Once shooting started in Texas, Peirce observed another facet of her new identity as a filmmaker. “There was a part of me that came out that was rock solid, that would not bend. I was told by one person, ‘You scare people–they’re scared of crossing you,’ and I said, ‘Is that a bad thing?’ Everybody wants to bring down the director. It’s an unconscious family dynamic that is set in motion, which is ‘You’ve been elected the authority figure’–especially if you’re a girl. Everybody wants a daddy, so as much as they want to triumph over you, they appreciate it when you’re strong. It’s fascinating.”

Originally titled “Take It Like a Man,” Boys Don’t Cry bears echoes of the masculine ethos Peirce knew at home in working-class Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “The boys [in the movie] were similar to my dad and his brothers,” she notes. “They weren’t ex-convicts, but they were rough. They were ‘the Peirce boys.’ It was definitely my desire to get back in touch with the family that I had lost [that made me tell the story of] Teena and the family that she created and that destroyed her. I mean, what are we compelled by? Love, acceptance, and the need for family–nothing more basic than that. And if you’re missing any of those, then you enter into drama to re-create that. I think the search for family and being cut off from family–that’s totally what I identified in her and my love for Teena.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.