February 14, 2022

Kimberly Peirce Breaks It Down For You

Written by Janet Harvey, SOA Writing ‘98   


In both her work and her life, director Kimberly Peirce SOA Film '96 defies stereotype and speaks from the heart. Her debut feature, BOYS DON'T CRY, drew comparisons to BADLANDS and IN COLD BLOOD for its stark, achingly honest portrayal of murdered teen Brandon Teena — and incidentally, won a shelf full of awards including two Golden Globes and an Oscar for its two young stars, Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny. 

KP: First of all, I chose Columbia because there was an emphasis on writing and working with actors, and I think both are completely essential to directing. The more you can write, the more you can see yourself re-written, the more times you can see your writing acted out by actors, that's invaluable. Because in that process, you are learning how dramatic structure works and learning how to see and hear it at work. You're seeing what a good story is. Story and character are really at the heart of everything.


I think that emphasis at Columbia is dead-on, and that's what I would encourage anybody who is considering the program to think about: make sure you protect the writing and the acting. You can take directing classes, but for me, directing classes only helped in tandem with writing and acting classes. Any time you take classes from someone who knows what they're doing, you're going to pick up something, but there's only so much someone can tell you about how they have directed something before you have to learn by doing it yourself. There's the form of it, but really it's all about understanding the mechanics of story and how emotions and story work, and how to dramatize things, both in scene and performance.


JH: So was that your first experience working with actors?


KP: Actually, it was. I really didn't think it would be that hard, because I had looked at movies, and I understood them emotionally really well. But Lenore [DeKoven]'s method was like learning another language. You can have all this awareness of human behavior, which is really important, but to be able to take the ideas and the stories that you have in your head, get them on paper, and communicate them to an actor and a crew to reproduce them onscreen, you have to learn to break it down into parts. I loved storytelling and great narrative films, and Columbia made me understand how to reproduce that.


JH: It sounds like you work a lot with improvisation as well.


KP: I do. A lot of my filmmaking comes from observing human behavior. I've been constantly observing it ever since I was a kid. Either recording it - I would carry tape recorders around - or writing things down verbatim. I like to retell stories verbatim, or retell them in new ways to figure out how they work. So I'm always in the process of recording and improvising material.


One way I've learned how to write is by listening to real conversations and seeing how people tell stories and jokes. Then during the rehearsal process I take the core of the scene and let the actors improv within it. I learn more about the scene — what sounds right, what works better rhythmically, a better turn of phrase, whether there's a weakness in the scene. I use rehearsal and improv to really find the heart of the scene, and if we find better language, I use that.


JH: Is it a long or short rehearsal process?


KP: It's never long enough for me, because you never have enough money or time to rehearse everything you want. It's one of the great challenges of filmmaking. Unfortunately everything is so expensive, chances are I'm still casting parts while I'm location scouting and prepping. I've never had the privilege of having it all complete and then going to rehearse for a few weeks. I've pretty much only gotten four or five days to rehearse an entire movie.


You're not going to be able to rehearse every scene. You just don't physically have the time so you have to very systematically figure out, what are the most important scenes and the most important emotions you and the actors need to explore before shooting. If you get these scenes somewhat working, then you can draw from that work when trying to get the others working.


Whenever I can, I rehearse in the location we are going to shoot in. It's a rare privilege, as it means days before shooting that scene, you have to have found the location and locked it down. If it's an action sequence I let the actors find their positions, try out the scene and from that do a loose blocking. I videotape it to the extent I can with multiple cameras, then do a precut beforehand to see which angles work best.


JH: Do you find that you are offered projects, or that people make assumptions about you, because you are a female director? Or do you find yourself fielding questions based on your gender? I just remember seeing an interview with you where you said "I like blowing things up..." and I was like "Hey that's awesome, I like blowing things up too!"


KP: I want to use the terms masculine and feminine very carefully — I would say that I have what most people would probably perceive as a "masculine" sensibility, simply because the movies I am drawn to and the movies I like are very dramatic, with strong characters, who have strong drives and who meet their needs with strong actions — they're muscular, action oriented, and terse. They're also mostly directed by men, but that's generally because men are the ones who have been making the majority of the films, not because women can't or don't want to make those types of films.


So in terms of what I get offered, no, I don't think that it's along what you would call "female" lines. And I think that is because BOYS DON'T CRY and STOP - LOSS had such a non-"female" sensibility. That doesn't mean reality female or reality male, that's just about perception. But then again, I don't think anyone is thinking, "Oh, we have a really ‘girly' film, we should go to Kim."


JH: Right.


KP: So I don't feel like I am being pigeonholed in terms of content. I do think though, if I was to be honest — and this is not something that I would have believed a few years ago — but I do believe it's harder for women. The statistics are that only 6% of features are directed by women — which is horrible, and obviously we need to change that. In the past, I would have said that I slipped by, that I'm not affected by it. Because I happen to be working, right? I'm in that 6 percent. But as time goes by I'm beginning to see it is very hard for women. I think it is a very subtle thing. I think to correct it, we need to bend over backwards and help women get the experience they need to tell their stories and get their movies made.


JH: Do you want to talk about that process, or the process of getting projects off the ground within the studio system?


KP: Well you know, the studio system has an incredibly high rate of what they call "development hell." Many, many projects are developed, for lots of money. Very few of them become movies. That's just statistically true — I don't know if it's 80, 85 percent. A filmmaker doesn't have time to develop at that ratio. We need to make movies. Ideally, you would want a one-to-one ratio. Every movie you develop, you make.


I have been through the studio development process and watched very good ideas get ruined, simply by the bureaucracy and the number of people who are making decisions that are not necessarily for the good of the project — not because they want to malign the project, but because they're not intimately involved in it.


For example, you end up selling a fantastic pitch. They say "Great, let's get the best writer," because if you don't have a good first draft, it's going to slow everything down. But then they don't get you the best writer. They get you the guy or girl who's half the price. Not that he or she couldn't be brilliant, but if the writer turns in a draft that makes them lose excitement, you're done.


Having a gift for developing material is rare. Some producers and executives, such as Scott Rudin, Donna Langley, Peter Rice, and James Shamus and Michael Hausman (who both teach at Columbia), are consistently able to turn out good movies because they understand story, character, drama and action on the level we talked about before, and they know how to develop. When you are lucky enough to have someone like that, then it's amazing to watch each draft get better than the previous one. But that is rare, and unfortunately, it can be very hard to see past a weak first draft, even if the underlying story is still strong.


KP: When I was coming off of BOYS DON'T CRY, I was very empowered to get a lot of projects set up. I didn't set up a ton of them, but I did set up a couple of things I was very passionate about and encountered some of the challenges that people face in the system.


You have talented, creative people who love creating. If I could be on a set every day of my life, or working with actors or writing, I would be. That's how most artists are, so when you meet other artists and there's this fatigue, you start thinking of ways to bypass it. Because I want to make movies.


JH: Any parting words of wisdom for students at Columbia who aspire to make it in the biz?


KP: Find out what interests you and follow it. It is the most important thing. Because that is the one thing that you have to offer that's unique and that you understand and need to understand. There can be hundreds of new film students every year, but the only thing that is going to set each of these people apart is what truly, truly moves them. For me, my work comes completely out of what moves me. That's my gyroscope, that's my emotional compass.


Everybody always says to me "Should I be schmoozing, should I be at festivals?" The funny thing is, you know, after BOYS DON'T CRY, I met everybody. But that isn't what makes you make movies, or what makes you good at making movies. What makes you any good at what you do is the depth of your curiosity, and your commitment to pursuing it.


One of the reasons I chose Columbia is because I was wanted to work with working filmmakers. And I think that curiosity, the kind that an artist has for their work, is important when dealing with young artists. I think there are certainly some people who can teach you who are not artists, and they can be fantastic. And then there are other things another artist will teach you that aren't even in the lesson plan — it's simply in the way they perceive something, or in the care that they take in pursuing their own curiosity or the way they work.


I would say there's your curiosity, your passion, your innate talent, and then there's your craft, which is the thing you are always working at. I can always get better at my craft by studying and working. What's exciting about going to film school is that you're just at the beginning of the journey.