Remaking a classic film like Brian De Palma’s Carrie from the outside looks like a pretty tall order, but for director Kimberly Peirce it seems like a no-brainer once you’re inside of the film. Peirce who has built the majority of her resume on strong dramatic films like Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss rediscovers Carrie in a way that has never been seen before. A master of getting to the root of dramatic storytelling, one could trace a thematic line from Boys Don’t Cry to Carrie, as both films deal with the underbelly of bullying and the emotional core of the victim. Although they have their differences, both films explore the physical and emotional torture that happens when someone gets knocked down. Both Brandon Teena and Carrie White are cut from the same cloth in a way, as they’re explicitly denied acceptance and love from immediate figures in their lives.
For Carrie, the most prominent figure in her life is her mother, Margaret. With Peirce’s direction, this remake delved deeper into the mother/daughter relationship, and a distinct voice emerged for a brand new perspective on an old classic.
Paste spoke with director Kimberly Peirce about the start of her fascination with Carrie and the birth of a superhero origin story.
Paste: You’re known for such significant work in drama with Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss. What was it about Carrie that appealed to you?
Kimberly Peirce: It really was the novel. I think it’s infectious. I was on a flight to Turkey—it’s an endless flight—and I ended up reading the book three times in a row. It consumes you. Carrie is so well articulated, and she has this great need for love and acceptance, and she’s up against such great obstacles because she can’t get that love and acceptance at school, and she can’t get it at home because her mother loves her deeply but is terrified about her being sexual. The mother was afraid that Carrie would reveal her own secret that she enjoyed having sex when she was younger. It’s so profound.
This girl really has no means of getting love and acceptance, finds out that she has super powers, and these super powers in a bizarre way are a means of survival. It’s like Superman or Spiderman, or really any of those guys that find that thing. It was just so engaging to me, and I read it and thought, “Wow. Regardless of another movie I would like to make this into a movie.”
Even though certainly Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss are more serious, if you look at the relationships the stakes are just as profound. It’s just clothed in something different.
Paste: The most striking element to this film was the mother/daughter relationship, especially what Julianne Moore brings to her performance.
Peirce: She’s beautiful. That was a big focus for me: How do I make this mother/daughter relationship the heart and soul of my version of the movie?
Paste: When someone like Julianne Moore signs on to a film I have to imagine that her presence opened things up for you in terms of telling that specific story.
Peirce: Any time an actor signs on, it makes something more dimensional and particularly someone as wonderful as Julianne. I really love her as a person, as an actor, as a friend—she really is “all that.” When people ask, “What is it like to work with her?” It really is amazing. She grounded it. In every frame of the movie she made that person real. Even though she’s odd, and even though she is fictional, she grounds her as a real person who invents her own religion, as someone who has this child who she’s terrified of, and as a person who loves her daughter, which is unique to our movie.
She gives it such focus because of the kind of work she does. She’s always making things very specific, and it had a profound effect on Chloe [Moretz]. She really deepened Chloe’s acting in a way that I don’t think Chloe had experienced before. The thing that was really fun about Julianne is that she’s fun and sexy, and even though Margaret isn’t necessarily sexy, Margaret is intense, and it’s still Julianne.
Paste: I was surprised to see Chloe bring out a real sense of vulnerability from her performance. How was it to direct her?
Peirce: It was great. What’s interesting is when she first came in I thought she was too confident for the role, too together, and that made sense because she’s been working since she’s five. She’s a great professional, and she’s very well raised. I said, these are all wonderful assets in her own life, but we need to find a way to put those aside because those are things that Carrie White didn’t have access to. She didn’t have the kind of acceptance that Chloe Moretz had, so I think it was kind of journey for Chloe.
Paste: It was a total 180 for Chloe just going by characters that she’s played in the past.
Peirce: Yes. It was a 180. She’s played precocious children, very smart talking, she says what you want her to say…
Peirce: Yeah. So I would say, “Now you have to be a broken young woman, so we both have to age you up but then we have to take down your confidence, so you have to go two different directions at once.”
Paste: Talking about layers—in terms of making a modernized depiction of Carrie, you really built up the aspect of the modern culture of bullying through technology, which is exactly what you see with these kids today.
Peirce: I think you’re right. You do see it all the time because I think modern technology is completely pervasive in our own lives. Whether we’re going to do it on this phone call or whether we’re going to do it after this phone call, we’re going to check our phones, our iPads, and we’re probably going to take a selfie, we’re going to upload it, and it’s going to get downloaded, and those are just parts of all of our lives. It was such an inherent part of the story, and it worked so well with the notion of these kids and their narcissism, and the bullying, and the exposure of the bullying.
Paste: Did you go back to different high schools and research that specific culture of bullying?
Peirce: I did go back to high school. I spoke with principals, teachers, and a bunch of kids. I talked to kids who have been bullied, and I talked to their parents. It was just heartbreaking and fascinating, and then I did a lot of research online, and unfortunately came across a lot of heartbreaking stories of kids who are being bullied for all kinds of reasons, whether it’s an Irish girl that comes over, and she’s a little too beautiful, and the boys like her, and the girls get mad at her, or if it’s a kid who’s more of a misfit. These kids are also hurting themselves as a result of it, so it’s very prevalent and it’s very powerful.
Paste: For me, everything builds to that third act in Carrie. Except now you have the violent culture that unfortunately exists in our school system. Were you hesitant to show that violence and to go there in this day and age?
Peirce: Yes, absolutely. As a filmmaker, one has to be aware of the times that you’re making your work in. I was very aware of the violence in schools and very aware that I was going to show violence, and I wanted to be very careful that you were inside of the violence and inside of Carrie, and that you never get detached from her.
One of the ways that I worked on that was to make it a superhero origin story. She discovers she has powers, she explores those powers, and she doesn’t want to do harm with them, but she doesn’t have control. It was really important to me that when she walked into that prom, she didn’t have control of her powers because I didn’t want you to think, “Oh that’s okay if they make fun of her, she’ll just pull out her powers, and she’ll just do whatever she wants.” You had to not know what was going to happen if something happened to her. She had to not know. I had her try to leave the prom. She’s not being monovalent, the powers leak out and she goes after the people that did her wrong. It’s a culprit narrative. It is a revenge story, and there is violence, but you’re supposed to enjoy the violence, and my job as a director is how do I get you inside the violence and not feeling like well, this is an ugly thing, this is bad.
Paste: I reveled in it.
Peirce: That’s great, and that was a lot through editing. The first few cuts it wasn’t totally working, and then we would go back and the third, fourth, and fifth screenings, people would say, “I loved the prom.” Like you said, you reveled in it. Once they started being inside of the violence, it was fun. You have to direct, shape, and write, to get to the point where the violence was enjoyable, otherwise it could be ugly.
Paste: Switching gears a bit, you have a long-developing film with Judd Apatow called Butch Academy. Can you talk about what we can expect?
Peirce: I can just say that I’m madly in love with Butch Academy. I really want to tell these stories of these charming, charismatic, sexual butches, their relationships with the femmes that they love and the friendships they have with their straight guys. It’s time for me to make this movie, and I’m definitely trying to get it ready.
Carrie is currently out on Blu-ray and DVD. It most recently won the People’s Choice Award for Best Horror Movie.