Childhood experiences can often leave a lasting effect on the way people develop and perceive life. That’s certainly the case with Dustin Lance Black, the writer-director of the new drama ‘Virginia,’ which is now playing in select theaters. Loosely basing the screenplay on his own childhood experiences, including growing up with a handicapped mother, family members with schizophrenia and in the Mormon religion in the south, Black fearlessly showcased his untraditional upbringing in the film.
‘Virginia’ follows the title character, played by Jennifer Connelly, a single mother with schizophrenia struggling to raise her teenage son Emmett, portrayed by Harrison Gilbertson. Her long-time affair with the married, Mormon Sheriff Richard Tipton, played by Ed Harris, leads Emmett to question whether Richard is his father. After determining that Richard can’t be his father, through simple physical characteristics he learned in biology class, Emmett embarks on a romantic relationship with Richard’s daughter, Jessie, portrayed by Emma Roberts. Everyone in their small southern town wonders how long Virginia, who wants to move to San Francisco to be with her sister, can keep her life together.
Black generously took the time to sit down and talk with us about writing and directing ‘Virginia.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed why he decided to base the movie on his own childhood, and how Connelly was cast in the title role.
ShockYa (SY): You loosely based the film on your own childhood experiences. Why did you decide to write a film based on your own experiences growing up?
Dustin Lance Black (DLB): Well, I think at its best, film is a way for us all to tell our personal stories. It doesn’t mean that it has to be autobiographical.
But say ‘Big Love,’ where I started on TV, that was all based on my Mormon experiences growing up. ‘Milk’ was one of the most personal experiences that I’ll ever do, even though I wasn’t alive for most of that.
‘Virginia’ is personal as well. This is probably the most personal, in terms of my childhood. Growing up in the south, growing up as a Mormon kid, growing up very poor and with a mother who was very physically disabled. She was paralyzed from polio, and us kind of having to raise her, and that untraditional kind of relationship. Also, having a family member help raise us who suffers from the same condition that Jennifer (Connelly) has in the film.
I would tell all the stories that we would have to do in order to survive. People would get these long faces, and say how sad that is. I’d say, no, you don’t get it. In the south, we embrace our troubles, we would celebrate our troubles. That’s what makes us special and unique. We celebrate that sort of strangeness we have in our family.
Certainly, we’re defined more by our aspirations and our dreams than our situation. So I really wanted to explain, the more you dream and live this fanciful, other worldly life, the more you’re kind of celebrated. Tennessee Williams did a great job of bringing those sorts of characters to life, and I kind of wanted to do that in my way, to set the record straight. (laughs)
So it’s a really dreamy film. It’s a film about dreaming above your station in life.
SY: Jennifer Connelly became involved with ‘Virginia’ almost two years before principal photography began. How did she become involved in the movie so early on?
DLB: I was doing ‘Big Love,’ and I had a new agent. I had time, and I had this script that I had actually finished years earlier. It actually helped me get the job on ‘Big Love.’
It was suggested that I give it to Jennifer Connelly first. I said, interesting. There was lot of humor in the script, and I hadn’t seen her do that. They gave it to her, and she responded to it. I got a phone call saying, would you like to meet Jennifer in New York?
I flew to New York, and I’m just a baby writer on a TV show at this point. There were no award shows, no ‘Milk’ at this point. (laughs) I met her at the Barry Hotel restaurant. I start sweating, because she’s so beautiful, and I was really intimidated.
Within 15 minutes, she revealed herself as this funny kind of jokester and this amazingly warm person. I didn’t know that’s who she was. I don’t think she’s shown that funny side, the vibrant side to the country yet.
My questions was, would you be willing to, and are excited about, bringing that side of yourself to the country? She said yes, and put her faith in me and the script and the part. I’m eternally grateful to her for that.
She hung on for some time. Like, six months, eight months later, all of a sudden, this little spec film of mine, ‘Milk,’ came about, and I was on that ride for two years.
When I came back, I asked her if she was still interested, and she said yes, and we put it together. It’s been that long, long journey, and she’s been there with me the whole way.
SY: You never have a cast in mind when you’re writing a script. Did the fact that Jennifer was cast so early on in the film influence the way you evolved her character, Virginia?
DLB: No, the character and the part was written when I met her. There were changes along the way, mostly production changes, things to suit the very small budget and shooting schedule we had.
Certainly, because I was in love with the work she was already doing, when we were rehearsing she was doing research. I wasn’t about to lose her moments. Then in the editing room, she gave such a tremendous performance, the film became even more focused on her and her character. So in editing, there were adjustments.
SY: You and Jennifer researched for the film together, particularly schizophrenia. How much say did Jennifer have in Virginia’s development?
DLB: She wanted to learn everything she could about what this mental disability was. She and I went to meet with this professor at Cal State Northridge, who not only describes, but also acts out the behavior. It was really helpful.
Then we met actual people separately, who had the condition. I showed stories and photos with her of the family member I have with the condition. Not my mom, another family member.
She had a lot of ideas of what she could do to bring the character to life accurately and entertainingly. Some of it was about this notion that schizophrenics of this type can’t filter one sound out over the other very well. They don’t have control over that stimuli. But what they can control is color and light.
She called me up and said, what if I think Virginia would want to dye her hair and make it light, make it vibrant and come to life? I said great, let’s do that. Even Danny Glicker, our costume designer, brought in all of these fabulous clothes that were filled with colors.
We would go through the scenes, and say when you woke up like this and were feeling this way, what would help you transcend that? Sometimes the darker she got, the more shiny and sparkly and colorful the clothes would get in contrast. It was the thing she could control, and she really helped build that as well.
SY: Did you base the costumes on Virginia’s daily personality, and how her traits varied every day?
DLB: Yeah, Danny did. Danny Glicker, who was nominated for an Academy Award when we did ‘Milk’ together, he’s a fantastic designer.
He said, I’m going to go shopping for clothes the way she could. You know, yard sales and discount stores, but paying attention to this idea of color and transcending your station in life. Even if it’s a yard sale piece of clothing, it might have a whimsy or ‘Gone with the Wind’ element.
On a particularly dark day, she might wear sequins or a very colorful veil. There’s a lot of character to be discovered in the costumes. I think he was very successful in finding a wide array of things we could use.
Then us as a team, choosing which things to wear, based on the character. So sometimes the costumes got a little wild.
Written by: Karen Benardello