Peirce, who rose to prominence with her 1999 hit Boys Don’t Cry, discusses with how she went about stamping her own directorial style on a story that was brought to life so well by Brian De Palma in 1976. She also explains the depth to this narrative, why the theme of bullying is so powerful to explore in cinema – and finally we speak extensively about violence in film, and the responsibility filmmakers have in portraying it in the correct manner.
Your film has obviously been adapted from the Stephen King novel, and had been adapted in the past by Brian De Palma. Was it therefore a challenge to take such a renowned, iconic tale, and stamp your own directorial style over proceedings?
It’s definitely a challenge, whether people would think that I’ve distinguished it enough from what preceded it. But at a certain point, when the studio came to me and said ‘do you want to do an adaptation of this Stephen King novel?’ I approached it with the obvious question that most people would ask, which is, ‘is that a good thing to do?’. For me, the way of answering it was simply to take a look at the novel, and I had read it as a kid and when rereading it I just couldn’t put it down, it’s an absolute page-turner. I absolutely love the way Stephen King writes, I love Carrie White as a misfit and a social outcast, who wants love and acceptance like we all do, and faces huge obstacles to getting it.
The girls at school bully her, give her a terrible time, and her mother at home absolutely loves her, but punishes her, puts her in the closet, inflicts harm to herself, she represses her daughter – and those things were just the stuff of such good storytelling. I’d say it’s more than drama, because at the end of the day, this is more of a revenge thriller. But it was so uniquely compelling to me that I thought, I have to make a movie of this novel, and then I really worked from there. You know, how do I shoot it? How do I go and cast it? How do I build it? All to the extent that I could, because I didn’t have a lot of time, I was hired on a green-lit movie. I made as many changes as I could, with a new opening scene that I wrote and added. I tried to modernise it, and make it a superhero original story with Carrie discovering and exploring her powers.
The film, as you say, is very supernatural, but there’s a lot for people to relate to in here. Feeling like the outsider at school, disagreeing with your parents archaic ways… There is a lot to this tale.
Oh I think there’s a ton more. It’s a great mother-daughter story, amplified and profound in a way that I think you see in hardly any movies. The thing that I love in the mother-daughter story, is that here is a mother who is terrified by the fact that she’s even given birth, because it not only exposes that she had sex, but it exposes at the end of the day, that she enjoyed it. So what does she do? She’s going to kill that thing that came out of her, until she realises she loves it. So she is both terrified of, and loves her daughter and that profound conflict carries them all the way through the movie. Which I think is a version of motherhood obviously pushed to its extreme.
It’s also a great superhero origin story, but the superpowers are really a story of becoming oneself and we all have some kind of talent that we have to spend our lifetime figuring out what that is, in order to make ourselves whole, and that’s what Carrie has. I also think it’s a great revenge tale, you know, it’s a great story of right or wrong. Chris unfairly attacks Carrie and Carrie retaliates. She uses these powers to track down the people who did her wrong, and I think we all really relate to a revenge tale. Lastly, I think it’s a really modern story, so I tried to weave in the use of cell phones, use of videoing, the way they video the bullying and they video themselves enjoying it, then they upload it and it gets downloaded and exposed at prom. I interviewed principles and teachers and I said, ‘If I was to make a bullying story right this minute, how could I differentiate it from three years ago?’ They told me to use new media and technology, because technology used to just be used to make it worse for the kid who is bullied, by putting it online. Now they said it exposes the bully, and that’s fascinating. Social media gets it out there, but it can be tracked back to the bully and get them in trouble.
Bullying is a theme that you’ve looked into before, with Boys don’t Cry – what do you think it is about this particular theme that attracts you as a filmmaker?
Well I think that all human relationships are political, and I think all human relationships, unfortunately, have a level of violence in them. I mean, as I’ve seen in my life and in fiction, the stories that I love, The Godfather is one of my all-time favourite movies, and when you look deeply into the profound, moving, deep relationships, there is usually love and violence. I mean look at Michael Corleone, how he deals with his family. So certainly I find it a truthful thing to deal with, and I love dealing with something that I can find a level of truth with, and honesty, because those are the things that, if I can feel in my life and in my world, I want to put it in my movies because it will touch you more. Also, I think violence of itself is inherently cinematic, and I can exteriorise it, and I can exteriorise it with a punch, or Margaret pushing her daughter into a closet as a violent act, or Margaret hitting her with the bible, or hurting her with the knife, or hurting her with words. The same thing with the girls, as they pick up those tampons and throw them at Carrie and back her up into the shower – it’s a horrific, horrific situation, but it’s inherently cinematic, too. I have bodies against bodies, I have humiliation.
So for me it’s something to always go back to because it’s truthful and because it gives me the tools I need to excite you, to scare you, to engage you. That’s why you see violence in all my movies. But I think you see it in lots of good movies, lots of directors I love. I brought up 12 Years a Slave, and you know, we’re on the edge of our seat in that because there is a level of violence in that movie that doesn’t let us off the hook, that implicates us. I think also our enjoyment of violence is very interesting to me. We’re not just saying, ‘it’s bad, don’t show it to me’, we’re saying, ‘it’s bad, let me look more deeply at it’. I also think that, one thing I try to do, that other directors do, is make you want the violence, make you see the specifics of it so that it engages you more. We all have violent desires. We all have desires for revenge, I think. I try to give you a chance to explore that in the theatre, because you’re not going to do it at home, that’s what theatre does for us. I could go on and on about violence… I find it very interesting and very real.
It’s a hugely fascinating subject matter, and one that has been well documented and scrutinised over this year, and though going back a few months, there was obviously a lot of controversy surrounding Django Unchained. Where did you stand on that debate of violence in cinema?
At least for myself, because I don’t want to legislate what other people do, but I feel very strongly that I never want to create pornographic violent images. In particular, with Boys Don’t Cry and with Carrie, I don’t want you to go to this movie and get so excited by the violence that you then want to go and commit violence on somebody. I didn’t want people to go and have homophobic reactions and go and commit violence, or with Carrie, I don’t want the people who are bullies to see this and say, ‘Oh my God that’s great – I’m going to go and bully somebody’. I feel a great responsibility when I create a violent image that I don’t want to encourage violence, so I want to go as deeply as I can, I want to bring it to life for you, I want you to feel it, and I want it to touch you – but I don’t want it to be used in another way. The only way I can do that is to keep it as human as possible, and constantly building up Chris as an antagonist. She’s not just committing violence that you don’t understand, hopefully you’ll see that she’s a wounded girl, she’s losing power, and every time somebody is nice to Carrie, like her teacher or Sue, Chris is wounded, and she strikes out.
I want you to understand that’s why she’s bullying Carrie, because she’s weak, and she should really have her needs met in other ways because bullying Carrie is not making her any happier. It’s not a moral judgement, it’s more the mechanics of it. When Carrie is bullied, I try to give her a level of agency and complexity, so if you’re a bully you’re not just seeing her as a victim, you’re seeing her a fully-fledged person. So hopefully if you’re a person who bullies, you’re seeing the more dynamic universe that you see when you normally inflict pain on people. I think that when a bully is bullying somebody, they don’t see the full spectrum or their own emotions, or the full spectrum of the other person’s emotions. In movies if we can show the bigger spectrum, I think it tends to make you not want to bully. But my goal isn’t to try and change the world in such a broad way, but I don’t want to put a pornography of violence into the world if I can avoid it. I do that by trying to make the characters complex, trying to show reasons for the unleashing of violence, and also when I screen the movie I look really closely at the audience and how they’re reacting.
I have a bigger appetite for violence, which is why the scenes are shot more violently and edited more violently then they end up in the released movie. I always push it much further then when I screen it for an audience I see the effect. In particular when the audience turns away and disengage, I tend to then reduce the level of violence, because I want to keep the audience as engaged as possible. Look, I don’t want to legislate, but I hope that other people are careful with the kind of violence they put into movies because I think we have a lot of violence in our world and it’s unfortunate, and I’d rather expand it. There’s a reason why we’ve always had violence in our art, there’s a reason why in Aristotle’s time we had tragedy. I don’t think the answer is not showing it, I think it’s part of our human experience, and I think we enjoy it. The revenge that I have in Carrie is the story of right and wrong. They miss with Carrie, she’s going to get her justice. There is something fun, exciting and good about that.
Carrie is released on November 29, and you can read our review here.