Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for BOYS DON'T CRY

OnWriting presents week two of OnWriting Pride: a series of live-recordings of the podcast in honor of Pride Month, presented by the WGAE LGBTQ Salon. Each episode features LGBTQ+ screenwriters and the LGBTQ+ stories they tell.

For our second installment in the series, Geri speaks with Kimberly Peirce, the writer and director of BOYS DON’T CRY.

BOYS DON’T CRY is the 1999 film based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man trying to live and find love in Nebraska. On the film’s 20th anniversary, it was selected for preservation at the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Seasons 7-9 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys. She also performs sketch and improv at theaters and festivals around the country.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East.  Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. I’m your host, Geri Cole. In each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news, break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes, to key scenes, and so much more.

Geri Cole: Today I’m speaking with Kimberly Peirce, the writer, director of Boys Don’t Cry, the landmark film based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man trying to live and find love in Nebraska. On the film’s 20th anniversary, it was selected for preservation at the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Geri Cole: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Kimberly. This film is still incredible. I’m sure you’ve spoken about it a bunch, but I was hoping that we could maybe start with reminiscing a little bit about the research and writing process and really just putting this film together in 1999.

Kimberly Peirce: Well, I actually started working on it in ’94.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Kimberly Peirce: Yeah. So I have a ton of kind of great and crazy stories I can tell you about it, so is there a particular thing that interest you?

Geri Cole: I guess just how you first came to the story and what was that like, that moment of like, “This is mine, I’m doing this.”

Kimberly Peirce: Sure. I was really fortunate. I had gone to University of Chicago and studied history and photography, and then had left and lived in Japan for a couple years and experienced traveling all through Southeast Asia, come back onto Columbia. Again, very fortunate. We had Scorsese coming and teaching. We had Mueller Foreman had started the department. We had a fantastic look at writing scripts and production and real masters of the craft. Paul Schrader was one of my teachers. And I say all that because I had this bounty of knowledge and learning. And of course, I was just starting to come out, so I had the marginalization of being queer, but I’m a white person, so I have a lot of access to stuff, but I was even starting to feel that the education I was getting and the environment I was in was not working for me. And that was very torturous to have this access to all these great artists that I love, but to begin to really realize, “Oh my God, the straight white male outlook and production of story.”

Kimberly Peirce: And even of course I love Oedipus and I love Shakespeare and I understood the merit of them. I was beginning to understand that my own story was not being told. So there were two things happening, one as a marginalized person, it was who am I and what is my story? Because the culture doesn’t reflect it. So I had to kind of like a sieve kind of pull through the culture. I knew on the inside what my identity was and I was starting to understand… We didn’t have these terms. So this is what’s interesting to me.

Geri Cole: Oh yeah. I want to talk about that later.

Kimberly Peirce: Yeah. So the interesting thing was I was feeling, “Okay. I love my education, but my education doesn’t include me. Well, what am I?” Because I had been socialized heteronormative, but I was beginning to realize I was this… certainly a girl body person who liked to be with girl body people, but we didn’t even have those terms. All I knew was… I first knew gay man. Well, I wasn’t that. Then I kind of knew gay. ‘Oh, there’s a female component to that. Okay. I think I’m that.” But I’m not exactly… The term lesbian never worked for me in particular. Dyke worked, queer worked, but queer was very, at that point, even marginalized within the queer community. So my point, kind of to the listeners was, there was a breakdown of my ability to see myself reflected in the culture and so it put me on to a quest.

Kimberly Peirce: So that quest made me literally leave uptown, because I was living in Amsterdam, going to the great Columbia University. And then it was kind of like, “Well, this doesn’t work for me. This feels stifling.” And then I went downtown and I went immediately out to the gay clubs and they were mostly gay men, but I had gay male friends who were brilliant, who took me out and said, “Well, you’re dyke.” And I was like, “Okay.” But I had to figure out how to be a at a gay male club, so that didn’t quite work. I mean, it did a little bit, but it was a kind of sideways. There’s my friend Katori Hall who’s brilliant, the writer of P-Valley says, she’s like, you have overlap. So I was having overlap with the gay men and then it took a little bit until of course I saw a girl on the subway. That girl saw me. That was on. That was the moment that I was like, “Oh, I am this thing called a lesbian.” It doesn’t feel quite right.

Kimberly Peirce: Then as I was moving through it, I began to realize, “Oh, well I’ve always been a tomboy.” I’ve always thought I would become a boy at 12… 12 years old meant that puberty was, I would become a man. So I had all those feelings, but there was no word for it. So I started writing about an African-American woman in the Civil War who passed… Again, the term pass and it was complicated, but I’ll just say back then pass was okay. Passed as white, passed as a man and passed as a southerner, because they were locking up people with what they call black blood. So that was her way of saving herself. Well, I immediately had overlapped with her, Pauline Cushman.

Kimberly Peirce: So then I went down the road of writing that story. Of course my brilliant screenwriting teacher, who of all crazy things was a lesbian, Kerryn Jagger, she said, that’s not the story you want to tell. You don’t want to tell the story of somebody who, again, I know pass is problematic, so I’m not endorsing pass. I’m just saying that’s what we used, who passes to survive. And I was like, “Okay, but I’ve been learning in film school that characters need to be in jeopardy, characters need to have a need and characters need to pursue that need against all obstacles and the obstacles that they overcome is how you move the story forward. It’s a galleon.” And I said, so I don’t understand. She said, but that’s not the story you want to tell. I was like, “What story do I want to tell?” She’s like, you want to tell the story of somebody who passes because it’s who they are.

Kimberly Peirce: That blew my mind because there wasn’t a ton of, quote, identity type movies. And this is one of the things that’s the most profound, interesting question to me coming out of pandemic, which is thank God early on. I told a story where identity was the driving force, right? So Brandon’s need to be who Brandon was, which was complicated to explain to people because it’s like I had to say, Brandon is this thing on the inside and Brandon is trying to bring himself into alignment on the outside. None of that language quite existed in the mainstream of filmmaking. So I heard that thing Kerryn Jagger said, you need to tell a story of somebody who passes because of who they are, but that story didn’t exist. I was going through the history archives at Columbia University. I was reading all these history books. I was like, “Well, I’d never heard that story. But she was saying that that was my story.

Kimberly Peirce: So that primed me to begin to know that my story that I was dealing with personally, where I was lifting weights and swimming all the time and starting to look more masculine and the girls I dated, we did have butch femme. So I dated what you would call a femme, right? A high femme I was attracted to and I called myself a butch, but again… And I love Stone Butch Blues and Leslie Feinberg and all that stuff and that bar culture, where the African-American and the white butches, it was very much, you were very masculine identified, right? Not a man. And you dress like a man and you dated a woman who exclusively looked like… it was very feminine. That there was a split. And I only understand why that split was, was because people didn’t have a lot of options to choose from.

Kimberly Peirce: So some of course might’ve been that way anyway, but a person like me probably even back then, I probably would have been more of a stone butch or hardcore butch because I would have been taught that that was my only option, but I’m not really that. So when I looked back at the queer history, I didn’t really see exactly what I was, but I was struggling. So I was thinking about adapting Stone Butch Blues, and then as fate would have it, because I do believe that fate plays a story and I think stories find us. I was up late one night working at a law firm. So I would project movies for money and work all night at a law firm, at Lisa and Watkins. And my friend Hong Wong, who was one of these close friend, gay man who would try to teach me how to be a lesbian by going out with gay men. That was kind of not great, but I love Wong and that was great.

Kimberly Peirce: He brought me The Village Voice and he said, “Oh, here’s your story.” And I opened it and I read the story of a person. This is what heard or saw, who was female bodied like me, which I understood and who was living in loving as a man. And I fell in love with the power of Brandon’s desire to live in love as he was and in just fucking go out and do it. Okay. So I was in love with Brandon, read the story, was amazed with it. Immediately found a group called The Transsexual Menace. And I know that’s a problematic word, but that was their self named group. And many of the luminaries, Riki and Wilchins, Kate Bornstein, Tony Barreto-Neto, who I just saw in Southern Comfort last night, a number of what we would now call trans people who had formed a group, which was an activist group. And they were going to get together and spend a week together in Lincoln, Nebraska, and then travel to Fall City and go to the murder trial.

Kimberly Peirce: And they happened to have one person who dropped out. I happened to be able to spend $250, which was a big deal to me, buy a ticket, traveled to see them. And I had already been interviewing interestingly African-American trans man who was beginning to give me insight into the Brandon Teena story. I was interviewing mostly trans people, but some of which lesbians to understand masculinity and how to write this story. And then I went on this trip and then I lived with these trans people who are my friends and I filmed them. I said, “Are you okay with this?” And we just did interview after interview where I filmed them. So then we all went to the murder trial and of course, then it was a headlong fight for five years. And this is the thing that I’m struggling with now in my own writing, that really interests me, which is we are taught and again, nothing wrong with straight white men. Right? They’re great. But they have definitely influenced narrative.

Kimberly Peirce: I think if you look at a lot of contemporary movies, what ended up happening was it turned into the guy gets a gun and you got to create a revenge story, so somebody raped his daughter or his mother, right?

Geri Cole: [crosstalk 00:10:29].

Kimberly Peirce: Or his wife.

Geri Cole: Women die.

Kimberly Peirce: I opened my script and I’m like, “Oh my God, another brutalized vagina in the beginning.” And I’m like, “Okay, the vagina has been ripped apart.” And I’m like, “Okay, I don’t really want to know that.” And what is that raison d’etre for? Straight white guy to come in and go find the other straight white guy who did this terrible thing. And I’m like, “No, I don’t want… That doesn’t make sense to me.” It wasn’t as prevalent then. It’s now more prevalent now, but it makes sense. If you’re going to validate that dramatic action is violence… dramatic action is beating people up, well, and a straight white man is going to be your protagonist, he’s going to probably have to beat up another straight white man. Well, the passed would have beaten up a dyke or a black person, but okay, now he’s got a hurt another…

Kimberly Peirce: And what’s the raison d’etre? It’s the violation of a black person or a female body person or a gay person or whatever it is. And generally it’s not even the black person and the gay person, because if you really want to build the structure of a narrative, that’s going to go make people buy tickets, who’s the victim? A blonde woman. A blonde straight white innocent woman. And I’m like, “Oh my God. Okay, that doesn’t work.” But let’s just say that those were the undercurrents of what I was fundamentally being taught, made a story go. There was no reason to believe that a person wanting to be who they were, which was what all of us queer people, gender queer, all of the under umbrella, that’s what we were fighting for. Because we had a culture that was teaching us, “Oh, you’re a little girl grow up and marry the boy. Marry the man, have the baby.”

Kimberly Peirce: So that was already a fundamental leap. I had the unfortunate for the real story that Brandon was raped and killed, deeply unfortunate. And yet there is no doubt that the engine of the movie required the unfortunate reality of the violation against Brandon. Now I own that, not in so far as I designed it, not in so far as I advocate it because I hate violence, but that I recognize that unfortunate fact. And it’s the same, I’m a Jew, the violation of Jews, the violation of African-American people, the violation of queers, unfortunately, is a reality and that reality is an engine that drives stories.

Kimberly Peirce: So that to me, I look back and I’m so glad that was not the story I wanted to tell. The story I wanted to tell and I believe really did tell is this person dreamed themselves into existence at a time and a place when it was nearly impossible. And so we are in love with the ferociousness of Brandon’s dream. We do have the conflict of he’s doing it in a landscape that’s dangerous and difficult and all that. So I can tell you a lot of really great stories about boys and I would love to, because I love them and they’re… I went around the country and did the 20th year anniversary, and it’s a phenomenal movie. I was lucky to be a part of it, and it went through me, but it’s just a phenomenal thing. So I really have great love for it, but I want to hear your questions because I do have so many things I could tell you about it.

Geri Cole: Well, yeah, I… Ooh man, there’s so many things I want to follow up on. I guess, since we are talking about it on this 20th anniversary, and it sounds like this incredible experience of you getting to the story and it does feel like kismet, that it was sort of like you being pulled towards the story, because it was your first film, which is also insane.

Kimberly Peirce: And were told, and this is important, we were told, go do another movie. Get up, do your movie that you’re going to be able to get into the industry and then you’ll do your passion project later on. I just didn’t have the wherewithal. I mean, even now I remember friends of mine were getting jobs at something called the Home Box Office. I didn’t know what that was. I couldn’t get hired, because I think I was what I was. So it’s not to say that that’s a bad rap. It’s just do what you’re able to do. And I did what I was able to do.

Geri Cole: So I guess actually looking back, because it was your first film, is there anything that you think you would’ve done differently if you were pushing the story in 2021?

Kimberly Peirce: I don’t. And that is because, two reasons, from my point of view, back then as a kid, God, I was just a kid. I had a backpack. I went to the murder town. I mean, I had my little backpack I traveled with. I didn’t even know what a trans person was before I started looking into my own transness and then I just went out and it was in total service to the character and I kept asking myself every day, “Who is Brandon? What did Brandon want? How would Brandon have lived?” So I had 10,000 pages of court transcripts. I had every article literally ever written because I worked at the law firms and I got those articles. I went and met anybody who would talk to me about it. People are still sending me emails that I sent. It was one time when the internet… was like the birth of the internet. So I don’t think I would’ve done that differently and I’m amazed that I had the energy I had because the minute you have…

Kimberly Peirce: I have essential air in my house right now. Well, I didn’t have that. I didn’t even have air conditioning, so I would just lay in my New York City little bedroom, literally my bedroom and just sweat all night long. And I was so excited to wake up in the morning and go to my dumb job because of the air conditioning. You know what I mean? And it was just like… And I knew that I could go to the Veselka or go to La Rosita and it was just like… I literally would spend $5 on dinner. That was it. So I think that my level of devotion was… it was life. It was like a child. So I certainly wouldn’t have changed that. I’m really glad. And I’m glad that I was so deeply curious that it was always who is Brandon, what does Brandon want? And then I allowed trans people and the queer community to help me figure that out.

Kimberly Peirce: But then that I got to go through, Andy Bean, was a brilliant collaborator on the script. He teaches at Columbia. He’s a straight white man. So it ended up, because part of Brandon’s desire was to be a man. How unusual that it turned out that a man helped me bring out parts of that character that were not me. So I think one thing that I really value is my relentless curiosity, that I hope that if I ever got presented the chance at this age, I would travel all over the country and the world to get the story right. And something I really want to clarify for people, two other things. One, we knew very early on if we made this the story of Brandon… Again, I don’t want to use the word pass, but I’m going to use it, but please anybody I’m also trans, so I want to be careful. If we made it that Brandon succeeded fully in presenting as a straight white man and then was raped and killed at the end, which is what some people wonder, “Well, maybe he just passed so well that nobody knew.”

Kimberly Peirce: We knew that there was, A, it would have been destructive to the whole trans existence because in fact, that’s not what was happening with Brandon. And those were not the terms upon which he was accepted into that community. There was always a slippage in terms of how much they accepted him as a straight white man and that was the whereabouts by which they had power over him within a consensual relationship. So that was really interesting and very difficult to get straight. And that came about because I interviewed the real Lana and I was like, “Great. When did you know Brandon was a biological girl?” And she was like, “I always knew.” And I was like, “Whoa, whoa, wait a second. You always knew? You knew from the minute you met Brandon, that Brandon was a biological girl.” She was like, “No, I didn’t know until they stripped Brandon.” And I was like, “Okay, so…” Exactly. So I said, “I have the interview.” I said, and I have it all.

Kimberly Peirce: And I was like, “Okay, you didn’t know when you first met Brandon, but you knew when Brandon was stripped?” “No, no, no. I knew when Brandon was in the jail.” So this is something that I love in writing. So now I had a complete nightmare problem, because we had always said, if we could just figure out what she really knew, then we can build a story to that point. When I interviewed the person, she told me that she knew it 10 different points and then even if I asked her again, they would’ve changed.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Kimberly Peirce: What do you do with that?

Geri Cole: Yeah. How do you honor? That feels like you’re lying for reasons that I want to sort of assume for your own safety or like… I don’t know. Yeah. How do you-

Kimberly Peirce: Maybe the word isn’t lying, but maybe it is, but maybe you hit on it. Maybe Lana was knowing and not knowing and presenting knowing and not knowing for a particular human need. What could that be? Wanting to hold onto Brandon, two, to not be outed or whatever that would mean to her in her community. Oh, no, that’s a problem, but that’s really interesting. So then we went back in and we made that the guiding course of her story, so that she’s constantly knowing and not knowing, asking and not asking, hiding and not hiding. And unwittingly is part of the reason for his demise because she’s keeping him there.

Kimberly Peirce: So what the process gave me constantly was the greatest education and writing because I went in very well-schooled and well-trained, and I love my education at Columbia, studying the classics, but then on the ground, by being so open and sitting with… Keats called it negative capability, John Keats, and I live by it. Negative capability is you know and then you don’t fucking know. You don’t know. So here Lana is telling me something that… There’s no screenwriting class that ever brought this up, that the character is totally unreliable and yet on some level they’re deeply reliable. She’s not knowing in lying to me, she’s kind of lying and kind of not lying. What do you do?

Kimberly Peirce: So I think that the great thing was I had a great education, which set me up to be launched out of the cannon and then thrown into the reality. And I was forever humbled by the truth. And then always coming back, and this is important to me, never, ever, ever wanted to violate my community. So I never wanted to recreate violence that in any way, encouraged anybody to hate Brandon or to want to unleash violence on a trans person or queer person or an African-American or woman. Anything. Well, that was tricky because you actually, if you show no violence, you don’t learn from history. So the question was, how can I represent violence from a queer and a female gaze and a trans gaze? And could I make sure to show violence that honors Brandon and teaches a lesson, but never has guys in the audience being like, “Yeah. I’m going to go for a [inaudible 00:20:55].”? Whatever. That was tricky.

Geri Cole: That’s a tricky one.

Kimberly Peirce: Yeah. So we recut the rape scene literally seven times. Well, we cut it a hundred times, but we showed it seven times and always at the beginning people said it’s too violent. And I was like, “Well, screw that. Brandon was raped all night long. I’m going to do it.” But over time I learned that my obligation to my audience is not to violate them because of Brandon and trans people. It was a really interesting relationship. Oh, and the last thing I want to talk about is casting because this is the thing that’s come up a lot and that I know that there’s been evolution in the world around trans casting. And I celebrate that, that hands down. I want there to be representation in casting.

Geri Cole: [crosstalk 00:21:38].

Kimberly Peirce: African-Americans should have the right to be writing their African-American… the right and opportunity to write the African-American stories, to act in the African-American stories, to produce the African-American stories. Same with trans, same with queer, same with women, same with everything. Okay. So I’m on that side of things.

Kimberly Peirce: The minute I read the Brandon Teena story, I assumed I would find a trans person to play the role. It never occurred to me not to. I was super queer. I was wondering if I was trans. In fact, when I traveled with the trans people, Kate Bornstein and Riki and Wilchins and Tony Baretto-Neto. At some point Kate Bornstein said to me, “You’re trans.” And I was so open and curious because I represent as a non-binary gender person. We didn’t have that word. And she said, I’m going to call you, he. Now I was a kid, I had my little backpack and I’m like, “Okay.” So the whole trip, everybody referred to me as he, and she said, you sit up straight when I call you he. Like if she was in the other part of the room, she would say, what’s he up to? What’s he writing? What’s he doing? And I would sit up straighter. So she found a truth, which was, I definitely am a he. I am also sometimes a she.

Kimberly Peirce: That’s why when people say, what are my pronouns? It’s hard for me to say. I mean, what am I going to say? I’m a he, I’m a she, I’m a… Am a little bit on the… I mean, the ever changing middle. I am both genders. I’m not neither. I’m both. We had no language for that. Back then, the prescription by the medical community oftentimes, and I’m not going to pretend to be a historian, but oftentimes for trans people, many people were encouraged to go to the gender that they saw then felt that they were back then. So you didn’t typically live in a non determinate by gendered middle, you tended to be pushed, and I’m not saying that’s where the trans people wanted to go, but that’s what the establishment was often pushing people into a binary.

Kimberly Peirce: So when I was presented with the idea of going all the way to the other side, it didn’t make sense for me personally so I wanted to be in this ever-changing middle. The point being when it came to Brandon, I did not see Brandon as a reflection of myself. I saw that Brandon had some things… How about this? I saw myself in some ways as a reflection on Brandon, but I also was completely devoted to whatever Brandon really was. So Brandon lived as a man. I was going to represent Brandon as a man. Brandon to me was probably using he pronouns, so in my movie Brandon uses he pronouns. The human being that I would find to bring brand into life on screen in my mind would be a trans person.

Kimberly Peirce: So the original casting, and it lasted three years. I went all over the country, but you can find, I mean, people have sent it to me. Every single day I would put out missives and notes. I am telling the story of Brandon Teena, a biological… I probably say biological female who lives as a man, lives and loves as a man and I went to find a trans person to play this role. I will talk to anybody. I would interview anybody. We had open calls. I now spend a lot of time donating to the Academy of Motion Pictures. I was a governor, now I’m on the board. I donated all the tapes. So Silas Howard, who is a trans man. I don’t want to say Silas was a trans man or is a trans man. Silas lives as a trans man now. I’m not sure how Silas identified then. Silas and Harry Dodge auditioned for the Brandon Teena role.

Kimberly Peirce: The tapes are going to be shown in an exhibit at the Academy Museum when the museum opens. And I think it’s in September, the original audition tapes of trans man. So my goal was to find a trans man. We didn’t have a lot of… We probably had a lot of trans man in the world, but we didn’t have a lot of trans men that I had access to that could carry a feature role performance at that moment, that I could get financing for. Okay. So that’s the thing. Now, I’m not saying there wasn’t somebody who could play the role. What I’m saying is in the way that the world was organized back then it was unthinkable, unthinkable for me in graduate school to find a trans person and to make a feature film, nobody was going to finance that.

Kimberly Peirce: So I think the mere fact that I tried for three years and I have the tapes and we’re doing an exhibit, again, I was a kid. I’m glad that that was my goal and I think that the choice that we ended up making was a beautiful choice because she brought the role to life in a way that is beautiful. So in that way, I do think that at the end of the day it was. I am very proud of it.

Geri Cole: I mean, she did an incredible job. I think that that’s fair to say.

Kimberly Peirce: When there was no model for doing it. There was none. She committed fully the way we committed and that’s why I think this artifact exists. And the other thing I would say to people is in terms of… Look ,a trans person playing that role, would that be interesting and amazing? Absolutely. But challenging because Brandon, at that point wasn’t on hormones and had had surgery. So there’s a lot of things to work out. There is room for all kinds of projects in the future. But the fact that I did that project, I did that project. I only want to be in the positive in terms of what that means.

Geri Cole: One of the things actually that really struck me about the film was and so I do want to actually get into the language that we have now, because there’s that scene where Brandon is trying to explain his identity and he doesn’t have the language and it just really struck me where it was like, the power of language and that’s… Yeah, I guess I just want to talk about that in terms of… As you were saying earlier you are from a different generation, you feel like you only had so many choices and now language has blossomed and I think is only a good thing and that it continues to blossom more.

Kimberly Peirce: Yeah. And I can talk generally about that, but is there a specific thing that you felt Brandon was struggling to do and you… What was the obstacle that was interesting to you? Was it the dyke moment or was it-

Geri Cole: It was-

Kimberly Peirce: There’s an early moment when he says, “But I’m not a fucking dyke.” I think. When the cousin says, just be a lesbian and come out and he’s like, but I’m not that. And then there’s a later moment when we’re dealing with really kind of the more, in a way, the more sophisticated stuff with Lana and the boys, like what interests you to-

Geri Cole: I think it was in the scene where he’s in the female prison and he’s trying to explain it-

Kimberly Peirce: A female prison?

Geri Cole: Kind of lying. Yeah. And I almost feel like I said at the scene, like I wanted to give the language to him. And then also in the later scene where they’re beginning to strip him and he’s trying to explain that it’s like, yes, you’re going to find a female body, but… And it was just one of those things that was really impactful to me, the language. And then also this idea of, the idea that there was this deception that he was deceiving people and it’s actually, no, he’s presenting his most authentic self. And that cruel irony of that, that was this moment, this emotional moment was like… it seemed as though he’d been deceiving them and it was like, no, he’s actually not been deceiving you. So that’s kind of a separate question, but I guess I want to talk about-

Kimberly Peirce: I think it’s connected.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Your feelings on how language has evolved and how you think that may have impacted Brandon Teena story I guess maybe if you were looking at it today.

Kimberly Peirce: I think in fact you’re hitting… I think everything you just said is connected and you brought up one of my favorite scenes and it was actually the first scene we shot, which was terrifying to me.

Geri Cole: Really.

Kimberly Peirce: The [inaudible 00:29:14]?

Geri Cole: No, I’m saying like that’s it. Those are your first feature. Like all these things are like, what’s the first thing you shot? It’s incredible.

Kimberly Peirce: Well, I’ll tell you something else, I never saw dailies. I saw the one. Well, now this is crazy. So I only saw them once because we were in Texas. I think about… Try to remember back then. You can imagine, I don’t know, how old are you? But if you don’t want to say-

Geri Cole: I’m 42.

Kimberly Peirce: Okay. Add another-

Geri Cole: I remember, yeah, I remember the pre-internet world.

Kimberly Peirce: Okay. So we’re in Texas and we’re shooting out like in the county seat. So we’re traveling back to our hotels. That’s losing a bunch of time and you have to see dailies on film, but where do you see them back then? And a movie theater. Yeah. So we had to, literally, we would have had to drive an hour to movie theater and see the dailies each night. We didn’t have the time. So I saw dailies probably once at a movie theater, I think four weeks in, and I never saw a daily again, which meant we were just flying by instinct and emotion and truth. And it’s often how I direct, which is I love a monitor. Usually I have a double-headed hanging on my neck, but I want to be by those actors. So yeah, we didn’t have that. No, it actually, it wasn’t our first scene we shot. It was the first scene we shot with Chloe because I had already been working with Hillary.

Kimberly Peirce: But this is important. You bring up, and I’m going to use your language I think that Brandon seemed to be struggling to define himself. I’m a an… Right? He’s like he’s trying to explain what he is. He’s trying to explain why he’s in the female cell when he’s not really a girl. He’s the boyfriend of Lana and it could be seen that he’s lying. The beautiful thing is he’s doing the best in a culture that has taught him that he’s a female body person and he should marry a man. Well, that doesn’t work because he wants to be the person he is with a female sexually and emotionally and he believes that he’s a man. And we don’t have these terms.

Kimberly Peirce: I mean, of course I knew who a trans person was and I was considering whether I was trans, but Brandon didn’t. He probably did have access to trans because Christine Jorgensen was out there. This knowledge was out there. And if he was passing as a boy, if he was living as a boy and dating women, he knew what a trans was. He had the pamphlets. So yes, he did know what trans was. He did have the pamphlets. He did know that surgery was an option because he talked about it with his cousin. He would have known that hormones were an option. He knew the basics. He was in Lincoln, Nebraska. Okay. So he did have access to that. Couldn’t just go online and go research and you had to go talk to somebody and get the information or meet somebody. And there was a queer community in Lincoln, but now he’s in Falls City.

Kimberly Peirce: So he specifically goes away from a kind of more, let’s just say that, probably more modern culture in terms of queerness and in terms of Lincoln. If I’m in Los Angeles, I probably have more access to certain more cosmopolitan ideas and if I go somewhere, that probably is more than the other country. So he’s going to a place that probably has less queer resources. Lana and her family have less queer resources. We know that, the Lincoln and they’ve already proven to be anti queer. We know that. He knows that much. He’s already spent time with Lana, time with John. He knows these people. His representation is also being fashioned partly by his own knowledge, but mostly by the predicament that he’s in, that he’s in the female prison and the further predicament that he wants to hold onto his love affair with Lana and the use of any of these sophisticated terms around, I’m trans.

Kimberly Peirce: Well, if he says that he’s going to lose Lana. Right? I’m queer. I can’t say that. I’m a lesbian. I can’t say that. So also what’s interesting is the use of languages, partly by where the world had delivered him, but then largely by the audience that he’s trying to hold onto, right? What can he say to Lana to hold onto her? And they’re separated by… You know what I mean? Literally he’s reaching through the bars. So that’s really interesting. It’s like, what was his need? His need is to hold onto Lana. So what does he have to say? He has to basically couch what he’s saying in terms that are not going to tell her too much truth, because she even says, she’s like, “I don’t care what you are. I don’t care if you’re this or you’re that I’m getting you out of here.”

Kimberly Peirce: She’s also saying to him, I don’t exactly want to know exactly what you are, because if you tell me too much of what you are, that truth is going to make me have to flee, right? So there’s a… It’s consensual. Really the scene is about a consensual representation of what Brandon and Lana are doing together that is not going to shatter the situation that Lana can stay in. So those are the hoops that Brandon is jumping through. So he’s cognizant, but it’s representation. That’s interesting to me. Like that, like, whoa, those are the hardest and the most interesting scenes to write. And most of that dialogue is exactly what Brandon said, because I interviewed-

Geri Cole: Cool.

Kimberly Peirce: Yes, I would never have Brandon have called himself… I was very careful at how Brandon referred to himself. If you see… periods in the movie when Brandon does say a lot about his self representation is taken from real life, because I wouldn’t wanted to put that into Brandon’s mouth. So Lana told me, “I told him I don’t care…” And I’m not even going to try to remember exactly what I wrote, but it’s all from the transcript. She’s like, “Well, I said, you’re this, that, and the other and I don’t really care and I’m getting you out of here.” Well, boom, that goes right in the script.

Geri Cole: Okay. Wow. That was going to be another question is how true you felt like you had to be to the actual story versus creating a feature film? But obviously you want to be respectful of Brandon’s story. And it doesn’t seem like there were any corporate interests telling you to give it a happy ending or… You know what I mean? But did you have to fight any of those feedback or input of people trying to-

Kimberly Peirce: Yes. You just asked two… Well, you asked a million questions, but we’ll take the two of [crosstalk 00:35:10]. One, how real is it to the story? 100%, 1000% all the time. Any time I get access, because I had LexisNexis. I had every single article ever written. I had a whole room of research. I kind of knew almost every detail that was out there and I try to jam it all into the first draft. And the first draft was way too long and chaotic. Then I went away from the real story, then I came back. So we were always to sift the real story down into the fundamental, underlying emotional truth. So anything that came out of Brandon’s mouth, if we had a way that it was based on reality, we did. Probably the biggest change from the real story was simply the order in who met who, and that’s really important.

Kimberly Peirce: In the first drafts, Brandon met Lana. John was his nemesis and ultimately John raped and killed him. There was no story. There was just no story. If you met John as the adversary, there was nothing you could do. The idea that John and Brandon were friends on any level, you couldn’t… I mean, they were in fact friends on any level, but you couldn’t dramatically show it. So that’s probably the biggest switch. And it’s just a diurnal switch is that Brandon meets John and wants to be… And again, it’s just a continuation of Brandon’s need. Brandon wants to live in love as a man. Well, we have him start to live as a man in John’s world, then we meet Lana and then everything else pretty much follows. So it was always the underlying emotional truth. So the same thing with the rape. I had the tape, unfortunately, Brandon being interviewed by the sheriff.

Geri Cole: Oh my God!

Kimberly Peirce: Everything Brandon says in the tape recording to the sheriff is exactly what the real Brandon said and Hillary was listening to that tape as we rehearsed. I mean, that was what she was listening to going into that scene. So I was always kind of dialing backwards. It was like, “Oh my God, I have this tape. This is heartbreaking. Let me build this scene with the sheriff around this tape and then I’ll work backwards to get to it.” So let’s just say… And you can ask me any specific thing and I’ll tell you where it came from. Okay. So that was your first question. Your next question was-

Geri Cole: I don’t recall the question.

Kimberly Peirce: Well, you asked such a good question when you brought up the lying, so I don’t think that Brandon was lying. I think Brandon was surviving.

Geri Cole: Oh, and that the-

Kimberly Peirce: And the lie is important. I do want to say this. The reason the lie was important is because the perception of a lie is what gave John the justification to unleash on Brandon. So that was important. And that gets us back to… Again, we love straight white men. They’re great, but the straight white male culture that has been produced, that people of color, queers, women, trans, that we have to find ourselves within and then in our self creation we seem to violate those rules that were unfair to begin with, empowers the powers that be to unleash violence on us. Now that’s really interesting to me, is so interesting. I’m very much into Jewish history, so I’ve been watching almost all Jewish history and now looking at the Rise of the Nazis to understand… I won’t use his name, 45, but I think marginalized people, for me, understanding these structures, it’s like they make it impossible to exist. We managed to exist and then they justify their destruction of our existence. That’s interesting to me.

Geri Cole: That violence is the point. I read this really, and I don’t want to necessarily go in this direction, but I read this great article last year sometime around the George Floyd murder about how the violence is the point, that his ability to stare directly into the camera as he murdered that man was like that is the point. The blatant violence is the point.

Kimberly Peirce: Well, take a moment. We owe it to George Floyd and we owe what’s happening to African-Americans to take the moment and to honor. We know it. I mean, I owe it. You know what I mean? It’s like the violence is the point, that is profound and terrifying and real and alive right now. Yeah. So I think we do owe the moment of…

Geri Cole: Actually that makes me think of… I read that you said that you’re interested in psychological and authentic portrayals of violence, particularly violence that comes out of emotions, which I thought was like, whew, because it is… I guess, to have such a nuanced view of violence is a thing that feels very interesting to me. I think I just sort of have always… it’s like violence’s bad, but that there is this… And not to say that there’s good in violence, but that’s complicated, but yeah, I guess, can we talk a little bit about your curiosity around violence?

Kimberly Peirce: Sure. And again, I’m going to go back to you, what interested you was that it was nuanced instead of me saying violence is bad, you are interested in the fact that I want to go inside the violence? What interests you? Because-

Geri Cole: Yeah. The exploration of emotional violence and sort of where it comes from I imagine, because it was just… I think I just have sort of always felt violence’s bad, but this view of violence feels like is always here. Like it’s from the beginning of time till today. It’s like, why? Why, why, why? That idea of like, why are human beings violent? And it’s not just an easy, bad thing that… And this could be just me sort of having grown up, not exactly religious, but good versus evil kind of… Given that binary and it’s like this idea that violence comes out of emotion and there’s something else in there.

Kimberly Peirce: Of course it would make sense to want to look at violence as good versus evil, particularly if you were on the other end of violence and you wanted to not endure that violence. So as an African-American, obviously it’s like violence is bad. We need to stop the cops from doing this. We need to stop all the layers of violence against African-Americans, against queers, against women. Yes. That’s my first blush response. It’s bad. But my second blush response, and I’ll be honest here because I’ve written about it and I’m open about it for years now and it’s in my writing, I was on the other end of quite a lot of violence growing up, emotional and physical. My parents were 15 when they had me, they came out of lower middle class, there’s debates whether it was poor working class middle-class Harrisburg environment, where there was just a lot of drinking and there was a lot of promiscuity and I know there was some prostitution and there was a lot of violence.

Kimberly Peirce: So I grew up on the other end of physical violence and emotional violence. When I started to come of age and understand things, it was like, I became very anti-violence. But what I really realized was in order to heal myself, I had to understand what was going on and why that violence had been unleashed on me emotionally and physically. And what ended up happening was I had to ask, “What did those people want? What did my father want? What did my mother want? Why would you do that to a kid?” And then I looked back and I saw that had been done to them. So I found that there was an intergenerational violence and incest that was being passed down through the lineages and I was kind of the perfect storm to be at the center of all of it. And yet I was also at this bizarrely modern time when… I went to University of Chicago, I went to Columbia. I was kind of the first to be educated.

Kimberly Peirce: And what did I have? I had the tools of the master, the tools of the master were the tools of storytelling, these tools of language. And I had went to a psychotherapy. I mean for 30 years. So I realized that I had the great gift of having been abused emotionally and physically, but also having been given the great tools of education and curiosity, and from that was birthed a deep self analysis of what was done to me, what I’ve done to other people, how I’ve been encoded. And clearly the Brandon Teena story was a great intersection because it was, he just followed his dream. Well, that’s what I’m trying to do. And he was destroyed for it, but he saw there were signs. That was why in the movie, he couldn’t just fall into that world and then at the end be destroyed, A, it doesn’t work traumatically and it wasn’t realistic to what he was going through.

Kimberly Peirce: And it’s important to know. I am not saying trans people are responsible for the violence that is unleashed against them. I’m not saying people of color are responsible for it. What I am saying is sometimes, not always, there is an ability to see the systemic things at work around you and that doesn’t make you responsible for the violence that comes to you, but it does give you a level of engagement. So I’ll say I’m very much against the pornographication of violence. It’s why I said, I don’t ever want to encourage violence with my work and yet my work is very violent. So I’m trying to bring you through my understanding so that you have more humanity at the end of it. And that is really my big goal. It’s very interesting. I’ve never looked at Hitler’s image. I never looked at his eyes. I don’t want to say how old I am. I’m pretty old. I’ve never looked at his eyes. I’m a Jew. I’ve been to Israel many times. I’m very interested in Jewish history.

Kimberly Peirce: Over pandemic, just recently, for the first time I started actually looking into his eyes and I’ve been studying the Rise of the Nazis because of 45, because everybody says, “Well, he’s like Hitler.” And I’m like, “Okay, I don’t want to take that on face value. What does that really mean? What was the true historical line by which that happened and how did those people participate in that?” So my interest in violence is an interest in protecting myself because it was done to me and I don’t want it done again to me and I don’t want to have people in my life who are capable of doing it, and I don’t want to do it to other people, but it’s part of my language and my DNA I want to stop the line and the only way to do that is to be on the deepest, deepest, very specific, as you said, nuance level, understanding the gears that make violence happen and not happen. And that’s really, if you look at Boys Don’t Cry, every single beat Brandon is ineluctably getting closer to his fantasy and closer to being destroyed.

Geri Cole: We’re running out of time and I feel like I haven’t asked nearly enough questions, but I do want to, and there are some questions from the audience. So I’m sorry, audience, if I don’t get to your questions, but this is a question that I love to ask all the guests that come into the podcast because I just find it fascinating, is the idea of success. Especially as creative individuals, I feel like success can look like very different things and I feel like it often changes, your idea of success changes as you gain more success, especially having so much success straight out of the gate with this film. I wonder what your idea of success was back then and how it has evolved success now.

Kimberly Peirce: Well, first of all, I didn’t imagine that you could be successful with this movie, but… Okay. Success to me was that I would make the movie and my best friends who were trans and queer and butches that they would believe I had done a good job because I… Wait, society had done a bad job with Brandon, right? The society had raped and killed him and he was gone and dead, so I felt I needed to bring a version of him back to life in the movie. I needed to show honor to him and I need to show respect and I needed him to live in a way that showed dignity and encourage that among the viewers. That was the most important thing. And for many years, the script was bad, right? The scripts were bad. So it was kind of like it was too this or too that. It was episodic or it was broad. And I just think that’s just the process.

Kimberly Peirce: So I didn’t know that the script being bad was actually a step towards the script being good. So that was important because I always felt like I was not good enough to tell the story, but I realized now, “Oh, that was a good feeling.” Then I thought not feeling good enough to tell the story meant I wouldn’t do a good job. In fact, that’s why I did a good job because I would go home. So my idea of success was simply that the movie would come out, that the movie would even be made and that the people who reflected Brandon, who were like me, would love it. The idea that they didn’t like it would have been death to me. So that would have been a failure. So when they liked it and it began to work, that filled me with a sense of goodness that I had done a good job and that was all I really ever cared about.

Kimberly Peirce: Then as the audience grew and more and more people beyond the queer world loved it, I was also aware that that was satisfying another level of success, because if they loved it and understood it, well, those are the people who were going to be destroying the Brandons of the world. We were not just honoring Brandon. Now we were beginning to create a space whereby people might learn and be less likely to hurt queer people. So that felt amazing. And I went around the country and people loved it and that amazed me. Then when that brought me Hollywood success, that was great because I didn’t really imagine that could ever happen and that was clearly like being on steroids. That was great, right? There was The New York Times, it was the Oscars. It was all that. But that was way at the very end of the line. That wasn’t my original goal.

Kimberly Peirce: And I was always fighting to… Christy Rashaun said to me, you’ll never turn down an interview. You’ll always promote your movie. I was always working through all that. So the success was coming, but I wasn’t like stationary. It was just like, “Oh, I got to do another interview. I got to do this. I got to protect Brandon.” So I was very protected in that way. I thought that success meant that I would just become the equivalent of Martin Scorsese, that I would be given movie after movie, after movie and I would be on a set my whole life. And I know this is for the Writers Guild. So I thought I would be just writing my own… Co-writing my own movies and directing them. I had no idea that, that…

Kimberly Peirce: After the Oscar, I didn’t think that it was possible that I wouldn’t have that success because I bought into the image of myself that was being sold. And I would say, look, everything is everything. You got to buy into it and then you got to fucking buy out of it. So I bought into the constant productivity that I thought my success brought. It didn’t bring that. Why? Well, partly because I’m a female body person, I’m a queer person. I’m a trans person. I don’t wear dresses. I look like a boy most of the time. So the truth is my marginalization is why that success didn’t come to me in the way it might have come. So if I was a straight white man, the truth is you fail upwards. That’s just how it is.

Kimberly Peirce: So I think that what happened was I bought into the productivity and then I had to see… It’s funny. I was interviewed back then and people were like, is there sexism? And I’m like, “Well, if I’m successful, there’s no sexism.” Well, that was the dumbest, stupidest response I could have said and I’m mad about, but I had to say a dumb response and then hit the sexism and realize, “Okay, I’m the exception is not the rule.” Just because one African-American makes it or one gay person or one woman makes it, that’s great. It doesn’t mean the system’s not broken. So success now, look, I wish I had had all this wisdom back then. I would have handled it differently, but I have the wisdom because I didn’t handle it well. I came in and went.

Kimberly Peirce: Anyway the point now is what is success? Success is still writing and directing my own material, but the beautiful thing is because the world didn’t let me make the 30 movies I wanted to make, well, I went out and had quite a big TV career. And what did I get to do? I mean, I got to direct John Ridley’s show, American Crime. I got to direct Katori Hall’s show Pussy Valley. I mean, I got to direct Justin Simien show, Dear White People. I got to direct Joey Soloway show, I Love Dick. I could go on.

Geri Cole: He’s so good.

Kimberly Peirce: Each of those shows, as it turns out, I’ve also done some straight… Oh, I did Kidding with Jim Carrey. So I did a straight white male show, which is to say, I am what I am, but I always thought that a great director could direct anything. So I’ve done comedy, I’ve done drama, I’ve done queer stuff. I’ve done straight stuff. I’ve done… I think a great fortune is that people of color have allowed me to direct their material, which I think just deepens my sense of dignity and respect. So I think in a way with the world denied me because I didn’t get that job at HBO, I made Boys Don’t Cry. Because I didn’t always get to direct my own movies, well, I got to work for great acteurs they sharpen up my skills as a writer and a director.

Kimberly Peirce: So to me, success is literally waking up every single day and getting my energy together and just making story, whether I’m writing a story, whether I’m directing a story, whether I’m editing a story, every single day I have to be in service of telling a batter, better story and when I’m really lucky, the world gives me resources, whatever, millions of dollars and cameras and crew and actors. And when those days don’t happen, I still have to wake up and I still have to fix that script, every single day. And be humble, like this interview with you. A couple of times you asked me a question, but you had a great question within your question and even you backed off, but it was interesting for me to want to hear your question and not just hear my own prefabricated ideas. Do you know what I mean? I want to grow from this interview the same way I want to grow every time I write.

Geri Cole: Wow. Thank you so much. I feel like that’s a good place to end, but I feel really bad actually for not answering any of the audience questions… Asking the audience question, so I’m going to ask one because I feel like it actually ties into the last thing you were just talking about, which is you began your career as a writer, director, but now often direct things that others have written. What is a specific quality that you see in a script that makes you say, “Wow, I want to direct this.”?

Kimberly Peirce: Oh, I’ll tell you. When I read Justin Simien’s work, Katori Hall’s work, Joey Soloway’s work, John Ridley’s work. I mean, I could go on, any of the shows that I’ve done and any of the scripts that I’m considering it’s from page one, from word one, this writer has a human being in their sight, in their heart, in their soul and that human being is engaging, is committed, is clear in their life need and the actions that they take to pursue that life need and I fall inside and I’m with them. They don’t always have to be kind, they don’t always have to be… They have to be anything. They just have to be a clear character that wants something that’s moving forward and I can just tell you like Katori Hall, who’s brilliant, Uncle Clifford. And if everybody’s watched Pussy Valley, Uncle Clifford is a gorgeous human being and you meet Uncle Clifford right away and you’re just like, “I am with Uncle Clifford.” And Uncle Clifford is unusual. Uncle Clifford has a certain way.

Kimberly Peirce: I mean, I had to learn particular ways of speaking in language. He just commit fully and that’s what the great actors do, commit fully. And that’s the thing, commit fully and have a good heart and move through something that actually wakes you up at night and makes you want to write it. Too often I get a script, as I said, and it’s just like, “Oh, there’s a woman who’s been raped or a girl who’s been raped and her vagina’s been violated.” I’m just like, “Really? This is where you’re going to start me. Why? Why are you going to start me there? Because you think that that’s what a story looks like. That’s not what a story looks like. Go back to all the stories that your family told you, you learned in your culture. What are the things that stayed with you? We have people doing things that you give a about.”

Geri Cole: The idea that a story needs to start with violence against women.

Kimberly Peirce: What is your raison de’tre? So don’t go for the easy thing. And just always ask yourself, who are the characters I love? One of the movies that I go back to… I mean, pandemic gave me a chance to reread Oedipus, to reread Death of a Salesman, to go back and watch all my favorite movies. And that’s the thing to remember is like, why are they your favorites? It’s because there’s a character, right? Whether it’s Dog Day Afternoon, whether it’s Casablanca, whether it’s Y tu mamá también, whether it’s Notorious. I might go on, but those characters are indelible and their want is clear and they pursue it relentlessly.

Geri Cole: Man, we’re out of time. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Kimberly Peirce: My pleasure.

Geri Cole: This was so much fun. Thank you audience for joining us for our OnWriting Pride Month Live Talks. Again, Kimberly, thank you so much. This film is incredible. It’s incredible. It’s holds up. Not everything from 20 years ago still has the impact when you watch it today and it really is just a beautiful film. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Kimberly Peirce: My pleasure. Thanks everybody.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at And you could follow the Guild on social media @WGAEast. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening and write on.



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