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10/18/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Interview: Director Kimberly Peirce on Remaking Carrie

Writer-director Kimberly Peirce burst onto the film scene in 1999 with the gut-wrenching docudrama Boys Don't Cry, which also netted star Hilary Swank the first of her two Academy Awards. For her latest directorial effort, Peirce has entered genre territory by tackling MGM's new adaptation of Carrie, the seminal Stephen King novel that was first brought to the screen in 1976 by director Brian De Palma (and which has been remade and sequelized a few times since).

For Peirce, the decision to mount a new remake such an iconic film (with Chloë Grace Moretz stepping into Sissy Spacek's shoes as the troubled teen with the TK) came not from a desire to step over De Palma, but rather to pay homage to King's prose. As she explains in our lengthy chat, she put a lot of thought and effort into making her version of Carrie (which also stars Julianne Moore) stand out and stand apart. Check out the transcript below (but be aware that there may be some spoilers about the film's climax, so tread lightly):

First, why is a remake of Carrie a worthwhile endeavor, and what made it worthwhile for you specifically?

Well, I think it's a worthwhile endeavor because the source material is so fundamentally brilliant, and that, to me, is why every few years I reread Oedipus. It's why I love rereading Shakespeare. Why I love the original Scarface and then, you know, Oliver Stone's Scarface. Inherently great source material that has a great character in every story to me it's just pleasurable to read it. So a re-imagining to me is...it's an opportunity, particularly with this story, so that's my general take on that. But then, particularly looking at what Stephen King did, his writing of Carrie is absolutely brilliant. He's writing from his subconscious, he was writing of his era, female empowerment, ostracization. He was writing about superpowers.

All of those things were really relevant and wonderful then, but they're even more timely and powerful now than they were, which, it's kind of like he was seeing into the future. If you look at what social media, the use of Twitter and cell phones and taking photographs of everything we experience, and videos, and uploading it, and people commenting on it, and the ability that that has to both cause pleasure and pain. I mean, that's just maximizing human life, so that is amazing. I think the other thing is that Carrie White is a seminal character. She's an outcast. She wants love and acceptance, and faces extraordinary obstacles to getting it.

From the girls at school who give her a hard time, from her mother who both loves her but has ways of raising her that are really limiting to her. I think her discovery of her superpowers goes right to the deeper end to that, and to see her discover those superpowers as an antidote to her outcastedness was a way of finding meaning and safety in the world, and yet we knew it was gonna ramp up. I tried to add scenes where she's exploring those powers. We have an understanding that she doesn't have control of them. And in particular the Cinderella story.

We all want to go to the ball, essentially. We want to wear the beautiful clothes, we want to have a love. We want to take that dance. I just think it was just something that everybody could relate to, and we could see through a new lens, and in particular the revenge story was very powerful to me. That this was a story of right and wrong and that there was justice. That if we loved Carrie White deep enough, and we identified with her, and we were anticipating that the bad girl was gonna take it all away from her, then there would be a justifiable sort of sweetness to the revenge that she would take.

I'd love for you to elaborate on that a little bit, the idea that if you push a character far enough, we as an audience are okay with the reaction that occurs as a result. There was that part of me that was like "Yeah!" as she's wreaking havoc through the gym. 

Yeah, and that's a really interesting...I mean, I always like to implicate the audience if I can. It's something I dealt with in Boys Don't Cry and in my last movie. But I want you to see both sides. I want you to, when somebody is doing wrong to Carrie, to partly feel bad but also be like, "I think I understand why that would happen. I get why Chris [Portia Doubleday] is giving her a hard time." And by the same instances when you say, "Oh, you enjoyed when she was taking that revenge." So as a director, you know that that could go wrong. You know that if the audience is not fully invested in Carrie or fully invested in the circumstances, they just might not totally relate to that.

So getting to the point where they felt like, "Yeah, we want her to get them back," it's fascinating. You aim for that. And I also think it's okay that we want certain things happen in movies that we don't want to happen in real life. If somebody wrongs me in my real life, I don't go and take revenge. I'd like to. I always fantasize that there's a way to do that but I just know ethically and morally I generally can't do that. However, when I go to the movies, I get to find great pleasure, satisfaction, and get behind that, 'cause I think movies allow us to play out things that we would not play out in real life.

In the climatic scene after when the blood falls and she comes to her full potential. I noticed that there was almost a theatrical quality to the way that the blood was spattered on her face. It almost looked like a mask or if you will like a costume.

Is that a good thing?

I thought it was interesting. It was almost like this is her heroic/anti-heroic identity.

Yeah, that's very perceptive of you to say. We spent a lot of  time thinking about when the blood spills, what it would look like. And actually, if you look, half of her face is more monstrous, and if you look at half her face it's more human. So it's designed with that duality because I think at its core she is a beautiful human monster. She is a human who becomes monstrous and excessive, who goes over certain boundaries, and then what I love is she ends up feeling it.

Like, that's why after she hunts down Chris and Billy, she's going home, she's crying, "Mama, mama, mama," and she's seeking the solace and the comfort of her mother's arms. And then of course her mother invites her to pray with her, and she surrenders to it, but the mother has something else in store for her. So certainly in the way that the blood fell on her, everything was thought through, but of course we were doing tests with blood to make sure it still felt real.

To that point, this story has been told twice before, what were some of the other things that you took care to distinguish it from the previous tellings?

The first was modernizing it and making sure that social media and using cell phones and recording and uploading and that getting out of control, in particular I interviewed principals and teachers, even the last five years there's an unawareness among them about these incidents, which is why I added the teacher [Judy Greer] saying, "That video could end up on the Today show. What would that do?" Because that would be a threat to the girl's future, a threat to the lawyer father, and it would be a reality that the school would be dealing with. So that was something that was important to make, by also making sure that I added in that it came back, it needed to come back.

That's why the video that she takes of Carrie's most vulnerable and horrible moment ends up at the prom, and that's another layer of the humiliation. I felt that we had to amplify the humiliation beyond what we had seen before. In particular, the mother-daughter relationship to me was the heart and soul of the movie, so I added that new scene in the beginning which I'm really excited about which starts you off in the mother daughter love affair and is the fuse that drives the entire movie. I also amplified the climax between the mother and daughter.

That's a fair fight and a fight to the death between them where Carrie wants to win over her mother's love, her mother feels compelled to solve the problem that she noticed from the beginning: "Is this child evil?" Because the child has powers, because the child exposes Margaret's own potential sin. It was important to me that as Margaret's going after Carrie, if you notice, Carrie's powers are leaking out beyond her control. That was really important to me and that when they fight they go at it, no holds barred.

That to me is what the movie really needed. From the beginning that's a ticking clock, it's a ticking bomb kind of waiting to explode. And of course the revenge tale. I needed you to be fully invested in it by making you fall in love with Carrie. It was like having Chloe Moretz, who was 15 when she played the part, who is naturally vulnerable, who is a brilliant actress, who's charismatic, who still really is a daughter to her own mother in her own family structure, I feel like you want to adopt Carrie. I think you get very invested in her vulnerability, and that was really important to me.

And then, of course, casting Julianne Moore. It was vital to me that we ground Margaret White and Carrie White's relationship in a reality even though they're fictional characters. And if you notice, we added Margaret inflicting harm on herself. She cuts herself, she bangs her head, those are really important to me and Julianne, and as Julianne said, Margaret doesn't want to hit her daughter. She would rather hurt herself, but she will hurt her daughter in order to protect her daughter from the outside world if she sees it's dangerous.

And getting inside the psychology, the craziness of Margaret White, was both exciting but also really challenging. You had to buy the relationship, and you had to be deeply invested in it. I believe everybody walks away with that it's a real mother-daughter relationship and that they really love each other. And if you notice, even in the end scene Carrie's still trying to protect her mother, even as her powers - and this is something that we were able to add because of technology - even as her powers are wreaking havoc on the world around them.

The other thing that was really important was the super power, I thought it was a superhero origin story when Carrie comes to power, so I spent a lot of time in my adaptation making sure that there was more use of the powers, that she was exploring them but that she didn't have control of them. If you notice, in the book scene the books go haywire. If you notice the prom scene I made the trigger point very specific. When Tommy goes down, it's a kind of grief that Carrie's powers unleash.

It's not out of rage at first, it's first grief and then it's rage. And I made it really clear that she's hunting down the people who did this to her so that the revenge, when you say it was fun to watch, I think it's fun because you have permission, 'cause there's a sense of right and wrong to it. So those are the kinds of things that I just felt, "I can do this differently because this is how I see things," and I can really, in my adaptation, really strengthen those areas.

One connective thread I find - I mean, there's many between Boys Don't Cry and this film - but it's the idea of bullies, and the psychology of bullying. 

Absolutely.

Having told these stories, where does that human urge to be horrible to other people come from? 

I mean, unfortunately as I get older, even though I would say I was younger when I did Boys and I was drawn to it, I think that human relationships are inherently political. I think that whether it's your family, it's at school, at work, you're in constant relationship with other people. And sometimes those relationships...people foster them with love, and affection, and support, and that creates the best of part of human existence, and then other times it's a fight to the death for power. And you look, again, look in the interactions with you and other people.

Look at your interactions with groups. Power is a pie that's divvied up, and everybody wants a piece of it. And so for instance, for me, with say Chris Hargensen, the antagonist, when I looked at that story, I was like, "Wow, you can't just go from Chris throwing tampons at Carrie to Chris dumping that blood at the prom." You have to make sense of why Chris cares so much about Carrie. Why they're so intertwined. What I found was, in the way that I was doing the rewrite and the adaptation, I found a certain amount of power in that school.

She's the queen bee. She's used to Carrie being the underdog and getting no attention. Therefore, when Sue [Gabriella Wilde] takes up Carrie's cause and wants to protect her, compounded by the teacher wanting to protect Carrie, compounded Chris' father saying, "Chris, give him the phone," I built it so that Chris was constantly losing power to Carrie, and Chris felt victimized. Chris is like, "Well, why are they taking up her cause?" So Chris is retaliating against Carrie to get back power that she feels she's losing. Again, I think people can be mean just to be mean, but I think there's a reason underneath it, which is they're getting something. They're getting power, they're getting a sense of superiority, they're getting an opportunity, and that's how that escalates to me. That's one way that I think people are mean.

People are mean because  they won't let that person have what they think that person has because  they want to be more comfortable and more powerful in their life. I love that. You look at The Godfather, that's what's underneath The Godfather. You look at any great piece of art, and chances are if you look at your own life, you're gonna see people acting out of that venal desire to have more. And then I think more enlightened people tend to realize, y'know, you don't need more to be happy, that happiness comes from any other thing. Chris is a wounded girl as well, and I love that.

And then what is Sue? Sue is kind of between the two girls. That's a girl who's living a life of privilege, and I love that Sue makes the wrong choice in donating her boyfriend to Carrie White. That's the choice of what a privileged girl is gonna do, she doesn't know any better, so she's like, "Oh, I have this thing of privilege, this beautiful boyfriend," instead of saying "I'm sorry" and getting to know Carrie, which would have been harder and would have been the right solution, she did what a person of privilege does: "Here's charity."

Well, charity doesn't always solve problems. Charity is nice, right? And then it goes haywire. So, it was interesting to me that Sue had to make the wrong choice. Chris is a wounded girl trying to get power striking out against Carrie because she feels like she's losing power, until, just, the ultimate thing. I love the car scene. I got to really amplify that. If you notice, the showdown between Chris & Billy and Carrie is much bigger, and that to me was really fun because it was...Chris is going to be driven by the need she's been driven by the whole time: she's a wounded girl who doesn't want to see Carrie win.

And so while Chris should give up and drive out of town, what does Chris do? "Run her down. Run her down." (laughter) It was so much fun writing and directing acting that because it was just like, wow, Chris is going to take this is to the 20th gear, she is going to go farther and farther. And even Billy, if you notice, he looks at her. He's like, "I'm not gonna run her down!" But again, out of weakness, out of love, he wants to hold onto Chris, he thinks the only way to hold onto Chris is go along with it, so what's he gonna do? He's gonna run Carrie down.

If you talk about the pleasure as a director, it's having those actors, having those elements, and creating the most dramatic scenes that I love. We all love good conflicts. I think we've got great conflicts here, y'know? Did I answer your question about why people are mean?

Absolutely, and you gave me a whole lot more too.

Good. I think it's about...I think people want to feel more safer and more powerful in the world, and I think that's where it comes from. I think that they think it's gonna do that, and I don't think it does, but it does it in the short term. And again, I love groups. That's why I think if you look at Boys and you look at this movie, how the girls act in the shower is differently from how they would act individually. How Billy acts when he's under Chris' thumb is differently than how he'd act on his own.

The end of the film seems to point towards a possibility of continuing on. Is that something you're interested in doing?

I'm always open to revisiting my characters, but that was not done with that intent. It really was...people love Carrie in this version, it was really interesting. And they loved the powers that she had - I think because we amplified the powers and because she was so young. I think they really cared about her, and there was something about her essence that they wanted to continue, and that was something I struggled with.

Like wow, how do I honor the story and how do I...y'know, it was interesting, on Boys Don't Cry we faced a similar situation. People loved Brandon and they wanted some essence of Brandon, but not necessarily Brandon because then you violate the story, so it was quite tricky trying to satisfy your audience. And at the end of the day I love my audience, and you're trying to listen to what they're wanting.

*****

Big thanks to Kimberly Peirce for her time and her fascinating insights. You can check out her adaptation of Carrie now at a theater near you. To hear the audio from this interview, be sure to listen to episode 33 of the MovieFilm Podcast!

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