Emotional isolation born from being different. A desperate need for love and acceptance. The vicious cruelty with which those needs can sometimes be rejected. All are themes that figured prominently in Kimberly Peirce’s acclaimed directorial debut, “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), featuring Oscar winner Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, a real-life transgender man raped and murdered by male acquaintances.
Years later, MGM executives would recognize these same themes in a very different project the studio was eyeing: an update of “Carrie,” the Stephen King horror tale turned into a blood-soaked screen classic by stylistic virtuoso Brian De Palma in 1976. (It was King’s first novel, and De Palma’s breakout as well.) And so, in an intriguing example of Hollywood suits daring to think creatively – you read that right – MGM offered the remake to Peirce. Despite the filmmaker’s ultra-discriminating sensibility – since “Boys,” her lone feature credit had been the 2008 military drama “Stop-Loss” – she signed on for the movie, which opens Friday. Chloë Grace Moretz (“Hugo,” “Kick-Ass”) plays Carrie.
“My reaction when they contacted me was just curiosity,” says Peirce, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “I’m friends with De Palma, and I’m a huge fan of his movie. So why would we [remake] it, and what would it be like? What I saw was an opportunity to modernize it, because a lot of the things that Stephen King was writing about 40 years ago are even more timely now.”
A little background, for those either too young or too genre-oblivious to know their pig’s blood from pigs-in-blankets: The original movie starred Oscar-nominee Sissy Spacek as Carrie White, a teen outsider tormented by mean girls at school, and abused at home by her fundamentalist mother (Piper Laurie, also nominated). She menstruates for the first time in the girls’ locker room, panics that she’s bleeding to death, and becomes an even bigger peer target. The stress causes her to manifest telekinetic powers. When the bullying escalates into a humiliating prom-night prank, Carrie unleashes those powers, catastrophically. Soon-to-be-familiar faces Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, William Katt, John Travolta, and Betty Buckley, as Carrie’s gym teacher and surrogate mom, are all caught in the fallout.
King, who kept his distance from the new film, seems to have had the same question as Peirce. “I’ve heard rumblings about a ‘Carrie’ remake,” he told Entertainment Weekly at the time the project was ramping up. “The real question is why, when the original was so good? I mean, not ‘Casablanca’ or anything, but a really good horror-suspense film, much better than the book. Piper Laurie really got her teeth into the bad-mom thing.” And yet, Laurie’s zealous performance is also one of the elements that can take a contemporary audience out of the movie at points. Ditto for Spacek and her castmates, then in their mid-20s, playing high-schoolers. Or the gleefully fetishy opening (peekaboo!) of that fateful locker room scene. The pre-CG special effects are a negligible issue, by comparison.
Sure, “Carrie” had been revisited before – in a contrived 1999 sort-of sequel, “The Rage: Carrie 2,” and an equally lacking 2002 TV adaptation. But in 2013, a redo offered an opportunity to take a freshly cutting look at the dangers of bullying, an issue now very much on the nation’s social-crisis radar. Here, Carrie’s shower-stall episode gets uploaded to youtube. (School-targeted violence is clearly a thornier issue in the wake of Columbine and other tragedies; Peirce talks frequently about wanting the movie to play like “a superhero origin story” and “a culprit narrative” in which justice is clearly being served.)
Then there were those inherently fascinating family dynamics. “I think the most profound change I was able to bring to this was in the mother-daughter relationship,” says Peirce, who cast Julianne Moore opposite Moretz. Referencing an especially gnarly home-birth scene that now opens the story, she says, the two characters “are madly in love with each other but also madly in conflict with each other from the beginning.”
Peirce downplays a recurring publicity angle about the significance of such a female-centric story finally being put in female hands. “That being said,” she concedes, “we all have particular life experiences. Coming into this movie as a woman, and having had relationships with other women, there are going to be certain insights I can bring to bear, simply by my circumstances. So perhaps that [explains] why I was so focused on that relationship. The movie is about Carrie and her need to get love and acceptance, but the mother-daughter relationship is really the engine that drives it.”
Peirce got particular satisfaction from Moretz and Moore’s reprise of a classic scene (if a choreographically creaky one) in which Carrie is hauled into a closet to do twisted penance. “At first, Chloë was deferring to Julianne,” she recalls. “I said to Chloë, ‘Don’t show her respect. Fight like hell to save yourself. You are not getting in that closet.’ So they’re both using all of their might, and if you watch Chloë’s face, there’s a level of terror and refusal that’s not acting, it’s doing. It’s a moment where I swear I saw Chloë grow up.”
The director welcomed the chance to coach this sort of metamorphosis – a familiar challenge after “Boys Don’t Cry.” “Shake Chloë’s hand sometime, and she’ll crack your fingers,” Peirce says with a laugh. “She’s super-confident. And Carrie is beaten down and very naïve. So I took Chloë to lunch and said, ‘You’re very different from this girl, but it’s a great opportunity for us. I want to do with you what I did with Hilary in ‘Boys’ – revolutionize you and take you through this transformation.’ And she was completely game.”
“It was just about trying to find vulnerabilities,” says Moretz, 16, also calling from L.A., and sounding every bit as maturely self-aware as advertised. “When you’re a girl that’s traveled around the world, and you have an income on your own and everything that comes with being an actor, [playing] someone this unknowing is a different life, you know? You have to find the insecurities within yourself to do that.”
Of course, it probably helps to have a screen mom who’s descended into irrational, self-mutilating fanaticism that borders on mental illness. But just as Moretz’s Carrie is a tweaked incarnation, more actively involved in her tumultuous world than simply bewildered by it, Moore’s Margaret White is meant to seem more grounded, too, in her way. “We wanted to show that Margaret has gone off the deep end and has her own religion,” says Peirce. “But we didn’t want to lapse into caricature, because we’ve got a country that’s aware of a lot of different strains of religion, and of fundamentalism. We’ve seen religion on the front page, we’ve seen it in the mainstream, we’ve even seen Julianne play Sarah Palin.
“At the same time, it’s supposed to be a fun, entertaining movie,” she says. “Even if a character like Margaret is ‘real,’ she’s pushed to excess. Now that’s challenging, because everything is realistic in my other movies,” Peirce laughs. “I never had any danger of hyperbole in ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’”Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.