Kimberly Peirce Talks Telling a Mother/Daughter Story, Modernizing an Iconic Property, the Level of Violence and Sex, Bullying, and More on the Set of CARRIE

     July 16, 2013


When it was first announced that a new feature film adaptation of Carrie was in the works, most assumed that Screen Gems would bring in someone versed in the horror genre to direct.  It came as a pleasant surprise, however, when Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss helmer Kimberly Peirce signed on to take the helm this new version.  Peirce has proven incredibly adept at telling stories about outsiders or people that don’t quite fit in, making her a swell choice to bring the story of the titular bullied teenager to life.  Moreover, it’s refreshing to see a female-led story actually being told by a female filmmaker.

While visiting the Toronto set of Carrie late last summer with a handful of other journalists, Peirce graciously sat down with us for a lengthy chat about her take on Carrie.  She talked about her initial hesitation about the prospect of a Carrie remake, how she personally connected with the material, wanting to tell a mother/daughter story, working with Chloe Grace Moretz before filming began in order to break her down and introduce her to victims of physical and emotional abuse, updating Stephen King’s novel for the modern day, the film’s R-rating and approach towards violence and sexuality, working with Julianne Moore, and much more.  Hit the jump to read on.

carrie-poster-internationalQuestion:  You’re making a movie that’s been made before and it’s a book.  How do you keep the surprise and shock in the movie?

KIMBERLY PEIRCE:  It’s a great question, I think it’s always a challenge when you’re telling a story that people know.  But hopefully, good storytelling — well, there’s two things.  One is, you definitely have to have surprises and changes so that people are — you keep them interested, you take them down roads that they didn’t expect and give them suspense and surprise.  But also, if you do really good storytelling, things that people also might anticipate and that they might have seen before — there’s a reason we go back to stories that we love — so, even if there is a familiarity, if you can do it a different way and hopefully do it well enough, you actually feel the satisfaction of that anticipation given back to you.  I think it’s why we’re able to look at with comic book stories or origin stories, why is it that we can keep retelling these stories over and over?  And hopefully it’s because it hits something so universal and so primal inside of us that we actually yearn for that same story over and over.  But toned and different form, and updated and modernized, and I can go into the specifics. 

Can you talk about your take on the remake and how you approached it? How did you pitch your idea for this movie?

PEIRCE:  When I heard about the project, I was at first not suspicious so much as just not sure.  Because, actually I’m friends with [Brian] De Palma, we’ve hung out a ton, years ago we were quite close — not that we aren’t now but he’s living in Europe.  When the idea came up I just thought, “I love Brian.  I love Brian’s movie.  I don’t know why I would do that.”  And then, I had some really exciting meetings with the studio and then I picked up the book.  My fiancée and I go to the Middle East every winter because she’s from Turkey, so I had the book, and I actually read it cover-to-cover three times.  I had read it when I was younger but to read it being older it’s like, “Wow!”  That thing is a page turner, it’s pure pop, it’s totally fun and exciting.  I think the first thing was, just in re-reading the book, it completely grabbed me and it was exciting. 

Then I was like, “Oh, I understand why they thought of me for this.”  Because at first it wasn’t so clear and I was like — not to say that you tread the same territory but these are issues that I’ve written about, I’ve filmed before, I love relationship stories.  I don’t want to call this a tragedy and say it’s depressing, but it definitely has that kind of structure.  I love the rise and fall, I love a small town, I love an ensemble cast — I mean, I go crazy for that.  As I read it, you know, I love violence, I love humor, I love emotional violence and physical violence.  So, as I was reading it and the pages were turning and I fell so deeply in love with Carrie again, it was like, “Oh!  Regardless if there had been another movie, even if it was a movie I loved and respected, this is a story I would make a movie of.”  I think that that’s the first point. 

carrie-chloe-grace-moretz-ansel-elgortThe second point, I don’t like to think of it as a remake, even if it is.  I like to say, “Okay, what’s our movie going to be?”  And with all due respect to De Palma, because he’s brilliant, I love him, what I did see was an opportunity to do something different.  Not better, not worse, just different.  Which was, I feel like in some ways, the book has a more expanded canvas so a lot of the characters are more fleshed out in the middle.  A lot of that film rises and it falls.  But I think that what I saw in the book — and let’s kind of put his film aside — was a chance to really develop Chris as your villain, which was, “Who is Chris and why is she gonna pick on this girl and how does it escalate?”  And actually what we built in is — not to give it away but — Sue actually starts the catalyst of the problem.  She’s the first person who does something in that locker room and that sets off a chain reaction with the other girls, so Chris follows.  There is one thing that I really love that we found which is, it’s period blood, period blood is strange.  So, if somebody had period blood and touched you, “Oh my God!”  There’s a realization that that’s a really awkward moment.  There was a reality when we were writing it and staging it that we got to built upon.  

What I love about our Chris is, she’s totally right that her life is getting totally effed up because of Carrie White.  I made sure to make it that you really saw things through Chris’s point of view — the same thing with Margaret.  Margaret White is an amazing character because she’s always right.  What does she say?  “Don’t go out there, the boys are going to come and they’re going to want to lay you.”  “Don’t go out there the people are going to laugh at you.”  “Don’t go, there’s going to be a judgment.”  That was the other thing in reading the book it was like, “Wow!  Not only is Chris right in her own way, so is Margaret.  Oh, so is Sue.  You can complicate Sue.”  And that’s just how I look at characters, they’re all right.  I love all of them and that a great story hopefully is they’re all right, they all have rationale and reason, and they all come at each other and that’s where the explosion happens.  For me, the remake really is just a make.  It’s, “Let’s make a good movie.”  

carrie-chloe-grace-moretz-julianne-mooreWhat intrigued me most about De Palma’s film was the relationship between Margaret and Carrie.  Is that something you can just start fresh and explore, and even deepen from what De Palma did the first time?

PEIRCE:  Yes and yes.  Again, let’s pay all due respect to De Palma and put him over here so we’re not saying, “Mine’s deeper, mine’s better.”  Let’s just say, in reading the book, what I fell in love with was this mother-daughter story that was so amazing and so profound.  One of the reasons I love Chinatown and actually always comes to mind what he was able to achieve is, “What is a mother?  A mother is somebody who’s willing to sacrifice themselves for a child.”  And that’s really what Margaret is — Margaret loves her daughter to no end.  There’s never a moment in the book or the movie where Margaret is not acting out of love and protection of her daughter.  But of course she does it in a way that ends up creating a series of events that sets in motion other series of events.  Yes, absolutely for me, that mother-child relationship is really at the heart of the movie.  I would say it’s the spine but I don’t want to take away from Chris and Carrie, and Sue and Carrie.  But yeah, there was a huge opportunity with both those actresses that I have with the fundamental storytelling and the journey that Carrie and Margaret go on.  We’ve been able, like the book, to kind of take the story farther because actually, we get into the town destruction.  You know, there were certain reasons why they couldn’t do that back then but because we can, it just means that we can tell that full arc of the story.

You mentioned loving violence.  Can we talk about your approach to violence in this film?  And the scenes that you’re about to shoot in the next three weeks, what do you have planned?  Is it going to be R-rated?

PEIRCE:  The movie is R-rated, definitely.  We’ve actually shot some of the violence and the thing that makes me happy is, like I said, I like violence because I like looking at it and I like understanding emotional and physical violence and how they work with one another… It’s operating in all these levels of hopefully — Oedipus is one of my favorite stories, that’s like falling down a well when you read that — so that would be the hope, that each thing causes the next.  

carrie-chloe-grace-moretzAre you using her telekinesis more like in the book or less as in the movie?  How does it lend itself to the storytelling?

PEIRCE:  We are using it as it is in the book, which is more.  The thing that’s amazing about the book is, with the blood comes the powers.  These are powers that Carrie has that are leaking out.  At first, she doesn’t understand she has them, then in the middle part she has them more and more, and she starts to look at them and think, “Oh.  Maybe I can use these for good, maybe I can have fun with them.”  Then you start to realize that she realizes, “These are things that could hurt people and I don’t want to hurt people with them.”  So, she’s trying to refuse using them and in the end, they leak out.  What I aimed for was to write more of an arc for those powers.  It is in some ways a superhero origin story but her being the kind of superhero that Carrie is.  That was something that I saw in the book, again, it’s that middle part, “Wow.  You can complicate Sue, you can complicate Chris, you can complicate the powers and you can grow them.”  I think that in that way you get a full arc.

I was curious about how gory the movie gets.  You have the potential to get more gory, do you do a lot of that practically or what’s your take on doing that kind of blood and stuff on set?

PEIRCE:  You try to do as much as you can on set because practical looks cool and practical looks great.  Until you get to a point where the reality is you look at it — and I went through this in my last movie which was a war film, which my brother fought in Iraq and I did a ton of research and as much as I could made it documentary-like — and then at some point on set, the reality is somebody says to you, “You know, you can use a real squib and you can have three hours of clean up and you can lose five shots or we can do that blood explosion in post and you can get those five extra shots.”  It’s not because you don’t look practical and you’d rather not do it old-school but in the end you gotta tell the story.  There are a number of times when we have found, there’s a number of old-school special effects in here that are fantastic, but there are definitely some times that we went digital and you’re not going to tell the difference, I don’t think.  I think it just serves the storytelling because that’s just the era that we live in.  

The theme of bullying is very pressing these days, when the first film was done without social carrie-julianne-moore-chloe-moretzmedia in the 70’s, it wasn’t as pressing but now it’s an every-day thing and there’s a real response to it.  How do you feel like this film and level of violence is going to relate or is that pure fantasy as far as the film’s concerned?

PEIRCE:  I, as a person alive in our world who has made a movie about bullying with Boys Don’t Cry and then a movie about the war, that’s just a thing that in my life I’m very aware of but at the same time — and the movie certainly reflects a reality of that.  But the thing that drew me to the story, if it was only a bullying story, I don’t think there would’ve been enough to make this kind of movie about.  I think what ends up happening is, there’s an authenticity and reality to the times that it’s happening in that actually De Palma was kind of ahead of his time.  I think that the movie is coming out when this stuff is real but I think the story itself is still a fantasy story, it’s a superhero story, it’s a supernatural story, it’s a thriller, it has horror elements. 

The book is very brutal, not only in its violence but its sexuality, especially between Billy and Chris.  How do you deal with that without being exploitative or is very much of that relationship in this version of the story?

PEIRCE:  A lot more of that relationship is in it but that’s a great question.  I deal with a lot of sexuality and I deal with a lot of violence in my movies.  I’m interested in it and the goal is never to be exploitative.  The goal really is, “How deep can you go?  How much can you show?  How explicit can you be but never cross the line of exploitation?”  It’s something I’m thinking about when I’m writing a script, it’s something I’m thinking about when I’m filming.  But sometimes in the filming you say, “Let me go a little too far so I can find where that edge is.  In the editing room, I can pull it back.”  In Boys Don’t Cry, we did seven edits of the rape scene and we just kept previewing it to audiences and previewing it to audiences.  There was the reality of what really happened and then there was the movie reality, and it was fascinating.  We got to a point where nobody turned away.  Right?  Screen it over and over and over, and you avoid that.   You’re like, “Oh.  I’ve reached that threshold of how much is enough to touch them and affect them but it’s not so much that then I lose them.”  I think you’re asking that question every day, you’re always saying, “How much is too much?”  And I think you cross the line in order to come back from the line.  

carrie-chloe-grace-moretzCan you talk about Chloe?  Carrie is one of the more iconic female roles in the horror genre.  What was it about her that made her a perfect Carrie for this new story.

PEIRCE:  It’s fascinating.  When I met her, I said to her, “You’re very young.”  Which was very good for the role because it was very age-appropriate, right?  It was about a high school girl and she was young.  And I said, “And what’s interesting is, you’ve done mostly younger roles.  But this is a role where you actually have to be a young adult.  You have to be a young woman.”  And I said to her, “Therefore, you actually have to go through something that you haven’t gone through yet in your own life.”  She hadn’t gone to prom, she hadn’t done certain things.  I said, “We need to set off a teenage rebellion in your life.”  And I actually said, “You need to move out of your house.”  And she was like, “Okay, Kim.  I’ll do it.”  She couldn’t do it but I think that was always the nature of what we said, “I have somebody who’s in the upper side of childhood, who has to move into young womanhood.”  That was kind of the exercises.  I did with her what I did with Hilary [Swank] on Boys and Peter [Sarsgaard], and what I did with Channing [Tatum] in Stop-Loss.  

It was really, we’re going to grown you into this role so that you can revolt, rebel, and go against the adult figures in your life.  There was one moment on set when I said to her, “I think you were a little too old.”  She said, “Well, you told me grow up.”  And I said, “Yes I did.  I did.  But for this scene we gotta dial you a little bit back down.”  What’s been amazing has been — again, with all humility I say this —  but I’m really proud of her.  I think that you’re going to see that she has transformed in this movie.  She has really gone from a fantastic older child actress moving into adulthood into — I think what this taps into is young womanhood.  I mean, young personhood, it could be boy or girl.  This happens to be the story of a young girl and it’s wonderful there are times, especially once Julianne got here — all the stuff was really good.  But I think what happened with her and Julianne because it was so intimate — I think we shot it for three and half weeks at the White house, I think we all lost track of time — but there really is a relationship between mother-daughter.  I think that she was growing her up.  I’m really proud of all of it but really that.  

chloe-grace-moretz-carrieIf I had to typecast Sissy Spacek and Chloe Moretz, I would say that Chloe has a much more assured, assertive personality.  How is this addressed for that character?

PEIRCE:  That was a huge challenge and that’s what I said to her when I first met her.  I said, “We gotta beat that little confident person out of you.”  I said, “The truth is, you’re walking the red carpet, you’re working with Martin Scorsese, with Tim Burton, the world loves you, your family loves you.  That’s great for you as an individual and you’re going to hold on to that but for this movie, we have to take all that confidence and security, and A-personality and we have to put it over here and we have to take a hammer and we gotta crack that.  We have to make you sheltered, scared, a misfit, unusual, you’ve been beaten by your mother.”  I feel like it’s okay to share this but I had her go to homeless shelters.  And I had her really go deep inside the characterization to experience the fear, the humility, to really go on the journey.  We did that for two and half months, she did it in L.A., she did it here, and always trying to make sure we showed respect to the people that were helping us, but for her to really see the other side of life.  I felt like that was essential to the character, that lack of confidence is everything.  If you have a little alpha there, you’ve lost it.  

What was the kernel that you saw in her, initially, when you first met with her and thought this is Carrie?

PEIRCE:  An inner sweetness and an inner charm.  Which is actually something that I look for, I saw it in Hilary, I saw it in Peter Sarsgaard, I saw it in Channing, I saw it in Joe Gordon-Levitt — I mean, I’m not the only person who saw it, I didn’t discover them.  What I’m generally looking for is a character, particularly with Carrie, who desperately needs love and who needs support and needs affection.  People have different needs in life, some people have a need to prove their superiority, some people have a need to prove their worth, some people have a need to be an asshole.  Let’s put those over here, I find the better actors, but particularly in this role, it was the need to for love and acceptance.  Because if she needs that in the deepest level and that’s running through the performance, and then you take away the confidence, and if she’s moving through the story, that’s all she’s looking for.  I think Chloe has a huge amount of confidence but I think there’s a loveliness.  I’ve worked with actors who don’t have that but she had that sweetness and that loveliness, and I think that’s what you keep seeing flower throughout the movie.

carrie-remake-image-7In addition to Carrie being an iconic character, Margaret also is and she’s also incredibly different in the book and in the original film.  Can you talk, first of all, about working with Julianne and then how your different take of Margaret will appear to us?

PEIRCE:  A couple things, having read the book three times in the beginning when I went in to talk to the studio and then read it a couple times more, it was, “What does it mean to mentally create Margaret right in general but what does it mean to create her in the modern world?”  That meant that we had to make an authenticity to the religion because religion is a really prime force in our country right now.  So, it’s very interesting to pick Julianne after she had done what she did — the research that she had done and she’s such an honest and well-trained and worked-out actress.  She made sure to do her research and to make it real.  We wanted to make sure that Margaret had that religious grounding but that Margaret had made her own religion.  That’s what was so fun, there was religion and then there was Margaret going off with her husband, we made it completely by the book.  That was one thing, whenever in doubt about a character we went back and it was like, “Okay, so she met this guy, they kind of had their own religion, it got really complicated, she had this child, she thought that child was a cancer, she birth the child alone.”  These scenes are great in the book and then she just went off on her own.  It was, “How do we keep her religious but not completely nut so you can’t related to her?”  So, it was about completely making her an authentic character at each point.  Now, cut to Julianne, who — I mean, come on, guys.  It’s like, you get to work with Julianne Moore, it’s great.  

You’re gonna get her another Oscar nom?

PEIRCE:  We should be so lucky.  She’s a great joy to work with, I’ve worked with a lot of young actors who have crazy amounts of talent.  Here’s somebody who — not to say that she’s older but — she has crazy amounts of talent but she has a lot of experience.  It’s really fun having an adult come to set and say, “I’m not going to say that line.  I’m not used to that.”  And I’m like, “Well, why not?”  She’s like, “Well, because…”  Oh, okay.  That’s fine.  It’s just wonderful that somebody has run all the options and thought about it and has a very decisive choice about it.  That was one, the second one was, the sheer creepiness and horror and weirdness of it.  What was great was, Chloe would have to go home at a certain hour because of her age, it’d just be me and Julianne and the crew doing some of her scenes alone and she just went.  When I say you try to cross that edge, she’d go over but it would be grounded and we were all just watching it.  In our movie, Margaret locks Carrie in the closet, that’s the staple of the story.  We also have Carrie lock Margaret in the closet.  Oh wow, does Julianne go there, and it’s wonderful.  She really just, she went there.

carrie-remake-image-julianne-mooreDo you think her role in Game Change helped her performance?

PEIRCE:  I think the truth is, Julianne is Julianne and she was going to do either performance.  I think it ended up being wonderful to see that flavor from her but did it help?  I’m not really sure.  I know that that was so spectacular and singular and the great thing was that she made Sarah [Palin] really likable, really understandable.  You identified with where she was coming from and there’s something great about that. 

When you work with an experienced actress like Julianne, do you feel like you have to give her homework as well?

PEIRCE:  Sometimes when you’re dealing with somebody who’s done as much homework as you’ve done and has their own take, and comes in partly with their performance, sometimes you’re saying, “Look, these are the circumstances and this is your objective.”  And she just looks at you like, “What are you kidding?  You think I don’t know that?”  And then you just say, “Sorry.  I was just testing you.”  There’s a little bit of that.  Most of the time you’re just covering ground she knows, and sometimes you give her something and she’s like, “That’s a good idea.”  It’s tender but she’s great.  

Can you talk about the tone and your take on the horror elements in the movie, and how you want to make that stand out in this version?

PEIRCE:  I take a real page out of Stephen King, who I love, who really talks about horror and humor and how you move between the two.  I think that as much as I have been able to, I wanted to be as creepy and horrifying.  But real horror in the Kubrick sense — I absolutely love Kubrick because it’s so scary and it’s so weird and it’s so real but it’s so art-directed and so surreal.  I’ve done a war film and I’ve done a Brandon Teena rape film and that stuff is terrifying but it’s real.  I was like, “Okay, that’s here but this is something else.  This is entertainment, this is horrifying and it’s humorous.”  I think that’s been the bend that I’ve been going on.  

carrie-remake-image-1Carrie is this tortured soul who endures all this stuff, emotionally and psychologically.  Looking at what you’re setting up, do these kids deserve what’s about to happen to them?

PEIRCE:  I don’t know, what’s about to happen to them?  I can’t say that they deserve but I can’t say exactly what’s going to happen.  I can just say, what’s right for the story is what’s in the story.  

Would you have made this film if the studio had asked you to make a PG-13 film or did it always need to be R in your heart?

PEIRCE:  It always was R in my heart.  The funny thing is, I can’t tell you that I actually know the difference between PG-13 and R.  I know the difference between R and X, because I’ve gotten in action, I had to fight it down.  I’m in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, I don’t know the difference so somebody has to teach me.  I just wanted to be authentic and real, and be able to really go the distance.  

At the end of the book, you see that Carrie is a little girl who wants her mom.  How did you approach that relationship in this movie.  Is she kind of off on her own?

PEIRCE:  No, she’s very — I would almost say identical to the book.  It’s funny you bring that up because now that we’ve shot this stuff, she’s a little girl becoming a woman but she is a person, little girl woman, who loves and respects her mother, and is just fighting for the independence that she needs to be a whole person.  She even says that, she’s like, “I gotta do this before it’s too late or I’m not gonna be okay.”  But in the end, you see they return together kind of to the womb.  That’s the spine of the whole movie, is their relationship and this mother-daughter — which actually the funny thing because I’ve been wanting to do a mother-daughter story for a long time and who knew it would be this.  

You talked about bullying and religion and it being different today than it was in the 70’s.  Are there any other ways that making a movie about this generation affected the story or the way that you saw it?

PEIRCE:  What was a blast was to think about humiliation and how humiliation has changed with this, with the internet, with posting, with websites.  Actually, in writing the script I really wove in a lot of that as much as I could, that modern stuff, simply because it was elemental and it was important.  Also, the speed at which kids can humiliate each other, the platforms that they have access to.  It just felt to me that you really needed to tap into the modern era.  There’s a number of scenes, for instance, Chris has her cellphone and she’s filming when they’re throwing the tampons.  You needed that, and then she posts it.  It’s actually, suddenly becoming self-conscious of just how completely self-conscious our world is.  That’s fun but it’s also saying, “I don’t want to go overboard because I don’t want the movie in a year or two to feel dated.”  How do you tap into the universality of that without fixing it into a place that suddenly is not universal?

Catch up on the rest of our Carrie set visit coverage below:


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