Interview: Kimberly Peirce of Carrie
This Friday, the girl in the blood-soaked prom dress returns to wreak havoc on the masses in Carrie, a re-imagining of Brian De Palma’s beloved 1976 horror gem. Helmed by director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss), the film again follows the complex, violently turbulent relationship between outcast quiet-girl Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz), a girl with telekinetic powers, and her creepily religious mother, Margaret (Julianne Moore). Carrie, who’s constantly bullied at school, suspiciously gets asked to prom by a popular jock, but her magical night turns bloody as the bullying gets out of hand.
During a roundtable interview, Peirce went in-depth into her affection for De Palma’s film, why she chose to remake it, how the film is a superhero origin story, infusing the story with modernity, casting her talented leading ladies, and more.
Carrie opens this Friday, October 18th.
It’s a bit of a herculean task remaking one of the great cult horror films of our time, and Peirce needed to make sure that the project was the right fit. “I’m not necessarily for or against re-imaginings,” Peirce explained. “To me, it’s an opportunity; the question is, is it a good opportunity? When [the studio] came to me with the project, the first thing I thought was that I love Brian De Palma. He’s a fantastic director and I love his original. Actually, I’m friends with him. He was really supportive of me, so I felt I had to talk to him about it. He said, ‘I think you should do it.’ Once I cleared that hurdle, I picked up the book, which I had read as a kid, and dove back in. I read it back to back three times, because it’s so compelling.”
What ultimately drove her to want to make the movie more than anything was her fascination with the Carrie White character. “She’s a misfit, a social outcast,” Peirce said of the iconic character. “What I love is that she wanted love and acceptance, and she was up against huge obstacles. The girls at school make it impossible [for her]. At home, she has this amazing relationship with her mother, [who] loves her, but is also feuding with her because she thinks [Carrie’s] evil. Carrie’s up against these obstacles, but will do anything to overcome them to get what she wants. I love that. I love that there’s a Cinderella component, that she wants to wear a beautiful dress, go to the ball, and dance with a handsome boy. That, to me, is fantastic.”
Structurally, Peirce goes virtually scene for scene with De Palma in her take on the story, though she gives modern updates many of the key narrative components and makes them her own, including the mother-daughter relationship. “They’re locked in this love affair and this feud,” Peirce told us. “This is where this movie needs to begin. We need to begin in this relationship. It was imperative to me that you could follow this and it would escalate all the way to the climax, where they basically come to blows with one another. The powers come out; they unconsciously erupt, and then the duel begins. I made sure that the duel was much more violent and brutal than it ever has been.”
“Stephen King had written a classic story that was timely, timeless, and ahead of its time,” Perice said of the original novel. “It looked at emotional and physical empowerment and violence, it looked at wanting to fit in, it looked at superpowers…all this stuff. What it presupposed was that we were going to move into the moment we’re in now, in which social networking…our phones take videos, pictures…how many times do you find yourself living through something and someone’s recording it? Human beings have been telling stories since the beginning of time. We now live in a mode where we’re obsessed with recording ourselves. The devices we have have the ability to maximize human contact, for better or for worse. For me, it was important I ran through the story the modernity we live in. I was interviewing teachers and principals, and I said, ‘Tell me what the situation is now, and how is it different than five years ago?’ They said the difference is, the kids with these devices, this stuff goes viral. It’s not just dangerous for the kid who got tormented–it’s dangerous for the kids who torment, because they can now be implicated. And, it’s dangerous for the schools. They don’t want to be on the Today Show. I said wow, that’s gold, entertainment-wise.”
Peirce continued: “I saw it as a superhero origin story. That was really exciting to me. Maybe it’s because we’ve had the great benefit of the great Marvel movies, but these are real stories. What I loved was that the powers were part of Carrie’s personality. They were part of her survival. If you’re a misfit and you can’t fit into the social spectrum, you’re lonely, you can’t get love and support at home, then you find you have a talent–you can write, direct, photograph, or you’re good at business–whatever your talent is, that’s your mode of survival. That’s what the powers were for her. She researches [her powers], and she realizes, “Oh my god, there are other people like me! Maybe I’m normal!'”
Carrie is an outcast’s tale, and Peirce wanted to make sure that her take on the story retained that perspective. “There was an equation to the entertainment. We had to make sure we [followed] Carrie’s footsteps every step of the way. There were forces that were suggesting maybe we shouldn’t identify with Carrie, [but rather] the leggy blonde girl. I was like, ‘No no no.’ This is a story about a misfit, because we’re all misfits. Whether it’s at your job, you school, with your family, with your friends, on some level, human dynamics are always shifting, and we’re all misfits on some level, somewhere.”
When Peirce first saw De Palma’s film, it was overseas, butit was a sort of strangely patriotic experience for her. “I believe I saw it in Japan,” Peirce recalled. “I left the states when I was 18 with my boyfriend. I spent the first year in Japan saying, ‘I need to be independent of this system that is so much about success in a very narrow channel.’ Once I freed myself from that [by] learning Japanese and photographing all over the place, I had a huge craving to come back to the States and be an American again, with a newfound understanding of my own identity. In many ways, my stories are always about identity. I started going to the American Consulate all the time, and I started consuming American culture. It was like I was looking for the most American pieces of film to reorient myself. With De Palma’s film, it was very much like seeing 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita, it gave me permission to dream, in terms of cinema. I loved it.”
There have been rumors floating around the cinemasphere that Peirce filmed multiple alternate endings for the film, though she quickly refuted them. “That is a rumor,” she asserted. “We spent a lot of time thinking about the ending, but there aren’t five or six. We explored different avenues to get the ending right, definitely, but not that [many] of them.” Still, she wasn’t bothered at all by the gossip. “I like rumors!” she confessed.
De Palma’s film is a wonderful piece of horror cinema, but Peirce didn’t shy away from attempting to improve certain scenes she thought could do with a re-write. In one scene from the original, Carrie’s crush asks her to prom on her doorstep, but Peirce thought the setup was a bit implausible. “[For] that scene, we started asking, well, is it really realistic that the mother would have been in that house and not come to the door?” Peirce told us. “We [thought], not really. The mother shouldn’t be there, but once we took the mother out, we thought the mother’s presence should be there. The only way to have the mother’s presence there without her in the house would be to have her coming home. Since I [have her working at] the dry cleaner, we had a basis for her being out of the house. So, she’s coming home from work, Carrie’s told she needs to go right home and never talk to strangers, and the car coming could actually be a threat. I love screenwriting for that reason, because it’s like problem solving.”
Moretz (Let Me In, Kick-Ass) is one of the brightest young actresses in the movies today, but she had quite large shoes to fill, as Sissy Spacek’s original turn as the vengeful high-schooler is so canonized and revered. Peirce detailed the many facets of Carrie that Moretz had to embody.”What was important to me was that you had to be deeply in love with Carrie and walk in her footsteps. This had to be a very point-of-view movie, so I needed somebody who had the warmth and the love, but [she also needed to transform] into a human monster. You needed to love her; you needed to want her to succeed at the prom; you needed her to become a human monster; when she turned and the powers leaked out, you had to buy it; when she does the revenge tale, you still needed to be sympathetic to her. That was everything. If you ever lost your sympathy for Carrie, the movie didn’t work.”
Despite the immense talent Moretz possesses, there was still work to be done for her to truly become Carrie White. Peirce recalled one of the first conversations she had with Moretz on set. “‘You’re amazing, but look at you!'” she remembers saying to Moretz. “‘You’re so confident, you’ve got a family that loves you, and you live on the world stage. You could not be farther from Carrie White.’ I said, ‘It’s imperative that we get rid of your confidence, we make you fragile, you’re underprivileged instead of overprivileged, and your mother’s very complicated with you.’ Peirce went to great lengths to instill the despair of the character into Moretz.
“We went to homeless shelters and I had her meet women who unfortunately had challenging circumstances. I said to her, ‘I don’t want you to just learn their stories. I want you to learn them. I want you to try to vibrate the way they vibrate, feel what they feel.’ We just kept doing exercises and pushing her there.”
Peirce then explained the complexities required to play the other, more frightening half of the mother-daughter duo. “Here’s a woman who loves her daughter, but feuds with her because she thinks her daughter has evil powers. She also is a woman who is afraid to leave the house because she’s afraid of the outside world. She uses corporal punishment on her daughter, but as Julianne will tell you, she uses it even more on herself. She doesn’t want to hurt her daughter and would rather hurt herself. It’s such a beautiful way of looking at that character. And, she’s created her own religion. Religion is very important in the movie, but if you look closely, it’s her religion. Like Carrie says, ‘Mom, that’s not even in the bible!’ She may be telling Carrie all this scripture that may not even be in the bible.”
With Moore, Peirce felt she had found the perfect woman for the job. “Julianne was the only person who could play that role because she’s one of our great living actresses,” Peirce gushed. “She’s warm, sensual, sexual, beautiful, a consummate professional. She’s a great mother to her children, so she carries with her an understanding of motherhood. Chloe brings a wonderful understanding of being a daughter, but she isn’t yet an adult. She’s still growing, so when they got together, the relationship took off. They really worked together in ways that were profound.”
As an example of their strong onscreen chemistry, Peirce pointed to one of the original film’s most unforgettable scenes. “They’re showing the closet scene on TV, where Julianne pushes Chloe in.” Capturing the right tone for the physical struggle proved to be more difficult than expected. “We did the first take of the scene, and I was like, ‘Whoa, that was too easy.’ I went to Chloe, and I said, ‘You’re making it too easy for her to push you in. You need to fight back.’ She fought back a little bit, and I said, ‘I see the problem. You have too much respect for Julianne Moore! Forget your respect for Julianne Moore. You’re terrified of that closet. You’re going to fight to the death–you’re not going in that closet!’ In the take used in the film, Moretz doesn’t show any respect for Moore and fights for her life. “Julianne was sweating and she had to work harder. She works harder, Chloe works harder, and all of a sudden, you have a relationship.”