The most touching films that resonate most with viewers are often the ones that are based on real experiences that people contend with during their lives. Set through the eyes of both a mother suffering from an illness and her teenage son who is in essence raising her, the new drama Virginia is loosely based on the childhood experiences of writer Dustin Lance Black. Making his feature film directorial debut, Black draws on his own Mormon upbringing with a sick mother to show what people would do in order to make their dreams come true.
Virginia follows the title character (Jennifer Connelly), a single mother with schizophrenia struggling to raise her teenage son, Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson). While she’s been having a long-term affair with the married Mormon Sheriff of her small town, Richard Tipton (Ed Harris), Virginia dreams of moving to San Fransisco to be with her sister. Her life is further complicated when Emmett begins a romantic relationship with Richard’s daughter, Jessie (Emma Roberts), much to the sheriff’s disdain. The entire town, which is full of secrets, wonders how long Virginia can keep her life together.
Black generously took the time to sit down with us in New York City to discuss the writing process of Virginia, and how it compared and contrasted to writing his Academy Award-winning script for Milk. The filmmaker spoke about the casting process for the movie, and the difficulties he faced while shooting on a limited budget.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: In the film, Virginia, played by Jennifer Connelly, has a long-term relationship with Sheriff Richard Tipton, portrayed by Ed Harris. What was the casting process like?
Dustin Lance Black: Ed was (cast) after Milk, but Jennifer was already on before. I don’t know who first suggested Ed, as we were brainstorming lists of folks.
I knew we were going to be asking Jennifer to do something she had never done before. First, it was a very independent film, we were going to be up against physical challenges she may not have faced for some time, if ever.
I wanted her to feel absolutely comfortable. She and I had discussed who she felt comfortable with, and liked working with. She named Ed Harris. I said, that would be wonderful to get him. He seems like the all-American man. That’s what we needed for this, I think. It was another great, fortunate meeting. The introduction was made, and he said yes.
The thing was, I had never met his wife, Amy Madigan, before. Through that, I was able to meet Amy, and I said, what great fun if you played husband and wife in this film. It was a really challenging role for her because she’s not a conservative, wilting flower. She’s a rocker for women’s rights. So it was interesting to watch her become Roseanna.
WGTC: Speaking of the limited budget and the fact that the film was actually in West Michigan, as opposed to the Virginia beach town it’s set in, did that place any limitations on what you could shoot?
DLB: Are you kidding me?!? (laughs) We scouted Michigan in June, and it was beautiful. The sun was shining and it was warm. There were all these colonial houses and architecture that looked like Virginia. You have the lake there, which looks like the Atlantic, because there are no real waves. (laughs)
I thought, oh yeah, this is really doable. We come back six weeks later, and we had the coldest fall in the history of West Michigan. It is cloudy, it is freezing, there’s sleet and rain every single day. The sun was never shining, and we were supposed to be doing Virginia in the summer.
There’s one scene where Virginia’s walking at night with her son, wearing this very thin summer dress. We were doing it in one shot, because that was what the budget would afford, these single-take kind of scenes.
I’m asking for take after take, to make sure it’s right. The truth of the matter is, in the scenes, she’s lovely and taking her time. But between takes, she’s shivering in the van, because it’s below freezing outside, and she’s in a little summer dress.
It was not only challenging for production, but also incredibly challenging for the actors, to not let the cold get to them, and not let the cold show. I think they succeeded.
WGTC: How was the process of writing Milk similar and different than writing Virginia?
DLB: It’s really different. First off, I wrote Virginia first, probably four or five years before I wrote Milk. This was almost therapy, this script. It’s more about a tone and a mood and a dream than anything else.
Then you get to Milk, and it’s based on a true story. It’s got a strict narrative, and A happens and B happens and C happens and D happens. One of the things that’s incredibly different is that one is fiction and is one is fact.
In Milk, you do as much research as possible and find the truth. Then you have to take that truth bend it to fit into a movie. You have to bend it in a way that it doesn’t snap and become unreal or untruthful. So it actually takes a lot longer, because you both have to craft an entertaining narrative, while still valuing the facts enough that people find it credible.
But then the fortunate side, on the other side of all that hard work, is that you have a director there to be objective and executive and help you be brave and stick to your guns on things.
When it’s your own script, yes, it’s fiction, so you don’t have to worry about bending and snapping so much. But when you get through production, when you’re a writer-director, you don’t have that creative ally to help you feel brave.
It wasn’t until I decided to reedit the film, I met an editor who helped me feel brave. It was that creative collaborator I was looking for.
WGTC: Did writing the screenplay for Virginia help you in your directorial duties, especially since you were making your directorial debut?
DLB: Yeah, it was helpful. As a writer, I’ve been able to work with all these great directors, like on Big Love at HBO. Most of them are feature directors, who did a few weeks here and there. Then working with Gus Van Sant on Milk, it’s the best film school a boy could ever ask for.
Since then, being able to work with Clint Eastwood on J. Edgar and Rob Reiner on 8, the play, and Joe Mantello, was great. Since I’ve been a writer, I’ve been able to watch different directors do their work, and to see their various styles. I think the greatest lesson I’ve learned from that is that you have to build that filmmaking family and crew you can trust and helps you feel confident. After this, I’m about halfway there.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Dustin Lance Black for taking the time to speak with us.
Be sure to check out Virginia, which is now playing in select theaters.