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Dustin Lance Black revisits his past in retooled 'Virginia'

After his directorial debut, 'What's Wrong With Virginia,' was panned at the Toronto film festival, Black reedited and retitled it. The movie opens this week.

May 13, 2012|By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • Dustin Lance Black at home.
Dustin Lance Black at home. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

It was September 2010 and anticipation for Dustin Lance Black's directorial debut at the Toronto International Film Festival was running high. A year earlier, the "Milk" screenwriter had made a splash at the Oscars with his moving acceptance speech touching on the difficulty of growing up gay, transforming him into a hero for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Now, his Southern-set film, "What's Wrong With Virginia" — starring Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris — was unspooling in Toronto's special presentation section alongside the works of Danny Boyle, John Sayles and Clint Eastwood.

But as soon as critics got a look at the film, the fanfare came to a screeching halt. Although Connelly's performance earned praise, the overall movie was deemed a tonally confused piece that shifted between black comedy and poignant drama. The Hollywood Reporter said it "comes a lot closer to resembling bad camp than edgy satire," while Screen International wrote, "the screenplay becomes as busy and overloaded as a packed roller-coaster."

Despite the bad notices, it's likely Black could have still sold his film to a distributor and moved on to other projects. He had recently finished writing "J. Edgar" for Eastwood and was waiting to begin production, and he had just been hired byWarner Bros.to write and direct the adaptation of a graphic novel. Instead, Black did what most directors never do: He listened to his critics.

He found a new editor, ponied up some of his own cash, and re-entered the edit bay, seeking to fix a project he had already lived with for seven years. The revised version, retitled simply "Virginia," will arrive in theaters Friday.

"I know I've got that little gold man sitting at home, but this is my first effort behind the camera. And I thought there's a lot more that could be done to make it better," Black, 37, said over breakfast recently near his West Hollywood home. "It's like letting your kid go to school without his shoes on. And you see that there are no shoes on. You're not going to let him walk out the door."

Based on childhood

"Virginia" began in 2003 as a personal exercise. Black was a struggling writer, spending his days slogging away at the BBC reality show "Faking It." A friend suggested he pen a piece for himself, rather than trying to please the finicky Hollywood marketplace. Black chose to focus on his complicated upbringing as the second of three boys in a Mormon household near San Antonio.

"A lot of it was exorcising my demons as a child," said Black, who was raised by his paralyzed mother after his Mormon father abandoned the family when he was a baby.

What he wrote was the story of Virginia, a schizophrenic woman (Connelly) and her relationship with teenage son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) and a married Mormon sheriff with political aspirations (Harris) who may or may not be the boy's father.

While the movie includes a few botched robberies, an impromptu Atlantic City, N.J., wedding and a brief kidnapping of a Mormon missionary, the core mother-son story was ripped from Black's life. He even used his reunion with his birth father as a movie moment. When the sheriff tells Virginia that they can't be together, he says: "This life is a grain of sand in time and it's the next life that counts. Then we'll all be together." That's what Black's father uttered when Black asked him how he could have abandoned three young boys with a paralyzed, unemployed mother.

The script served as a sample work that helped Black land his writing gig on HBO's "Big Love." While working on that TV show, Black began researching Harvey Milk's story with the help of Cleve Jones, a member of the San Francisco politician's original inner circle; Jones connected him with director Gus Van Sant and the "Milk" project took off. After "Milk" won two Oscars (best original screenplay for Black, best actor for Sean Penn), Black was able to cobble together about $4 million to begin shooting "Virginia."

He and his cast spent some 20 days filming in western Michigan in the fall of 2009 and ran into some challenges — although the script called for sweltering summer days, winter came early to Black's faux Southern border town. The foliage was turning autumnal and the set was plagued with sleet and rainstorms.

"The way we were making it with no money, as my first feature, was risky," Black said. "Plus, it's a script that's more about a feeling than a specific narrative. It's an impression and it's a bit untraditional, and I was trying a lot of new things. I also had this giant spotlight on me from the 'Milk' experience. People were waiting to see what I was going to do next."

Black knew he didn't make a perfect film, but that didn't lessen the sting when the reviews began rolling in at Toronto.

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