"I was surprised about how angry some of the response was," said Black, adding that it was made all the more intense because his mother, who was battling cancer, had flown in for the premiere. "There were some reviews that were personal and ooh, God, that hurt. Lines like 'unveiling the talentless Dustin Lance Black.' Oh my God! It's one project of my many."
His producer, Christine Vachon ("Boys Don't Cry," "One Hour Photo"), believed that the reviews were overly harsh, considering the movie played well during the public screenings.
"I think there was a bit of the tall-poppy syndrome happening," Vachon said in a phone interview. "He's won an Oscar, it's his first movie, it's too much, let's cut him down to size."
Back to the edit bay
Once Black stopped smarting from the reviews, he actually read them. What he found was a consensus about the film's major problems: shifting tones, narration from Connelly and Gilbertson, copious amounts of voice-over. These were problems, he thought, that could be rectified.
Vachon introduced Black to Beatrice Sisul, a New York-based editor who had worked with Vachon on the Paul Dano-Zooey Deschanel indie "Gigantic," and she clicked instantly with Black. Sisul liked "Virginia" but saw where it went off-track. She thought she could fix it.
"I thought it was a beautiful film with incredible performances but I saw where they got sidetracked. It happens in editing. You try to make radical changes, you take the wrong path. You're fatigued by the material," said Sisul, who pointed to an excess of story lines, the lack of a reliable narrator and music choices that shifted the movie's tone scene by scene from comical to serious. "It was turning really sharp corners from the very beginning. That made it hard for the audience to settle into the rhythm of it and get to know the film in terms of genre."
Black and Sisul first met in November 2010 but didn't start editing until March 2011. With Black splitting the editing costs with his financiers, who include Hopwood DePree and Scott Brooks of TicTock Studios, he knew time was money.
"Gay biopics don't pay like they used to," he quipped. "It's not like I'm Jim Cameron and this is 'Avatar' and we can stay in the edit bay for a year."
Sisul worked for five weeks and Black spent five figures on the re-edits. The most drastic change they made was completely eliminating a character — the imaginary race car driver Emmett believes is his father and to whom he tells his story.
"You learn very quickly that the mother is not the most reliable narrator," Sisul said. "But if the boy talks to an imaginary character, then you can't rely on him either."
Black is happy with the new version and says the film is cleaner and more coherent. Yet he is aware that its success even in art house theaters is hardly guaranteed, given that the movie was shot more than three years ago and has been handicapped with bad reviews.
"Ninety percent of the people who saw it in Toronto will not rewatch it, will not re-review it. Those reviews will be back in a week, reprinted, put back up on the front page. I know that.… But I also think there are a lot of people who are going to like it."
Vachon is less concerned with the old reviews, since they appeared primarily in trade publications. "If Variety wants to re-run their review, that's fine," she said. "I'm more concerned about The Times and the [Village] Voice and all of that. That's what determines people's interests."
Black is now researching and writing a script based on Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book "Under the Banner of Heaven," about a double murder and a fanatical fringe of Mormonism, which Ron Howard is expected to direct. And he's hoping to direct two movies, the graphic novel adaptation "Three Story" forWarner Bros. and his own adaptation of the young-adult novel "The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight" for producer Bruna Papandrea.
As for "Virginia," he's regarding it as one very long, intense learning process. "I didn't know. I hadn't been through this experience," he said of directing. "I'm still learning, experimenting and building my crew. One of the most important things I learned from working with Clint and ['Milk' director] Gus [Van Sant] is I need to build my family. Some people are lucky enough to do it the first time. I think I'm halfway there."
"I hope," he added with a laugh, "this isn't too devastating."