Dustin Lance Black on ‘Virginia’ and Gay Marriage Progress

The Oscar-winning screenwriter talks Rob Reiner's Prop 8 movie, Obama's new stance and making Jennifer Connelly go blonde.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

Dustin Lance Black wrote the screenplays to Milk and J. Edgar and wrote for HBO’s “Big Love.” On May 18, a movie he wrote and directed opens. Virginia stars Jennifer Connelly as a woman with schizophrenia, having an affair with a Mormon sheriff (Ed Harris) and raising her son. During the affair, Virginia and Sheriff Tipton dabble in whips and latex, unbeknownst to Mrs. Tipton. Black also produced 8, a play about Proposition 8, the Mormon-influenced legislation against gay marriage in California, which Rob Reiner is adapting into a feature film. On the way to the airport after his New York press day, Black spoke on the phone about his film and the current news in the fight for gay marriage. Don’t worry, he wasn’t driving. He was riding to the airport, and the lord must have really watched over this interview because we didn’t lose the connection even when he drove through a tunnel.

 

CraveOnline: So you made the world’s most beautiful brunette a blonde.

Dustin Lance Black: [Laughs] I know! What was I thinking? I must have lost my mind. Do you want me to tell you why?

 

Yes.

Jennifer signed on about five years ago to make this film. Four and a half years ago we started doing research. I had already done mine but we started doing research together on this brand of schizophrenia, which is a schizophrenia which manifests in a childlike quality and has one or two delusions attached to it. One of the things we found out from the clinical psychologist we talked to was this kind of schizophrenia makes it difficult, if not impossible, to filter out one sound over the other. So the world just becomes cacophony. It becomes increasingly difficult to pay attention to things we all need to pay attention to, conversations we’re having over the sound of the air conditioner. So the things we were told and learned you can control is color and light. To be able to create an environment with color and light is more soothing and manageable. If you’re not losing control, trying anything to hold onto anything you can is important. About two weeks before production began, Jennifer called me and said, “I think she would make herself blonde. I think she would want to have this big bright vibrant hair.” I said yeah, I think so too. It had been scripted like that but I’d never gone as far as to ask her to do that in building the character. She said, “No, I think it’s important that we do it and I think it’s important that this character really control color and light in her world.” So you’re not going to just see it in her hair but you see it in her wardrobe and what she chooses to wear on any given day. Probably the more out of control she feels the more colorful she gets. You also see it in the fact that she decorates her house with food coloring in water in water bottles so she can change the color of her room and windows on any given day.

 

And that’s never talked about. It’s just there.

Yeah, it’s never talked [about]. To me, she has this psychological disability, this “problem,” I use quotes on that, but that’s her ailment in the film. That’s her personality. That’s who she is. Her ailment is that she’s sick and she likely has cancer. The schizophrenia is just a part of who she is. Really this comes from my relationship with a family member who helped raise me who has this brand of schizophrenia. I found her to be the most lovely adult in my world as a child. She was exciting, she looked at the world with very childlike eyes. She did say and do a few things that didn’t quite make sense to me but I just went along with it because what did I know? I was a kid. It wasn’t until I was much older someone explained to me that she had this brand of schizophrenia. So I don’t want to explain it because in the south, in my experience, we didn’t talk about it. It just was. It also meant I didn’t want to be untrue to what it really was so there’s Jennifer Connelly with bright blonde hair in a house filled with colored water bottles.

 

I imagine you must have a point of view on Mormons given your work on the Prop 8 play. Did that influence how they’re portrayed in the film?

You know, I grew up devout Mormon so I grew up going to a Mormon church every Sunday and the rest of the week doing Mormon activities. On our one day off on Monday it was Family Home Evening so we were talking about Mormon church. I was devout if you can believe it. Half of my family is still very Mormon and many of my friends are. I go up to Salt Lake City all the time to do work with the church, trying to get them to be more accepting of gay people. So it’s what I know and it’s why I participated in the documentary because I felt like the truth of my church’s involvement needed to be known. It’s why I worked on “Big Love” because it was what I know. Certainly it’s why you’ll see it in this film and going forward probably in many more films.

 

But was it important not to make Virginia a scathing indictment or Mormon beliefs?

I don’t like to paint people as good guys and bad guys in my films. I don't think that’s what this was. This is part of who this man is. He’s a Mormon and he brings that to his work and he brings that to his choices. When he’s talking about his beliefs in the film, those are just the beliefs I grew up with. Those are the beliefs I knew as a kid. I don’t particularly believe it anymore but it’s what I knew then. I’m happy to go after someone who is Mormon who holds beliefs I don’t agree with but not all Mormons are the same. There’s a lot of lovely people out there who are Mormon. Unfortunately I don't think they put their best foot forward with the presidential candidate they’ve presented to the country. I think he’s on the most conservative side of that religion and not a good representative.

 

There’s also a light BDSM element in the film. Are you following how 50 Shades of Grey is portraying that and bringing it into the mainstream?

I haven’t read it yet. I am behind. I need to read how they did that. I just found in my experience growing up Mormon and growing up in the south where everything was so conservative, or at least people were asked to live a conservative life and at least appear to be living a very conservative moral life. The more the Mormon men were told not to have a sexuality and to suppress their masculinity, the more I saw evidence that they were doing the exact opposite and trying to hide it and probably feeling a lot of shame about it. But there’s nothing like telling someone no to get them incredibly interested. That said, when you see it in the film, I think they both stay in character. It’s not like they suddenly become these S&M interested people. It’s experimentation. Probably if I ever tried it I would be laughing more than anything and that’s what they do. It probably feels a little silly to them. And they’re not particularly good at it.

 

They’re playful about it. It’s not like hardcore lifestyle.

No, but they’ve been together for 17 years. They’ve been at it for a long time. I think this book, he’s got this book about The Joys of Sex, sort of based on that a little bit. It probably added some much needed spark after 17 years. Why not try every page?

 

Yes, if the unfaithful adultery wasn’t enough spark to keep it exciting.

I think the unfaithfulness probably kept it going for some time. Her personality being what it is, being so un-Mormon, being so adventuresome and colorful probably kept it going for some time, and now this.

 

Are you writing the narrative film about Prop 8 for Rob Reiner?

Mm-hmm. We’ve been working on that. A couple weeks ago we went up to San Francisco together and interviewed our plaintiffs, Kris [Perry] and Sandy [Stier] for two days. I think if you’re going to bring that stage play to screen, it has to be more personal. But also in movies we can go there. When they start to talk about where they’re from and how they met, we can see it. It’s a movie so it’s a different audience.

 

How far does it go since the struggle continues past the Prop 8 rulings?

Yeah, that’ll be very interesting. He and I discussed that. The ending isn’t necessarily written yet but I still think that regardless how it ends up, this is a landmark moment where for the first time the opposition was called into court. They had to testify under oath and that meant that they weren’t able to say the things that they’ve been saying for generations now in the media. It was proof that they even know that they’re lying. They know that this is not the truth and the fact that there weren’t cameras allowed in so the world could see this moving testimony, they couldn’t learn about gay people and learn about gay families. It’s not something Rob and I wanted to stand for and just let happen passively. I think the case itself is momentous enough regardless of where it ends up. It needs to be shared so that the country knows what’s really being discussed here.

 

In your script, is there one central protagonist that emerges since it’s a movie, and one central antagonist?

No, not in those terms because I don’t often like to write in that way. Although I love movies like that. I love westerns but it’s just not my style, but I do think there’s a core relationship in it. It’s going to be much more focused on the core relationship between our plaintiffs. In that way you might start thinking about it as a love story meets courtroom drama. Certainly it will have more of a relationship at its core than, say, the play does which has the case at its core.

 

Are you at the point of potential casting yet?

No. Not at all.

 

What are your feelings on Obama coming out in support of gay marriage?

Just a week earlier I wrote a column in The Hollywood Reporter. I made it clear that I don’t think that Romney will ever land on the side of equality but that even Obama might not deserve our support anymore if he doesn’t take a full equality stance. It was definitely an activist statement to make. It was not a political statement to make but I think unless as a community gay and lesbian people insist on full equality, they’re never going to get it. I said this is a moment where we should insist upon it. I got a lot of heat. A lot of people were very angry at me. They said, “How dare you? Now Romney will win if you dissuade equality minded people away from Obama.” I kept saying, “No, no, no. It’s a hypothetical. I think he might do this.” A lot of us just couldn’t believe that something so good and so fair would happen. We’re so used to disappointment. I felt that powerfully two weeks earlier just in anger to my suggestion that we not support a candidate who doesn’t have a full equality view. So when we did come out and express his opinion that he’s in favor of equal marriage, a lot of us, myself included, were incredibly moved. It’s something that is often hard for us to believe, we get so used to defeat. It’s hard to believe that the Commander in Chief, President of the United States came out and what he said was that he values us. He values our families and he values our love. Particularly on the heels of the crushing defeat in North Carolina where it sends a horrific message to young LGBT people, a self-esteem crushing message to LGBT people, I think hearing the President of the United States come out and say, “Wait a minute. Wait just a minute. Your lives are valuable in this country. You’re love is valuable to this country and I believe that your relationships should be honored and respected.” That was a life saving message to send on the heels of North Carolina.

 

Will it actually help create legal policy?

Of course, because what it does is it opens up a conversation. What it’s done already is it’s created conversations. It’s got people talking about it. The gay and lesbian movement has always benefited from open conversation, being able to tell their personal stories, to get to the truth of the matter. Whenever we can talk openly about who we are, who our families really are, we see the numbers move. So yes I think it will begin to see movement and honestly, in terms of him politically, I think it was a call to action saying, “Hey, I did this thing and I did the right thing and now it’s up to the equality minded community, gay and lesbian people and all of our straight allies to do the hard work to reach out for the people who may feel uneasy about the decision to share our personal stories and to bring them to the side of equality.” We have an obligation to this president now to do that work.

 

Could it cost him the election if there are enough homophobic Democrats?

Potentially. Potentially if for some reason if there was still apathy in my community, it could. But I’ll tell you what, walking into some of the events I’ve been walking into the past few weeks, I’ve heard an enthusiasm for this president that I’ve not heard for four years. So I know I’m stepping up in as big a way as I can to support him and I was not there three weeks ago. I was questioning pulling support completely and I know a lot of people feel the same way. Honestly, I think that we’re going to see, if nothing else, we’re going to see the numbers continue to move towards acceptance of gay and lesbian Americans. I think that’s what this is going to do. I have faith in that and honestly, what’s appalling and what I think is going to hurt the other side is that Mitt Romney moved further to the right when this happened. He took a position that’s even more conservative than George W. Bush. He wants to roll back Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and get rid of civil unions. Frankly, he’s to the right of his own party and he’s stated that clearly since Obama came out for marriage equality and he’s to the right frankly I think of the people in his own faith.