Toronto 2010: Dustin Lance Black Talks About What Went Right on “What’s Wrong With Virginia”

Toronto 2010: Dustin Lance Black Talks About What Went Right on “What’s Wrong With Virginia” (photo)

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“I’ll bravely say this: it probably will be one of my favorite films I’ll ever work on,” Dustin Lance Black said to me a day before the premiere of his directorial debut “What’s Wrong With Virginia” at the Toronto Film Festival. These words seem even braver considering the odd predicament Black found himself in when we spoke; in one of the peculiarities of the festival, the film’s press and industry screening wasn’t well-received yet there’s still hope that the public could embrace it when the film makes its official premiere this evening.

“What’s Wrong With Virginia” is an unusual film, to be sure, but also a heartfelt one, the result of an experiment where Black was egged on by a friend early in his career to write a script he wouldn’t show to others. What came spilling out was something that Black says “freed me up to start talking about some things and situations in my life that I hadn’t been comfortable discussing,” resulting in a story that touched on growing up as a Mormon in the south raised by a single mother.

Given some history of schizophrenia in the family, Black was inspired to write about the relationship between Virginia (Jennifer Connelly) and Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson), a mother and son who depend on each other since Virginia suffers from mental illness and Emmett, at 16, is still too young to take care of himself. Even under each other’s supervision, the duo still gets in trouble as they engage in romances with the devoutly Mormon local sheriff (Ed Harris) and his daughter (Emma Roberts), respectively, complicating the former’s run for a state senate seat since he’s married.

Soon, there are bank robberies, sex toy deliveries, and shady political double-dealing, all against the backdrop of a boardwalk-based community in the Deep South, told in a semi-whimsical tone (aided by a score from DeVotchka’s Nick Urata and the candy-colored set design by Laura Fox) that belies the very real issues of mental illness and responsibility Black attempts to tackle. If nothing else, the Oscar winner (for “Milk”) can take pride in making exactly the film he wanted to make and he took the time to talk about the controversy surrounding the film, how executive producer Gus Van Sant pried his leading man out of Australia and the work he’s already started on a biopic of the life of J. Edgar Hoover he’s written for Clint Eastwood.

I wanted to get the elephant in the corner out of way – you’ve probably heard the reaction to the press screening was mixed.

I did, which was a shocker, I gotta say.

09152010_WhatsWrongWithVirginia2.jpgDoes that fit into the general pattern of reactions to your personal story since you had such an unusual upbringing?

No, I always knew we were taking big risks with this film, big chances. When I went into it, I tried my best not to worry about what people were going to think. I did my best to stylistically create what was in my heart and my head, honoring my experience growing up and that’s everything from performance to the color of the walls. So I knew it was going to be pushed, I knew it was going to be bumped. I knew for a lot of people it’s not going to feel quite real, but I also think that for most people, they’re really going to attach to this mother/son relationship.

I think for most of the general public, they’re going to fall in love with Virginia and they’re going to fall in love with Emmett. I think this is a pretty universal story in that way – although these two are extreme, I think it’s a very universal story of not having that caretaker that you might think is ideal and those roles becoming a bit vague – who’s taking care of who happens a lot in this country and what you’re willing to do to take care of each other. I’m being very, very true to my experience and that’s going to rub some people the wrong way and I hope that people will come around to it and also start to appreciate the tone as something that is very new. I understand that for some, it could be off-putting, but I sort of enjoy that too, I’m not going to lie. [laughs]

I think somebody said it leans towards kitsch and you know what? I aspire towards kitsch because that’s what my childhood was like. That’s what it was! This is what it felt like, so some of the negative reviews I’ve been like exactly. Thank you. That is perfect. And you go with it. I read one that was incredibly negative and I [thought] I wish I could shout out to the world, “Yes! And this is why you should see the film.”

Since you’re known for writing biopics, did any of the same rules apply for writing something related to your own life, even though this is fiction?

It’s loosely based on my experience growing up – loosely based. The characters are mostly based on real people in my life – I’m not going to name names — and some real events. But no, in a biopic, I’m always taking something that’s very disparate – pieces that are separated by a lot of time and space and cull a story from all this disparate pieces. Then you try and make something that looks very traditional out of something that absolutely is not a traditional narrative because whose life is? Nobody lives a three-act play, really.

This was a bit of the opposite for me. I flipped it a bit and I didn’t in any way want to follow a traditional narrative. I wanted to experience these people’s points of view of this situation and you have multiple narrators — that’s untraditional. It’s not a traditional three-act structure storywise. In fact, sometimes, you’re inundated with events and some of them seem wild and outlandish and I feel like that’s how it felt to me growing up. It felt like chaos. But at the core of it, I hope, is this mother/son love and this hope for something greater.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.