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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.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.