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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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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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