She steered Hilary Swank to an Oscar-winning performance as a transgendered hate crime victim in Boys Don't Cry. Then writer-director Kimberly Peirce told the story of a war veteran who didn't want to go back to Iraq in Stop-Loss. So how did Peirce wrap her head around a horror movie about a high school kid who pins her mother to the door with daggers, among other acts of mayhem, through the power of positive telekinetic thinking?
Peirce insists her remake of Brian DePalma's 1976 supernatural thriller Carrie, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, represents a less radical shift of direction than one might think. She says, "There's something similar going on in this movie as in my other films except that Carrie gets a lot of power, which my other characters didn't have access to."
Peirce, a wiry Columbia University graduate who speaks with uncommon precision, nursed a cup of coffee in a Beverly Hills hotel suite earlier this month to outline exactly how she aligned Carrie 2.0 with her own outsider sensibility.
"One, I wanted to modernize it, that was obvious," says Peirce. Enter cell phone camera video of the traumatic tampon-throwing scene that serves as the film's inciting incident.
"Two, I wanted to do the film as a superhero origins story about Carrie and her powers," Peirce explains. "Carrie was a misfit who didn't have a place in the world. Her mother and these kids were against her, so this power was like her talent."
Peirce and her visual effects team used as reference atomic bomb footage from the '50s and '60s to model the energy waves that radiate from Carrie when she zaps her tormenters in a high school gymnasium.
Peirce says: "The mother daughter relationship to me is the heart and the soul of the movie so that's the third thing I did differently."
Where DePalma opened on a high school gym class volleyball game that segues into a dressing room montage featuring full frontal female nudity, Peirce added a new opening scene to Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's screenplay depicting a primal conflict between Carrie and her religious fanatic mother (Julianne Moore). "Carrie is a fractured love story about two people who are madly in love with each other but they're also in a moral conflict," Peirce says. "I believe that movies have spines, and that scene was essential to it: Carrie and her mother are going to fight, and they're going to fight to the death."
Peirce says the fourth piece of her remake strategy envisioned Carrie as a "culprit narrative. That was vital to me because who doesn't love a revenge story?"
The incitement for Carrie's revenge, imagined by Stephen King in his original novel and suffered by Sissy Spacek's title character in the first Carrie movie, stands as an enduring symbol of high school bullying at its most sickening. SPOILER ALERT.
The saga culminates when an angry rival pours a bucket of pig's blood on Carrie at the high school prom. "It was daunting," Peirce admits, "Because the blood dump is the image of the movie. We had to have the blood hit Chloe's head and fall in a way that it actually went over her face. The blood couldn't look too goofy or weird so we did all these tests. We tried three feet, four feet, five feet above her head, four, three, five gallons of blood, different viscosities, sometimes you drop the blood and it misses altogether, sometimes it splashes like an umbrella. It was a challenge to get the blood to hit right."
Once Peirce fine-tuned texture, color, and splash-down, she worked out the staging with star Moretz.
"Chloë's big note to me was 'I don't want you to tell me anything, I don't even know if you should look at me right before it happens because I think you're going to give it away.' And I'm like great, I'll just throw blood on you any time I want."
The day of the dump, Peirce recalls, "I was a nervous wreck." Why not spare herself the anxiety and add computer-generated blood shower in post production? "The biggest loss to me would be the look on Chloë's face," she says. "When that blood hit her head and oozed down her face and you saw her expression change, how could you do that with CGI? For this scene I needed the honesty and the craziness of whatever's was going to happen. Chloë was like: 'I can take it. I can take it. I can take it.' And then when it happened she was like 'Whoa, this isn't what I thought.'"
Carrie gives Peirce her first opportunity to helm a mainstream Hollywood picture. Following her high-impact Boys Don't Cry directorial debut, Peirce lobbied for years to make a movie with Hugh Jackman about the murder of silent film director and actor William Desmond Taylor. That didn't happen. In 2008 Peirce finally shot her second feature Stop-Loss inspired by her brother's army experiences.
Peirce offers up the secret to her resilience. "Work, work, work," she says. "Before Carrie, J.J. Abrams asked me to shoot a short film for the Children's Defense Fund. Great organization. You get a Canon 5D and you go shoot a film. Why would you do that? It's not necessarily a part of your feature career. You do it because it's a chance to work with somebody great, a chance to get a camera in your hand, a chance to tell a story, a chance to edit, a chance to screen it, a chance to get a reaction."
Peirce takes a breath.
"Boom! In a week I shot it, edited it, screened it, and for some reason, every time I say 'Screw it, I'm just going to make something, any thing without an end result (in mind), something bigger and better comes into my life. It just does.
"So I say, sit down every day and make something, draw something, film something, edit something, show it, take the criticism, be afraid of failure if you need to be afraid of failure but don't ever let that stop you from inventing your whole life through."
Peirce continues: "Make something. It might be great, it might be terrible, and if it's terrible, take it, and then go make something else. Don't let your failure ever stop you and don't ever stop inventing."
On Carrie, for example, Peirce stretched her visual effects budget beyond expectations. "I was able to wring much more value out of the visual effects by being on the ground and saying 'I will roll up my sleeves and if I can't afford something this way, what's the cheaper way to get it done?'"
Peirce got up to leave for her next appointment, then turned around for a parting piece of advice: "Don't let money be an obstacle. Ever. Just invent. Just make art."