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Dustin Lance Black risks getting personal

Woe betide the passion project, the highly personal film, the fledgling director taking a risk, the challenging tonal shifts, the unconventional narrative arc. Though cookie-cutter plots are as dull as old plastic, and experimentation should be encouraged, and all the phrases in the first sentence could be positive ones, the truth is, they often end in tears.

Writer/director Dustin Lance Black knew that his family drama, Virginia, which opened on Friday, May 18, would be the triple crown of nerve-racking. He had just won an Oscar for writing Milk, so attention would be paid to his next effort. The story – a boy tries to protect his schizophrenic mother (Jennifer Connelly) when her affair with a married, Mormon sheriff (Ed Harris) scandalizes their seaside town – is loosely based on his own complicated childhood. And he was directing it himself.

Though he'd spent considerable time observing directors at work – including Gus Van Sant on Milk, and the many with whom he'd worked while writing the TV series Big Love – "I don't know that anyone's ever ready for the first time," Black said in an interview in Toronto. "I'll get beat up. But what else are you going to do? This movie is really different. I get that. I wanted it to be. But I hope it flies."

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It's important to note two things: one, when Black was saying all this it was September 2010; and two, Virginia is only now being released. That kind of delay usually indicates a tough sell. As does this: The title was changed from the original, What's Wrong with Virginia? One can't help thinking that a savvy marketer realized that critics could have too much fun with an opening like that.

Virginia has languished so long that Black's next two projects have already come and gone. He wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, largely considered a disappointment; and he made a triumphant return to form by writing the play 8, about the landmark U.S. federal trial in 2010 that overturned California's anti-gay-marriage bill, Proposition 8, deeming it unconstitutional. Written with actual court transcripts and interviews, 8 had a star-studded staging in Los Angeles on March 3 that raised $2-million (U.S.) for marriage equality efforts, with Rob Reiner directing George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, Chris Colfer, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jane Lynch. (The video is available on YouTube.)

Black, 38 and delicate-featured, with a forthright, gentle manner, knew Virginia was risky from moment one. For six or seven years, he'd written extensive journal entries about his formative years in a military town in Texas. His father left when he was 6. His mother, who is paralyzed from the chest down due to childhood polio, remarried twice, first to a Mormon, then to a Catholic. Several relatives suffered from schizophrenia. And as a nascent gay boy "hungry for salvation," Black bounced from creed to creed, Mormon to Baptist to Catholic. "None of them worked out so well for me," he said with a grin.

"I wanted to pull together all the madness, the chaos of growing up, with the core idea of the mother-son relationship, which is one I still struggle with," Black continued. "I love my mother to death; she's like my best friend. But she was a single mom with a disability, so the caretaker relationship was vague. I wanted to explore all that from the perspective of the kid."

As he began shaping his journals into a screenplay, ideas streamed in. He incorporated a frequent theme: how fear and ignorance about people's differences lead to intolerance. He experimented with tonal shifts: How you can have a horrible experience and wind up laughing about it; how some events are tragic and goofy at the same time. He included the tendency many schizophrenics have of surrounding themselves with colour. "They find the light and vibrancy and hope within this against-all-odds world," he said. "That's the tone I wanted."

He kept telling himself that he was writing it for himself alone, that he wasn't going to show it to anybody. "I knew that was a lie," he admitted, "but it was a good exercise. Because otherwise I would have made it more traditional. It kept me from getting blocked. It kept me accessing my own experiences, and helped me look at them through a perspective that wasn't my adult perspective. I was trying to work a lot of muscles, and I liked that."

In the middle of it, he won the Academy Award for Milk, whose three-act structure was considered almost too traditional. "That was by design," Black said. "If you're telling the story of a gay man in America, the most subversive thing, to me, is to do a traditional hero story biopic. But for Virginia, the story of the transcendence out of a chaotic childhood, why would you trap it in a three-act structure? Why not have it take turns that feel wild and out of control, from the perspective of a kid and a woman who can't control them? The story should dictate the style."

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Eventually, he showed it to an agent, who suggested another Oscar winner, Jennifer Connelly ( A Beautiful Mind), for Virginia. When Black met her, "she started telling me her family history," he said, "and it was as untraditional as mine, though in different ways. She was laughing at all these moments instead of getting dark about them. And not in a denial-y way, but more, 'See how universal we are, see how true it is.' And she made me feel as fearless as I hoped I would feel on set."

"I thought the script was so beautiful and confusing, disarming, but magical if you embrace it," Connelly said in a separate interview. "Dustin didn't play it safe after the Oscar. He really jumped into this with such purity and beautiful intentions. Absolutely, it's the kind of movie some people will hate, for sure. It's got so much going on, and some people will say, 'I don't get it and I don't want to get it.' But others will say, 'It's so effing refreshing, it's so its own thing, and a personal reflection that speaks to me.' I felt that way about it. I mean, yeah, it's scary – I'm doing this crazy character, I bleached my hair. But if you don't take risks, that's the end of creativity."

Now that Virginia is out, however, Black admits to worrying about its reception. "I would lie if I said it's not hard," he said. "Is it the most personal film I'll ever make? For sure. Will I go on to do other traditional films? Most likely. But do I love my baby? Yes." Risks and all.

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