Kimberly Peirce is up for a challenge — a rarity in the male-dominated, blockbuster talent pool that too often cashes in, executes, and bails out. Last October's "Carrie," her foray into the tricky world of studio pictures, was an uphill battle from the start. Peirce was cool with that. She had an affection for Brian De Palma's 1976 film, she was enthralled by the possibilities the novel offered to a modern audience, and even when speaking of the movie now, relishes in its flashes of creepy, kinetic, hoot-and-holler-worthy popcorn entertainment.
Though critical reception of "Carrie" was mixed, Peirce's film manages to squeeze in tangible themes and motivated set pieces into a genre mold generally content with jump scares and nonsense scheming. She took a chance on "Carrie," rumbled with behind-the-scenes ad wizards, and walked away with a dynamic piece of filmmaking. If anything she wanted the movie to push harder, as evidenced by her favored alternate ending attached to the film's Blu-ray. As the disc arrives, I talk to Peirce on reactions to the film, finding a modern style for "Carrie," tangoing with De Palma, and more on the final beat we didn't see:
FILM.COM: How do you feel about the reception of the movie? Did reactions align with what you were trying to accomplish with the movie?
KIMBERLY PEIRCE: I mean, it's fun. It's a huge endeavor. You've been trying different things and money is running out and timing is running out (because of release). So all of a sudden you make decisions very quickly. And then it's out there. It's the sum total of your decisions, but it's a rapid thing. In the case of 'Carrie,' I was able to add a scene in the beginning that I was really happy about, which was part of an [additional] shoot. There's a different ending; The Blu-ray has this alternate ending that I'm really passionate about, because it was an attempt at scary and fun and shocking. That didn't make it theatrically. And you're dealing with peoples' reactions to battles you fought for a year and a half, two years. And then there it is. It's done.
Can you talk a little more about the alternate ending and why that didn't wind up in the finished cut? [Ed. note: Without spoiling, the new conclusion follows the theatrical cut's graveyard scene, picking up with Gabriella Wilde's Sue Snell in a hospital bed and crescendoing into a twisted riff on Brian De Palma's original finale].
There was always going to be a challenge. De Palma revolutionized cinema in many ways with the ending that he did. When I took the job, I didn't focus much on that little coda. I had to rewrite the script, get the character working, get the arc working, get the superhero origin story working, then I had to go find my cast. But I had in the back of mind that this coda was important. I thought we needed something shocking, something that kept with the story, and something that was fun. It's like going up to bat. Are we going to compete with De Palma? No. But it's fun. Why it's not in the movie… well, ask the people who have the power.
In my dreams, that's you.
Directors have a lot of power by virtue of the fact that we're driving the ship. But I think everyone knows that in certain situations, we don't have all the power. In 'Boys Don't Cry' I had a lot of power. Not power for power's sake, but power for storytelling. So yeah, there are compromises you have to make, but you would rather not. We're not painters, we don't buy our own equipment.
You mentioned not competing with the De Palma film, but your version does drift towards familiar beats (which isn't that surprising considering you're adapting the same material). Was distancing yourself from the '76 film always in the back of your mind?
It wasn't. I never imagined I would do a version of a movie that had been done before. When they came to me with this novel… I had read it before, but when I re-read it I was like, 'Wow, this is so good.' I love Carrie White, I love her relationship with her mother, and I love she has superpowers, I love that her mother wants to kill her. It's subversive. I love that it's a movie about a period. It's crazy. When I re-read it, I thought if it had come out now, I would make the movie. The fact that Brian had done it before… and I'm friends with Brian, I love him and I think his movie is great. So I called him and asked him and I said, 'How do you feel about me doing it?' He said I should. I thought enough time had passed, so I thought it would be fine.
As I was doing my re-write and adaptation, I was diving into the novel. Every single scene was 'Do I need this? Do I not need this?' There were times when I knew it was an echo of his, but it's because his screenwriter made really good choices. His screenwriter did a beautiful job and gets credit on our movie because he made such good choices. I didn't think I should throw things out just because its like the other one. The movie has to work on its own. But it was refreshing for people to confide they wish I had changed more. People said that. I had to acknowledge why people would want that and that there are certain challenges to why you can't change everything. If you changed too much, they would have complained.
Can you talk about the look of the film? The original has a stark, naturalistic look that's in tune with films surrounding it. Your modern take is glossy in a similarly reflective way, pushing the aesthetic even further than other horror movies. How did that fit into your take on the material?
I was influenced by Kubrick's "The Shining". I absolutely love it. At the same time, I was using the Alexa [digital motion picture camera], so I'm automatically speaking in a modern vernacular. I was able to manipulate the colors the way I wanted to in [post-production] which was very satisfying. I was able to use the jib so we could have different types of motion. In terms of the CG, I did a lot of work digitally with her powers. Certainly when she stomps the ground and creates the fissure in the Earth. The girl going through the glass is half analog, half digital. Because I'm working in a venue that's newer, it's going to have a newer feel. I really like to go wide when I can and then go to super close-ups — I wanted you to be brought into their world as deeply as possible. Stylized and real. if you went too stylized you wouldn't have related to Carrie and her mom. If you didn't go stylized enough, it would have been a drama. I wanted to bend it beyond a drama, I wanted a fun gothic tale.
The horror genre often feels like a missed opportunity — a metaphoric way of saying lots that never seems to say much at all. Was it freeing to work in horror or is it more difficult than it seems to go beyond the scares?
I think there's a lot of horror being made now, not great horror, but there's money to be made. Audiences love horror because it's visceral. Why you might not see well told horror films is because they need to slow down. They need to find source material or they need to write a dimensionalized story. "The Conjuring" is a pretty good horror film. But someone took the time to write it. These movies that are made quickly because they can be made.
Are you knee deep in another project at the moment? What's next?
I'm about to shoot a pilot, probably in the next month or two, I have a morbid, very funny family story that I'm writing, and then I have something bigger that's in the cyborg realm. The singularity is near, creating a human mind and all the new technology stuff is all interesting. Once you rewire it back into the human body and how it changes us, it's mind-blowing. It's [action].
"Carrie" arrives on Blu-ray Jan. 14, 2014.