You think you know what to expect from the remake of Carrie, coming out Friday. After all, this story has been told many times. But this new version includes smartphones and social media — and Julianne Moore takes Carrie's mom to way darker places. We talked to director Kimberly Peirce about making a 21st century Carrie.
We were lucky enough to take part in a roundtable interview with Peirce last week in San Francisco, and she spilled all the secrets of Carrie to us. Here's what she said:
When you first came on board this project, were you daunted by the idea of doing a remake, or excited by the challenge of what you could do with it?
Well, probably all of the above. I mean, I’m not necessarily for or against, you know, reimaginings. I was a literature student, so it’s like, I love rereading Oedipus. I love Shakespeare. I love the original Scarface, I love the new Scarface. I love both Imitations of Life. So, to me, it’s just an opportunity. Then the question is, is it a good opportunity?
And, so when they came to me, you know – the first thing I thought was I adore Brian De Palma. I think he’s a fantastic director. I love his original, and I actually am friends with him. We’ve gone to dinner a number of times in Little Italy, and like a lot of the directors, he was really supportive of me – so I felt I had to talk to him about it.
So I emailed him, and he said let’s Skype – which was great, how progressive he is. And we had a beautiful Skype. I wish I had recorded it. Obviously I would have had to ask him, but I was too engaged in the conversation, and, you know, just me and him on the Skype talking about it. He was really supportive, and he said, I think you should do it, and that was great. So once I really cleared that hurdle and I knew, kind of, professionally it was clear, then I picked up the book, which I had read as a kid – I was a big reader, in a book club. And I was a literature student at the University of Chicago, so I think I had reread it around then.
But I dove back in, and I was on an incredibly long flight back from Istanbul – which is 16 hours – so I had time to read, and I got through it. And I read it, pretty much, back to back three times, because it’s so compelling. And the thing was for me, it became really clear that I had to do this movie, because of how great the Carrie character is. Because she’s a misfit, a social outcast, and what I loved was that she wanted love and acceptance and she was up against huge obstacles. At school the girls made it impossible. At home she has this amazing relationship with her mother – her mother loves her, but her mother is feuding with her because her mother thinks she’s evil, and also thinks she reveals the mother’s own sin.
So Carrie is up against these obstacles, but will do anything to overcome them, to get what she wants – so I love that. I love that there was a "Cinderella story" component to it – that she wants to wear this beautiful dress, she wants to go to the ball, she wants to dance with a handsome boy, and she wants to have that magical night. That, to me, is fantastic. And you fall in love that, even though you know that she shouldn’t do that.
Even though you know Sue Snell, who has guilt over what she’s done to Carrie, should apologize and get to know the misfit. She doesn’t do that. She does what people of privilege do – she keeps a distance, and gives charity. And charity isn’t always the solution – but charity can help. So we don’t think that Carrie should go to the prom because something bad could happen. I just love that.
Now the second thing that I saw that I really loved and I thought we could make really modern was the mother-daughter relationship. What I love, as I said, is they’re locked in this love affair and this feud, and that’s why when I read in the book that amazing scene that I put at the beginning of the movie [where Carrie is born], I was like, "Wow, this is where this movie needs to begin. We need to begin in this relationship."
And it was imperative to me that you were able to follow and it would escalate all the way to the climax, where they basically come to blows with one another, in a restaging of that [birth scene] — in so far as, Carrie comes home and she’s guilt ridden. She just wants to surrender into her mother’s arms. Julianne [Moore] and I pulled from the book this beautiful series of lines: “I’ll be the preacher, you be the congregation,” which is an offer to Carrie to return to the safety of the religion and the mother-daughter relationship.
Well Carrie — kind like going to the prom and thinking that was going to be safe — thinks it’s going to be safe with her mother and surrenders to it, but the mother is back in the old feud. She thinks that she has to protect the world, protect herself, protect Carrie from Carrie. I don’t want to give it away, but we know what she’s going to do. And I had it in there that the powers come out, they unconsciously erupt, and then the duel begins – and I made sure that that duel is much more violent and much more brutal than it ever has been.
The third thing that was really important to me – I saw it as a superhero origin story. And that was really exciting to me. And look, maybe that’s because we’ve had the benefit of all the great Marvel comic movies, we’ve had great characters, great actors play these roles, but these are real stories that, you know, young people and older people can go to, and I saw that this was a superhero origin story.
And what I loved was that super powers were part of Carrie’s identity. They were part of her survival. So if you’re a misfit and you can’t fit into the social spectrum, and you’re lonely and you can’t get love and support at home, and you find out that you have a talent... If you guys can write, you can direct, you can photograph, and you’re good at business – whatever your talent is, that’s your mode of survival. That’s what the powers were for her. It was an opportunity to survive and be okay in the world, and of course she goes out and she researches it. And she’s like “oh my god, there are other people like me. Maybe I’m normal.” And she starts exploring it with the books, and they go haywire.
So what I loved about the powers was, it was her opportunity of fitting into a world that did not want to accept her, and that those superpowers were going to be there, lying in wait if she goes to the prom. And we’re thinking, “things are going to go badly, you're going to use those superpowers, and you don’t know how to use them, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re not in control” – but how exciting is all that suspense and tension?
And that gets us to the last thing where the superpowers really come through – to me it was a good, old fashioned revenge tale. And the way to make the revenge tale work, it was imperative that we loved Carrie White. You had to love her, you had to identify with her, you had to want to see the Cinderella story go well. You had to feel excitement when it did go well, but you had to know that Chris Hargensen had it out for Carrie, and she was gonna take it all away. And when she took it away, and when you watched it be taken away, you had to feel a level of anger, you had to feel injustice, and you had to want Carrie to pull those superpowers out, and to go after the people that did this to her.
And there was an equation to the entertainment, that we had to make sure we were inside Carrie’s footsteps every step of the way. And I’m telling you, there were forces [at the studio] that were suggesting that maybe we should be identifying with Carrie, that maybe we should identify with the leggy blonde girl.
You know, I was like, "This is the story of the misfit, because we’re all misfits." And of course people who have money and power don’t like to think that, but the truth of the matter is, whether it’s at your job, at your school, it’s with your family, it’s with your friends, on some level, human dynamics are always shifting, and I think we’re always misfits on some level, or somewhere. So these were the main things that were really important to me that made it imperative to make it into a movie. And then I could tell you how I filled those in.
The last thing was modernization. To me what was amazing was Stephen King had written a classic story that was timely, timeless, and ahead of its time. It looked at emotional and physical empowerment, emotional and physical violence and wanting to fit in, it looked at superpowers, it looked at all of this stuff — and what it presupposed was that we were gonna move into the moment we’re in now [where] we’re social networking — and there it is, the iPhone.
My phone takes pictures. Our phones take videos. How many times do you find yourself living through something, and someone is recording it as if it’s not enough to just live through it? And that’s fine. And then you’re gonna sit and upload it, and then your friends are going to see it.
So human beings have been communicating and telling stories since the beginning of time. That’s why we invented language, that’s why we invented stories. King tells a classical tale before the Internet – we now live in a world where we’re obsessed with recording ourselves, and the average citizen is doing it all the time. And therefore, to tell this story – the devices that we have have the ability to maximize human contact, for better and for worse.
So to me it was imperative that I ran through that story, this modernity that we live in, and if you notice if they’re doing something to Carrie, they’re recording it – they’re recording themselves. And that’s a point of celebration when they upload it, or when you upload it and someone downloads it – it goes viral. I was interviewing teachers and principals, and I said, "Tell me what the situation is now, and how is it different from even five years ago."
And they said, "The difference is, these kids with these devices, this stuff goes viral and they said it’s not only dangerous for the kid who got tormented, but it’s also dangerous for the kids who torment, because they can then be implicated." Which is brilliant, and it’s dangerous for the schools because the schools don’t want it on the Today Show. So I was like, wow, that’s gold, entertainment wise because that’s exactly what’s going on now.
When was the first time you saw the De Palma movie, and what was your initial reaction? And were you comparing the movie to the book when you first saw it? How did that inform your approach to remaking it? It’s such a cult movie, and it’s almost sacred to a lot of people. And a lot of have that feeling about remakes anyway, but how did you handle that?
I think, and it’s funny, I’ve been going back to my memory to try to figure out when I first saw it – I believe that I saw it in Japan, because I left the states when I was 18. I was at the University of Chicago, and with my boyfriend. We moved – we just wanted to get out. Interestingly he was Korean, but he had studied Japanese history, and he knew that we could just move there and I could take photographs, we could teach, and we could support ourselves. So we just went. And I spent the first year and half in Japan saying, screw America, like – well not – take that off (joking tone). Not so much screw America as “I need to be independent of this system which is so much about success and a very narrow channel.”
And so, once I freed myself of that, interestingly after a year and half of starting to learn Japanese and photographing all over the place, I had a huge craving to come back to the states and be an American again. But it was like I was able to be an American but with kind of a newfound understanding of my own identity, and in many ways my stories are about identity. So, I love America – I had to reunite with what I loved about America. And when I was overseas, I started going to the American consulate all the time, and I started consuming American culture. I was rereading J.D. Salinger, I saw De Palma’s movie. It was almost like I was looking for the most American pieces of literature and film to kind of reorient myself.
I fell back in love with love with everything that I had loved, but it was almost like I saw it with a new pair of eyes. And particularly with the De Palma thing, very much like seeing 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita, it was just like – I think what it did was it gave me permission to dream, and to dream in terms of cinema, which was “wow you can do anything. You can be free.” So I loved it, I know that I was equating it with the book because I had read that at a different time, but it was really my kind of coming back home to America.
So, I read a rumor on the Internet that you shot five or six different endings to this film that weren't used. Is that true?
That is a rumor – there are not 5 or 6 endings. We definitely spent a lot of time thinking about the ending, but there aren’t 5 or 6.
But there are alternate endings?
There’s definitely – we explored different avenues to get the ending right. But not that level of them. But I like rumors.
In a lot of ways, this film is structurally similar to De Palma's film, but then there are some new scenes. Like the scene where Tommy comes to Carrie's home, to ask her to the prom, and she's afraid her mom is going to come home. This is very different than the De Palma version. Can you talk about the things you played with like that, and changing certain scenes?
And if you know of any specific ones, you should bring them up, because I had forgotten about that one, but that was a really interesting challenge. So, well first of all, we had the De Palma movie, but even before that we had the Lawrence Cohen script. And Lawrence Cohen had done a beautiful job adapting this novel. So I approached that original script with great delight and respect.
That was a scene where, pretty early on, we started asking, "Well, is it really realistic if the mother were in that house, that she wouldn’t come to the door?" And we were like, "Not really." So then it was like, "Well, the mother shouldn’t be there." But once we took the mother out, it was like, "Well, the mother’s presence should be there." So then I was like, "Well, the only way to have the mother’s presence without her in a house, which is unrealistic that she’s not coming to the door, would be to have her coming home." And since I put her at the dry cleaner, and I have her go to the school – well we already had a basis for her being out of the house. And then it was like, well we identified her with that damn car. So then we were like, oh, well she’s coming home from work, Carrie has been told that she needs to go right home and never talks to strangers, and the car coming could actually be a threat.
So that’s, I mean, I love screenwriting for that reason. Because it’s really about problem-solving. We can’t have her in the house, we have to have her outside the house. Her walking down the street wouldn’t really work, being in the car is much more threatening, as we’ve identified her in the car. You can throw them at me, I can tell you how we’ve problem solved.
Can you talk a bit about casting Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore in this? And how the three of you came up with that relationship?
As I said, what I saw was an amazing main character, this misfit social outcast who wanted love and acceptance. What was important to me was you had to be in love with Carrie, you had to walk in her footsteps – this had to be a very "point of view" movie. So I knew I needed someone who had the warmth and the love, but then I needed someone who could go through the transformation into a human monster, right? A, you needed to love her, B, you needed to want her to succeed at the prom. And C, you needed her to be a human monster, and D, when the powers come leaping at you, you needed to buy it, and when she does the revenge tale, you still needed to have sympathy for her her.
That was everything. If you ever lost your sympathy for Carrie the movie did not work. So then I go out there and, Avy Kaufman is my brilliant casting director, and we must have looked a few hundred girls, all over the states, get the tapes in and audition them. And we’re now in an arena that’s great – I was getting tapes from Germany, Australia, Paris, because the reach was so deep. I could basically Skype with someone and direct them, and they could make me a tape that came to me immediately. Gone are the days of the VHS, and waiting for stuff. That was amazing.
Chloe Moretz became my Carrie, because she’s inherently charismatic – the camera loves her, she’s been acting since she was five, she knows her instrument. She’s very physically able, and I knew that she could carry the movie because her amount of charisma. So I sat down with her and I said, you’re amazing, but look at you. She shook my hand like this and I was like, Oy! I was like, "You’re so confident, you’ve got a family that loves you – Carrie’s mother loves her, but it’s complicated – and you’re a total professional and you live on the world stage." And I said, "You could not be farther from Carrie White. It’s imperative that we get rid of your confidence, that we make you fragile, you’re not a child star – you have to be a broken young woman. You’re underprivileged versus of over-privileged, and your mother is very complicated with you."
And she was like, "I will do anything you want," and I was like, "Well, we need a teenage rebellion. We need you to basically stop listening to your mother, move out of your house, come live with me," and I went on and on. And I was joking, but she was like, "I’ll do that." And I was like, "OK, you’re not going to be able to move out of your house. But that’s the right mentality." Hillary Swank had that with Boys Don’t Cry, Channing Tatum had it when I did Stop Loss – they just need to say "I’m in." And so I just said, "We’re gonna roll up our sleeves." And I actually Skyped with her and met with her as much as I could, and I did this process with owning her and breaking her down, and getting to know her relationship with her family, and I — again, with respect to people less privileged than all of us, particularly people in the movie business — we went to homeless shelters and I had her meet women who had unfortunately had had challenging circumstances. And I said to her, "I don’t want you to just learn their stories, I want you to learn them. I want you to try to vibrate the way they vibrate, I want you to feel what they feel." And I just said that as a human being, it would be good for you to see all different aspects of human life.
We were fortunate in that we just kept doing exercises and pushing her there, and then of course – and I’d put that on hold because I’ll say what happened when we got to the set – now there’s Margret White. Think about it: this is a woman that loves her daughter but feuds with her daughter because she thinks her daughter is evil, she thinks her daughter has evil powers, and feels that her daughter has exposed, essentially the fact that she had sex and enjoyed it. She also is a woman who doesn’t like to leave the house because she’s scared of the outside world, she uses corporal punishment on her daughter – but actually as Julianne will tell you, uses it more on herself. She doesn’t want to hit her daughter, she’d rather hurt herself. Which really we made great inroads into the movie.
Meanwhile, Carrie's mom is always hurting herself with a seam ripper. Where did that come from?
That came from a guy named Scott Silver, who did some writing on the project which was amazing. And that was a whole area – and Julianne and I took it farther. We loved it. What I loved was, from a character standpoint, she said, "I will use corporal punishment on my daughter, but I’d rather use it on myself first." And that was just such a beautiful way of looking at the character, and she’s created her own religion. The religion is very important to the movie, but if you look closely, it’s her religion. Even as the daughter says, “That’s not even in the Bible.” Right? That means she’s been telling Carrie all this scripture that might not actually be in the Bible all these years. And the child might finally be wising up to it, and that’s what’s fueling her adolescence.
So, I needed to bring this woman to life – Julianne was the only person who could play that role because she’s such an amazing actor. She’s one of our greatest living actors. She is warm, she is sensual, she is sexual, she’s beautiful, she’s a consummate professional. So for her, she went through and said, “I love my daughter. That always has to be clear. I’m willing to use this corporal punishment on her, but I prefer on myself. She is devout, but she’s created her own religion.”
So Julianne wanted to make all of this stuff completely specific, and she did. And she has been a great mother to her children, so she carries with her a great understanding of motherhood. Chloe is a wonderful daughter to her mother, brings with her an understanding of being a daughter – and also she isn’t yet an adult, she’s still growing. So when they got together, the amazing thing you just saw was the relationship took off. And they really worked together in ways that were profound. And there was one scene in particular – they’ve actually been showing it on TV – the closet scene.
We did the first take of the scene and I was like, "Whoa, that was too easy." That doesn’t work, right? So I went to Chloe and was like, "You’re making it too easy for her to put you in the closet" – You know, essentially, Margret was saying “get in the closet” – And I said, "You need to fight back." So Chloe fights a little bit and doesn’t fight too much, and I said, "Oh, I see the problem – you have too much respect for Julianne Moore." And I was like, "Forget your respect for Julianne Moore, she’s not Julianne Moore. She is Margret, who has been beating you and putting you in that closet forever. You are terrified of that closet. You are going to fight to the death. You’re not going in that closet." And it’s wonderful that in the take we finally used, that she stopped showing respect and she started fighting for her life. Now when she starts fighting for her life not to go in that closet, we see Julianne sweating. Now Julianne has to work harder, and she’s looking at me like, “Oh, this is work.” But then she works harder, Chloe works harder, and then all of a sudden you have a relationship. You no longer have two respectful actresses doing what they think of as their job, they’re in there fighting for their life. So, that’s the kind of stuff that happened.
There was another scene – they have a lot of hair, those two girls. It’s part of the thing, right? And I would call them the hair twins. The problem with a lot of hair on screen – hair goes over the eye, you’re shooting it, and “it’s great, it’s great,” and “oh, I can’t see them. They’ve got the hair in the face.” And then you want to push it off to the side, but, rightly so, they don’t want you to craft it too much. There were a couple times where Chloe was deep in it, and she moves and her hair would, you know, cover her face or she’d go off screen. And I love Julianne Moore – I just see her hand shoot out and grab Chloe by the back of the neck and just put her right back on screen.