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Entertainment & Arts

Dustin Lance Black revisits his past in retooled ‘Virginia’

It was September 2010 and anticipation for Dustin Lance Black’s directorial debut at the Toronto International Film Festival was running high. A year earlier, the “Milk” screenwriter had made a splash at the Oscars with his moving acceptance speech touching on the difficulty of growing up gay, transforming him into a hero for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Now, his Southern-set film, “What’s Wrong With Virginia” — starring Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris — was unspooling in Toronto’s special presentation section alongside the works of Danny Boyle, John Sayles and Clint Eastwood.

But as soon as critics got a look at the film, the fanfare came to a screeching halt. Although Connelly’s performance earned praise, the overall movie was deemed a tonally confused piece that shifted between black comedy and poignant drama. The Hollywood Reporter said it “comes a lot closer to resembling bad camp than edgy satire,” while Screen International wrote, “the screenplay becomes as busy and overloaded as a packed roller-coaster.”

Despite the bad notices, it’s likely Black could have still sold his film to a distributor and moved on to other projects. He had recently finished writing “J. Edgar” for Eastwood and was waiting to begin production, and he had just been hired byWarner Bros.to write and direct the adaptation of a graphic novel. Instead, Black did what most directors never do: He listened to his critics.

He found a new editor, ponied up some of his own cash, and re-entered the edit bay, seeking to fix a project he had already lived with for seven years. The revised version, retitled simply “Virginia,” will arrive in theaters Friday.

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“I know I’ve got that little gold man sitting at home, but this is my first effort behind the camera. And I thought there’s a lot more that could be done to make it better,” Black, 37, said over breakfast recently near his West Hollywood home. “It’s like letting your kid go to school without his shoes on. And you see that there are no shoes on. You’re not going to let him walk out the door.”

Based on childhood

“Virginia” began in 2003 as a personal exercise. Black was a struggling writer, spending his days slogging away at the BBC reality show “Faking It.” A friend suggested he pen a piece for himself, rather than trying to please the finicky Hollywood marketplace. Black chose to focus on his complicated upbringing as the second of three boys in a Mormon household near San Antonio.

“A lot of it was exorcising my demons as a child,” said Black, who was raised by his paralyzed mother after his Mormon father abandoned the family when he was a baby.

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What he wrote was the story of Virginia, a schizophrenic woman (Connelly) and her relationship with teenage son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) and a married Mormon sheriff with political aspirations (Harris) who may or may not be the boy’s father.

While the movie includes a few botched robberies, an impromptu Atlantic City, N.J., wedding and a brief kidnapping of a Mormon missionary, the core mother-son story was ripped from Black’s life. He even used his reunion with his birth father as a movie moment. When the sheriff tells Virginia that they can’t be together, he says: “This life is a grain of sand in time and it’s the next life that counts. Then we’ll all be together.” That’s what Black’s father uttered when Black asked him how he could have abandoned three young boys with a paralyzed, unemployed mother.

The script served as a sample work that helped Black land his writing gig on HBO’s “Big Love.” While working on that TV show, Black began researching Harvey Milk’s story with the help of Cleve Jones, a member of the San Francisco politician’s original inner circle; Jones connected him with director Gus Van Sant and the “Milk” project took off. After “Milk” won two Oscars (best original screenplay for Black, best actor for Sean Penn), Black was able to cobble together about $4 million to begin shooting “Virginia.”

He and his cast spent some 20 days filming in western Michigan in the fall of 2009 and ran into some challenges — although the script called for sweltering summer days, winter came early to Black’s faux Southern border town. The foliage was turning autumnal and the set was plagued with sleet and rainstorms.

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“The way we were making it with no money, as my first feature, was risky,” Black said. “Plus, it’s a script that’s more about a feeling than a specific narrative. It’s an impression and it’s a bit untraditional, and I was trying a lot of new things. I also had this giant spotlight on me from the ‘Milk’ experience. People were waiting to see what I was going to do next.”

Black knew he didn’t make a perfect film, but that didn’t lessen the sting when the reviews began rolling in at Toronto.

“I was surprised about how angry some of the response was,” said Black, adding that it was made all the more intense because his mother, who was battling cancer, had flown in for the premiere. “There were some reviews that were personal and ooh, God, that hurt. Lines like ‘unveiling the talentless Dustin Lance Black.’ Oh my God! It’s one project of my many.”

His producer, Christine Vachon (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “One Hour Photo”), believed that the reviews were overly harsh, considering the movie played well during the public screenings.

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“I think there was a bit of the tall-poppy syndrome happening,” Vachon said in a phone interview. “He’s won an Oscar, it’s his first movie, it’s too much, let’s cut him down to size.”

Back to the edit bay

Once Black stopped smarting from the reviews, he actually read them. What he found was a consensus about the film’s major problems: shifting tones, narration from Connelly and Gilbertson, copious amounts of voice-over. These were problems, he thought, that could be rectified.

Vachon introduced Black to Beatrice Sisul, a New York-based editor who had worked with Vachon on the Paul Dano-Zooey Deschanel indie “Gigantic,” and she clicked instantly with Black. Sisul liked “Virginia” but saw where it went off-track. She thought she could fix it.

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“I thought it was a beautiful film with incredible performances but I saw where they got sidetracked. It happens in editing. You try to make radical changes, you take the wrong path. You’re fatigued by the material,” said Sisul, who pointed to an excess of story lines, the lack of a reliable narrator and music choices that shifted the movie’s tone scene by scene from comical to serious. “It was turning really sharp corners from the very beginning. That made it hard for the audience to settle into the rhythm of it and get to know the film in terms of genre.”

Black and Sisul first met in November 2010 but didn’t start editing until March 2011. With Black splitting the editing costs with his financiers, who include Hopwood DePree and Scott Brooks of TicTock Studios, he knew time was money.

“Gay biopics don’t pay like they used to,” he quipped. “It’s not like I’m Jim Cameron and this is ‘Avatar’ and we can stay in the edit bay for a year.”

Sisul worked for five weeks and Black spent five figures on the re-edits. The most drastic change they made was completely eliminating a character — the imaginary race car driver Emmett believes is his father and to whom he tells his story.

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“You learn very quickly that the mother is not the most reliable narrator,” Sisul said. “But if the boy talks to an imaginary character, then you can’t rely on him either.”

Black is happy with the new version and says the film is cleaner and more coherent. Yet he is aware that its success even in art house theaters is hardly guaranteed, given that the movie was shot more than three years ago and has been handicapped with bad reviews.

“Ninety percent of the people who saw it in Toronto will not rewatch it, will not re-review it. Those reviews will be back in a week, reprinted, put back up on the front page. I know that.… But I also think there are a lot of people who are going to like it.”

Vachon is less concerned with the old reviews, since they appeared primarily in trade publications. “If Variety wants to re-run their review, that’s fine,” she said. “I’m more concerned about The Times and the [Village] Voice and all of that. That’s what determines people’s interests.”

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Black is now researching and writing a script based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book “Under the Banner of Heaven,” about a double murder and a fanatical fringe of Mormonism, which Ron Howard is expected to direct. And he’s hoping to direct two movies, the graphic novel adaptation “Three Story” forWarner Bros. and his own adaptation of the young-adult novel “The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight” for producer Bruna Papandrea.

As for “Virginia,” he’s regarding it as one very long, intense learning process. “I didn’t know. I hadn’t been through this experience,” he said of directing. “I’m still learning, experimenting and building my crew. One of the most important things I learned from working with Clint and [‘Milk’ director] Gus [Van Sant] is I need to build my family. Some people are lucky enough to do it the first time. I think I’m halfway there.”

“I hope,” he added with a laugh, “this isn’t too devastating.”

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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