'Boys Don’t Cry' Returned to Columbia Where it all Began on its Twentieth Anniversary

Rakesh Palisetty
March 04, 2020

Boys Don’t Cry celebrated its 20th anniversary at the Katherine Otto-Bernstein Screening room on February 14th, 2020. The celebration began with the screening of the film followed by a panel discussion that included, writer-director Kimberly Peirce '96, co-writer Andy Bienen '96, producers Jeffrey Sharp ’01Christine Vachon and Eva Kolodner, actors Chloe Sevigny and Brendan Sexton III, cinematographer Jim Denault, editor Lee Percy, and casting director Kerry Barden

Boys don’t Cry was a pioneering film when it came out twenty years ago. The film had its genesis at Columbia University when Peirce was still a student and this event was her homecoming. The house was packed to the rafters with audience members, including students, alumni, teachers, and the general public, all indulging in laughter and conversation as they waited for the screening to begin. Many had not seen the film since it premiered twenty years ago. An audience member said before the show: “I saw it when it came out and it was devastating and groundbreaking. I am excited to see it again.” Some had never seen it before and were thrilled to watch it for the first time. 

Boys Don’t Cry is a landmark in the queer film canon that still deeply resonates today. The heart wrenching film is based on the tragic true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered in 1993. It won Hilary Swank an oscar who played the role of Brandon Teena. 

The audience gasped and cried as the movie unfolded at Lenfest. The screening was met with rapturous applause. As Peirce introduced the panel, Sexton III was in tears and as he tried to control himself, said: “This is the first time I’m seeing it after twenty years and that bathroom scene still gets me. But I should stop [crying] because boys don’t cry right?” He recalled how difficult it was for him during filming, especially during the rape scene. He was crying because he couldn’t commit to it as he didn’t want to hurt Swank. 

Peirce acknowledged the huge part Sundance Institute played in the making of the film. “I had a dream and passion but not experience. Sundance offered great support,” said Peirce. The process of making the film wasn’t an easy one. Peirce first made it as a short at Columbia, which then needed to be converted to a feature length film. The funding process fell apart three times. “The script took forever and was too long,” said Kolodner amidst laughter from the audience and Peirce. But slowly and steadily, through sheer determination and some miraculous luck they were able to get the film made. 

The first cut was 4 and half hours long. Bienan recalls going to the murder trial with Peirce: “We went to the murder trial and talked to everyone.” Peirce met with Lana Tisdel, the person Brandon Teena fell in love with, and acquired her life rights. Though the real Lana’s recounting of the story was unreliable. She changed her account, left out bits and made up her own story at times. But what liberated Peirce in the writing process was the revelation that it didn’t have to be exactly as it happened and they could use real names. “This knowledge gave me the narrative license. I was then able to really distill the underlying emotional truth and capture the essence of Brandon,” Peirce recalled. 

The early budget for the film was $200,000. The producers were from Columbia where they all got to know each other. And just when the money was about to run out and they were going to get shut down, they got a million dollars. The casting process began at Columbia as well. But they needed a person who could bring Brandon Teena to life. Peirce wanted to find a trans person for the role as she believed playing gay was a dangerous thing to do. The casting team looked for an actor to play Teena for three years and went through hundreds and hundreds of auditions and people. Peirce, recalled the audition with Swank and said: “Someone brought her in and she performed. She was great. She had sex appeal, swagger and a smile.” Though Peirce did ask Swank to pass as a guy in a public setting before she could be cast and Swank passed the test. 

Peirce started telling stories when she was four and she self educated herself for a long time. When asked why it was so important to tell this particular story, she said: “I read about Brandon in an article and was obsessed. I wanted to know who he was and how he lived.” It was a time, not unlike now, when people lived with the unknown and uncertainty and Peirce felt she was at the right place at the right time. The world has changed dramatically since she was at Columbia but the same questions still persist. People are still trying to figure out who they are in an uncertain world, while hatred and prejudice live on. And maybe that’s the reason why Boys Don’t Cry is as moving and relevant today as it was twenty years ago.