Taking on a classic is a gutsy move, even for an award-winning filmmaker. And when director Kimberly Peirce signed on to re-imagine Stephen King's horror classic "Carrie," about a teenage girl with telekinetic powers hellbent on revenge, she knew she had some sky-high expectations to meet.
"I'd make a joke and say, 'I didn't give a f*ck,' but of course I felt pressure!" she told us recently while doing press for "Carrie." "But I think pressure is good."
All that pressure had Peirce thinking long and hard about what it would mean to sign on to a project of this scale, with its history and existing fan base. Having made just one film, 2008's "Stop-Loss," since her 1999 directorial debut, "Boys Don't Cry," it's clear, as a filmmaker, she doesn't make decisions lightly.
"I walked into this feeling a huge responsibility, much like I did with 'Boys Don't Cry' and Brandon Teena," she added. "I felt I had to get it right because I couldn't afford to get it wrong; it wasn't my right. So yes, I felt that. I am friends with [Brian] De Palma. I respect him tremendously and I love his movie. I think he did an amazing job. So when they came to me, it was, 'Wow, he did a great job.' I had to ask myself, 'Is there space to do another movie that's really good? Is that possible?'"
Peirce, refusing to get bogged down by doubt, chose to see the upside of high expectations, using them to fuel the creative process and take a much harder look at what makes King's novel, now nearly 40 years old, such a timeless and compelling story.
"I think it's really good to feel the challenge. For me it was great to have so much love and respect for what King had done; he wrote an amazing novel. He wrote brilliant characters whom I'm madly in love with: Carrie and her mother," she revealed, adding, "I think his story is timely and it's timeless and I think it reaches a level of myth, like Shakespeare. It's a version of the Cinderella story turned on its head. And I feel it's more relevant today than it was then."
Peirce's drive to find "space" for a new "Carrie" and her passion for the characters led her to explore the following four areas, which she believes to be the most vital in bringing a successful, fresh take on the decades-old tale to the big screen:
1. Finding a New, Modern Perspective
"I needed to modernize it, which was probably going to happen because it was forty years later and I'm born of another generation and the way I look at stuff is inevitably of a more modern -- it's mine. [The next] thing was updating the cell phones, updating the ways that people communicate, updating that they make videos -- they upload videos -- those videos get reshown, they get out of control, making it clear that the school system was aware of these types of issues."
2. Going Back to Where It All Began. Really.
"The second thing, which is probably the biggest, is really going deeply back to the novel. And, for me, understanding that the engine, and the heart and soul of the movie, was the mother-daughter relationship, and it was why I wrote the opening scene, which -- I don't want to give it away -- but that to me is the DNA of that entire relationship. You start that love affair and that duel right off the bat, and it is a ticking clock. You're going down this road: these people are going to keep fighting, Carrie's going to gain her independence, mom is going to become the underdog, and then Carrie's going to do something, and then it's going to flip back around, and it's going to be a fight to the death at the very end."
3. Discovering That 'Carrie' Is Actually a Superhero Origin Story
"I looked at the novel again, from a naturally modern perspective because we've had great superhero movies, superhero movies that we love. They have full-blown characters and journeys that we identify with. 'Oh, it's a superhero origin story.' So, for me, with 'Carrie' it was, 'With the period comes the power.' That's in King. But she's going to be discovering these powers. I'm going to be there with her the moment she discovers that she has a power. I'm going to be with her in her arc of learning, and I'm going to make sure she doesn't fully master them. So when she's [levitating] the books, she gets them up but then they're kind of out of control, and she's hiding it from the mother because the mother thinks that it's dangerous. It was important to me that when she goes to prom that she doesn't have mastery of those powers so that if something happens and she uses those powers, she's not willful in a certain way."
4. Finding Justice and Getting Revenge
"The other huge thing that was important to me, which you see in all my movies, is a sense of justice and, part and parcel with justice, is revenge. I think we love a justice story. So you had to love Carrie -- you had to be involved in her journey, you had to want her to get love and acceptance, you had to see the obstacles against her, you had to see her playing with the powers, you had see her get that invitation to prom and think, "Sue should apologize and you shouldn't go to prom, because this is not going to work." She goes anyway, and you still want to see her succeed. But you also secretly want to see it blow up. And when it does, it's important -- I changed it so that when Tommy goes down, Carrie is overwhelmed with grief. It's out of the grief that unconsciously the powers come out. And when they come out, that's when things happen. The damage is done."
And, when it comes to revenge, Peirce made a key thematic change that sets her "Carrie" apart from De Palma's. Turn back now if you're sensitive to spoilers.
"We wanted to feel that [Carrie] was just getting the people who had done this to her, and that was going to cause this gratification and joy. And I could tell [we had succeeded] when we were screening it, when people started saying, 'Prom is my favorite sequence, and I love it when she gets the people who did this to her.' Because I thought, 'That's what we want. That's the engine that powers the story.'"
"Carrie," starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, opens Friday, October 18.
Tim Hayne (@tim_hayne) is Editor in Chief of Moviefone.