Exclusive: Dee Rees Talks Mudbound

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TIFF 2017 Exclusive: Dee Rees Talks Mudbound
Posted by Wilson Morales

October 11, 2017

Recently making its international debut at the Toronto International Film Festival was director Dee Rees‘ WWII indie drama ‘Mudbound,’ starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan and Jonathan Banks.

The film had its its World Premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and is also slated to screen at the New York Film Festival.

Mudbound will launch on Netflix and in select theaters on Friday, November 17.

Mudbound is based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, in which Virgil Williams wrote the screenplay with Rees.

Set in the post-WWII South, Mudbound is an epic story of two families pitted against a barbaric social hierarchy and an unrelenting landscape as they simultaneously fight the battle at home and the battle abroad. The film is about friendship, unacknowledged heritage and the unending struggle for and against the land.

Newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis, the McAllan family is underprepared and overly hopeful for Henry’s (Jason Clarke) grandiose farming dreams. Laura (Carey Mulligan) struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture, meanwhile, for Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), whose families have worked the land for generations, every day is a losing venture as they struggle bravely to build some small dream of their own. The war upends both families’ plans as their returning loved ones, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) forge a fast, uneasy friendship that challenges them all.

For Dee Rees, this is her third feature film following her debut film Pariah, which also premiere at Sundance, and the HBO film Bessie, which starred Queen Latifah. For Bessie, she won a DGA Award for Outstanding Direction of a Miniseries or TV Film.

Blackfilm.com spoke with Rees during TIFF as the film was starting its Oscar campaign.

What attracted you to do Mudbound?

Dee Rees: Cassian Elwes had brought me the script by Virgil Williams back in 2015 and the thing that I loved about it were the multiple points of view. That was one of the reasons to do it. There are these multiple points of narratives and that prompted me to go back and read the book. I wanted to find out what else is not there. The thing that I appreciated about Hilary Jordan’s novel were the inner monologues, and I wanted to bring those out. I wrote inner monologues for Hap and Florence to really deepen them. So for me, it was a chance to tell these stories about these two families and how they are in these dark symbiosis with each other and with the land. They are connected and need each other but it’s this dysfunctional and unhealthy thing. I wanted to explore that. I like the fact that the audience can come into the narrative and not know what it was about.

You may think at first that it’s the story about these two brothers, then you may think it’s the story about a marriage. Then it could also be about the war, plus there’s also the story about Rondsel and the Jacksons and this family trying to survive. I love the “and” of it and that’s not any of stories but all of those. I loved the chance to work with a big ensemble cast. I wanted to do a movie that they don’t do anymore.

What were the challenges of weaving all of these storylines together for a film without losing the core narrative of the film?

Dee Rees: It’s the performances and it’s the edits on the performances. It’s about working with the actors so that they understand what the core of the relationships are. With Florence and Laura, the core of that relationship was about power and who has it. Florence believes that Laura has it, and Laura believes that Florence has it. Even between Henry and Hap, I wanted them to be a mirror of each other and their connection to the land. They are connected via this commerce. They each need other economically to make it. With Jamie and Ronsel, their connection is trauma. Trauma is at the core of that. Each of them has this trauma that is their umbilicus. I really wanted to explore each of those and if we get at that core, then the performances are there. This is the axis that we are revolving around and the edits were done by Mako Kamitsuna, who edited Pariah.

We used the edits to invite the audience in and keep asking questions because you want to know what happens next. We wanted to invest the audience with the characters so that you don’t quite care what’s going to happen next. You’re with them and you understand Laura when she looks out into the field versus the difference when Florence looks out into the field. Does she see a way out? Does she see commerce? Does she see survival? Whereas Henry is like a hipster. He has this idea about going out and conquering the land versus Hap, who see the land as ancestral and inheritance that wasn’t his. He and Henry have this thing in common where they both feel cheated out of this inheritance and investment. I just liked exploring these themes and thematically it’s about what it feels like not to come home. It’s about what it means to not be a citizen. I get to still do my thematic stuff. It’s just a different scenario and a different world.

In terms of casting, we’ve seen most of them in numerous films, but can you talk about bringing Mary J. Blige on board?

Dee Rees: Mary had to play this role. That’s the first thing I would say. I needed this deeply empathetic, deeply feeling and deeply observant person, but who has this reserve. She knows as much but is not going to tell you everything. Mary was the soundtrack of my 20s. If you ever went to any of her concerts, she’s just not singing words. She’s reliving every line and making you feel it. It’s like a therapy session with thousands of people. I really needed someone who can have that vulnerability and that inner life and that ability to be wounded and also be able to maintain that; and also to put a shield on top of that. I also needed someone to appear in passive and be deeply empathetic, and Mary had that duality. Who looks like the character I imagine and Mary was it. She was the only one for it and I’m glad she did it.

You’ve worked with Rob Morgan on Pariah and again with this film. What makes him special?

Dee Rees: I’ve been trying to work with him again for some time. Because this is an independent film again, it’s Rob. It’s the timbre of his voice. I needed a face that felt like a landscape. His eyes are so alive and filled with intelligence. With Rob, you always feel like he’s five steps ahead. I needed a Hap that was five steps ahead of Henry but then he has to mute that and look like he’s keeping up. Rob has that physical strength and physical capability as an actor. He comes to the set early and his script is like a bible. It swells to three inches thick. He knows everyone’s else lines in the scenes. He knows what’s happening next and before. Rob could really immersed himself in the character and could completely own it and want it and do it. I was glad to work with him on this. He’s just amazing and I’m excited for his trajectory after this.

We’ve had a record year in which more feature films by women of color are being released by studios. What are your thoughts on that?

Dee Rees: What I’m glad about is that the conversation is becoming about the work itself first. It’s not about the maker. It’s about the work. Excellence is excellence. Let’s talk about the work first and the maker happens to be this. I like focusing on the themes and the work. As long as identity doesn’t becomes a sense to receive the work to interpret it. That’s the only time it becomes limiting or reduced or people get lumped together who have completely different points of views, and completely different styles. It’s the same way Wes Anderson doesn’t get lumped in with Noah Baumbach. They are both white and independent filmmakers, but completely different. To me, the big Hallmark moment would be when you have these many black directors working in different spaces and they are received as completely different artists and their work is evaluated as such. That everyone’s allowed to be their own auteur and not lumped together as a banner or as representation. They are able to tell stories that are meaningful and thematically interesting. Celebrate the work because of what it is or let’s criticize the work because of what it is and not because who made it. That to me is the last vestige in terms of film criticism or industry spotlight that can be refined.

What do want folks to get out of Mudbound?

Dee Rees: The idea that ours is a shared history, a shared present that is all interconnected between people and between us and time. One of the themes of Virgil’s script is that a love is reunited between two characters and at the end of the day it comes back to principles and ideas. You can’t get away from feeling. You can divide people in a box with labels and sub-lables, but you can’t deny feeling. You can’t deny connection. If you can have critical distance and look at your own family objectively or if you can’t do that, then how can you look at the country objectively and talk about who we are as a nation and where we are as people.

What’s your next project?

Dee Rees: I’m doing another film with Cassian Elwes. I’m have a film with Blumhouse and a film with FilmNation. To me, success is easing the way for future work. You’re not selling yourself. You’re selling your idea and that’s the point to get to.


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