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Dee Rees Talks Pariah

PariahAn Interview with Dee Rees interview
By Fred Topel

November 11, 2011

‘Pariah’ made an impressive premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Focus Features bought the first time feature by Dee Rees and has given it a Christmas Day release. They also entered the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, where we spoke with Rees and her cast.

Based on her own short film, Pariah tells the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a teenager who comes out within a sometimes intolerant community. Rees’s film explores a common experience for people’s development, and communities reacting to those individuals. Indeed it was based on Rees’s own story, somewhat, as she explained to us.

The film also stars Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mallesse, Aasha Davis, Afton Williamson, and Rob Morgan.

Dees spoke to about her film and personal experiences.

When did you decide you wanted to write about your own experience?

Dee Rees: When I was coming out, so 2005/2004 I was going through the process myself and wasn’t sure how to be or who I was. So writing this was in a way cathartic and gave me the courage to be myself.

Were hesitant to put so much of yourself and your life on film?

DR: I was, and this is only semi-autobiographical. I came out really late in life. I was 27. The character here is 17 so this film more answers the question: if I had known at 17, if I had even had a clue, would I have the courage to be that person? I’m not from Brooklyn, I’m from the south. I’m a nerdy chick from the suburbs. So in a lot of ways my experience is very different from Alike’s world. Growing up is very different. I was able to test those same kind of insecurities and questions that I was having in my life, kind of project them onto this 17-year-old Brooklyn girl.

Was it any bit of wish fulfillment, like if only I could have known earlier in life?

DR: Maybe not I wish I knew, because I appreciate my journey for what it was but more I guess the ending might be more wishful kind of like wanting to see the healed relationships and seeing the acceptance. I love the moments between Alike and Arthur, so maybe some of that was wishful, like getting to write your ending but I wouldn’t change my beginning.

Was it also a combination of speaking to other women who have gone through similar issues and your own?

DR: No, I just kind of wrote it without a lot of research. When we were shooting the short version of it, we workshopped the scenes with some kids from the Harvey Milk school but ultimately ended up casting professional actors to do it but no, I don’t really research before I write. I just kind of write and let it go.

Have you been surprised when people tell you they went through exactly the same thing?

DR: Yeah, it’s been really good but I’m not totally surprised because I know that even though this is a really specific story, identity is a universal struggle and a universal experience. So when I was that age, it wasn’t my sexuality, it was other things. So when women come forward and say, “Oh, my parents did this. My parents said this to me or did that to me,” it was really kind of affirming and inspiring but not as surprising because as we were writing it and shooting it, we kind of felt that this is truthful. This is going to connect with somebody. I’m just glad that it happened.

How did you cast Adepero Oduye?

DR: She actually came to auditions when we were shooting the short version of the film. We just did an open casting call, Breakdown Express, and she submitted herself and came in and blew it out of the water, and she had it.

How instrumental was working with Spike Lee?

DR: It was great. He gave me a lot of creative feedback and actually he gave me my first film business job. I interned for him on Inside Man with the script supervisor and then also on When the Levees Broke again with the script supervisor. So getting to watch him on set and his interactions with actors and getting to watch his compositions and all that stuff was a really great learning experience and just how to run a set. Beyond that, he teaches at NYU, he teaches a masters class in directing so I’d sign up for weekly advisement sessions. He’d give me feedback on the script and go through with a sharpee and mark it up, be brutally honest about things and that was great. Also after I had a cut of the film, he would watch cuts of the film and give feedback. He was a good creative advisor and also just a good morale booster too. He kept encouraging us, “Just get it in the can. No matter what, just get it in the can.” That’s what Nekisa Cooper The producer did. He shared with us his experiences on getting Do the Right Thing done. So we drew a lot of inspiration from that. Basically he said, “If I can do it then you guys can do it. Just take each step one step at a time and just get it in the can, then get it cut. Then you can keep gathering resources to take things to the next level.”

Has he remained involved as it’s played festivals and gotten distribution?

DR: He has. He’s been great. When we were figuring out the deal at Sundance he would talk to Nekisa and give her advice. Post that, he’s given us marketing questions and things to think about and things to look forward to. He’s just been an advisor on what to expect and what we should be asking, what we should know, what we should be doing. He’s played the role as kind of an advisor and mentor. Nekisa and I can always call with a question or e-mail him and he’ll get back to us and just be really generous with his time.

Is doing a film yourself as a startup a lot different now than when Spike did She’s Gotta Have It?

DR: I’m not sure. I don’t know what it was like totally back when he did his first film, but I think in terms of financing it’s still as difficult because we knew that we had to do this film with private equity. On the face of it, people thought this film was too small and specific. They thought it was too black, too guy. Still the process of finding investors who believe in the material and believed in us as filmmakers was difficult. The mechanics of it are the same. You need the camera, you need actors, you need space. I guess that hasn’t changed.

How did you condense your original 140 page script to a workable feature length?

DR: Initially, like 2005 first version [was 140 pages.] Obviously the process of shooting the short film and going to the Sundance screenwriting lab and director’s lab, it got whittled down and refined so I think it’s kind of actually great that it had that long gestation period because it was able to get better with every round, become truer and refined. We as artists, the cinematographer, Bedford Young, Nekisa the producer and myself and the actors, we all matured as artists so I think it’s a much more subtle, more nuanced piece.

What has the film done for you since Sundance?

DR: It got me an opportunity to write another script for Focus Features which I’m excited about. Also there’ve been other actors I love and respect who’ve seen the film and now I’m going to get a chance to work with. It’s just kind of been great because it’s getting communities of color in dialogue about this issue. It’s gotten a chance to be an outreach to gay teens who are seeing the film or talking about the film and thinking, “Okay, that’s my story, that’s my experience.” It’s just been a connection to community in a bigger way than we imagined it would be and it’s just been a chance to tell a meaningful story.

Have other gay themed films been an inspiration to you as a filmmaker?

DR: I like Paris is Burning by Jennie Livington. It’s actually a documentary so that’s the film I would say I saw the film and was like yeah, I want the film to be as impactful as that at least.

What do you hope the film does for the gay community?

DR: I hope that it just gives people a reference point. I hope it gives LGBT youth and particularly LGBT youth of color another kind of marker, another reference point. They don’t see themselves necessarily in everyday media so here’s one more thing they have to point to to look at. It just gives them something to grow up with. Coming up, there was very little for me to see. There’s Watermelon Woman but my parents wouldn’t let me look at gay cinema. The only two gay things I had in terms of film were the kissing scene in Color Purple which was like a heartbeat, and then The Women of Brewster Place had one relationship. That was the extent of my gay cinema knowledge. Hopefully this film will be to some other youth in Nashville, TN or in the Midwest or someplace where things aren’t as accessible, it’ll be a reference for them or something as affirming for them. For me, books were my source of affirmation. Alice Walker, Audrey Lord, it was these authors who wrote about their experiences. It was this weird thing where I was censored in terms of what I could watch but not in terms of what I could read. Hopefully through Pariah it will break through to someone, they’ll have something to hang onto or look at.

What do you hope it does for the African-American community?

DR: I hope it starts conversation and helps get people talking about the issue. I hope that it heals families and it increases acceptance and allows people to be themselves.

How is your relationship with your family now?

DR: It’s fine…

Okay. What is the HBO project you’re doing with Viola Davis?

DR: It’s a TV series project and that’s all I can say about it now, but you know, I love Viola and it’s an absolute dream to work with her so I’m excited for whatever comes of it.

What is your process for doing episodes and long running stories versus a feature?

DR: For me, it’s the same because it’s all about character. It’s just about making characters specific, giving them a world and making sure everyone has their own wants, needs and desires. To me it feels the same so far but I guess we’ll see.

Are you still dealing with similar themes – gay themes, youth themes, gay black youth themes – or are there new themes to the series?

DR: I think in all my work there will always be kind of those things but they won’t be plot points. They’ll just be part of who people are. There’s lots of other things so it’s just one layer among other things that will be talked about.

Isn’t that the goal, that it’s no longer a “gay movie” but becomes a movie that happens to have gay characters?

DR: Yeah, even Pariah I don’t feel is just a gay movie. it’s a film about identity, so straight or gay, black or white, you can identify with trying to be yourself. Sometimes you know who you are but you’re not given a space to express that in a way that’s authentic.

What’s the feature you’re working on for Focus?

DR: It’s a thriller. It’s called Bolo.

Is that an original or based on a property?

DR: Original idea.

What kind of thrillers did you admire as a film lover?

DR: I like the Coen Brothers. I like Blood Simple. I like Fargo even though it’s maybe not technically a thriller but I like films where the characters are very specific and they’re characters you don’t typically see, so yeah, we’ll see. Walter Mosley is my favorite crime writer so he’s a big inspiration.

How much higher a budget will you get to work with on that film?

DR: I don’t know. We’ll see.

How far along on the script are you?

DR: I finished it.

Was the poster for Pariah Focus’s idea?

DR: Focus basically did 30 poster ideas and they’re all great. I think Harlan Gulko led the charge with that. They came up with 30 different concepts so he picked five to help us narrow it down.

What do you think of the idea of sounding out the word “pariah” on the poster?

DR: I think it was important because when we did the short film, on the festival circuit, people had questions about the word and the pronunciation. So I had to clarify that no, it’s not a film about a carnivorous fish. That’s a different word. We actually got a lot of questions about the word and what it meant so it was important to define that for people.

I didn’t realize it was a difficult word for people.

DR: I didn’t either but we got a lot of questions about it on the festival circuit, what a pariah was and what it meant.

How do you feel about the Christmas Day release date?

DR: It’s exciting so we’ll see what happens. I know that I personally go to movies on Christmas but we’ll see how it pans out. Yeah, it definitely makes a statement to have that day and hopefully it’ll be something. Given that it’s about a family, hopefully it’ll be something that families go to.

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