Dee Rees is the writer and director of the film Pariah, a theatrical tour de force that elicited recognition for her efforts as “Best Director” by the Black Film Critics Circle (BFCC) on December 19. Initially fashioned as a film short, Pariah’s evolution into a full-length feature was propelled by its “finalist” designation for the 2009 Sundance/NHK International Award. After two years of fundraising – with the assistance of producer Nekisa Cooper and constructive guidance from NYU professor Spike Lee – Focus Features acquired Pariah immediately following its world-premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
In anticipation of Pariah’s theatrical release [limited – December 28 – New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; nationwide – January 2012], Dee Rees squeezed some time out of her busy schedule to settle down for an interview with AllHipHop.com Alternatives – reflecting on the importance of character development, her love of John Cassavetes, and cruising Brooklyn in a RV:
AHHA: As you wrote the final treatment for Pariah, transitioning between an award-winning short into a full-length feature film, what did you find to be the hardest part of the screenwriting process, with special regard to character development?
Dee Rees: With character development, the struggle is to make the character a whole person but still keep the momentum of the story moving forward. One character in particular who I spent a lot of time with was Audrey (Kim Wayans), because I didn’t want her to come off as one-sided or come off as a villain. It was important to really get her and to understand her perspective and her motivation, so that we get to empathize with her and understand who Audrey was as a person.
AHHA: Is there a particular scene, or a string of scenes, that you had to tweak over and over again to get just right?
Dee Rees: It wasn’t one particular scene. When Audrey starts conversations with her daughter or starts conversations with her husband, they start from a place of love. She wants to connect. And then as she’s not getting what she wants, the edge comes in. That anger starts right in. She’s starting from a coaxing place, and then her scenes always move to where she – as a result of her advances – becomes hurt or we see her edge more.
AHHA: As the writer and director of this film, what did you find most difficult to translate from the text to the screen?
Dee Rees: The scene between Alike (Adepero Oduye) and her father – Arthur (Charles Parnell) – in the kitchen was a hard to direct because it was a long scene and great deal of the action occurred between the lines. Both of these characters know each other’s secrets, but they’re not willing to say them out loud. It’s a scene about advances and retreats. They both tiptoe up to the line and then back away from the line.
They tiptoe up and then back away, and they’re never able to say what they both already know. So that scene was interesting because it has a couple of turns. It starts out where Alike wants to ask her dad about the affair but then backs away. The father wants to ask about her sexuality, but he backs away. And then in the end, they have this kind of unspoken truce where Dad is basically saying, “I know, but just don’t be seen.” So there were a lot of things happening in between the lines.
AHHA: From a historical perspective, this film is very significant: female-driven with management and leadership in the screenwriting, production, lead acting, and directorial roles. When you put yourself in the context of history and look at all of the other female directors that are currently working, what major obstacles do you feel that you have personally overcome to get this film off the ground and running? And what obstacles do you see women still have to overcome in the future, in regards to writing, directing, and producing major motion films?
Dee Rees: I think the obstacles that we overcame were obstacles that had to do with preconceptions. I think people had a lot of preconceptions about what this film was and about who we were as filmmakers. And I think we had to show that this story is universal. It’s about identity. Everybody can relate to it. It’s not just this niche thing that you think. As filmmakers, we can tell a range of stories.
By showing a cross section of characters, I wanted to show that this is a world that people can relate to and that we can write outside of ourselves. We’re not just transcribing our own personal experiences. We’re portraying a world and portraying a character that has very rich conflicts in her life. I think that those are some of the biggest struggles. I think the continuing struggle will be to convince the industry that audiences are ready for different types of stories and audiences are open and accepting. Audiences are smart.
AHHA: I had that initial feeling when I saw the trailer. But as soon as I saw the film, I knew audiences would be responsive to the personal struggles in the film. One of the most valuable things that Spike Lee gave – according to producer Nekisa Cooper – in the capacity of executive producer was his time. Several years ago, you interned as a script supervisor for Inside Man. In the time that you spent around him, what professional lessons do you feel you translated directly to this experience?
Dee Rees: Spike taught me that, as a director, you have to put everything on the screen. You can’t pass out notes to the audience. You don’t get to stand in front of the audience and explain what your intention was, so everything has to be on the screen. Just clarity of storytelling is something that I learned from him. Also just the manifesto that you have to do it by any means necessary. Just get it done. And so, as we were raising money for the film, Spike inspired us to just get it in the can, and then be able to raise the money piecemeal and just get it done bit by bit. So just that idea of being relentless and being really honest and objective about your work as a process is what I learned from him. I’m glad he was a mentor and someone who we could bounce ideas off of.
AHHA: Speaking about becoming relentless – two years of fundraising and a fast-paced 19-day shoot to get the film completed. When you reflect upon these different phases, what do you consider to be the highlights? Are there any humorous ways in which you raised money or interesting “crunch stories” related to the shooting time?
Dee Rees: Yes! One of the most humorous things – with the short film – me driving an RV through the Bronx with all the actors in the back! [laughing] On the feature film, the idea that Nekisa would be picking up coffee and doughnuts on her way to the set, or that I would wear all these different hats was interesting. When we first got to Brooklyn, we had to sleep in the location because we didn’t have another apartment to sleep in.
There are a lot of things that happened. The highlight for me would be the “wrap party” – where it was literally the last day of shooting. We were in the basement of the location and somebody found an old radio, turned it on, and we just jammed all night to random stuff on the radio. It just happened to be like a good radio night. It was just this fun. I remember feeling very full of joy and just high on the moment.
AHHA: You have a really interesting professional background. Your initial academic focus was not film. In fact, you have a Master of Business Administration (MBA). In what ways has your academic experience supported your artistic efforts? Is there something from the business end that you may or may not have done differently had you not had that academic experience?
Dee Rees: I think the business background definitely helped in terms of knowing how to talk about this film and knowing how to package it. Film is both art and commerce. In the writing of it, I was really able to be free and write the truth of who the characters were and what the world was. But when it’s time to sell the film or when it’s time to think about how to package it, that marketing background comes in handy when you’re thinking about how to design postcards for Sundance or how to design a poster or how to get people in theaters. At the end of the day, to some extent it’s a product, and you’re asking people to pay $10 in advance to go into a dark room to receive your product. Convincing them to do that is a difficult task. I think the training really helped us to think early on who our target audience was and how we would be able to talk to them.
AHHA: It’s interesting you said “target audience.” Sometimes you go in thinking, “This is the target audience!” But is there an unexpected audience that you have seen gravitating towards the film?
Dee Rees: Well, we knew that it was universal. It’s not unexpected, but it was always great when we screened people across different communities. Straight people. People with completely different experiences than Alike who were able to connect with them, and not only connect, but who were moved by it. At Sundance we had a straight, white man come up to us and say, “I’m not gay, and I don’t like gay movies, but I like this movie.” We also had a straight, Black woman, who looked to be a churchgoing woman – with her church hat on – say:,”I understand the mother, but I also understand that I have to love my children.” So those are breakthrough moments where people could see themselves and could relate to the film in a way that was transformative in terms of how they thought about themselves and the world.
AHHA: Wow, that’s very powerful! Is there a particular part of the script that you found yourself at odds with? Maybe you liked the way it was on paper, but it was just unrealistic or unfeasible to direct it with the budget? Maybe something where you had to modify some things because it just wasn’t going to work out?
Dee Rees: Nothing really unfeasible with the budget, but there were some scenes. Like I have some other moments of Alike in the club being awkward that I ended up cutting and not shooting, because it felt a little redundant and I thought we were able to tell the story through a different way. Everything has to be sacrificed to the momentum of moving the story forward and keeping the audience engaged.
AHHA: You have mentioned John Cassavetes as an influential director. What did you admire most about his directing talents, and how did you translate those skills into this current project?
Dee Rees: What I love about his work is that it feels so immediate and urgent, and it feels like the actors aren’t really reading lines. With Cassavetes’ work, you feel like you’re experiencing life. A movie that I love by him was A Woman Under the Influence. You’re watching life happen, and all the performances feel so real. Watching Gena Rowlands, I was blown away by her performance. Cassavetes has these really naturalistic performances. It almost feels observational, and you forget you’re watching a movie. So, as a director, I try to go for the realism and the things that make audiences feel and stay connected to what is happening in front of them.