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Out in the Neighborhood: Dee Rees on Her Directorial Debut, Pariah

Dee Rees’s debut feature, Pariah, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month with a free screening and Q&A hosted by the Academy Museum. Rees, who first appeared in Filmmaker when she was selected for our 2008 25 New Faces, was interviewed upon the film’s release by Brandon Harris. That interview, originally dated November 18, 2011, is reposted below. The free screening of Pariah is viewable until May 20. — Editor

With Pariah, a buoyant tale of a young, middle-class New York lesbian’s tough coming-of-age amid the class and cultural proxy battles that simmer within black America, lauded newcomer Dee Rees has made one of the year’s most unforgettable directorial debuts. Rees, a 33-year-old Nashville, Tennessee, native who graduated from NYU’s Graduate Film Program around the same time she both wrote the feature screenplay that would become Pariah and came out to her own parents, directed a 30-minute version of the story that became one of the most celebrated short films of 2007. She doesn’t think of her debut as autobiographical, but it clearly tells a story with much at stake for her, one that feels informed by the disappointments of a youth spent in alienation from those you hope, but don’t expect, to come to terms with your identity.

Pariah is a study of the ways in which young blacks caught between social worlds are often forced to wear emotional and physical masks. The film, which suggests that traditional African-American social and cultural mores don’t make room for young women struggling to figure out their sexual identities, exhibits a sensitivity to the nuances of class and style among city-dwelling blacks that is not evident anywhere else in recent American cinema. This IS NOT Precious. While once again a black mother proves to be the fall guy (here, the understated Kim Wayans replaces the overwrought Mo’Nique), it isn’t because of destitution, or drug use, or poverty, or neglect; it’s the far more common affliction of over-protection and ignorance, of a muddled understanding of one’s responsibilities as a Christian woman to love above all else. Aided by her remarkably talented cinematographer Bradford Young, who along with Rees is a former Filmmaker 25 New Face of Independent Film, Rees gives Pariah a deeply satisfying visual dynamism, using color as a harbinger of emotional turmoil as well as any American film in recent memory. Her fantastic young lead, Adepero Oduye, who starred in the short as well, creates a performance of such emotional maturity that one must recall that, despite seeming like a newcomer, she is now a savvy young veteran of some of the most celebrated recent indie films to come out of Brooklyn (Half Nelson and On the Outs among them). An IFP Narrative Lab film, Pariah represents an outpouring of talent from artists who will likely be with us for quite some time. Focus Features will open Pariah on Christmas Day.

Dee Rees Photo by Henny Garfunkel

So, Dee, in many ways I feel like you took the most highly recommended route one can take in terms of making a first feature. You made a lauded short, were supported by the most significant American independent film institutions imaginable, and then made a film that takes what’s great about the short and makes it even more dynamic and universal. And yet, the milieu the film takes place in is one that is very specific and, some would say, difficult for mainstream audiences to relate to. Was there ever a point when you felt like you had to try to make this film easier for general audiences — i.e., white audiences, straight audiences? Or did you feel that as long as you were authentic to the characters’ struggles and to the specificity of their situation that anyone would be able to understand how special the film is? To take a step back, I think the easy transition [from the short to the] feature comes from the fact that Pariah started out as a feature film. I first wrote it as a feature in 2005 so, actually, the harder struggle was to take excerpts and [make] a half-hour short. I never had the problem of having to expand [the story] — all the stories were already there. But in terms of making it, I guess, accessible — we always [thought] that by being specific, it would be universal. White, black, gay, straight — basically this film’s about identity. We stress in our storytelling that we did it, we can just be ourselves and let the characters speak for themselves and people will latch on and get it.

I know that in some ways you have things in common with the girls in this film, but in other ways it’s a complete work of fiction, I’m sure. But certainly you wanted to deal with something in this film that’s quite personal to you, right? Yeah, I mean, I’m a nerdy chick who comes from the suburbs. I grew up in Antioch, Tennessee, which is as far away from Brooklyn, New York, as you can get. But the universal thing that I give these characters is this struggle to be comfortable in the world. [Alike] is at a point in her life when she loves women; that’s not the question. The question is how to be that? And so she’s kind of in this tug of war between this openly gay, uber-butch best friend who tells her she should be a stud, and her conservative, Sunday-school kind of mom on the other end who is saying no, she should wear dresses and be super femme. Her struggle is not in realizing who she is [for herself], but in gaining the awareness to tell her best friend and her mom, “That’s not who I am.” And to be who she is and not change herself to fit a perceived identity.

In our communities, I feel homosexuality is still in many ways a taboo and frowned upon by a sort of traditional Protestant, African-American worldview. I think that you distill that tension so well in this film. It’s the first time I’ve seen it done in such an authentic, and really such a painful, way, especially in the specter of Kim Wayans’ character. How do you think that the film will play among a traditional African-American audience that maybe struggles to get to specialty films anyway, but in terms of this subject matter, may find themselves as conflicted as the characters on the screen? I think it’ll play well. We had a screening of the short film a couple of years ago in Los Angeles, and the audience mainly consisted of [traditional church-going] African-Americans. We definitely expected half the audience to walk out during the opening song. But surprisingly they stayed, and they stayed in it. That audience was able to relate and see themselves in the parents, Audrey and Arthur, more. They understood the social pressures the parents face. They see this mom who loves her daughter, just wants the perfect family, but doesn’t know how to connect to her. They hook in from their point of view.

One of the things that I find so dynamic about the film is the expressive use of color that you and your cinematographer, Bradford Young, employ. And that’s something that’s not just found in the feature — it’s also in the short. Can you talk about the way color is used metaphorically and how it changes throughout the film to make us feel certain ways at certain points in the narrative? We definitely wanted to use color to heighten the characterizations. Alike’s character is this chameleon who’s kind of changing the world around her. We wanted to have her seen by the light of whatever environment she’s in. So in the clubs, she’s purple, and it looks like she’s green in her home. Or she’s blue or pink, depending on where she is. Laura is shown more in white light, more in untinted colors because Laura knows herself, knows who she is. Thematically, we wanted to show that this film is about not checking a box, about being indefinable. We wanted a color space that was in between the colors. So instead of RGB, the color space is more CMYK.  It’s not red, it’s magenta; it not blue, it’s turquoise. It’s not pink, it’s some shade in between that you can’t really put your finger on. And as the film progresses, you see Alike less and less in colors and more and more in a kind of white light because that shows her transition from hiding to becoming an adult.

Was it difficult to put the film together on a level that would give you all of the resources you needed to make the film as dynamic as you wanted to? Certainly, it seems like younger filmmakers today making first features are generally designing features that they can make on micro budgets. As you allude to when talking about the color and cinematography, this film has a sense of formal control that I think is kind of rare for a first feature. If feels like you were in a place where you weren’t willing to compromise to some degree. Even after the success of the short, it was surprisingly difficult to get the film made. Nekisa Cooper is the producer and she led the charge in finding the financing, but we were baffled at how hard it was, you know? How many laurels could we add, how many more notches did we need to have for someone to believe in the script? Despite the laurels and despite the quotes and despite all the festivals the short had gone to, we really had to go [outside the industry] to private equity and find people who just believed in the story itself. And in terms of making it happen without compromising the aesthetics, Nekisa was able to wrangle different in-kind production deals from places like Kodak and Deluxe and other vendors who basically allowed us to make a multi-million dollar film for a fraction of the budget. I credit her with being able to kind of get those deals and convince the crew to believe in the film. Everybody kind of sacrificed, and we basically did this film on a discount. What should’ve cost millions cost us very little. That was how we maintained our look and feel and production value.

Were there things that, because of the length of the shoot, which I imagine was fairly short, you weren’t able to do what you would’ve liked to? Not necessarily. There were things that we did [to make it easier]; for example, we shot pretty much all in one location. Nekisa was working with a local realtor and we found a funeral home, and so [at] the funeral home we could do Laura’s apartment, Alike’s apartment and Bina’s apartment there. I think maybe 10 out of the 18 days scheduled we were able to shoot in one space. By making that call and shooting all in one place and not having too many moves, we allowed [the crew] kind of a studio environment and [the ability] to pre-rig, which gave us more time. That meant we didn’t have to sacrifice in other places. But we didn’t have a big food truck or anything fancy like that. We didn’t have trailers and we didn’t really need cranes or big equipment. But because we weren’t having [lots of] company moves, that freed us up.

So I imagine production design becomes even more important in a circumstance like that where you have this one space that has to double as several different spaces. The production designer, Inbal Weinberg, she was great. She bought in her art army and basically they were prepping spaces as we were preparing to shoot the next. So, in our location, the basement served as Laura’s house. It was perfect because it had this subterranean feel, below ground, and it didn’t need to be as bright. The parlor floor was Alike’s living room and dining room, and that was great because it had a Brooklyn feel with this crown molding. The second floor, I think we used for Bina’s room, which we wanted to be a brighter bedroom. We could light that up nice and use much lighter colors. And then Alike’s room was up on the top floor because her room’s supposed to be kind of dark. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to get a light up there, and it made sense to film in a darker room for this kind of claustrophobic feel until she rips the curtain off at the climax. We really made this location work for us. Inbal and our art director Sarah [K. White] were great at designing spaces that maximized the [locations we had].

I think one thing that we often miss in films about African Americans is the class differentials within our communities. That’s something that’s really done elegantly in the film, I think. What neighborhoods did you shoot in in Brooklyn? I noticed that there are times when we’re in these sort of central Brooklyn neighborhoods that have these gorgeous brownstones that have long been bastions of the African-American middle class. And then, other times we find ourselves in neighborhoods that are clearly working class and lower class black neighborhoods. We shot it all in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, actually. I thought class was an important layer to add because it makes Alike’s story more interesting to know that Audrey’s discomfort with Laura is not just about her being gay, it’s that she feels the girl’s not of the same ilk as Alike. It adds another layer to Audrey’s character and to the story, and it shows that these characters are not all monolithic. Laura doesn’t talk the same way Mika talks and Mika doesn’t talk the same way Bina talks. I thought it was interesting to give different voices to the characters, to show that black characters don’t all have the same voice. It makes their actions more believable and more interesting.

Talking a little bit about the performances, you have a mix of first-timers and veteran character actors. As a first-time director, did you have to find different vocabularies for them based upon their levels of experience or their levels of comfort? No, I pretty much talked to everybody in verbs — the direction for one character might be “humiliate her,” or the direction for another character might be “detest her.” I just usually figure out what the scene is about, speak in verbs and convey that to the actors. It’s also about getting different takes on a scene so that you have options in the editing room. I’m not the type of director who yells over a megaphone or, like, yells from the camera. After each take, I’d talk to the actor personally and quietly. Nobody needs to hear everybody else’s directions. Let the people feel safe and everybody gets their own attention. I just tried to work personally and one on one.

Do you have a fairly open process in terms of showing the film to trusted colleagues or friends in post? Or is it more closed? Kind of closed. I always trusted Nekisa, the producer, and the editor, Mako Kamitsuna, during the edit. During the edit it was just Mako, Nekisa and I. After we’d gotten through a couple of rough cuts we were able to show it to Spike Lee [who’s executive producer on the film]. But we were fairly closed and not really open about sharing it widely because we really wanted the film to be protected. We wanted it to be safe, to have a place to grow in terms of what it needed to be. We did open up to Sundance advisors because they had been with us from the beginning, work-shopping the script. We trusted them — Michelle Satter and Ann Lai from the Sundance Labs — to give guidance and not expose the film or try to make it something that it wasn’t. I also worked with an editing advisor who I met at the labs, Suzy Elmiger. And then towards the end, when we got a more advanced rough cut, we went to the IFP [Narrative] Lab, which was helpful. But Mako and I were always really concerned about keeping a fresh eye. We’d work on it for two or three weeks and then we’d stop, take a break, come back and watch it again. We never became blinded by it. Having fresh eyes was, I think, the thing that helped us with each cut, and enabled us to push it further and further. We worked on it, stopped, worked on it, stopped, and, creatively, that was very freeing. We weren’t cutting for a specific deadline — we just decided, it’s ready when it’s ready. We didn’t rush anything. That was great.

One last question: The score is used sparingly, but when it’s used, it’s used togreat effect. Could you just talk about your vision for the music? The vision was to underscore the voice of each character, but you always wanted to be careful and not overstate what’s already on the screen. Also, you know, the vision was to have an all-female soundtrack, so pretty much all the voices are female voices and that was important. Alike’s voice is kind of acoustic soul. And then the punk is kind of Bina’s voice; this kind of alternative music [represents] an alternative way to be. And then hip-hop is Laura’s voice. This is the world that Alike’s first immersed in and doesn’t feel quite comfortable in. I wanted to use these different genres of music to heighten the character’s voices. So, again, just like these girls don’t talk the same way, they don’t listen to the same things. And these disparate influences ultimately help Alike break out of her community and kind of be who she is. She’s discovering herself through this different music as we discover the film through these different musical voices.

Originally published in the Fall 2011 issue.

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