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Meet the 2011 ND/NF Filmmakers: “Pariah” Director Dee Rees

Meet the 2011 ND/NF Filmmakers: "Pariah" Director Dee Rees

If Alike, a sassy 17-year-old New Yorker, knows anything it’s that she’s gay and she badly wants a girlfriend. However, there’s a problem—namely her middle-class Brooklyn family. Her mother is a church-goer; her father, a detective, is absent most of the time; and her younger sister is, well, a younger sister. Alike and her best friend—underage though they may be—go to lesbian clubs in search of carnal connection.

In this debut, executive produced by Spike Lee, writer/director Dee Rees pulls a neat one-two punch: she draws an affectionate portrait of a community so close that everyone knows everyone else’s “business,” while dramatizing the longings, disappointments and achievements of Alike (played with remarkable grace and wit by new- comer Adepero Oduye). Alike, a “butch” teenager whose ideas of femininity are less traditional than most, is a young woman worth championing. [Synopsis courtesy of ND/NF]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the 40th edition of New Directors/New Films to submit responses in their own words about their films. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

Writer/Director: Dee Rees
Producer: Nekisa Cooper
Executive Producers: Joey Carey, Spike Lee, Susan Lewis, Sam Martin, Stefan Nowicki, Jeff Robinson, Mary Jane Skalski, Benjamin Weber
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Editor: Mako Kamitsuna
Production Designer: Inbal Weinberg
Cast: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Nina Daniels, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Sahra Mellesse, Shamika Cotton, Pernell Walker, Afton Williamson

Responses courtesy of “Pariah” director Dee Rees.

On doing what you love…

Writing is what got me into filmmaking. I’ve always loved to write, and initially didn’t pursue a career at it because I was afraid that the most likely career path for a creative writing major would be an English teacher. So I opted for the “practical” degree instead and got an MBA, promptly after which I suffered three soul-crushing years in corporate cube culture. With every year more depressing than the last, I figured that my life had to have more purpose than peddling wart removers, pantiliners and toothpaste, so I quit my job and pursued my dream of storytelling via screenwriting and directing. Miraculously, I applied, was accepted into and survived NYU’s grad film program and have been broke, happy and spiritually fulfilled ever since.

Drawing upon the search for identity…

I was going through my own coming-out process when I first wrote “Pariah” in the summer of 2005, and that was the biggest inspiration for the story. The film is semi-autobiographical in that as I was coming into my sexuality. I started to be okay with knowing who I was but the question remained how to express that, and the main character, Alike, struggles in the same way. In going out to clubs (and by the way, I’m totally NOT a club person), it felt very binary in that it seemed like you had to check a box and either be butch or femme. And I’m neither one of those things. I struggled with myself, how should I be in this world, you know? Should I wear baggy jeans and baseball caps? Or should I wear a skirt? Neither of those identities is really me and I finally came to the conclusion that I can just be myself and don’t have to fit into any category. I can just be myself, I don’t have to put on any persona, I can just continue to be who I am. And that’s what Alike comes to in her journey.

The idea for the film grew and evolved through shooting a short version of the first act as my thesis film for NYU. Then, as the short film made its way along the festival circuit, we got noticed by the Feature Film Program at Sundance and got a call from someone at the Institute who’d seen the short and asked if we had a feature that they should consider. I was like, “Hell yeah,” and hunkered down in a coffee shop (stereotypical, I know) and polished up the feature script in about two weeks. We got to workshop it at the Screenwriters’ Lab in the summer of 2007, and then came back again in the summer of 2008 for the Directors’ Lab. The Directors’ Lab was great because we got to bring in Adepero Oduye, who plays Alike, and Aasha Davis, who plays the love interest We were able to workshop that relationship and some of the more difficult elements of the story in a creative “safe space”. It really felt good. The whole lab experience was a life-changing experience for me, both as an artist and as an person. The labs really freed me up to explore new ideas and deepen the material.

A different type of rehearsal process…

Creatively, I have a really non-traditional rehearsal process where I give each of the actors “homework.” I assign outings and/or experiences to share with each other, as opposed to traditional reading and blocking, so that they come to set having already developed authentic shared memories and relationships before we even look at the scenes. Once on set, I like to give the actors surprise improv lines and direction that the other actors in the scene aren’t expecting so that everything stays really fresh and fun. Everybody is on their toes and really listening to each other, because they never know when somebody’s gonna throw them a curveball. One of my favorite scenes in the movie spins off of a kind of improv mash-up where I gave the two kids (Alike and Sharonda) some improv lines and threads of conversation to throw at the “parents” during a dinner table scene and they just had to keep up. It was hilarious. It got so good and the back-and-forth was so interesting, it was hard to know when to “cut”.

On a production level, our approach and vision for the film was really ambitious and, at the same time, super DIY. It was an 18-day shoot with one pick-up day and we banged it out in five and six page days. We made our own lights, had nothing on the street bigger than a moving van and tried to be super efficient in everything that we did. The crew was super slim and everybody went above and beyond their official “role” to make it happen. This film has been five-and-a-half years in the making from script-to-screen and we all grew as artists in the time it took to finally get the financing together for the film. I think it’s a better story because of it. It had plenty of time to “cook”. Even in the edit, we took our time with it and took long breaks of time in between sessions to keep our eyes fresh and objective.

The challenge of securing funding…

Finding the money was the biggest challenge in developing the project. I give complete, total and utter respect to my producer, Nekisa Cooper, who put together our business plan, drafted about a zillion PowerPoint presentations and was literally a one-woman team in knocking on doors, cold-calling and shaking every financing tree she could think of. We were truly outsiders in trying to crack the financing nut and Nekisa was brilliant in building a team of allies and gatekeepers who finally allowed us access to the people who could help us. It was discouraging, depressing and lonely at times but she kept on going.

Ultimately, the people who ended up green-lighting our film were private individuals, independent film organizations and progressive grant-making organizations, all of whom were more interested in the social benefits of the story than box office. The crew and all of our vendors sacrificed so much to make the film possible. We’re honored to finally be able to give back to the people who believed in us and invested in a good story.

Any stories from the set?

Oh man, there are too many to name, from our funeral home location, to all of us freezing in 30-degree weather by Brooklyn’s waterfront, to the spontaneous, radio-fueled basement wrap party that exploded after we finished. The fact that the film got made at all is an interesting anecdote in and of itself.

Influental film and writing…

The documentary “Paris is Burning” was most inspirational for me as I made this film, as well as the writings of Audre Lorde. “Paris is Burning” was inspirational because it was so raw and honest and painted it’s subjects with such an obvious love. It takes viewers into a different world and culture with no apologies or hand-holding. I love the opening sequence, where it’s just two kids hanging out, bantering with the interviewer. Audre Lorde’s work “Zami” and her other writings were inspirational because as I read her story, I felt for the first time that I wasn’t alone.

New projects…

I’m really excited about this original cable television series called “The ‘Ville” that I’m working on. It’s a one-hour drama about the discordant mix of “old money” plantation millionaires, wanna-be country music stars, conflicted “new money” moderates, politically savvy mega churches and trailer park dwellers that make up Nashville, Tennessee. I grew up in Nashville and couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. But now looking back, there are lots of things that I love about Nashville. I also just finished this indie, dark comedy called “Large Print,” about a 50-something, mid-South insurance adjuster who’s trying to redefine happiness for herself. I’m really excited about both projects and exploring a completely different set of characters.

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