First-time Academy Award nominee Dee Rees isn’t resting on her laurels. On Oscar Sunday, the “Mudbound” filmmaker will not only be readying for the announcement of four award categories in which her Netflix period drama is nominated, she’ll also be finishing up her latest project — a sci-fi short film entitled “The Box” that will premiere as a commercial during the show. The minute-long short will air during the Oscars telecast as part an ongoing partnership between Walmart and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The program launched last year, and while Walmart was lambasted for using its platform designed to bolster “Hollywood’s brightest creators” with shorts only directed by male directors (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Antoine Fuqua, and Marc Forster), this year sees a trio of shorts only directed by women: Rees, Nancy Meyers, and Melissa McCarthy.
It also has a philanthropic bent, as Walmart has partnered with Women In Film on the project to support four emerging female film teams, all of whom will receive funding to create, produce, and distribute short films. Additionally, two Women In Film members had the opportunity to visit the sets of “The Box” films to shadow the directors during production. That was a huge draw to Rees.
“It was a chance to do an original short film, so that seemed fun to me,” Rees said. “And then also just the fact that the program was going to support women in film, and was going to sponsor some up-and-coming filmmakers to make their own short films. It will actually help somebody else out.”
Each short spins off a single idea: What happens when a Walmart delivery arrives in its bright blue box (hence the title “The Box”)? Rees’ film is billed as an “action-packed” offering that features characters that include a space captain, a sand monster, and an evil commander. Although the short was commissioned by Walmart, hardly the sort of corporate overlord most people associate with independent film, Rees was clear that the project offered her an immense amount of freedom as a filmmaker.
“Total freedom. I wrote it, I cast it, I had final cut,” the filmmaker said. “So, a ton of freedom. For me, it was a chance to play with genre, to kind of do something unexpected.”
The short also serves as a reunion for Rees and other Oscar-nominated “Mudbound” compatriots, including Best Supporting Actress nominee Mary J. Blige (who stars in the short) and Best Cinematography nominee Rachel Morrison (who lensed it). The trio is joined by other exciting talents, including costuming stalwart Colleen Atwood, production designer Hannah Beachler (who most recently worked on “Black Panther”), and two-time Olympic Gold Medal Boxer and WBC/IBF Super Middle Weight Champ Claressa Shields, all of whom Rees refers to as her “personal heroes.”
“It was great, and that’s why I wanted to work with them again, I wanted to bring as much of the ‘Mudbound’ family back as I could,” Rees said. “It was like another all-woman lineup behind the camera. I really wanted to just kind of pound that point home. We did it on ‘Mudbound,’ we’re doing it again even on this little short spot.”
Although Rees is mostly known to film-lovers for her hard-hitting dramas like “Pariah” and “Mudbound,” she’s also a lover of genre. A sci-fi outing like “The Box” isn’t far off from her aesthetic at all, and it’s actually marks her third on-screen foray into the sci-fi world. The filmmaker previously attempted to get an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Martian Time-Slip” going in 2013 (ultimately, it wasn’t produced), and she eventually directed an episode of the Dick anthology series “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” for Amazon.
“I’ve had my own sci-fi gigs I’ve been trying to do for a while, so this is a genre I’ve always been interested in getting into,” Rees said. “I’m a chaser of character versus genre, so I fall in love with characters, or love to build characters, and so I’ll follow a character across any genre. I feel like you can sometimes do more in genre than you can in drama, because people aren’t expecting it.”
Even with just 60 seconds to build out her world, Rees said she was pleased with the results, including both a full-scope world and a pint-sized heroine who is making it her own. “It’s about this little girl who’s kind of imagining a world kind of beyond her reach,” the filmmaker said. “But she is completely, slowly navigating it and owning it.”
Asked about any Oscar night expectations, Rees was characteristically cool about the possibilities. “I think for me it’s just keeping in mind that all of this stuff is subjective in the first place,” Rees said. “And then secondly, that it just has to be about the work, so much of what happens is not about the work. As an artist, I just have to stay focused on what we did put on the screen, so regardless of whether we got nominated or didn’t get nominated, it doesn’t affect the value of the frames on screen, not one single bit.”
She’s also eager to get back to work – she’s planning on going out on location for her next project, an adaptation of Joan Didion’s “The Last Thing He Wanted”, the week following the awards – and “The Box” speaks to the filmmaker’s desire to keep pushing forward, even if it involves the momentary splitting of attention.
“I like the idea of showing up in this unexpected way,” she said. “All of us – me, Rachel, Mary – will be there, we’ll also be there. We’ll be in two places at once, it’ll be cool.”
Check out a behind the scenes trailer for the series below. Rees’ film, along with shorts from McCarthy and Meyers, will debut during the Oscars telecast on Sunday, March 4.