A conversation with Dee Rees on 'Mudbound,' her process, influences, genre filmmaking & more

September 28 2017

The IFP's Independent Film Week is a one-of-a-kind annual New York City-set fall event where the international film and media community meet to advance new voices and projects on the independent scene. Filmmakers, artists and storytellers cross paths with people who help move their projects forward. Creators get funding, advice and opportunities. Industry insiders get to discover new talent and ideas — and the public gets to screen fresh cutting-edge work.

Purely focused on supporting the future of storytelling, Film Week provides nurturing and opportunities for both emerging and established artists to connect with the financiers, executives, influencers and decision-makers in film, television, new media and cross-platform storytelling that can help them complete their latest works and connect with audiences.

The initiative's platforms include: Project Forum, which facilitates over 2,000 meetings for talent with new projects in development. Future Forward Industry Initiatives allow established professionals to meet to discuss new opportunities in creative media, as well as debate key issues critical to the future of visual storytelling; FILMMAKER Conference, offering audiences the opportunity to discuss the future of film; FILMMAKER Magazine – Celebrating tomorrow’s filmmakers today through IFP’s signature publication, celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year and more.

IFP has played a vital role in launching the careers of now-established directors, including familiar names like Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Roger Ross Williams (Life Animated), Behn Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Dee Rees (Mudbound). IFP, via FILMMAKER Magazine-produced “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” were early champions of a litany of creative visionaries who have gone on to make their mark in the creative community and popular culture including more familiar names like Ryan Coogler, Cary Fukunaga and many others.

This year, Independent Film Week took place from September 17-21, at various locations throughout Brooklyn, NY. Included in the lineup was a lengthy conversation with writer/director Dee Rees, whose latest feature, the critically-acclaimed Mudbound, has been heralded a surefire Oscar 2018 contender by several critics.

Rees' 3rd feature (after her debut Pariah ,and the HBO telepic Bessie) and a big-screen adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2009 novel of the same name, which is set in 1946 in the wake of World War II, the story follows the fates of two very different families that collide while struggling to make their dreams come true in the Mississippi Delta. When two celebrated soldiers return home, their unlikely friendship complicates the already fraught relationship between the families. The two families are pitted against a barbaric social hierarchy and an unrelenting landscape as they simultaneously fight the battle at home and the battle abroad. An epic pioneer story, Mudbound is about friendship, heritage and the unending struggle for and against the land.

The film stars Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund and Jonathan Banks.

Certainly an intriguing next project for Dee Rees, who's next directing an episode of the upcoming Amazon/Channel 4 anthology series, Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams.

The IFP Week conversation with Rees was moderated by Buzzfeed film critic, Alison Willmore. The enlightening and entertaining chat was wide-ranging, covering Rees' post-Pariah journey through Mudbound, as well as her process as a writer/director, her influences, taking on tent-pole Hollywood studio projects, her interest in genre filmmaking, what comes next and much more.

A transcript of the conversation, specifically Rees' responses, edited for clarity, follows below:

[caption id="attachment_291575" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan appear in Mudbound by Dee Rees, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. © 2016 Sundance Institute |photo by Steve Dietl. Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan appear in Mudbound by Dee Rees © 2016 Sundance Institute |photo by Steve Dietl.[/caption]

On progressing from her feature debut, Pariah, to Mudbound years later

Pariah was a kind of fairy-tale thing because we made it for like $400k and we never even had all the money at one time, so the fact that we even got the film made was a miracle. The fact that we got into Sundance was a miracle, and the fact that it got bought after everyone kept telling us that no one would buy the film was huge. And when Focus Features bought the film, we got our initially investment money back almost immediately, so that also felt like a miracle. And then after that, Focus gave me this blind script deal, with a script about this Memphis cop who's trying to solve a murder in her community, although that never went anywhere. But after Pariah, I never stopped writing. So I wrote a ton of stuff that they never produced. But the thing is, I never stopped writing. But Pariah has been the project that enabled me to keep working professionally. And it was that kind of thing where I learned that you have to have at least 5 things going on at the same time, because maybe one of them will happen. And so during that period, I'd also written a spec TV pilot before TV was like the thing to do as it's become today. Then HBO, who had seen the spec TV script, came into the picture and asked if I wanted to rewrite the script for this feature they had in the development titled Bessie (on Bessie Smith), and I said, yeah. Here's another story about a black queer woman, and she was from Tennessee, so I really wanted to dig into it for all those reasons. And so I wrote Bessie. And then they asked if I also wanted to direct it since I wrote it, and I agreed. So, in that way, Pariah had started a slow kind of catapult to a point where I was always working and keeping myself busy. I think as an independent filmmaker you have to write yourself into the picture. And if I weren't a writer, I don't think I could've gotten the opportunities that I got, because I don't think I would've been able to literally create a space for myself.

Why Mudbound?

Back in 2015, Cassian Elwes, the indie producer titan, approached me with the script. I was initially hesitant. But he said, no you really should read it. It was a script by a writer named Virgil Williams. And there's a lot of there, so that prompted me to go back and read the book by this author named Hillary Jordan, so I read the book, and I thought that the thing that's most interesting about her work is the interior dialogue of the characters, which is very exciting to me; and I wanted to bring more of that out. I also wanted to bring out the Jackson family (the black family) who aren't written in the film like how they're written in the book. And I wanted to bring my own personal history into it. My grandparents, who are from the south, would tell me stories about their younger days, which inspired scenes in Mudbound. And so I wanted to bring all that and other personal family history into it. So the project actually inspired me to really dig into my family's history. It presented me with an interesting way to get in touch with my own history and to kind of interrogate it. And so my hope is that the audience feels invited to interrogate their own personal history. Another reason I wanted to take this on is the multiple points of view the book presents. It lent itself to working conceptually; so for me, Mudbound is about not being able to come home; it's about family drowning you; it's about the interconnectedness of how we all are, and not just to each other, but also to time. And so, on a conceptual level, it kind of gets elevated beyond the obvious realizations and motivations, which excited me about it.

On adapting the book

The book is structured in this way; each chapter features a different character speaking, but they're all linked thematically. While that's great in the book, that usually doesn't work well on the screen. Specifically voice-over, because when you use a lot of voice-over, you risk your audience feeling kind of detached. With this, I really wanted it to be a story about 2 families, this kind of dark symbiosis. And I was aware of the fact that it could very quickly become nobody's story. There was the pressure to just choose one story, or two. But it had to be everybody. So I'd say, in the edit room, we really re-wrote the script in a way. Mako Kamitsuna was the editor of Pariah, and so I wanted to work with her again. And part of our process was just editing each family's story separately from beginning to end, so that they each work on their own. And then we let those natural intersection points just kind of fall where they did. And then we had to make some choices and decisions on who to give each scene to, which required a lot of the actors every take, because they gave me full enough performances each time, where we could make it anyone character in the room's scene. So it's just great that it all came together as it did, because, at the end of the day, I just want you to feel something. If you're feeling something I'm happy with it. The last thing I want is, if you're watching the film, you're feeling detached. I want you to really feel something, and doing that with so many different voices was definitely a challenge.

On getting the period of Mudbound down

Faces are a large part of making something feel period; and also costume design, which is by Michael Boyd. I worked with him on Bessie; he really gets the craft of costume. The clothing of the cast feels really lived in. And also the dialogue... I'm from Tennessee; I'm a southerner, but I don't have an accent. But I know the accents and it irks me when southern accents suck. I just wanted to make sure that the dialogue was there. We had a dialect coach named Tim Monich to help ensure that everybody was doing the same accent. It was important to get that right.

On casting and on Mary J. Blige specifically

I worked with Billy Hopkins, a casting director based in NYC. I really wanted people who could look like they only ate 500 calories a day. People for whom things like sugar and coffee are luxuries. They needed to look like they'd never seen a goji berry in their lives. And so they had to look of the land. With Mary J. Blige, I was intimidated initially and wasn't sure she would even want to do it. But she was amazing. I got to know her through her manager Shakim (Compere) Queen Latifah's business partner (Rees and Latifah worked on Bessie together). So I asked if he thought Mary would even think about wanting to do this; and he said, yes, she would. And so she got the script and read the draft at the time and she loved it. The biggest thing for me was if she was willing to kind of throw away all the Mary, all the vanity and just really be the character Florence Jackson, and she did just that. No wigs, no nails, just totally natural and she's totally gorgeous. Just the fact that she was willing to go there was great, because not every celebrity is willing to do that. She was amazing to work with; she came to set knowing her lines, she knew everybody else's lines and she understood what was underneath them. Take after take, she was there, ready and totally focused. As an actor, you don't only have to be a great actor, you also have to be a great listener. So even though you know what's coming, you can't anticipate. She really listened to her co-stars, and was really involved with them, and was deeply empathetic. She really brought that to Florence.

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On what filming was like:

We shot like 28 days in New Orleans, out in plantation country. We shot on an old sugar plantation specifically and we paid the owner, a farmer, to destroy one of his fields. The cabins on the plantation were actual sharecroppers cabins, so we convinced the landowner to let us move the cabins deeper into the field where they weren't supposed to be, which was a production challenge because (in moving them) we had to keep the cabins intact somehow and make them whole again, at their new location. Also, we had to create the mud, because it was in the middle of July in the south, so it was very hot and not idle conditions for mud. We had these big water trucks we used to make mud, but because it would dry up quickly (because of the heat), we'd have to turn around and make more mud again, over and over. And after every take, we'd have to cover up foot and tire tracks for the next take. So it was a lot of work. The mud itself was a big challenge, from creating it to keeping it where we wanted it. We also shot 2 days in Budapest, Hungary. We shot all the war stuff in Budapest, then we shot in the Long Island WWII museum. We shot in an actual B25 plane. And it was all done very quickly and all within like 31 days of filming, meaning we had to be efficient and move fast.

How the film speaks to where we are as a nation right now:

Any work really comments on the time that it's made, whether it's set in 1940 or 2040. I think films made in 2017 will ultimately reflect on 2017. You look at incidents like in Charlottesville, and I feel like this is nothing new, this is who we've been as a country. But I think maybe with all that's happening now, it gives people the critical distance needed to receive this film honestly. For example, we were at a Sundance Film Festival breakfast buffet and I heard these 2 guys talking, saying "Yeah, Mudbound was good, but that Klan scene was kind of over-the-top." And now, 9 months later and all that's happened in this country since then, those 2 guys will know that the Klan scene was not fucking over-the-top, ok. But I think the film will make people connect with the now. People dismiss bad behavior and say, "well, he's a man of his time." My point is, we make the times. We are the times. I can go into my family's history and find a slave, maybe just 3 grandmothers back, and a white person could do the same and find a slave owner three grandmothers back, and you deal with that, asking what that means to you. We can't take on our history as a country if we can't even take on our own personal history. I remember during the elections, some people were saying, "I can't go back home for Thanksgiving because I don't want to deal with my racist family." And my response was, if you can't talk to your racist uncle, I certainly can't. You've got to go home and talk to your own fucking racist uncle. Just start there, you know. If everyone takes on their racist uncle, we'd be much further.

On intersectionality in Mudbound:

The McAllan family (who are white) and the Jackson family (who are black) kind of mirror each other in certain ways. The 2 women are linked by motherhood and also by a sense of economic dis-empowerment. Their husbands want to dictate how the money gets spent, but they both kind of disobey their husbands, and go around spending the money in a smarter way. And also the 2 husbands, they're both connected by a sense of disinheritance from the land. Henry (McAllan) feels like his father sold the land that was due him, and so he's hanging on to what he has, and this same family has been working the land for so long; their blood, their sweat, their bones live in this ground, but they can never own it. And then you have the two sons who've gone off to war and are expected to come back and still function in society. So they're both connected by trauma, it's like PTSD and they're shell-shocked, and it's not something that you can just quickly move on from. So in some ways they are brothers, but they can never really acknowledge or consummate that. So each of these characters kind of mirrors the other, and they are connected in each of these ways that are all kind of unacknowledged, which all makes it untidy and tense.

On managing multiple storylines in one movie:

Each scene has to work. Each scene has to stand on its own so that if you worked away from it, you can still understand what's happening in it, separate from the whole film. And with each successive scene, you have sequences. So I ask myself the question, does the sequence work? Could this sequence be a short film? If each scene can work on its own, you'll have stronger sequences. And over the course of sequences, do we see a change in the characters? That anyone person is different at the end than they were at the beginning? Are you following the characters? Have they changed? Is there some added positive or negative value? They can't be flat. So I do that deep scene work. There should be a value shift. It can't just be expositional. There has to be some sort of shift, whether within a character or our perception of the character. Maybe the shift is in the audience. Maybe the audience dislikes or cares more for a character than before this hypothetical scene. So, in the case of Mudbound, eventually, we feel that we understand each character and their individual drives. There are so many individual things in this movie that could've been movies themselves. For example, the story of the 2 brothers could be its own movie. And each family's story could be a movie on their own. So when each element works on its own, without music, without any digital work, you know it's working. In the edit room, I try not to use music because it can cover things. When the picture is ugly and the audio is dry, if it works, then you know it's going to work. By the way, shout out to Tamar-kali, who's a punk rock goddess and who did the score in like 5 weeks and it's genius.

On the film not being anachronistic: 

The way I talked about it with the actors, I said to them, whiteness is currency. You all have it, you just spend it differently. And so Pappy (McAllan) flaunts it and waves his in your face, running around calling black people niggers. Whereas Henry (McAllan), he's not calling people names, but when he comes across someone who's leg is broken, he says, too bad, you still have to work. And then Laura, barters with hers. She doesn't necessarily want Florence (Jackson) in her house, but she wants her kids to be OK. So she negotiates to ensure the things that will help keep her kids alive. And then Jamie (McAllan), he tries to ignore his currency. He tries to burn his, which imperils those close to him. So if you think of it as currency, it's not whether you have it, it's how you spend it. And in that way, it's very contemporary. People spend their currency in different ways, or are coming to grips with the fact that they have it.

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On finding a balance between doing corporate projects, and making projects her own:

My first studio meeting, I was out in L.A. at the time. I remember I thought that I was going to go in, it was going to be huge, and I was trying to think of ways to handle the material, and trying to give it this artful, kind of symbolic meaning. I'm essentially explaining to myself why I'm doing this. And so I called my agent tell him that I couldn't take the meeting, which he probably didn't like. But I just knew that, at that point, we'd put so much into making Pariah happen, we'd gotten so many grants, and support of so many people on Kickstarter; so it felt like it would be a slap in the face to those people who'd probably be thinking, "We helped you make Pariah, and then you do this studio project next?" So I didn't go for the meeting, but for me it was an affirmation that a project has to mean something. It doesn't have to be "messagey," but it has to be material that means something. You can't inject it with ideas that aren't already there, otherwise, it's going to feel contrived.

Thoughts on purist push-back against Netflix and the theatrical experience:

For me, it's not a concern because of my experience with Pariah. That film stayed alive because of Netflix. People kept watching it because of Netflix. Although Focus Features (who acquired the film after its Sundance Premiere) released it theatrically, very few people actually saw it in theaters because it was a limited release. Most folks discovered it on Netflix later, which actually helped create a community of fans out of it. So I have a different perspective on this just from that experience alone. And also as an artist, you want your work to be seen, and so knowing that someone in let's say Portugal can watch it at the same time as someone in Texas, that's kind of huge in terms of really broadening people's ideas about the world. So for me, I'm excited about the fact that millions of people are going to see Mudbound at once, instead of thousands. Conceptually, we had the same conversation about film versus digital five years ago, and yet now everything is basically shot digital. There were even festivals that said they wouldn't screen your print unless you had a 35MM print, and now they'll mostly screening DCPs (Digital Cinema Package). So it's all kind of a moot point now. It just feels like another one of those purist arguments that gets muted by the content. To me the work should speak the loudest, the work should be strong. If the work is good, it's good. Excellence is excellence no matter the format or distribution venue. It's just become more accessible now. My parents aren't going to go to a boutique theater; for folks like them, if it's not at the local theater chain, then it had better be on TV otherwise they won't see it, because a boutique theater isn't necessarily accessible to them where they live. Even in terms of costs, you don't have to put on clothes, you don't have to buy expensive popcorn, you don't need to spend gas money; you don't have to do much because it's literally right there in front of you, and you can watch it however and whenever you want.

On filmmakers who inspired her the most:

A lot of them actually. Even before I thought I'd become a filmmaker, I was watching Spike Lee films. When I was a kid, my mom had a videotape of a film by Euzhan Palcy titled Sugarcane Alley and we watched it over and over again. We would tape movies off TV and my job was to press pause during the commercials, so that we could edit out the commercials. So you could say that my first job in film was being like a film editor. And then when I moved to New York and started reading scripts, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was one of the first screenplays I read, where I picked up memorable things like the dialogue. And then there's Wes Anderson for his formalized, almost kind of absurdist style. Also the Coen brothers. But yeah, my inspirations are all over the place, although they tend to be directors who have a super-stylized approach. I think I was attracted to high style, and then I had to figure out how to make films that are stylized, but the style doesn't get in the way of the narrative.

On whether she would make any tent-pole Hollywood-style movies:

Yeah, I want to do sci-fi, but I want to do my own sci-fi. I'd like to do Star Wars. But it'll have to be my Star Wars. I want to do my own original ideas. So it's not like I don't want to do genre, like right now I'm working on a horror film. So yes, I want to do *big* films, but they have to be stories I care about. They don't have to be personal stories, but it has to be something I'm very interesting in. So it's not like I'm only drawing from my personal life experience. Like in the case of the Bessie Smith film, it wasn't drawn from my own personal life experience, but I thought here's a character that is interesting to me - this black, queer woman of a previous era who were still talking about today. Same thing with Mudbound. It's not drawn from my personal experience. Here are 2 families that are more alike than they understand. So for me it's about finding stuff that I consider interesting. I would definitely do something in sci-fi and other genres, it's just that I have to care about it. Making a film is like a 2 to 3-year process, so you have to love it, otherwise, you'll start phoning it in. There has to be something about it that keeps you coming back.

On the horror film she's working on with Blumhouse:

I saw Get Out and thought, this shit's brilliant, this is great. This is how horror should be done. And so, yes, I'm going to write it next year with my partner, and I'm going to shoot it eventually hopefully. But that's all I can say about it right now.

On her process:

I typically just vomit it all out on index cards, and just get it all out. It can be scenes. It can be ideas. It can be lines. And it doesn't have to make sense. And then as you get this floor full of cards, you start to arc them into narratives: where's this character going? Where's that character going, etc. So I get it all out, knowing that half the stuff I've written down, I'm going to throw away, holding myself really accountable. But you can't have that kind of critical mind right up front. You have to first get it all out, and then shape it and throw away what you need to. New stuff will come to you, and you put that in. I think it's just staying open to thoughts and ideas, to characters not working the way you thought, or you discover things about them that you didn't necessarily believe initially.

Advice to young filmmakers:

I would say, especially to young directors, that no one is coming to look for you. No one is coming to find you. So if you can write, then write, because that's a way to create content for yourself to direct. Or if you edit, or shoot, then edit or shoot. But you have to find some specific track that will get you in. For me, it was writing. Also building relationships. When I first started out, I didn't have any inside connections and relationships, and I had to find and make them. And programs like those offered by organizations like the IFP really helped in that way. I got to meet other filmmakers and producers. And then at Film Independent's Project Evolve program, that's where I met my editor. And then the Sundance Institute, I went through the labs there. So for me, it was really these indie-focused, grant-making organizations that really got me into it, like with writing grant proposals. I wrote a lot of those. Sometimes you don't get all the money, but you just have to go ahead. For example, with Pariah, we didn't have the money, but we got a $50K grant from NYU. But really, you have to build relationships. If you can write, write something amazing and make a short film. Start where you are, but you have to make something that's undeniable.

Indeed.

Mudbound will be released by Netflix on November 17, 2017 in limited theatrical (NY and LA), and on Netflix worldwide.

 

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