Pariah opens in limited release tomorrow. I was able to catch it and the Toronto Film Festival. Here is my conversation with writer/director Dee Rees.
Women and Hollywood: Why did you start the movie off with the Audre Lorde quote?
Dee Rees: I started the movie when I was going through my own coming out process. I was reading a lot of Audre Lorde and listening to Nina Simone, but Audre Lorde was who I latched on to and followed her life journey. I could really relate to her experiences about fitting in and always being the “other.” The quote: “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” For me, that means she has no place and there is no place for her and that’s how I interpret it. And that’s why I wanted to start the film with that because that’s what Alike’s journey is about. She feels like she doesn’t have a place.
WaH: You started the film as a short and then it progressed to a feature. Did you know you always wanted it to be a feature film?
DR: We actually wrote it as a feature, first. Then we took an excerpt and shot it as a short.
WaH: Which scene?
DR: Basically the whole first act. I originally wrote the feature and it was 140 pages in 2005. Then I needed a thesis film to graduate from NYU and this was the only thing that was on my mind. It took the first act and switched some things around and shot it as a short film.
The short film started to make its way around the festival circuit and the Sundance Institute asked if there was a feature script they should be looking at. I went back and dusted it off and got into the 2007 Sundance Labs which was my first affirmation as a writer.
WaH: Talk a little about the Sundance experience. You went through the institute and the festival.
DR: I took the Screenwriters Lab in 2007 during which time I had like five or six mentors who were established, well known writers. People you would never have access to ordinarily who read your script and give you notes. It was great. In the real world you would never be able to contact those people or if you did it would take them months to read your script. But in the labs you would get feedback. And the emphasis isn’t on the writing. It’s more about listening and accepting feedback. That was one of the biggest things I learned there.
Then in 2008 I came back for the Director’s Lab where they challenge you to shoot the most challenging scenes. For the lab I shot the love scenes between Alike and Bina and I really wanted to explore that relationship because it was something that wasn’t covered in the short film and I wanted to get comfortable with that. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was at the lab where I kind of realized that in the ending the parent who commits the violence has to be different. It was great to just see it on its feet and see what was and wasn’t working. And even though you are directing scenes and cutting it, the Director’s Lab also helped me with the next rewrite.
And then our producer got into the Producer’s Lab which paired her with mentors like Ted Hope and that was great. We really needed help pulling together a financing plan and plan of action because we knew that studios weren’t interested in making this movie. It was something that would have to happen with private equity.
WaH: What does that mean to you have someone like Nekisa (the producer) through the whole process of making the film.
DR: Having Nekisa be part of the process really meant having a great friend at your side. In an industry that’s uncertain and when you’re in a lot of situations that are anxiety causing, to have someone there who has your back unconditionally and cares for you and the material and would give anything to make sure everything is ok, makes you feel so much better. It gives you a sense of security as an artist.
WaH: This is an amazing story of triumph: Two African American women writing, producing and directing a movie together that talks about such an intense subject. These are the stories that people who read my site want to tell that people tell them are stories that are not valid.
DR: We definitely leaned on each other. When she was down I would be the one to pick us up. When I was down she would pick us up. At any given point, neither one of us would let the other get too down or stop believing. It was great.
WaH: The story is part autobiographical…
DR: Semi-autobiographical in that I came out really late in life - I was in my late twenties when I was coming out so I wasn’t a teenager. I was living in New York and I was really inspired by these out and proud teenagers. Growing up in Nashville I had never seen that. All these amazing women already know what they are and are not afraid to be that. So I challenged myself and asked if I had known at 17 would I still have the courage to be myself and the answer was probably not. Alike is taking a great risk because she’s still dependent on her parents to be who she is. I like the fact the story isn’t about coming out. She understands that she loves women – that’s not the issue.
WaH: The title is a really provocative word. Talk to me about that. Was the title in the earlier drafts?
DR: It has always been the title. My writing teacher who has also been a great mentor and who I love dearly, said, ‘Dee. I love you but you know the title has got to change.’ And throughout the process there have been questions about the title but for me it’s important because it conveys a character’s state of mind. This character feels like even in the gay world I’m still not accepted, so where do I go? She feels like she can’t check a box and everyone is asking her to. And I think it’s important that right away the title conveys her state of mind.
I feel a lot of folks, like teenagers, can feel like outcasts. I think throughout the film you can see how all of the characters are like pariahs in their own way. Audrey is really lonely and the more she tries to connect the more she tries to push people away. Arthur isn’t like the typical dad so he doesn’t bend to the conventional standards of paternal care. He’s being told he shouldn’t love and accept his daughter but he does.
WaH: Religion plays a big role in this story. Talk a little about why you added the religion mix into it.
DR: I wanted it to play as a subtle layer and part of Alike’s internal conflict. She’s a Christian and I think some people think that spirituality and sexuality are somehow mutually exclusive. But for Alike – she believes in God. Her faith is what carries her through. Her mother is telling her God doesn’t love her. For kids who are struggling, who are of faith, just reconciling yourself to the fact that God loves you accepts you for who you are is a big step in the healing, especially when your biological family is unaccepting of you.
WaH: How did you find Adepero Oduye?
DR: She came in the first day of auditions when we were casting the short film. We had character breakdowns on a casting website and she submitted herself and came in. She was amazing.
WaH: The music was so vital to this. Was it something you brought to this? Did someone work with you on it?
DR: We had a strong sense of music and it had to be a character. Alike’s voice is kind of the acoustic soul and there is an artist named Sparlha Swa who I met and I caught up with her after a show and she agreed to work on the short film. And for the punk, the DP introduced me to a punk artist named Tamar-kali. Tamar is kind of the voice of Bina and a representation of another way to be. You don’t have to listen to the things people expect you to do. For the character of Laura, her voice is hip hop and I also wanted to make sure it was female voices. I wanted female voices throughout - punk, soul, hip hop. These are different characters with different personalities.
WaH: I felt that Alike was two different people. That is the struggle of the movie. How do you become yourself.
DR: In a sense, she is neither of those two people. She’s not this stud that Laura paints her to be. And she’s not this super feminine girl her mom wants her to be. And that’s why she doesn’t fit. She’s not butch enough to be gay, not feminine enough to be straight and she’s kind of rejected from both sides.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
DR: Getting the money. People on the surface looked at this as a black-gay film. No matter how much we said it was about identity, about being yourself, about coming of age... I think people can be kind of myopic in terms of material.
WaH: Can you give any lessons on how to sell your film? You seemed to have done a really good job at that.
DR: The only advice I can give is to surround yourself with people who are friends and people who believe in you and your material and who are going to help you take it to the next level. It doesn’t mean you don’t listen to criticism but you listen to it and edit it and you figure out what you can take. But, ultimately, the people are going to help you make your film are the people who believe in you and believe in the story. And as long as you stick to your guns, hopefully what you come out with will be what you imagined.
WaH: I can name well-known African-American female directors on one hand. That’s really hard to deal with because we’re not seeing all the stories. You’re visible now but you’re going to be more visible. What does that mean to you as an African American woman?
DR: Visibility is great because it shows other African American women they can be whatever they chose to be. But for me, the story comes first. If I’m visible fine, but I really want the story to come first. And I hope some little black girl in Nashville, Tennessee will have this story she can go to. She won’t be consigned to the traditional depictions of sexuality and gender that is given to them generally. It’s a non-homogenized point of view. I stand on a lot of shoulders: Euzhan Palcy, Kasi Lemmons, and Julie Dash. It was great to be pursuing my dreams and hopefully I’ll build a body of work and I will be among them one day.
WaH: Do you like writing or director better?
DR: I like them both. Writing is really freeing because it’s the only part of the process where it’s just you and the characters and you are by yourself in a room and you can just hash it out. There are no limitations. But I love directing because you get to see it come to life. You get to work with the actors. There’s something magical about each piece of it. I love the freedom of writing and then I love the realization of directing. I can’t favor one or the other. I enjoy both parts of the process.
WaH: You wrote the poem at the end of the movie. Where did it come from?
DR: It wasn’t in the initial script. We had finished a cut of the film and my editor kept saying we should paint her as a poet. And I said no because I didn’t want to be the typical first-time filmmaker where the protagonist is an artist and does the poetry thing and I didn’t want it to be a cliche. But we showed it to another editor and she gave the same feedback. I want to see her and her revolution as an artist. The producer kept saying to just think about it and not force it. So I literally sat at a Starbucks the week before we went to pick-up the last scene and wrote it. It just kind of came out. This kind of poem basically lets you know that she is going to be okay and conveys her sense of alrightness with the world. I don’t know what’s out there but it’s going to be better.
Pariah opens in limited release December 28.