Every January, some of the finest new filmmaking talent trot their debut films out at the Sundance Film Festival. For director Dee Rees (right in photo), who received immediate attention for her debut feature Pariah at this year’s festival, it was a much longer journey, because the film was an extension of a short film of the same name that did the festival circuit four years early.
Both films star bright young newcomer Adepero Oduye (left in photo) in the role of 17-year-old Alike (pronounced Ah-leek-kay), an inner city teenager from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who is having gender and sexual identity issues, something her conservative parents could never possibly understand. As she tries her best to keep her desire to be with other women a secret from her parents, she is torn between two friends, one who has already come out of the closet, another one who dabbles with bisexuality.
It’s a fantastic spin on the classic coming-of-age film that permeates independent cinema, and Rees proves herself to be one of the strongest LGBT visionaries to come around in years, making Alike’s story one where you don’t have to be African American or female or gay to fully relate to her struggle to accept her own identity and share it with others. Much of the reason the film works so universally has to do with Oduye’s stellar performance, creating a character you immediately like and want to see flourish, as well as Rees’ talents as a filmmaker, undeniable even from a film with a tiny budget even compared to other Sundance offerings.
Pariah won an award for its Cinematography at Sundance and was picked up for distribution by Focus Features – an unconventional choice for the mini-major but right in line with their release of Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre. Since then, the film has won a Gotham Award for Rees as Breakthrough Director (besting a lot of fierce competition) and an award from the National Board of Review for “Freedom of Expression.”
In fact, it was the day after the Gotham Awards that ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Ms. Rees and her star, Adepero Oduye, to talk about making the movie, a fun and lively conversation where it was obvious how much love went into making Pariah.
ComingSoon.net: I know the basic story that you did a short film quite a while ago, maybe four or five years ago?
Dee Rees: Yes, it started as a feature I wrote in 2005 and we did the short in 2006, and we shot the feature in 2009, so yeah, it’s been a three year gap from when we shot the short to when we shot the feature.
CS: Did you always know the short was something leading to the full feature? How was it presented to you?
Adepero Oduye: The time when I got the role, it was a short. I didn’t know it was written as a feature, but then as the process went along, I remember I said to Dee one day, “Oh, my God, it’s such an amazing experience, I don’t want it to end!” and she’s like, “It’s not because we’re going to do a feature.” “Oh, okay,” and so then it was very clear to me that there was going to be a feature and I got that during the short.
CS: But you hadn’t read the script for the feature so you didn’t know what else was going to happen to Alike after the short?
Oduye: No, I didn’t. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I didn’t ask. (laughs)
CS: What was the short? Was it actually a part of the movie?
Rees: Yeah, it’s the first act basically, so in the feature, that whole dildo incident is the inciting incident that sends Alike on this journey of self-exploration. It was actually harder trying to carve out a short, because we really had to accelerate the friendship between her and Laura and we had to bring some things up, and I had to add more conflict there to make it stand on its own. So it was the first act with some tweaks to make it work as a standalone, but with the feature, I was really excited because that’s where I really got to build the other relationships in the film like with the parents and the kind of love story with Bina, so yeah, it’s been a long journey and I think the script’s gotten better as it’s gone from 140 pages to 100, so there were definitely a lot of iterations during the time period.
CS: But the short you shot as a separate thing so did you end up changing a lot of the scenes when you redid them for the feature? Did you change how you approached the character when you did the feature?
Oduye: Nah, I didn’t change how I approached the character. I guess I just went deeper into the approach if that makes any sense. I’d been working on the character in some way, shape or form since ’06, and obviously with the feature, the story was expanded, so it was just Alike thrust into many different situations, primarily with her family and Bina, that was all pretty new, so it was just expanded situations, so it was more of an arc. In the short, it was just the beginning of the journey.
CS: So the parents weren’t in the short at all?
Rees: Yeah, they were.
Oduye: Yeah, there were parents in the short.
CS: Same actors?
Rees: No, totally different actors.
CS: I’ve never seen the short so maybe Focus will put it on the DVD.
Rees: DVD extras probably.
CS: Was it harder or easier to get the feature made once you had the short finished?
Rees: It was still really difficult to fund raise, because even though we had the short film and we had this festival track record, people still in some ways put the film in a box, and said “Oh, this is very small and it’s too specific and will only appeal to a certain audience,” but we knew from the reactions that this would appeal across communities and across sexuality and across ethnicity, and so it was really hard to fund raise. Nekisa Cooper as a producer really beat the bushes and got it done and took a hybrid approach. She got private equity and grants, so we really had to do a truly independently and just kind of cobble it together and get enough for one part of the process and then you raise enough for the next part of the process and just keep stitching it together.
CS: I was actually amazed that for a movie with such a low budget, you have so many producers on it, so how do you have so many producers but still retain your own vision and what you want to do?
Rees: Well, there’s only one producer. Nekisa Cooper is the sole producer and that’s what’s amazing about it. She was able to be my protector and allow us to keep control of the creative process, and so the exec. Producers, with the exception of Spike Lee, were primarily investors on the film, so they really believed in the story, believed in us as a team and always gave us the freedom to do what we wanted.
CS: I understand that this is partially autobiographical with some things from your life, but what kind of research did you have to do into the character when you first got cast? What kind of talks did you have and was it pretty clear for the script what needed to be done? How did you approach the character knowing it was loosely based on things that happened to Dee?
Oduye: So basically in the beginning, it was a lot of conversations. She was very open, and we just talked and any questions that I had, she can ask me, so I would Email her things. It could be like small things or bigger things, and so there was a big back and forth of that and she recommended a couple of books, one of which was “Zami” by Audre Lorde, so I read that book and Dee created these really cool homework assignments, so me and Pernell Walker, who played Laura, we had to go to a black and Latina lesbian party in character, so we did that, and we were there and they were there, but not interacting with us, but just kind of watching. We went into a straight environment, Dave & Buster’s, in character, so it wasn’t this whole running lines and making sure we had the lines right, but it was really an exploration into the very specific relationships and how and why they differ. If that’s very clear, then everything else comes easily, for lack of a better word. Yeah, the way Dee sets it up is really exploring relationships and making those feel really grounded and solid, so by the time we’re filming, what you see on screen feels very natural and feels like we’ve all been relating for a long, long time.
CS: Did you face any prejudice yourself while doing these excursions? Did you have to deal with any people who were giving you looks or giving you a hard time?
Oduye: Yeah, I mean when we were at Dave & Buster’s, it was very much like looks. People were very much confused, seeing two women who were kind of dressed masculine, and then with the lesbian party, it was just really interesting to be in the same space. I really got specifically why Alike feels what she feels. She does not fit in any part of that world. She’s not butch, she’s not feminine, and I felt at the time very invisible, like I was on the outside looking in, so it was very… I kind of came at it as an actor relating to the fact of knowing what it feels like to not feel free, that feeling of you just want to encumber all of this conditioning and all these expectations and just want to be who is inside. And then everything else was just layered on with homework assignments.
CS: What made you want to explore this part of your life? Did this act as catharsis to get this out there and let people know what you’d gone through and how much did you want to keep from your own life out of these characters?
Rees: Well, I should say I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, so I’m a nerdy chick from Aneeyok, so Brooklyn was not my world, this was not my world, but Alike’s struggle was, because Alike’s struggle, she understands that she loves women, but her question is how to be, and that was my struggle. I came out when I was 27, which is very different from Alike coming out at 17, so I’m paying my own rent, paying my own bills, but still, with my parents, it was a long process to get them to accept me for who I am, so that struggle was the same. I was just trying to paint a picture of this woman who is trying to please everybody. She’s trying to please her best friend, she’s trying to please her parents, she’s being who everyone else wants her to be, and she just has to be herself, so that was semi-autobiographical, that idea of not conforming to what other people want you to be, figuring out how to be yourself, and the struggle with the parents and the idea that spirituality doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with your sexuality, that was something else I experienced, and kind of transposed that into a 17-year-old, where the stakes are higher for her, because she’s dependent. She’s not able to just run.
CS: Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in New York for so long, but I’ve never been a part of a culture where being gay or a lesbian is even remotely an issue, but do you feel that’s still a stigma about it in certain places?
Rees: Yeah, in some communities it is, like for me, coming out with my parents, they were not accepting, they were not understanding. So it depends. For kids in New York and LA, maybe it’s different, but for kids in Iowa, for kids in Tennessee, it’s still something that’s not really talked about. It’s still something that’s not necessarily welcomed, so I wanted to show how different people have different experiences. For Bina, she’s an experimenter, she’s a dabbler, her Mom’s kind of artsy and free, versus Alike’s family, who is very conservative, versus Laura, who was kicked out of her house and has to go live with her sister. I wanted to show how these women are on different places on the range of sexuality and are having different experiences and themselves have different lifestyles. In this film, it was important that we didn’t generalize or say that, “This is true for all African American families, this is true for all gay women.” Everybody’s story is different, but we wanted to be true to Alike’s story. This is her experience, this is her interaction.
CS: I was impressed by how deeply you got into Laura’s story, even just the scene where she’s sitting with her sister and paying the bills. The whole movie seems so natural and real, and I was curious about some of the casting of the other roles, like Kim Wayans, who I never would have known that was her. This was different for her.
Rees: Yeah, she was amazing, and the casting is very important, especially for Audrey, because we didn’t want to have stereotypes, and for all the characters, we wanted all the characters to be fully developed and to have lives of their own, so the writing of them was important. We spent time with them away from Alike and away from the main struggle to show how they have their own pressures, they have their own peer groups, and they have their own things that they want and fear. For Audrey in particular, we saw a lot of actresses come in and read for the role, but none of them really had the nuance and none of them found that loneliness or vulnerability. When Kim came in, she totally saw it and nailed it, and it was important that Audrey not be this one-dimensional harpy that comes out of the hills and yells at the kids and leaves. She’s a person who just wants her life to be as she planned it. She just wants to connect with people, but she just keeps pushing people away. In trying to connect with Alike, she does the opposite. In trying to prevent her daughter from being who she is, she actually reinforces it by bringing Bina into her life, so it just shows how things we try to avoid, we actually bring about.
CS: I know you’ve been acting for a while but what was your experience making the film especially since this was also Dee’s first film? Was the film shot fairly quickly or on and off over the course of many months?
Oduye: It’s an interesting journey, because we a lot of us know each other from the short, and the short, that was an amazing experience, because it was the first time I was playing the lead in a very extended film, and just working with the people, it really made clear for me the kind of work that I want to do, and where I belong. By the time it got to the feature, we all had been through the process of film festivals and Sundance and labs, and we all see each other all the time within that three years, so for me, by the time we got to the feature, it really didn’t hit home that we were shooting a feature. It just kind of felt that we were all picking up where we left off, because we saw each other like two months ago and were hanging out. It was this weird thing where it felt very familiar, like a family, but we’re shooting a feature, but it doesn’t really feel like that, so everything that’s happened after has been another jolt of reality. Like, “Oh, Wow, we shot a feature and this is crazy!” So it was easy in that sense because it felt very familiar and we were all working together and the energy around it has been very amazing. Anyone who comes on kind of matches that, and it keeps growing into this amazing thing, especially working with Focus. They’re so excited about the project, so it’s just one awesome energetic thing that’s happening after the other. The project of “Pariah” has really made super-clear how I can contribute to the world and what I want to do with my life, and so, for that, it’s been incredibly valuable.
CS: I also want to ask about the shooting style and the music, because I think that’s amazing, so was that done by people you knew? How did you find the music and how did you decide to shoot the film to make it feel more natural?
Rees: Yeah, Bradford Young, the cinematographer, he’s amazing, and actually, he and I shot a documentary together before we shot this film, so we really knew we wanted the camera to just serve the character and story, so Brad is great, because it’s not just about, “What’s the prettiest image?” It’s about “What is the prettiest image that’s gonna tell the story?” Alike, she’s a chameleon so she’s constantly being painted by the light around her. At the club, she’s purple, on the bus, she’s green, at home, she’s pink and as she comes into herself, we see her more in the light, and the same thing with the size of the shots. She’s cocooned, so we see her in this very tightly-framed claustrophobic environment, and the shots gradually open up as she breaks out of her cocoon and becomes herself. Conversely, with Laura, from the beginning is more frontal, more low-angle, more white light, because she’s clear about who she is.
CS: So he read through the script and he knew form reading it how it needed to be shot?
Rees: Yeah, we talked about it together, like I did an 80-page shot list and then Brad and I would go through the shot list and change stuff, delete stuff and we’d have Nekisa there working with us, and we’d be using her and working around her for some key scenes like the bus transformation, I did a photo montage, so we thought about it and Brad pulled some images and we just talked about it ad nauseum. This was the only thing we talked about for like three years, so we had a long conversation about it and we knew that we wanted to put everything into every part of the film so it’s telling the story in a lot of different levels.
In terms of the music, I got introduced to Tamar-kali’s music who is the punk artist, through Brad, and through another filmmaker named James Spooner who did a documentary called “Afro-Punk.” It’s great, because just as Alike is learning that there’s not one way to be, part of that journey is through music. It starts out with Alike’s voice being acoustic soul, Laura’s hip-hop, Bina’s punk, and as Alike bounces off these different women and moves through these different worlds, her own style becomes more blended so we wanted to show there are different styles. When people see the poster, they see the cast, you think you know what this film is going to sound like, and then we totally subvert that expectation. I should mention Sparlha Swa is the acoustic guitarist and Honeychild Coleman, another independent artist who plays the love scene between her and Bina, so it was great to have independent music artists be a part of the film, because this is an independent film, so it made sense that people who come and do it just for the love.
CS: It’s really amazing because it’s such a unique and distinctive looking and feeling film, so how do you follow up a movie like “Pariah”? It would seem to be a tough act to follow. Have you started thinking about doing something else together.
Rees: I want to yeah. If I can still get her on the phone! (laughs)
Oduye: (laughs) Oh, my God! Shut up! (laughs) No, that would be a dream.
Oduye: You can always get me on the phone. Please! What are you talking about?
Rees: I definitely want to. I can’t speak for her, but I just want to tell stories that are interesting characters you haven’t seen before and Adapore is an amazing actress.
Oduye: Awww, ditto that. I just want to continue really amazing stories and portraying really well-rounded different characters, yeah.
CS: Has anything come out of the movie being at Sundance? Have you gotten any other movies or filmed anything since then?
Oduye: I’ve been reading a lot of scripts and yeah, I have a really great team of people who are on the same page with me, and can kind of guide and find the projects that I’m really passionate about.
CS: Has it been difficult to find another project after this because it was such a strong debut?
Oduye: I think I’m I don’t want to say spoiled, but I’m very clear, so it makes it easy when I read something, I know, “Oh, this is not really where my heart is at” and I want to do something where my heart is at, yeah.
Pariah opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on Wednesday, December 28.