After a brief post-college career in marketing, Nashville native Dee Rees returned to college to major in film at NYU. She wrote the script for Pariah, which recently won her a Breakthrough Director prize from the Gotham Independent Film Awards, while interning on her professor and mentor Spike Lee’s Inside Man. I talked to her earlier this month in the Waldorf Hotel; Pariah, the coming-out story of an African-American lesbian in Fort Greene, opens tomorrow.
I was interested to read that Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara were two of your favorite authors, since they’re favorites of mine too. What do you like about them in particular?
They write about coming of age in a different way, and identity and self and what is home. Their characters always had internal conflict. For me growing up, those were the stories that made me feel like I was not by myself.
Pariah is so detailed and emotionally authentic that it feels very personal, but you grew up in Nashville and it’s also very specifically about a slice of African-American and gay culture in Brooklyn. Did you have to do a lot of research to get the Brooklyn part right?
I don’t research. I just write and then check afterwards. When I was coming out, I was living in Brooklyn and going to these gay clubs, so this is the scene I was kind of thrust into.
The way I’m most like [protagonist] Alike is that the biggest part of my journey was not knowing that I like women. Alike’s first half hour is not “Am I gay?” It’s more about how to feel comfortable with where she fits on the spectrum of gender identity. [Her best friend] Laura is very stud, very butch, and up to this point Alike’s been going along with that, but she’s realizing that’s not really who she is. And her mother’s the opposite—wants her to wear heels and a skirt—and she knows she’s definitely not that. I wanted to show lesbians who identify differently. Just because they have the same sexuality doesn’t mean that they outwardly express themselves in the same way, and Alike’s realizing that that’s ok.
The other thing Alike’s going through that I went through is this idea that your spirituality doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with your sexuality. That was something that I struggled with. I was being told that I wasn’t right with God. I knew that to not be true, because that’s the only way I got through those years when things were not the best with my family.
Alike is dependent, still living with her parents. When I came out I was paying my own rent, but I still had a hard way to go with my parents in terms of them accepting me and realizing that my sexuality wasn’t a problem—that it wasn’t indicative of something that was wrong.
So this was a very personal story for you.
Yeah, it was definitely cathartic to write it and to get it out into the world. And I was really impressed, in New York, to see teenagers who were out. I’d never seen that before. I was like, “Wow, you’re 17 and you’re not even afraid to be out, and I’m 27 and I’m afraid.” I wondered, if I had known at 17 that I was gay, would I have had the courage to be that person?
Spike Lee is one of Pariah’s executive producers. Can you talk a little about his significance to you?
I was watching films like Do the Right Thing when I was about to go to college. They totally changed my perspective on filmmaking, because before them I didn’t realize that there was actually a director kind of managing all that. Because he put himself in front of the camera, he made directing more visible as a craft.
What I love about Spike is that his films are outspoken. They don’t pull any punches; they don’t sugarcoat things. They’re very true to the communities that they’re representing. When I went to School Daze, I was actually considering pledging a sorority, so that film informed me on how I was going to handle that. I felt like his films were real. He was an inspiration. I think he’s a master filmmaker.
What did you learn from him?
One of the things I learned from him was to be strong in your directorial vision. In watching the way he ran his set, I understood that you never settle. You can’t accept less than what you were going for. And when we were in pre-production, he was like, “Just get it done, get it done.” Just get enough [money] to get it in the can, and then you can get enough later to edit it. Just this idea of, by any means necessary, cobbling a film together.
And creatively, the idea that it all has to be on the screen. You don’t give the audience footnotes after; you don’t get to explain what you were trying to do and what you were after. It all has to be on the screen. Just put it on the screen with no excuses. Just get it done.
In terms of the film, he gave feedback on the script, and when we were getting funding he gave feedback on the budget. And then when it came time to edit, he’d watch cuts of the film and give feedback on that. When other line producers or people of lesser note didn’t have the time, he had time for us.
Your actors are quite wonderful, especially the woman who played Alike, Adepero Oduye.
Yeah! She killed it. As a director, you’re asking actors to put themselves in a really vulnerable spot, to risk failure and bare themselves on screen. She was always willing to go there for me, without self-consciousness and without flinching.
How did you work with the cast to get these performances?
I do exercises. I talk about relationships and I talk about intentions. I don’t do line readings, because I trust that they’re professionals and will come to set knowing the lines.
For Adepero and Pernell [Walker], who plays Laura, I had them go to Dave & Buster’s in costume, to see how what it feels like to be a masculine-identified woman in a straight environment. I had them go to a gay club so they could see how it feels to be a masculine-identified woman in a lesbian environment. I wanted to thrust them in so they would get this shared experience, because friendships are built on shared memories. This way, when we come to set, you have memories together, things you can draw on. You’re not just meeting each other for the first time, or only having read together.
For the family, I had a psychotherapist come in and do a mock therapy session. I gave them each talking points and made sure that some of the talking points conflicted with things other people didn’t want to talk about. By sitting on a couch together and bouncing off each other and kind of having this passive-aggressive thing, you get more out of that than you do just reading the lines, and you come to the set with a shared history, a shared memory.
The look of the film is a big part of what makes it work. How did you find your cinematographer, Bradford Young?
I met him on a student film when I was at NYU. He went to film school at Howard University, but he was shooting for a student there [at NYU]. I was gripping that day, doing a bad gel job on the windows and carrying C-stands back and forth, and I kept peeking through the monitor. He was shooting DV cam, and the stuff he was doing was amazing.
The reason I approached him initially was that I wanted to shoot Pariah on DV cam. Then we met and he talked me into shooting on film—and for good reason, because digital at that time wouldn’t really give us the depth and the darkness we were looking for.
Brad and I actually went to Liberia and shot a documentary together—
The one about your grandmother?
Yeah. So after spending a month together, eating power bars, I knew he was the one I trusted completely.
Doing the documentary also informed our style a lot. In a documentary there’s no script, so you’re using the camera to create relationships and inform the audience as to dynamics. The filmmaking and storytelling is all about behavior: People don’t say; they behave. So it was a good study in capturing behavior and creating relationships with camera positions.
There was also a sense throughout the film that she was sort of hidden—
Yeah, the color palette.
And often she was half-hidden by something or in shadow, so you felt the camera was seeking her out and finding her.
Yeah yeah yeah.
Was that part of what you—
Yeah, when we were talking about shots and shot lists, all of that was part of the conversation. Alike is a chameleon, so she’s constantly painted by the light around her, and we’re constantly peeking and seeking with the camera. We wanted it to be lyrical and expressive. Like, I don’t care what motivated the light; we don’t have to explain why this light is blue. It’s just about how the moment feels.
We wanted it to be expressive in that way, but still have a realism with the movement and the performances.
I haven’t seen any of your other films, so I’m going to make a gross generalization here based on capsule descriptions on IMDB for you to react to. It looks as if you’re interested in stories about people who feel like outsiders, for one reason or another. Certainly Alike is an outsider, since she’s gay in a pretty homophobic culture. Does that theme resonate with you?
I think identity is something I’m really interested in. Identity, and what is home, and the permanency of broken relationships.
What do you mean by “the permanency of broken relationships”?
Like with Alike and [her mother] Audrey: What’s going to happen? Can it be healed? I’m interested in exploring relationships and how things can change. It’s coming from some personal place I’m not even aware of.