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Dee Rees is a tall woman of fierce charisma. She’s the kind of director who talks fast, ideas coming so quickly that those less inclined can barely keep up. And yet her output has been slow: After Focus Features snapped up her breakout 2011 feature debut “Pariah” at Sundance, it was four years before HBO Film’s Emmy and DGA-award-winning 2015 biopic “Bessie.”
“There’s an assumption that men who do small personal movies can leap to deliver larger things,” said “Bessie” producer Shelby Stone. “It’s much harder for women.”
Finally, we get to see Rees fulfill her promise with “Mudbound,” a Sundance triumph that set the 2017 festival sales record with its $12.5 million sale to Netflix, and opened AFI FEST November 9 after wowing crowds at seven film festivals.
When Rees received the Sundance NEXT FEST Vanguard Award in August, her presenter, “Pariah” star Kim Wayans, said it best: “The introverted, socially uncomfortable girl I met 8 years ago has blossomed into a beautiful, confident, fierce badass.”
Getting there, however, required multiple leaps of faith, including the ones Rees made in herself. Here are the key steps that pushed this gifted woman from Nashville toward directing a potential Best Picture Oscar nominee.
The Faith of Her Church
When Rees left Nashville for college, her Methodist Church staged its annual rite of passage: Students declared their schools and accepted small scholarships from the community. “I was going to study business administration at Florida A&M, at the height of Reaganomics,” Rees said in an interview at a Netflix conference room. “This older woman, Miss Dunlap, pressed a handful of change in my hand, probably what she would have put in the communion basket. She’s giving me a fistful of coins, but I felt it was so much more. I just got how important it was. I was intending to make my parents proud and do well, but I felt the weight of those coins. There was no turning back, not having done the thing.”
Rees brought that moment into her adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s post-World War II novel. (Rees shares credit with Virgil Williams.) When Ronsel Jackson (“Straight Outta Compton” star Jason Mitchell) leaves home to join the Army, his mother Florence (Mary J. Blige) turns her back as he departs. Rees was inspired by her paternal grandmother, who thought it bad luck to watch someone going away. “I wanted to set the stakes,” said Rees. “You wouldn’t feel Ronsel’s coming home if we didn’t see him leaving. It was important to show that he was a son of the community and everybody’s investment is riding on him.”
The Faith of the Sundance Institute
When Rees received the Sundance NEXT FEST Vanguard Award, Sundance execs John Cooper and Michele Satter beamed with pride at their protégé as she choked up, thanking Sundance “with gratitude for affirming that my story mattered and creating a place where I can add my own story to the zeitgeist.”
In 2003, Rees left a corporate career in marketing and branding; the next year, she came out as a lesbian and started making shorts at New York University’s graduate school in film. Her 2007 thesis short, “Pariah,” won multiple awards on the festival circuit. That summer, she took the feature script for “Pariah” to the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, returning the next year for the Directors Lab. The powerful coming-of-age feature starring Adepero Oduye debuted at the festival in 2011, was picked up by Focus for release that December, and won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards.
Then, like so many emerging filmmakers, Rees went straight to development hell. She developed a script at Focus about a lesbian detective, and a TV pilot set in Nashville, but they never got made. Instead, she made the 2008 documentary “Eventual Salvation,” about the return of her 80-year-old grandmother to Monrovia, Liberia.
The Faith of Shelby Stone
Rees met independent producer Shelby Stone at a Women in Film panel. Stone told her how much she admired “Pariah” for its taut script and well-realized direction, and how she’d been struggling to find the right way to go on a Bessie Smith biopic for HBO. “We were looking for a new voice,” said Stone, “somebody with a strong take on Bessie and her life.”
The women next met at the L.A.’s Farmer’s Market Starbucks, and Rees brought a stack of page-flagged books about Angela Davis, the blues, and black women; she wanted to tell this story from the black feminist point-of-view. First, HBO hired Rees to write the “Bessie” script; HBO executive Len Amato was so excited by the results that he asked her to direct.
“She’s rare,” said Stone. “She’s a fast study; she got how to do this. At last, we had something fresh and different.”
On the set, Rees was clear and direct. She rigorously rehearsed her actors, asking them to dig into their characters to build their world. “Our ‘A’ team out of Atlanta would have gone to the moon and back for her,” said Stone. “I want her to win. She’s really an extraordinary woman who deserves all the good coming her way. She’s earned it.”
The Faith of Cassian Elwes
In 2015, out of stacks of scripts, producer and former agent Cassian Elwes sent one that touched Rees deeply: “Mudbound.” Elwes, who is passionate about independent films (and cofounded the Horizon Award for young female directors), wanted to find the right A-plus director with a female point of view; as it happens, Rees’ agent, WME’s Craig Kestel, started as Elwes’ assistant.
Rees liked Williams’ script, but wanted to rewrite the story. “I saw potential in those characters,” she said. “If we make it about those people tied together and we have race, it’s not just one person in prison that locks us all in the context.”
Rees demanded final cut; Elwes happily gave it. “If I’m going to back her, she should make the movie she wants to make,” he said. “She’ll make it more authentic if she believes in what she’s doing. She’s the smartest person I’ve ever worked with, so prepared. She knew exactly what she wanted to do at every moment, from pre-production through post.”
For Rees, Elwes’ faith in her was revelatory. “I felt a great vote of confidence,” Rees said. “A producer has to want you. And if the producer trusts you and asks for your vision, it frees you up so much, not having to explain or fight for every decision. You’re allowed to create. And then I had final cut, which is like a luxury, but the story could really breathe and be what it needed to be.”
Photo Courtesy of MACRO
The Faith in Herself
Looking to her grandmother’s diaries for inspiration, Rees shifted the script’s focus from the white family of Memphis imports Henry and Laura McAllan (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan) to a balanced two-family drama with “Pariah” star Rob Morgan and a reluctantly makeup-free Blige as the parents whose family has worked the land for generations. “The women all disobey and subvert their husbands in a way,” Rees said. “The real authority lies with them. The triangulation of poor white, poor black, and middle class all depend on each other.”
Rees embraced the book’s multiple narrators, she said: “These shifting points of view are Faulknerian, like ‘As I Lay Dying.’ It’s interesting cinematically. So when we’re in Hap’s shoes, we see the land as he sees it, with this unattainable beauty. In Henry’s eyes, he sees it as future prosperity, a thing to be conquered and tamed. Through Laura’s eyes, it’s mud and muck and irredeemable.”
Photo Courtesy of MACRO
“Mudbound” was not easy to finance. Elwes brought investors Dan Steinman and Teddy Schwartzman to put up debt funding to get foreign presales rolling. (“The cast had to be a certain level to justify the investment,” said Rees, “that ‘secret spreadsheet’ that makes no sense.”) For a period epic, the $11.8 million budget was tight — especially because it had to accommodate the two-day war shoot in Hungary, complete with tanks and airplanes.
“I felt we should just go there with the architecture and preserved village sites and use the landscape to get different terrains,” she said. “It was fun to sit in the tanks, which are so not designed for human beings to be inside, these young, tiny pieces of flesh in this tiny metal thing. How did they stay sane? It was eye-opening and unsettling to be in there, in the dark. How were they able to operate?”
Hedlund’s flying scenes were filmed at an airplane museum on Long Island. “It was very hard,” said Rees. “I wanted it to feel big.” She rejected a “dime store” half-plane cutaway in favor of a real B-25. But they couldn’t mess up the antique with blood. “It was not a happy day for the art department,” she said. “You blow the squib and then get it once.”
The rest of the 26-day shoot was filmed on location in Louisiana. “No department thought they had enough money,” said Elwes. “But they wanted to deliver for her.”
Rees tried to hire as many women as possible on her crew, including director of photography Rachel Morrison, who was recommended by HBO’s Amato. To get the aesthetic they looked at old WPA artwork, vintage black-and-white photos from Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and his wife, sculptor-painter Mary Frank, Whitfield Lovell’s tone-on-tone contemporary portraiture, and Les Blank’s documentaries of the old South.
For the challenging sequence when the McAllans arrive on the farm, Rees wanted to show that “these suburbanites were not equipped,” she said. “They were pipe-dream hipsters thinking, ‘I can do this!’ But it was not what Laura signed up for. She’s educated and intellectual; she’s coming into this universe she doesn’t want to be a part of. That sequence had to feel big, so we used big crane shots and boom away as the car pulls in. I wanted it to feel like a poor working farm. These bodies are industry, they are a part of an economic system.”
Capturing those giant vistas meant keeping trucks and cranes out of view. In order to deliver the movie in her head, Rees knew she had to be organized, with no time for hand-holding. “When I’m on set, I know what I want,” she said. “Let’s get it done. We have 11 1/2 hours, three takes, let’s move! If people find directness intimidating, making the days on time is not a shortcoming. Knowing what you want is not a shortcoming. Let people deal with their own anxieties.”
Editing, Rees fought for her sprawling ensemble and multiple perspectives. “People were worried about it becoming nobody’s story,” she said. They started editing the separate story strands, figuring out where natural intersections should be. Finding the beginning was a challenge; Rees and editor Mako Kamitsuna (“Pariah”) decided to start with the original Williams script’s muddy burial scene. (“Either we’re burying our history or putting to it to rest,” Rees said. “I liked it symbolically.”)
For the score, Rees turned to underground Brooklyn underground rock singer-composer Tamar-kali, who performed in “Pariah” and “Bessie.” “I artistically respect her and wanted to work with her in a bigger way,” she said. “We screened it together, we had a temp score. I said three words to her: ancestors and dark strings. She wrote something beautiful and elaborated on the musical themes. She wrote every note of music.”
The movie clocks in at 132 minutes, which is fine with Rees. “Long is relative!” she said. “Movies of the ’70s are long. I wanted to do an old-fashioned film epic, not whipping through 90 minutes.”
The Faith of Ted Sarandos and Netflix
When Rees brought “Mudbound” to Sundance in January, she experienced the usual jitters of debuting a movie at the Eccles and was ecstatic at the initial reaction. But distribution bids were late in coming, and low when they arrived. “It was nerve wracking,” Rees said. “I was surprised. It felt a bit like a double standard. Would this have sold if a white male had made ‘Mudbound’? How soon would the bids have come in?”
When Netflix asked for a meeting toward the end of the festival, she met content head Ted Sarandos for breakfast at his hotel. “The [$11.8 million] budget is less than what Netflix bought it for,” she said. “I wanted the big sale; it was important symbolically. I was happy Ted came through, because this film was worth it. He felt like a straight shooter.”
For Netflix, “Mudbound” is its opportunity to disrupt the awards season. The streaming service debuts the film November 17, the same day it hits 17 movie theaters around the country for one-week runs. (New York and L.A., home to the lion’s share of Academy voters, may get two weeks.) To create more real-world buzz and public screening opportunities, it showcased this gorgeous movie at a string of major festivals including Sundance, Toronto, New York, London, and AFI FEST.
So far, so good: Oscar talk is building for Blige and Mitchell, who pop out of the southern farm drama’s sprawling ensemble as ramrod mother and World War II veteran son. They are the most likely to land SAG and Oscar nominations, as well as Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Rachel Morrison’s epic cinematography. (She could be the first woman nominated by the branch.) The Gotham Awards gave the movie a special ensemble prize, and SAG could follow.
Will Rees miss the full theatrical lift-off? “We had the festivals,” she said. “Watching it in groups is my biggest thing —people at home watching in groups will still get that community tension.”
Making this ambitious film work in theaters would have been a huge undertaking for any theatrical distributor. While it’s tough to build Academy awareness without a theatrical rollout, one thing may work in “Mudbound”‘s favor: As a Netflix movie, no one will know how well it performs, which means it can’t be tainted by box-office failure.