Ten Burning Questions for the director of ND/NF selection PARIAH

Posted by John Wildman on 3.30.2011

Another New Directors/New Films selection which was a buzz-rific hit coming out of Sundance (which I know very well, as I was one of the people doing the cinematic Paul Revere thing, heralding the wonderfulness of the movie I just saw), Dee Rees’ PARIAH was made to order for that crowd. It is a very personal and intimate tale told in a no-frills, raw manner, emotions on the sleeve and a sensitive social topic served up for discussion on an indie platter. But so are so many films that unspool in the movie tundra of Park City. So what? Rees’ film of a girl discovering and coming to terms with her lesbian yearnings as she contemplates life after high school and her discomfort under the roof she shares with a very religious mother and police officer father, doesn’t just place all of it’s artistic ambitions at the front doorstep of story. Aided by the mentoring of executive producer Spike Lee (Rees’ college instructor), developed at the Sundance Lab and aided by the impressive photography (which won an award at Sundance) of Bradford Young, Rees uses everything at her disposal to complete her vision and presentation in a manner that would be accomplished for a veteran, let alone someone churning out their first feature. And for that reason, PARIAH has an opportunity to reach and touch larger audiences beyond the indie realm.

1. So much of this film falls on Adepero Oduye’s shoulders as the lead character, Alike. How did she land the role?

Adepero is an amazing actress and she literally walked in and took the role on the very first day of auditions for the short film back in 2006. It was hers ever since, there’s never been a question. It’s like she literally walked out of the pages and into the room, it was unbelievable. From the moment she walked in wearing her little brother’s clothes, she was completely focused and in the ‘zone’. She’s so very specific and thorough in her knowledge and practice of her craft, that she’s immensely inspiring to be around as a director and allows me to push the material to the limits. She’s always 200% ready to ‘go there’ and beyond and is very brave and honest in her performance. You believe every minute of what she’s doing and saying onscreen and she makes it look so effortless. She’s such a bubbly, confident, and outgoing person in real-life and yet she’s able to absolutely “nail” the introvert-ness and hesitancy of Alike’s personality. We were blessed to have her as part of the short film and even doubly so to have her come back for the feature. Adepero is Alike: she owns her, she exudes her, she gives her life. No one else could have played this role. 

2. The conflict between spirituality and leading a gay or lesbian lifestyle is a central focus in the film and something you have said you personally dealt with. Was it relatively difficult or easy to translate that properly to the script and then the film?

I actually wouldn’t say that the spiritual conflict is a central focus of the film, it is just one thematic layer among many others. Making the decision to put such a personal struggle on paper was hard because it made me feel very vulnerable and exposed, but the actual writing/translation of that spiritual struggle wasn’t difficult. It was more a question of temperance--putting a lot down and then gradually taking it away and pulling back so that it wasn’t too “heavy-handed” or “on the nose”. Alike’s spiritual struggle is an internal one and I wanted it to stay that way so that audiences can get a sense of that without her having to literally express it---in fact, she actually only says one line in the entire film about it.

3. There is a specific use of color in the film and lighting to “paint” Alike’s character in different situations and to contrast her character with Laura. How much of that was mapped out, color to emotion, etc, and how much was intuitive between you and your DP, Bradford Young?

The use of color in PARIAH was very deliberate and very calculated between the DP, Bradford Young and I. My creative direction was that Alike is a chameleon, in both personality and appearance, which she changes to fit her environs. We used the lighting to heighten that characterization; so that Alike is ‘painted’ by whatever light she happens to be in. In the club she’s purple, on the bus she’s green, etc. She’s only seen in more sparse “white” light toward the end of the story when she finally comes into herself and stops hiding. Also, the camera angles on Alike are more profile, and the camera movements with her evoke a sense of “peeking” and hiding. Laura, on the other hand, is a peacock--proud and strutting.  So her angles are bold and frontal, and she’s seen more often in natural light. Brad and I talked about this film for over three years before we shot it and constantly exchanged images, ideas, and thoughts--it was a constant creative flow, and we defined the look of Pariah as being contrast + color. Bradford is a extremely intellectual and intense visual artist-- he educates me every time we talk--- and he loves the story and characters just as much as I do so our collaboration comes from the heart all the way around, it’s a great feeling. Brad is my brother, I love him.

(left to right) 1st Assistant Camera Has Charles, Director Dee Rees, Director of Photography Bradford Young (Photo by Jenny Baptiste)

4. In a simplified sense Kim Wayans’ mother character is the villain, while Charles Parnell’s father is the good cop, so-to-speak. But, as with much within the fabric of the film, nothing is that simple. What, specifically, did you do to ensure those two characters wouldn’t be presented as flat good vs. evil figures in Alike’s life?

To put it simply, every character in the film is a “Pariah” and I worked hard in the writing to illustrate that by showing each of the character’s worlds outside the family. Audrey is not a villain, she is just a lonely woman who wants to connect with her family, and doesn’t know how. Arthur is not a “good cop”, he’s simply a man who loves his daughter and doesn’t want their relationship to change despite the attitudes and expectations of his peers. I think that when the audience realizes that every character in the film has their own fears, desires, strengths, and weaknesses beyond what’s going with Alike, you get that depth of character and sense of “three-dimensionality.” 

5. The film was developed in the Sundance Director’s Lab, which you have said allowed you to work on some of the more difficult elements in a creative “safe space”. Can you provide an example of one of the things you worked on and how exactly that environment helped the creative process for you?

One of the things that I worked on at the Sundance lab was the relationship between Alike and Bina and the lab’s small, safe environment helped the creative process in that it allowed us to ‘play’ and slowly work up to the important moments between them. As a ‘first date’. I sent Adepero and Aasha Davis (Bina) off to ride the ski lift together-- it was the perfect nervous, giggly, get-to-know-you exercise and we wouldn’t have been able to do that elsewhere. Also, I got to have Joan Tewkesbury sitting in on the rehearsal and provide support and encouragement while we were workshopping a special scene and having amazing mentors like her really created a comforting presence and sense of ‘gravity’ to the work.

Aasha Davis as Bina and Adepero Oduye as Alike in PARIAH (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

6. Could you name a film (other than PARIAH, of course) that you felt dealt with LGBT issues honestly and effectively and explain why you thought it worked?

I think the documentary PARIS IS BURNING dealt with LGBT issues honestly and effectively because it let the subjects speak for themselves with little/no narration by an outside voice. It completely immersed us in the world and introduced us to the people without judgment and without explanation. The subjects are sharing such intimate hopes, dreams, and sometimes - painful experiences with the audience in a way that lets the audience feel close and really be with them. I like the fact that the narrative and the introduction to the world are in the hands of the subjects and that the film allows us to read between the lines. 

7. You met the producer of the film Nekisa Cooper while the two of you worked at Colgate-Palmolive. What did you do there and did you leave with a lifetime supply of toothpaste and dishwashing liquid?

I was an assistant product manager for toothpaste while I was at Colgate-Palmolive. I was responsible for special packs and a portion of consumer promotions. You ever see those packs of toothpaste with a “free” toothbrush strapped on top? Or the “bonus” packs with two tubes strapped together? Or the coupons in your Sunday paper that you immediately throw away? That was my life for almost a year (which sadly, was actually a “step up” for me considering I had previously marketed wart removers, bunion pads, and panty liners at prior jobs).

Nekisa worked in toothbrushes so it was a perfect fit, we were only a few “cubes” away. I was lucky to steal her away when I defected to film school, and she’s such an unbelievably, talented, resourceful and smart film producer. I can’t wait for her to write her coffee table book on this whole experience ten years from now. My toothpaste hoards are depleted, but I still have fifteen boxes of dishwashing tablets under my sink.          

8. What is the best thing about having PARIAH screened at New Directors/New Films?

The best thing about having screening PARIAH at ND/NF is having the opportunity to screen in such a prestigious and historical space as the Walter Reade at Lincoln Center. It feels like an embrace from the broader art community.

9. Be honest, what’s your favorite Spike Lee movie – and why?

SCHOOL DAZE is my favorite Spike Lee movie because I saw it at a time when I was young and daydreaming about what my college experience might be like. I knew for sure that I wanted to go to a HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and it was one of the only films that provided a complete perspective on what that experience might be like. I also knew that I wanted to be a “greek”, and SCHOOL DAZE was a huge wake-up call about Sorority/ Fraternity life and how in some ways the institution as a whole has lost its focus. The film made me rethink my choice, and although I still ended up “pledging” in college, I had a more sober perspective about it and it shaped my attitudes for the better.

My favorite sequence in the film is the “battle” between the “jigaboos” and the “wanna bes” because it was a really candid and deep articulation of the “colorstruckness” and complexion-based discrimination that we still perpetuate amongst ourselves as African Americans. I personally identified with the “jigaboos” and their song reaffirmed my own sense of beauty and officially stomped on the widespread, ridiculous notions around “good hair”. That film pulled no punches, it called everybody out and was revolutionary.

10. Popcorn or candy?

Candy most definitely. I rarely watch a movie in theaters without a “jumbo” size box of Junior Mints smuggled in from the nearest drug store.

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