Attention all aspiring filmmakers; looking for some inspiration? Check out what writer-director Dee Rees accomplished. After spending some time working in the marketing industry, Rees decided she had a story to tell and aptly used NYU’s graduate film program to do it. To fulfill her thesis film requirement, Rees created a short with a portion of that very story and, thanks to the success of that short, Rees finally got the opportunity to tell the full tale through a feature, Pariah.
The piece focuses on a young girl named Alike (Adepero Oduye) who’s not only hesitant to come out to her family, but is also just having a tough time navigating the realm of romance. As her parents continue to brush her development aside, Alike’s feelings only grow stronger leaving her in a particularly trying situation.
Forget the fact that this is Rees’ first feature, which is an achievement in, and of itself; Pariah is downright fantastic. It’s no wonder Spike Lee was so willing to help Rees and her producer during development and all the way through post-production; Rees had a story not only prime for filmmaking, but just worthy of being told.
Think you’ve got something similar? Check out what Rees had to say about her road from film school to critical acclaim.
Can you tell me about the conception of this idea? I know it was a short film first.
Dee Rees: Yeah, it’s had a weird evolution. It actually started as a feature film; I first wrote it in 2005 as a feature because I was in the coming out process and so that was the creative inspiration behind the film. And then in 2006, I needed a thesis film to graduate from NYU, so we took an excerpt from the feature film, shot it as a short and it’s great because it allows you to workshop the material and get close to the characters. And as short, the film began doing well on the festival circuit, it got accepted to Sundance Institute to invite us to the Screenwriting Lab in 2007 and then also to the Director Lab in LA. It’s been like a six-year journey from first writing the feature in ‘05 to now, but yeah, I think it’s better for the process of having been workshopped as a short and it gone to the Sundance Film Fest.
Is that something you’d recommend to aspiring filmmakers, making a short of their feature first?
I think yeah. I think especially if you have a longer timeline for fundraising, I think a short is a great way to workshop the characters. Short films can even potentially not even be scenes from the feature, but just feature the same characters in different scenarios. As a director, it really allows you to be close to the material and to really enter the world and I think it makes it better when you get to the feature if you have a real understanding of who these characters are and what their worlds are. And on the production front, a short film is definitely a helpful selling tool as we raise funds for the film.
What’s your background? You went to NYU?
Yeah, that’s in my second life actually. I started out in marketing, so I got my MBA and worked for Procter & Gamble for a year, I got laid off from that job and then worked for Schering-Plough selling bunion pads for Dr. Scholl’s. [Laughs] It didn’t work out at that job and then ended up at Colgate-Palmolive where I sold toothpaste and that’s where I met Nekisa [Cooper], the producer, so it was at that time in my life where I realized, you know, maybe it wasn’t the job, maybe it was me and that I really had to pursue what I loved, which was writing. And so, it seemed a program in screenwriting would be the way to bring my story to life, so I applied to NYU’s grad film program, got in and haven’t looked back since.
How was the transition from being in that program to actually making a film?
The great thing about NYU’s film program is that it’s a really hands-on experience, so while you’re in the program you’re shooting short films. Everybody gets a chance to shoot, everybody gets to direct, write and edit, so you’re really getting all parts of the production process and so basically Pariah was my thesis film, my third year film, and because I was so passionate about the feature, it was the main thing that was on my mind, so I decided to shoot it as a short film in ’06 and then worked the festival circuit over the course 2007 and that’s what really kind of started everything off and got attention for us and for the script. I’d say it’s a steep learning curving, but I think valuable in that there’s constant hands-on experience and it was at NYU where I first met Spike Lee. He teaches the master classes there, and he also gives students internship opportunities, so I interned on Inside Man and also again on When the Levees Broke, so it was my first on-set experience being able to watch how a director works, see how he interacts with crew, see how he worked with actors, so it was an inspiration for me as a director just to see how it’s done first through him.
Is that how he ended up executive producing your film?
Actually, Nekisa asked him to come aboard. I kept him reading drafts of the script and giving feedback on the script and Nekisa Cooper, the producer, would go to him with her budget, so he’d go over her budget and give her notes and at the time she asked him to come on board officially to be an exec producer, he was basically performing the role by being such a mentor to us. And so he agreed to come on as exec producer and so after production we watched cuts of the film and he gave us feedback on it, so really just a resource for advice and feedback in every step of the process, so it was great.
What was it like making that short? Is it just using the resources and picking from the pool of actors in New York City?
Yeah, making the short film, we had some grant money, we had NYU equipment and we also rented our own equipment. It was like a hybrid. We kind of got together resources from a lot of different places and just made it happen. It was like a nine-day shoot, we shot in the South Bronx. So it was a process where everybody kind of was there for the love; it was all hands on deck. So, yeah, that was in 2006 and three years later, in 2009, we’re able to shoot the feature film, which was great, and I think everything leading up to that prepared us for that.
Was there anything glaringly different between making the short and making the feature?
No, filmmaking is filmmaking. That’s the thing, once you do it once, it’s all the same, it’s just for a longer amount of time. The feature film shot in 18 days, so it was just about more endurance. The process is pretty much the same and the producer, Nekisa, was great at creating the same atmosphere on set and a collaborative environment where everybody felt like they could do their best work. We worked with Bradford Young, the cinematographer, he shot the short for us and came back for the feature and Adepero [Oduye] and Pernell [Walker] who came back, so you know, it wasn’t a big difference. It was just a longer amount of time, a more sustained effort and I think we all grew as artists and got better at our crafts.
Was that the plan from the start, that most people would come back for the feature?
Yeah, I definitely wanted Adepero and Pernell back, but I wanted to re-cast the parents.
You shot the short in 2006 and the feature in 2009, so did the age difference play a factor at all?
No, the actors were gorgeous. They’re beautiful. They look the same, [laughs] so there were no issues there.