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Mudbound’s Dee Rees interview on Mary J. Blige, writing racist jokes and women in Hollywood & cast video

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Mudbound’s Dee Rees interview on Mary J. Blige, writing racist jokes and women in Hollywood & cast video

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Dee Rees’ Mudbound has turned heads around the world, garnering huge amounts of attention at various film festivals and earning Oscar buzz. Based on Hillary Jordan’s book, the story centres on two families – one white, one black – as they cope with relatives leaving for, and then returning from, the Second World War.

For Rees, the story was hugely personal, the director/co-writer borrowing stories from her own family’s past for the project. Sitting down with The Independent, she spoke candidly about family, racism, and women in Hollywood.

Was it a challenge to fit your own family stories into the movie?

For me, it was a shameless way to delve into my family history and add all those details. I wanted to bring forward from my grandmother’s experience of living on a farm; to bring the idea that there is grace and luxury in the smallest things. A cool glass of water is a luxury because you realise the huge amounts of work that’s required to get water into that glass. Coffee, sugar, sweets – all those things are luxuries. These people didn’t eat meat every day and I wanted the cast to look like they only eat 600 calories a day. They should look like they’ve never seen a fruit smoothy! I wanted it to be a pioneering story, almost like a Western, in that people are finding comforts in the small things. These people are stinking most of the time – how do you feel that? How do you create the feel of a lived-in place?

There’s a scene where one character gives their mother chocolate and she only nibbles the smallest bit. That scene was so tender.

That’s exactly it. That moment I wrote – which wasn’t in the script or the book – was something that shows these are luxurious items. This woman didn’t even want to eat the chocolate, she wanted to have one square and save the rest for the kids. There’s a deeper appreciation for the finer things.

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It’s lovely how you took your grandparents stories and added them to the movie. When I was a child, I always thought my grandparents were the best storytellers. 

It made me realise that, when I was a kid, I didn’t listen as close as I should have. My Grandma had written this diary which I was able to go back and reference. Now I only have the notes of those experiences. I never asked for the details. There was one story of my grandmother riding on a cotton sack, which inspired the shot of two kids riding on a cotton sack looking backwards. She decided she never wanted to touch cotton but wanted to be a stenographer, which is why in the film the little girl wants to be a stenographer. All those little things that made me realise how much I didn’t ask or pay attention to. I’m just glad I had that diary.

How did you feel reading those stories? 

It was amazing. Back then, it was clear that your family was your wealth; that a big family was required, just because of the labour of life. She wrote about how her grandmother was dying, and how the whole family was upset. It was interesting how much of a big deal someone being sick was. There were no antibiotics. Small things became big dramas, because the distance between places was much longer – technology hadn’t evolved. She moved to California and worked as a keypunch operator because of the war. The war was this big opportunity, a time to move and get new jobs.

 

Before watching the movie, I was going to ask why Mudbound was an important story to tell now. Watching the movie, the answer became obvious. That scene with the Ku Klux Klan, for example – now America has white supremacists openly roaming around. As the filmmaker, it must have been shocking seeing that scene become a reality?

I grew up in Nashville, in a white suburb. We lived next to a clan member. We didn’t see hoods, but my Dad knew that guy was a Grand Dragon. For instance, I used to play with their granddaughter. She could come to my house, but I could never go to their house. Another time, I remember she had a birthday party – we had been playing with each other all summer – and I assumed I would be invited to the party. I asked ‘What time am I coming over’ and she said ‘Oh, you can’t, my parents don’t like black people’. She said that straight out; it was commonplace. You would feel that tension. There wouldn’t be a torch outside, but there were areas you weren’t allowed to go. People have almost been lulled into complacency because there are no signs over the water fountains. But the signs have been in the policies. There’s still housing discrimination and wage discrimination. It’s still there, but it’s been made more insidious. These guys are wearing suits and ties now, not sheets. It’s weird to see them emboldened enough to come out wearing sheets again because that hurts their cause, that outs them and makes what’s always been there visible. In relation to the film – I heard some guys at a bar at Sundance. They were like ‘Mudbound was good but the Klan scene was over the top.’ Now, I wish I could find those two guys and say ‘You think that’s over the top now?!’ There’s a critical difference now, and people won’t think that’s over the top. For black Americans, though, they’ll know it has been there all the time. The difference now is that people can video things, making the problem seem less abstract. When people think about things abstractly, they turn around and say ‘They’re a crazy minority’. But after encounter after encounter being on film, where if you substituted the black guy for a white teenager they’re not going to get shot – that’s undeniable. And now there’s a wave of rebelliousness that’s finally happening but not because it’s new.

Hopefully, the movie will show people this has been happening this entire time and make a difference. 

Hopefully! It’s about questioning your own inheritance, questioning your family. You cannot take on collective history but you can take on your personal one. If someone can go back and find a slave, someone else can go back and find a slave owner. The lines are not disconnected. There’s a line that runs between everyone and their ancestors and you cannot severe that. Maybe disassociate from those ideas but not how you are connected to them. But, you can realise how you’ve benefited and change how you raise your kids.

 

 

Another aspect of the movie that’s really interesting is your take on masculinity. For instance, with these brothers, you have them both questioning what makes a man. 

There was a lot of male love in the story, in different ways. With Happy, the father figure, he just wants his sons to love him. But he shows that love in odd ways. Even between the brothers, Henry and Jamie, Henry has that salt-of-the-earth masculinity but, behind that, there’s this blustering person who wants to prove himself to his wife. Then there’s the love between Henry and Ronsel who are more brothers than Henry and Jamie. They’re the ones who left for war, and when they’re asked to come back they cannot function properly, even when they’re expected to. They find each other as broken men. For me, looking at the Great Migration [the movement of millions of African-Americans out of the rural South to the urban north and midwest], I always thought the ones who stayed South were weak and those who left were strong. But that’s not the case. It’s sometimes easier to leave everything behind. That’s what I saw with Florence [played by Mary J. Blige], it’s harder to stay at home. It’s not coming from a subversive state, but no, it’s like ‘F**k that, I’m staying here, I shouldn’t have to leave’.

Mudbound cast

Mary J. Blige is such an incredible casting. You’ve worked with musicians before, like Queen Latifah in Bessie.

That’s my thing, making musicians actors!

Why does that work? 

In fairness, Queen Latifah was already cast as Bessie. But I do think that with musicians and comedians, it takes such bravery to go onto a stage and present yourself. For Pariah, people were surprised Kim Wayans was there, but comedians have a dark streak; they’re comedians for a reason. For musicians, there’s a need to perform, and if you get under that it’s interesting.

The thing I’ve learned is, it’s definitely about relationships. When I started, I didn’t know anyone. The disconnect comes when you’re naive and not able to be taken seriously. Like, when you’re in a cocktail room and people aren’t even considering you could be a filmmaker. They think you’re an actress or a hanger-on – when you’re a writer or director but people don’t see you as possibly being one. The best you can hope for is you’re a novelty who they’re not going to look up. Honestly, though, I’ve been able to get this far because of a lot of men. Lee Daniels gave me my first shot at TV, saying ‘You’re going to come do an episode of Empire’. I couldn’t get anywhere near TV before then. He bullied me into the studio. The guys from HBO who gave me Bessie. Ironically, it hasn’t been women who have helped me out. It’s been gay men, white men, Italian men, men who have seen themselves in me, or their daughter. You have to find those unlikely champions who say ‘I know you’.

On a practical level, how do you write?
I’m not a writer that writes every day. I just kind of have ideas. I jot them down when I have them and when I have enough, I just start. And for me I start more around noon and I’m all about feeling. Once there’s a theme I can’t not write. I get everything out on index cards, whether it’s a phrase or an idea or a scene. And then my first step is to write longhand, because it’s a direct connection from your brain to the page, from your heart to the page. Then I type it up, and when I type that functions as the first edit because when I’m reading that back I trim that down even more.

What’s the first thing you wrote?
I wrote poetry and short stories. I would send them to magazines, they wouldn’t get in. But short stories are how I found philosophy and how I’d understand the world. Filmmaking, in general, is my second career. I thought that writing wasn’t practical, so I went to business school and got an MBA and I worked three years in grant management. My first job was at Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati, my second job was at a pharmaceutical company in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. My third job was at Palmolive. And I realized, three jobs in three years, maybe it wasn’t the job. It had to be me. I wasn’t doing what I really loved to do, so I quit my job, went to film school at NYU, got an MFA, and just started over. All I knew was prose then. I didn’t write scripts until I got to film school.

How did you conceive of this screenplay?
This project first started for me in 2015. One of the producers, Cassian Elwes, had brought me the original script, written by this guy named Virgil Williams, and I thought there was a lot of there-there, and that inspired me to read the book. Virgil and I never worked together; he just wrote the first draft and I rewrote the script for production. I really wanted to draw out some of the inner life more and to have the Jackson family [the black family] more rounded. I rewrote it so it was a story about two families who were connected in a way that they were reflecting each other. I wanted, on a bigger thematic level, to show how these families are all in the mud, they’re all connected to the land, and what it means to not be able to come home and what it means to the family around you.

The dialogue is incredibly thick and specific. How’d you get that down?
I’m from Tennessee, so that’s part of it. We had a dialect coach, so each of the characters is doing a different accent. Like the Jackson family, my grandmother is from Louisiana — they’re from Mississippi — but I was kind of able to draw on her sayings, her aphorisms and used those, and my dad and parents are from Tennessee, so I used all that and put it in. I kept a lot from Virgil’s first draft in terms of how the McCallans spoke. But I wanted to make sure Laura doesn’t sound like Henry. Laura is a bit more refined in ways, but Henry’s got an engineering degree. And Pappy [Jonathan Banks, the white grandfather] doesn’t sound like Henry [his son] because Pappy’s more ignorant. Like, I wrote the racist joke that Pappy says. It’s in the scene where Hap asserts that Ronsel is an officer in the military. And Pappy says, “What do you call a nigger with stripes? … A ra-Coon!”

Whoa. Why’d you feel it was so important to write that? 
Because it gives dimension to the bigotry and illustrates how it’s manifested in a more nuanced way — not always menacing, but playful. Like, Pappy genuinely finds this funny and undoubtedly has a wealth of other “nigger” jokes stored up in his head.

I grew up in Nashville in the ’80s. So I heard tons of “nigger” jokes. Some told maliciously, others told by white classmates who didn’t see anything wrong in what they were saying. They were repeating what they heard their parents or sibling or friends saying. It was in some ways abstract to them, the dehumanizing aspect of it. Sometimes consciously connected to the black person standing in front of them to whom they’re telling a “nigger joke.” Sometimes strangely disconnected. There’d be the old irrational cop-out, “You’re not a nigger, but those other people are niggers.” Or the blatantly racist generalization or observation or anecdote, quickly followed by the weak verbal panacea of, “…no offense,” or whatever. But at the end of it all, “nigger” was a ready quiver in the adolescent white quill. It was a decisive fight-ender — or usually fight-starter — and a guaranteed gut punch that would momentarily stun or destabilize or rock the recipient. So I had that to draw from.

Do you see the industry as more receptive to black female filmmakers than when you started? 
Not necessarily. No. I think it’s about taking time to build relationships, so the people I’m working with are people I’ve known since 2009. At the end of the day, I feel like it falls upon critics and audiences to talk about the work first and talk about the maker second. I think that when people are limited by the labels that are put on them, then that necessarily limits the perceptions of what people can do. So for me, excellence is excellence. If something is excellent, call it that. If something is mediocre, call it that. To me, if excellent work were celebrated and recognized, then it would go a long way toward acknowledging the people who make it and their capabilities. A time needs to come when what you see on the screen is undeniable.

This movie cost $11 million, compared to $500,000 for Pariah, but still not much money for how rich and layered it looks. What’s it like to get a low-budget movie about diverse storytelling made these days?
In a weird way, this movie was the easiest one to finance. The money was already kind of raised. So it was about what that meant in terms of production constraints. Originally, this would’ve been a much larger budget, but we couldn’t get it, so it was like, “Okay, how do we make it work?” That meant we had less days. I think we shot 31 days altogether, 28 days in Louisiana, 2 days in Budapest, and then we shot a day in Long Island at a WWII museum — that’s where we shot the B-25s on real B-25 planes. The budgetary constraints reflect how much time you get, but for me as a director, the thing I’m interested in are performances. So a bigger budget, at the end of the day, would’ve bought me more extras, but it wouldn’t have bought me more time. It wouldn’t have bought me those performances.

And then Netflix bought it for $12.5 million, in the biggest deal at Sundance.
It’s amazing, everyone’s investment is paid off and we made a film that looks like it cost twice that much. As an artist, you want your work to be seen, to be out there. So the idea that someone in Florida could watch this the same day as someone on Portugal is huge. When you talk about intersectionality and expanding the conversation, just being seen that broadly definitely does that.

For me I feel like my first film, Pariah, was kept alive because of Netflix. So to me, I was happy to go with them because with Pariah, we did a small, limited release, but it didn’t get attention. And then it was on Netflix and people really knew about it. People to this day are still discovering Pariah,in the same way that I think Netflix is going to give Mudbound a legacy.

I think Mary J. Blige is a revelation. Why’d you want her as Florence, this proud wife and mother who has to serve Carey Mulligan’s character, even when her white husband is part of the reason her family isn’t advancing?
I wanted Mary for Florence because I saw Florence as being someone who saw everything and said little of what she saw. She had to be somewhat in her head and someone who had a reserve on the exterior, but on the interior had a lot of thought, a lot of light behind the eyes. Mary has that kind of vulnerability. If you’ve ever been at one of her concerts, it’s like a therapy session with 30,000 people. She’s not saying lines, she’s living every line, and that’s the same thing with her work as an actor. She living every moment. She’s not just kind of reciting. She’s really in it, really throws herself away and becomes the character. So I knew that she could go there, and just see this woman, see this life in her eyes. You see how when she’s with her husband she takes her hair down, but when she’s with the McCallans, she has her armor on. Mary pulls it off.

Do you still hang out with her?
We’ve hung out a few times. Mary’s such a cool open person, just a great spirit. It’s so great to be invited into her space. She’s someone whom I could text or email or call.

Are you leaning more toward movies or TV, post-Mudbound?
I’m casting another film that hopefully will shoot in the spring and then I have a couple of TV irons in the fire that I should know more about by the end of the year.

It seems like a lot of independent filmmakers are going to TV because it’s so hard to get low-budget movies made. I was wondering if that’s why you ultimately followed up Pariah with an HBO movie. 
I want to get out of the independent film box. I just want to work in film, period. But after Pariah, I had all these ideas. I had this spec pilot I’d written about Nashville called The ’Ville. Ironically, I was getting people like, “No one wants to talk about Nashville,” and then a show comes out called Nashville on ABC a year later! Pariah opened doors that allowed me to always write, because, after Pariah, Focus hired me to write another feature about a woman cop, that I wanted to do. They didn’t end up producing it, but because of that, they asked me to write a pilot for a Viola Davis show. That didn’t go. But then HBO called me to rewrite Bessie, so I rewrote Bessie, and then they asked me to direct it. So Pariah definitely opened doors in that it kept me working as an artist. I never wasn’t working after Sundance 2011. I was writing things that didn’t get produced but I was always exercising that muscle the whole thing. It comes full circle. I was directing Bessie and that’s when Cassie reached out with Mudbound.

I didn’t know that your way into Bessie was rewriting it. Do you always envision things as a writer before you envision them as a director?
I got into this business because I wanted to tell stories. That’s what got me into filmmaking. I wanted to bring writing to life. To me, that was always the end. I wanted to create worlds and create characters that live on in people’s minds. and I wanted to be able to realize them. I always wanted to be an auteur. For me, I was open to doing adaptation, but I always wanted to do original work and create worlds and just create characters that would live on in people’s minds. I see it as all part of the same thing. Just to create something new.

Mary J. Blige and the Cast of Sundance Hit Mudbound Told Us Why They Think It’s So Special

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