Director Dee Rees Makes a Forceful Debut With Pariah

Director Dee Rees on the set of Pariah, a Focus Features release. (Photo by: Jenny Baptiste).

Director Dee Rees on the set of Pariah, a Focus Features release. (Photo by: Jenny Baptiste).
Talking or reading about the film, Pariah, you immediately learn the movie is about a 17 year-old lesbian. She hangs out at a lesbian nightclub, she has lesbian girlfriends, she has trouble with her parents when they suspect she’s a lesbian and she struggles inwardly with coming out as… a lesbian.

All the talk about Pariah is that it’s a movie about a young lesbian.

Unless you are talking to Dee Rees, the film’s writer/director. What she talks about is how a detailed shot list is the best hedge against a small budget; how you can depict a character who is hiding a secret by strategic use of color; and that getting out of the editing room for a prolonged break is a good way to stay objective and maintain, “fresh eyes.”

For Rees, Pariah is a coming-of-age story about a young outsider who feels she has to hide the truth about who she is, but eventually confronts the conflict head on. The fact that she’s a lesbian is central to the story but not predominant. It doesn’t hijack the movie any more than dancing hijacks Billy Elliot or train tracks hijack Stand By Me.

What’s more, to hear Reese talk about her upcoming projects is to realize that she’s aiming to create a body of work that is less overtly that of a lesbian director than, say, Martin Scorsese’s is the work of an Italian-American.

For instance, a script she’s writing called, Large Print, is about a woman in her 50s facing ageism and disappointment. “She’s played by society’s rules her whole life only to find out it didn’t bring her the things she was promised. So what do you do next?” Rees says. “Happiness is possible, but sometimes in different ways than what we were told.”

There may not be a set of rules for jump-starting a career as an independent filmmaker, but Rees’s route followed a classic strategy many indie hopefuls will admire. She quit her comfortable corporate job at Colgate-Palmolive in 2005 when she was in her late 20s, and enrolled in NYU’s graduate film school. While living in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood she was taken with the young lesbian scene. “They were teenagers and they were out and proud. I was going through my own coming-out process, and they were amazing to me. I don’t know that I would have had the courage at that age,” she says. “That’s where the idea for the film originated.”

Aasha Davis (left) stars as Bina and Adepero Oduye stars Alike in Focus Features' Pariah. (Photo: ©2011 Focus Features).
She wrote and directed a short focusing on her main character, the 17 year-old, Alike (pronounced uh-lee-kay), and through an open casting call found actress Adepero Oduye, the newcomer who would play the role in both the short and the feature film. The short, also called, Pariah, went onto the festival circuit and led to an invitation from the Sundance Institute to submit a feature length script to the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. She had written the short while interning on Spike Lee’s Inside Man, and now she expanded and the polished the feature-length version. Her script was accepted and she attended the Sundance writer’s lab in 2007, and was invited back for the Director’s Lab in 2008, this time bringing Oduye to help workshop the script.

Her good friend, Nekisa Cooper, with whom she worked at Colgate-Palmolive, attended the first Producer’s Lab at Sundance the same year. Cooper at first had been stunned that Rees was leaving the safety of the corporate world for the uncertainty of filmmaking, but after following her work at NYU and supporting her in making other short films, she offered to help produce Pariah; ultimately she became the principal producer on the film.

Even with the backing of the Sundance Institute, the Tribeca Institute and the Independent Feature Project, fundraising was a struggle and as the 18-day shoot began in late 2009, the budget of less than $500,000 was still not completely in place. Cooper generously and courageously kept many of the financial details from Rees, assuring her that the film’s future was assured although that was not strictly the case.

The film was shot entirely in Brooklyn, most of it in a three-story flat where each floor served as one of the distinct worlds Alike inhabited, including her parents’ home and the homes of her girlfriends. An early snowfall necessitated postponing shooting the climactic rooftop scene until September 2010.

Rees noted that she assembled a diverse crew. In a behind-the-scenes video, the costume designer, Eniola Dawodu, a black woman, remarked that because the crew consisted predominantly of people of color, including those in positions of authority, she sensed more strongly than ever that a career in filmmaking is possible, including the opportunity for advancement.

Indeed, Dawodu and Rees worked closely to complete a wardrobe bible tracking what each character would wear in each scene. In the initial scenes, Alike wears drab, baggy clothes that look even more pedestrian juxtaposed with the bright, flashy pastels worn by her best friend, Laura, who takes her to a nightclub for young lesbians where unrestrained fashion and behavior are de rigueur.

Throughout the film, Alike’s clothes reflect the influence of whatever milieu she’s part of at the moment. She dresses completely differently whether she’s at home, at school with her friends, or among “out” lesbians teenagers.

Adepero Oduye (left) and Kim Wayans in Focus Features’ Pariah. (Photo: ©2011 Focus Features).
In one of the film’s most telling scenes, on the bus riding home from a night out, Alike pulls off her large hat and drab, baggy shirt, and puts on a pink polo shirt and dainty earrings. True to her chameleon personality, on the way home she literally changes color.

In addition, working with cinematographer, Bradford Young, Rees chose to “paint” Alike with different colors in different locations, thus highlighting the influence her surroundings had over her. Only as she begins to come into her own, does Rees shoot her in white light, or in sunlight.

“We also felt that since Alike was so uncertain, we would not give her any primary colors,” Rees says. “Instead or red and blue, it’s magenta and aqua.”

Rees and Young also frame Alike in some extremely tight shots creating the sense that the people around Alike are too close for her comfort, and that the world is closing in on her. “For the coverage on Alike, we did a lot of ‘peeking,’ or ‘eavesdropping,’” Rees says. “Sometimes by the way the camera moves, or if there is some object in the foreground, you get the feeling that we’re watching her,” Rees says.

“Dee was incredibly well prepared,” said Young. “Her shot lists were always detailed and complete and that’s part of her heightened clarity of storytelling. When you work with Dee you better be as adventurous and as confident in yourself as she is, because she pushes. You better be ready to put it all on the table, because you know she will.”

Pariah was edited by Mako Kamitsuna, a woman who was born in Houston and raised in Hiroshima. She studied astronomy at UC Berkeley and philosophy at Columbia before committing to film and transferring to NYU.

“Mako is really fast and she assembled a rough cut in less than two weeks,” Rees said, and that allowed us more time to play with it. “I’m a big fan of ‘sleeping’ on it,” Rees says, “so ultimately we took long breaks away from the editing studio. I don’t like to get inundated with it because then I feel like I can’t see it anymore.

“There were times when we took liberties (in the editing process),” Rees says, “and moved things around. At that point the script doesn’t matter. You have to be open and honest and do what works, even if you are doing some rewriting,” in the editing studio, Rees says. “I knew I could trust Mako’s feelings through all of that.”

Production designer, Inbal Weinberg, is an Israeli-born woman best known her work on Frozen River, the independent thriller for which Melissa Leo won a best actress Oscar, and writer-director Courtney Hunt won best original screenplay in 2009. She also recently designed Blue Valentine starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gossling.

“I’m from Nashville, so Brooklyn is not my world,” Rees says, “and Inbal’s help was crucial in creating Alike’s different worlds.” For instance, her room “was an overgrown little girl’s room with a lot of left over lavender and pink. It was a space that, like all the other spaces we see her in, was not really hers. Inbal made sure there was not very much light coming in there because it wasn’t a space where the real Alike was very visible,” she says.

“I think the movie is going to surprise people, in terms of who it appeals to,” Rees says. “It’s so beyond being a lesbian film. An older man at a screening in Dallas approached me and said, ‘I don’t usually go in for this kind of thing,’” Rees says, “’but I remember a time in my life when I felt like I had to hide.’ The movie is just about a teen trying to figure out how to be herself,” Rees says. “Everyone can relate to that.”

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