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Transforming Passion into Pariah

A Discussion with writer/director Dee Rees and producer Nekisa Cooper

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Transforming Passion Into Pariah

Q: There was originally your short film entitled Pariah. How did you conceive of the idea, and how did you decide to expand it into the feature Pariah?

Dee Rees: Actually, it all started out as a feature. I wrote the first draft of the feature script in the summer of 2005, as I was going through my own coming-out process. I’m originally from Nashville, Tennessee. Being in New York, I was kind of amazed to see these young women who were teenagers and totally out and proud. Even if I had figured out my sexuality at that age, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to be that person, and that’s how the idea for the film came.

I was interning on Spike Lee’s Inside Man, and on lunch breaks and during some of the downtime, I would write the feature script in longhand in notebooks. At the time, I was also finishing NYU’s Graduate Film program and I needed a thesis. So I took the first act from the feature script, and shot it as a short. But the feature has always been the original vision.

Q: Can you elaborate on the title a little, since it has never varied?

DR: Well, each of the main characters is a “pariah.” They all have their fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses, and isolations. One thing I definitely worked on in the writing was showing the characters’ struggles to connect, and their worlds away from their families – where there are attitudes and expectations that they might not know how to handle.

Q: Is Alike’s story at all in line with your own coming-out story?

DR: It’s semi-autobiographical. As I was coming into my sexuality, I started to become comfortable with who I was. But I didn’t know how to express that. Alike struggles in the same way. In going out to clubs – and by the way, I’m totally not a club person – it felt very binary; it seemed like you had to check a box, butch or femme. And I’m neither one of those things. I struggled with myself; how should I be in this world? Should I wear baggy jeans and baseball caps?  Or should I wear a skirt? None of those identities is really me, and I finally came to the conclusion that I can just be myself and don’t have to fit into any category. I don’t have to put on any personae; I can just continue to be who I am. And that’s what Alike comes to realize in her journey.

Q: So Pariah does encapsulate your personal story.

DR: Yes, it’s all mixed in there although a lot of specific things are fictional. The characters are fictional, but some of the experiences and feelings that Alike is going through are the same. Much was coming from my own experience of this new world opening up to me. Nekisa, in fact, took me to my first gay club and this explicit song was playing. I walked in and went, “Oh my God, I’m going to hell. This is it, my mom’s right.” I was in awe of that type of space. I’d never been in a place like that before. So some of the awe and some of the anxiety the lead character feels were things I experienced when I was coming out, coming into this world.

The principal conflicts are also similar; parental conflict is something that I really went through, although it is dramatized differently for Alike. When I came out, my parents weren’t very accepting. At first my mom said, “Oh, you’re in film school, this artsy thing, whatever, it’s a phase.” When they realized I was serious and that it wasn’t a phase, both my parents came in and staged an intervention. For a few months, they sent e-mails and cards and letters and Bible verses to make me think and change. It got to the point where I told them, “Don’t communicate with me if that’s what it’s going to be about, because my sexuality is not an option and it’s not a choice.” We eventually started talking again, and things are better.

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.

Q: You mentioned Bible verses. What was your spiritual upbringing like?

DR: I’m Christian. I was raised in a Methodist church, and I still believe in God. My spirituality was another thing that I struggled with early on. Because I initially wondered, “Is this going to be okay? Does God still love me?” On a real basic level, I struggled with that and it was painful. But later as I grew, I came to the acceptance and peace of mind that God does love me and I’m okay as I am. So that’s one element, a layer, of this film in addition to the love story and the search for identity. If anything, it’s my spirituality that got me through the past six years. My spirituality and spiritual practice have actually gotten stronger than they were before going through this.

Q: Did you draw inspiration from other artists?

DR: Yes, Alice Walker has been my biggest influence as an artist, and I’m also inspired by writers from the Harlem Renaissance; and especially the writings of Audre Lorde – her work Zami, in particular. When I read her story, I felt that I wasn’t alone and it gave me hope for my own journey. I always loved to write, and in learning about screenwriting and film, I knew I wanted to bring characters to life in that medium.

In specific preparation for shooting Pariah, I was inspired by the documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston for the tone of the film, and I also used it as a reference to help educate the actors about this world of the characters they were entering.

Q: Nekisa, how did you get into producing?

Nekisa Cooper: I met Dee while she was working with me at Colgate-Palmolive — her former life. She left the company to go to NYU’s film school. When she came to me and a couple of friends and told us she was going to film school, we said, “What? You’re leaving the security of this space to become a starving artist?” I didn’t really get it but I remained friends with her, and wound up helping with her second-year film, Orange Bow. After that experience, I thought, “Wow, this is what I do for toothbrushes and toothpaste, but this ‘product’ is something I can be more passionate about.” So I told Dee, “I don’t really know what this producing thing is, but I enjoyed working with you and I would love to support you in whatever you’re doing next.” It turned out to be Pariah, and I had a very personal connection to the story. I remembered being like Alike before coming out – a chameleon – one way with my family, and other ways with other people in my life. So I quit my job, took three months off, and produced the short film – mostly to figure out whether producing was really something I wanted to do long-term. It was a huge learning curve, but pretty awesome. It was the perfect intersection of my strengths from previous work as a basketball coach and as a businesswoman.

Q: How did the feature finally come together?

DR: When the short started hitting the festival circuit in early 2007, we got a call from Rachel Chanoff at the Sundance Institute. She’d seen the short and asked if we had a feature that she should consider. I said, “Heck yeah,” ran back and polished up the feature script in two weeks, and got in. So we got to workshop it at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab in 2007, and then came back again in 2008 for the Directors’ Lab.

The Directors’ Lab was great because we got to bring in Adepero Oduye, who’s always played Alike, and Aasha Davis, who plays her love interest. We were able to workshop that relationship, and some of the more difficult elements of the story, in a creative safe space. The whole Lab experience was a life-changing thing for me – as an artist and person. Nekisa then did the first Sundance Producers’ Lab in 2008, which was the icing on the cake – one which really had lots of time to bake, and is I think the better for that.

NC: It did take a long time for things to come together. Strategically, we thought that developing the film through the Sundance Institute gave the project a certain pedigree which would open doors to reach private equity investors. Based on the success of the short, we’d gotten a lot of interest from production companies wanting to know more about Dee and more about our thoughts for the feature. While on the festival circuit with the short film, we had the naïve idea that someone would just hand us the money to make the feature. We put a lot of thought and planning into assembling a package that people would invest in, but fundraising was incredibly difficult. It became apparent that people thought the script was really good and edgy, but a bit “small” and “specific.” That’s what people would say in terms of funding the actual feature.

So there was a very quick awakening to reality; we had submitted to a ton of people, but now just about everybody had seen the script and turned the movie down. We knew right then that private equity would be the way to go. We were able to attach Spike Lee as our executive producer because he had been an advisor to Dee on her feature documentary Eventual Salvation – and had given feedback on the Pariah script over the years.

We built a list of people through our network, wrote a business plan, and went into battle. We really leveraged the independent film community to find advocates who believed in us, believed in the story – the Sundance Institute, the Tribeca Institute, the Independent Feature Project, and Film Independent. Those advocates introduced us to other people who were either connected to money people or were money people themselves.

DR: Nekisa shook every financing tree she could think of. She is so resourceful, and it was a lonely business for her at times.

NC: But it was important to me to that I bear the burden without Dee or anybody else knowing about it. That made it stressful for me, but I felt that carrying the stress on my own was necessary so there could be an environment created where Dee and our crew could work and vibe.

Going into shooting, we still weren’t fully financed and the financing didn’t fall into place until 30 minutes before the shoot wrapped. It was literally a weekly, and sometimes daily, cash flow exercise. That made it stressful for me, but I felt that carrying the stress on my own was necessary so there could be an environment created where Dee and our crew could work and vibe. I was exhausted by the end, but so happy with the way it worked out.

Q: You filmed on location in Fort Greene, Brooklyn –

NC: It’s a neighborhood that we’re familiar with; we’d lived there for seven years, so we accessed our community connections. We were able to centralize and take advantage of being in Fort Greene. We worked with a local real estate agent, and she found us an amazing brownstone location where we filmed all of the homes’ interiors for Pariah. When you don’t have money, you need to spend a lot more time in pre-production, and we did. So the production ran efficiently.

Q: Dee, beyond making the most of the real-life locations, what was your approach to visualizing the story?

DR: [Cinematographer] Bradford Young had filmed Pariah and other works of mine; he will add meaning to every shot. He and I collaborate from the heart to tell the story better, while maintaining a constant creative flow.

For over three years, we discussed and developed the language we wanted to use on Pariah, and as with Pariah we were shooting on 35-millimeter film. In closer angles on the characters, the camera is handheld so it becomes more kinetic and personal and “breathes” with them. For wider angles, the camera is more omniscient and moves more subtly on dolly-mounted shots. Whether handheld or mounted, the camera is always moving with fluidity and motivated by the action that’s occurring in the scene. This is particularly true for the coverage on Alike, which consists of a lot of “peeking” or “eavesdropping” camera movements behind or between objects with long lenses that further enhance the sense of her being secretive and hiding.

Alike is a chameleon, and all of the camera movement and production design around her serves to heighten that. We used lighting in such a way that Alike is “painted” with whatever colors are predominating at the moment in her environment. In the nightclub, she’s “purple;” on the bus, she’s “green;” in the bathroom, she’s “orange,” et cetera. She’s only “white” towards the end; she’s “sunlight” in the final scene of the film.

In contrast, Laura is a proud peacock and although her world is also a little subterranean, she is in natural light a lot and is far more colorful; purple, blue, and fuchsia in the nightclub environment and lighter, freer colors like periwinkle and lavender in the home environment that she has made for herself. Laura’s wardrobe has much brighter, flashier hues than Alike’s, including blues, greens, and pinks. That underlines her basic spiritual freedom and independence.

Q: In addition to these visuals, the music in Pariah is also varied and plays an integral role in the storytelling. Can you speak to how that worked?

DR: The music plays an important role in the film as it heightens the voice of each character. Alike is acoustic soul, Bina is punk, Laura is hip-hop. As Alike is coming into herself and struggling to find her own “voice,” we see and hear the different styles of music clash and intertwine. In the end, Alike’s voice becomes a singular and rich melding of all those different styles.

NC: We are so proud to feature a number of incredible independent music artists, from Sparlha Swa – whose music serves as the voice of Alike – and Tamar-kali to Honeychild Coleman – whose punk/rock music echoes Bina’s voice – to MBK Entertainment, who provided us with all of Laura’s hip-hop.

Q: What has always made Adepero ideal to play Alike?

DR: Back in 2006, she showed up on the very first day of auditions for the short film. She came in wearing her little brother’s clothes, and was completely focused. It was like she had walked out of my pages.

She is brave, and has these beautiful qualities of innocence and vulnerability. That’s all at Alike’s core. Also, as a first-generation Nigerian immigrant who has grown up in New York City, Adepero has experienced being an outsider and the struggle to try to define her identity. Adepero is very specific in her craft.

Q: Overall, what was the biggest challenge during the actual filming?

DR: It was an 18-day shoot with 1 pick-up day. Everybody, no matter what their crew title, went above and beyond to make it happen.

NC: For the biggest challenge, I’d like to add, “the money.”

Q: Did you personally invest in Pariah?

NC: Yes. We sold the apartment we owned in Fort Greene. We put everything that we are into making the film.

Q: And now audiences can see it in theaters –

DR: And now we can give back to everyone who sacrificed and believed in us, and believed in the story and its being beneficial to people.

Q: On that note, who do you hope to reach with Pariah?

DR: I think questioning and affirming your identity is a universal theme, and I definitely want gay teens to connect with the film and see that it’s OK to be them.

Q: What about those close to these teens?

DR: I want parents and people who may not be open to better understand that they should allow their children to be who they are. Just think about how important relationships are; once they’re fractured or damaged, it’s hard to get them back. Everyone has someone in their life that has gone through this; just be more accepting of them. Love them unconditionally.

NC: In terms of changing hearts and minds, we joke about how it’s possible one-popcorn-bucket-at-a-time. But we do want to open people’s minds and expose them to a world they haven’t seen before. Pariah might not change people’s minds, but it will at least get them talking.

I was raised Catholic. My parents don’t accept that I’m gay, but they love me. I guess that’s as good as it gets, because we never have arguments. But we also never talk about it. I’ve been out to them since 2002 and it’s still a really scary prospect to think about sitting down and watching Pariah with them. That’s the intersection, of fear and hope, where this movie sits. We want Pariah to give people the courage to discuss coming out.