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Film Independent: Justin Simien

Justin Simien went from publicist to first-time writer/director of an award-winning film, “Dear White People,” and he used his social media savvy to get there. Simien, his editor Phillip J. Bartell, his composer Kathryn Bostic and his cinematographer Topher Osborn were the last panel in the Film Independent Directors Close-Up series in Los Angeles.

Using Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube, Simien and his team were able to build up an audience before the movie was even made. They may have even started a movement.

His “Storytelling Across Platforms” panel discussion was really about how to utilize social media and the film’s producer, Stephanie Allain, the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, was the moderator.

The movie, “Dear White People,” centers on mixed-race film major Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), who attends a prestigious predominately white school of Winchester and has self-published a book called “Ebony and Ivy.” She is elected head of an all-black dormitory, beating her ex-boyfriend Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), who is the son of the school’s dean. A reality TV producer is on campus pushing Colandrea “Coco” Connors (Teyonah Parris) into hyperdrive to get his attention. A gay black student Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) who writes for the campus newspaper is assigned to write about Sam and her controversial radio pieces “Dear White People” and about the reality of black student life on campus.

Simien remembered, “It was in 2010 or 2009 when it was called ‘Two Percent’ at the time. I already my main character, Samantha White, who was a cross between Angela Davis, Lisa Bonet and Huey from “The Boondocks.” 

“I had a full-time job at Paramount Pictures, but after a full day of work, I just wasn’t funny. The jokes weren’t popping. I just didn’t have much to give,” Simien recalled. 

Then one day at work he got an urgent call to meet with some executives. Like any good publicist, he hurried in with his notebook, “Ready to prove myself,” he remembered. When he got there, someone said, “Hey Justin, Can you teach us the ‘Single Ladies Dance’?”

Back at this desk, to blow off some steam, he created the Twitter account, “Dear White People,” using the persona of his character Samantha “Sam” White, and tweeted, “Dear White People, The Single Ladies’ dance is dead.”

From there, he began to use the account to test Sam’s jokes. By doing so, he recalled, “Inadvertently, we were building an audience.” He was also gathering material. Positive reactions based on how many times something was re-tweeted, went in. Negative reactions about things such as reverse racism or “blacker than thou” comments also were incorporated into the script. Simien would tweet on nights when lots of people were on Twitter. That got him more fans than getting a re-tweet by a celebrity. The Twitter campaign “forced me to think hard about her voice.”

Then he ventured on to Tumblr. “For a while, they were our biggest community.” The team also dabbled in NationBuilder, a site meant more for leaders of political campaigns.

“As a person of color, I was just really tired of the fact that I wasn’t seeing my story in the culture,” because movies for black audiences were usually broad comedies or slave dramas. That comes out as a rant against Tyler Perry Medea movies in “Dear White People.” 

By the time Simien made his next move, he had an eager audience. Instead of making a short, like Damien Chazelle did for “Whiplash,” Simien made a fake trailer. Working with Osborn, he said, “I wanted this to be hyperreality.” The fake trailer was shot at UCLA in two days. Simien apologized to people from UCLA because “we were asked to leave, but we did not.”

The university in the fake trailer was called Manchester, but “For legal reasons was called Winchester” in the final movie. “I wanted it to feel like a place that exists only in cinema. You are watching a film that is aware that it is a film. I wanted to reference ‘Do the Right Thing’ and reference ‘Metropolis.’” There’s also some references to Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 “Barry Lyndon.” Simien had other ideas, but admits that “not all of those ideas went together. Topher was a great filter. Even with the fake trailer, they were able to determine what didn’t work.”

With the fake trailer, the team behind “Dear White People” picked up more followers when the YouTube video went viral, leaving a ready-made audience disappointed that this wasn’t a real movie. That helped fuel an Indiegogo campaign set to raise $25,000 that eventually raised $40,000. By the time they were set to film, the fake trailer was withdrawn so that people didn’t get too attached to the faces.

Simien remembered meeting with Osborn, saying, “I came with images at our first meeting. We didn’t have the money to hire a storyboard artist. I thought great movies are made out of 40 scenes. I had my references. I wanted to quote other films visually.” He also had notes on how each character would change in a scene. They didn’t have a “luxurious amount of prep time.”

Osborn explained, “For me, I had about a week.” The audience in the Landmark Theater in West Los Angeles gasped. 

As it turned out, when they went to scout out a campus in Minneapolis, they learned they would have to shoot in a couple of weeks. Simien admitted, “Before I flew out there, I made this shot list that would have taken three years to execute.” Instead, the team had only 19 days of shooting.

The shoot was wrapped the first week of September. It was cut by the end of that month and an assembly cut was sent out to Sundance. The cut was refined for its January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Under such a deadline, Bartell said that his main approach was to make it work as quickly as possible. When he got the script, he felt it already had a really distinctive voice, but when he finally got the images, things were even better. “The most exciting thing is to get it and realize they are knocking it out of the park…everyone was bringing their A-game. That made it simple.”

Balancing the four protagonists in the script was happenstance because, Simien explained, the crew ran out of time and money. “There were gaps in terms of what was written, story moments that felt unbalanced because we didn’t shoot them.”

That meant Bartell and Osborn had to be creative. Putting the film together, temp music was used. Simien said that he was always listening to things when he’s writing. “I love Stanley Kubrick. I love Spike Lee so much. I like things to be independent. It doesn’t feel like score music. It feels like a counterpoint to the scene.” He was clear that he didn’t want “just hip hop or that weird jazz music that’s not real jazz.” He liked how Kubrick used Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” in his “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Although Simien also had definite ideas—he wanted to use “Bolero” to open the movie, but couldn’t afford it, and used “Swan Lake” instead. The soundtrack was “saying something about black identity.” He wanted the soundtrack to go beyond rap, hip hop and jazz. He wanted it to “sound like my iPod which is all this random shit which doesn’t seem to go together.” And that says something about his characters. “They are a bunch of things. They are black and other things you might not think go together.” Yet, they did have an actual budget that wouldn’t allow for something like a Kanye West tune.

Bostic commented that the use of temp music is “a point of departure” that gives her “a creative parameter” and “a sense of the world they are living in.” While some composers might resent temp music and sometimes a director might fall too much in love with the temp music, “When you don’t have a lot of time, the temp can actually be helpful” so that you “hear what you need emotionally.” For Bostic, working on this kind of scoring was a dream come true. It was like a musical buffet with “concepts bumping up against each other.” She admitted that she was timid at first, but she enjoyed working on a black movie that “transcended the norm.”

The film itself is, according to Simien, “not a black story.” It is “dealing with identity versus self” and he was “commenting on this universal thing.” Simien said the “best advice I got about writing arguments in film is where both people are right. No one’s allowed to be right for the whole film.”

Although the film itself was made in a couple of months and what the production team did have time for was casting—three months. Simien said “I saw every possible person. We had the time.” But he was looking “specifically for people who were getting the people I wrote but brought something I didn’t expect…Tyler took the same scene and made me laugh out loud. All of them surprised me in some way.” What was most important was “do we even speak the same language…I enjoy working with actors. For me, that was a really wonderful process to get to see my characters come to life.”

“Dear White People” won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and last month won a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. Despite the rush to film and edit, the movie was eight years in the making. It took that long to write as Simien was learning how to write a multi-protagonist script and learning about social media.

From Simien, there are two ways to deal with multiple protagonists. The first is the Robert Altman way in which “every person is on their own little journeys” but that is expensive. Then like Spike Lee, you can have “a singular story, but you trade protagonists throughout the story” as with “Do the Right Thing,” which is about how a conflict in a certain neighborhood eventually boils over. The latter is “more economical” in terms of cost.

At a certain point, Simien felt he was making compromises and stalling. “I wanted to make a feature film. It wasn’t practical. It didn’t make any sense that this was going to get made. I stopped doing the practical thing. I was just going to go for it…I always knew this was going to be my first movie.”

Yet by using social networking, tools he had learned to use while a publicist and marketing specialist for Paramount Pictures, Focus Features and Sony Television, he was able to build an audience and then get funding. “It wouldn’t have happened that way if it weren’t for the journey.”

Even now, the journey isn’t over. Simien revealed that he’s going on college tours where “these kids are actually living it.” Simien views the “Dear White People” world as “hyperreality” but “the burden of a filmmaker of color” is that people “want it to be everything” including bringing a solution to racism. Now on campus tours, “I’m just collecting stories from people who are pissed off…I’ll go to screenings where it has never played better, but the students, they have issues.” The results are “very real conversations” from the trenches. 

Simien compares “Dear White People” to “Do the Right Thing.” In “Do the Right Thing,” no one really does the right thing. When Mookie throws a trash can through window at Sal’s pizzeria, black audience members might be cheering but white audience members are afraid. “He (Lee) wanted us to go out to the lobby and ask, ‘Well, what do I want to do?’” Similarly, Simien said, “I wanted people to leave my movie and think, ‘Well that didn’t answer anything so what am I going to do?’”

Of course, “Dear White People” was still a small film. Simien said it was only on 350 screens at its widest release. “Every artist wants to be marketed like ‘Star Wars,’ but things happened that I couldn’t believe in my wildest dreams would happen on my first movie.”

These things included a book that was originally slated to be done in one month, but actually took two: “Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-Racial Harmony in ‘Post-Racial’ America.” The team is also hoping to turn this movie that’s become a movement into a TV series. 

To that end, Simien is back on social media asking questions of his own. On February 25th, Simien used his own Twitter account (@JSim07 with 9,361 followers) as well as @DearWhitePeople (now at 24.9K followers) to ask fans about sex and the topics and stories they’d like to see explored at Winchester with Troy, Sam, Lionel and Coco.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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