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Sundance 2017 Interview: Dee Rees on “Mudbound”

Seeing “Mudbound” in the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Premieres program before the festival even began was a unique excitement in itself, as it looked like the kind of big, historically important film with significant scale and scope the director of the exquisite “Pariah” undoubtedly deserves. And the thrill of watching it on the big screen was even better, as the film exceeded the already high expectations. What writer-director Dee Rees pulls off in “Mudbound,” which became one of the hottest Sundance tickets overnight after its rapturous reception at its Eccles premiere, is astoundingly rare (read our review here). This is an ambitious film, perhaps even a new American classic that delivers upon every single one of its creative motivations. It’s both epic and intimate at once, timely and timeless, and demonstrates Rees’ confident handle on character development and a very specific visual language at every turn.

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Co-written by Rees and Virgil Williams (and adapted from the acclaimed novel by Hillary Jordan), “Mudbound” follows two families—one black and one white—that live on the same land, but are divided by race, class and privilege in the post-WWII South. Laura and Jamie McAllan (Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke) are rookie farmers who relocate from the comfortable suburbs to a rain and mud soaked Mississippi farm on the brink of demise. Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) live on and have taken care of that land for generations. Soon enough, both families are joined by additional family members who fought in WWII: Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). The two men slowly unite around their joint war experiences and form a unique bond and friendship before the eyes of the disapproving Pappy MacAllan (Jonathan Banks), whose blatant and brutal racism thickens the plot of several intertwined lives.

Told through various shifting perspectives, “Mudbound” moves with grace and confidence and asserts that Dee Rees is now in the majors league as an American artist with a singular vision. We spoke with her at Sundance, a few days following the Premiere of her masterful "Mudbound."

Congratulations on “Mudbound” and being back here in Sundance 6 years after "Pariah." How does it feel to be back?

It feels good. It feels comfortable. Audiences are really responding to the film, and we’ll see how it goes.

How did you first become aware of Hillary Jordan’s novel?

In between “Pariah” and “Bessie,” a film for HBO, [producer] Cassian Elwes brought me the script by Virgil Williams in 2015 and asked me to take a look at it. I read the script and I just wanted to blow it out. I wasn’t aware of the novel until I read the script.

So you read the novel after reading the script. What did you change and add based on the novel?

I rewrote the script significantly. [For instance], the Hap storyline where he is building a church … I really thought it was important to have it in there, because it sets the stage for why Ronsel’s homecoming is so necessary. And also Hap breaking his leg … I wanted to bring that in because it sets up their economic hardship and why they [need] their son. And also, [it was a way] to bring the Henry-Hap relationship into focus. Here are two farmers, two men, with different claims on the land. Hap’s claim, one can argue, is a more legitimate claim than Henry’s. I wanted to bring in the tension of that. I also wrote a lot of monologues that wasn’t in the book, to give Hap and Florence inner lives. In the book, Florence is painted as a superstitious person. But rather than making her a superstitious person, [I made it that] she has a fear of the way things are going and she is very observant. When Henry comes begging her to help his kid, I wrote that meditation (that wasn’t in the book) about her own mother. And the same thing with Hap’s meditation on the land. I wrote that monologue for him, so that we see his back-story and his connection to the land, and this idea of ancestry and heritage. It’s our history, right? We either bury our history as a country and not deal with it, or we can put it to rest. So symbolically, in that last scene where Jamie walks away from the grave, he walks [away from it] as a different man and Henry is burying who he is, and mud [is a] metaphor for race. I [also gave] the Laura character an inner life. For instance she says, she [feels] seen with Jamie. And the candy bar scene with Florence and her son, I added that [to have] the intimacy of a mother and son moment. The dance between Hap and Florence, I wrote that to show that they are in a loving relationship. The whole scene about Florence going to work for Laura; [I wrote that] to give [Jacksons] a life and agency.

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I saw the story as a prototype of America. Two families divided by race, class, but ultimately connected through land. Was that also a way in for you?

Yes, it is like a microcosm. That’s why I wanted to bring in the Atwoods, this poor white family, to show that. [Vera Atwood] comes to Laura, another white woman, to help her—she has a problem with her husband abusing her kids—but Laura can’t quite help her. [So I wanted to] show that divide. McAllans are middle class and the Atwoods are poor, they are working class. But they still have more currency than the Jacksons. Florence Jackson cannot sit down and have a [glass of tea] with Laura, even though she would be more qualified. Laura has discomfort with her privilege both ways. She is uncomfortable with her position [with Vera Atwood and Florence.] And I think she and Florence [eventually] come to stand on equal ground, because they both need each other. They are peers in a way.

I really responded to how restrained the film is. The brutality of racism is of course very much in the DNA of the story, but your approach felt understated to me, without those loud Hollywood-esque showdowns.

My approach to it was, I really wanted it to be very matter-of-fact. Like, this is the system. This is everyday life. So this kind of segregation and the way of thinking isn’t new to the characters. In terms of talking to the actors about their performances, I told them, “Nigger should be a noun.” Like, cow-dog-truck-tree-nigger. It shouldn’t be a pejorative, but the way things are. Black people are forced to be a part of it, and white people are accustomed to it. This is the status quo. [For instance for] Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), because he’s been overseas and because he’s been treated like a human being there, he is more American overseas than he is when he comes back home. That’s what makes it even more bitter. And as for the Jamie character, he has a different idea because of the fact that he came across other blacks in the military. Generally, I wanted to explore whiteness as a currency. Everyone has it. You can’t deny it. But it’s a matter of how they spend it. That’s kind of what I talked through, especially with Jason Clarke. Henry is firm, he doesn’t have to call [anyone] names, but he would still force economic disparity on someone by his actions.

The script is structured in shifting perspectives, yet the film is ultimately very fluid. Everything’s meshed so well together and nothing comes across as staccato. How did you maintain that flow?

Thank you. Well I have to give a lot of credit to our editor Mako Kamitsuna. She is an amazing editor who edited “Pariah.” She was just a great collaborator in tying all these stories [together]. I really wanted Laura (Carey Mulligan) to bring us into the world and open with a mystery. Here are these people at a burial. Who are they burying? And why? And how did they get there? And then Laura introduces us to Henry, and Henry introduces us to the farm… just wanted to have those flows and also use the time as the context to connect them. For instance, [the lives of Henry and Laura] are interrupted by the war, and the war becomes the connecting thing that takes us to the Jacksons. It’s like a natural hand-off. So I just tried to use events to weave connections [even though they aren’t] necessarily direct connections.

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Mary J. Blige stopped me in my tracks. And I think she had the same effect on a lot of people at Sundance. It’s not a very obvious casting choice, so I’m wondering how she came on board.

I am really excited for her. I really want people to see what she’s really capable of. I knew most of Florence was narrative; it was internal. She is a woman who doesn’t say everything that comes to her mind and she only talks to her family basically. That inner kind of reserve, Mary has that. I [saw] her in front of thousands of people at Madison Square Garden. She isn’t just performing, but she is living every line. She has such an empathy and genuineness and honesty about her, so I knew she would be great for Florence. She was really able to let herself go, so she wasn’t the megastar Mary J. Blige. She could just be Florence in a very non self-conscious way. I worked with her manager because of “Bessie” with Queen Latifah. I approached him and asked, “Do you think Mary would like to do this?” And I was thrilled he said yes. I never imagined I would get a chance to work with her. It is my big honor and pleasure that she is getting all the attention she deserves.

Several people told me they noticed halfway through or after the film that Florence was played by Mary J. Blige.

That’s the biggest compliment. She was unrecognizable and that shows you how committed she was to the role. She’s so deep and has so much soul. There is just so much there.

The rain, the mud and the gritty backdrop inform a lot of the emotional and visual landscape of your film. It has a very specific visual language.

It’s funny; sometimes we created the rain and sometimes it was actual rain. We have a shot list, but when I get on the set, I kind of do another handwritten shot list. I usually arrive early and [Rachel Morrison and I] go thorough our list and work through the angles. I always try to be open to what’s in front of me. In terms of the framing, the thing I was going with the compositions for the Jackson family is, there is a lot of closeness and warmth, so a lot of stacked up bodies. In the McAllen house, there is more separation between the bodies. And with the McAllen house, there are a lot of pastels. It’s a cooler [color] palette, whereas in the Jackson house, it’s brown and brown and brown. [I wanted] the camera [to] feel subjective in a weird way. It’s the [character’s] view of the world. It has a gliding kind of feel. [For instance] in one of my favorite sequences, after Hap breaks his leg, my favorite shot is: Hap is literally like the frame, and we land across his body, to his kids watching the rain to their disappointment. And then the reverse, Florence [holds] the frame with the kids and this kind of absolute impotence.

In a lot of ways, I was trying to shoot this like a Western. A lot of bodies and landscapes and stand-offs. I like that kind of language and I am interested in body posture and angles. [I really think] in the compositions, blocking informs everything. Blocking helps the performances.

Was it important to you to bring on a female cinematographer?

It is very deliberate. I wanted to have as many women as possible. Rachel [Morrison] is the cinematographer, Mako Kamitsuna is our editor, and Tamar-kali is our film composer, who did a beautiful job with the score. And Angie Wells is the make-up artist. So the image, the sound, the music and the montage…these major positions were all women.

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This is so refreshing, as it rarely happens in this industry.

Exactly. And because it often happens the other way around shamelessly, I don’t feel a shred of guilt about it.

I’m sure there is a lot of distribution interest in the film. Can you talk about it?

We’re just very much [looking for a home] that the film deserves; [a place] where it wouldn’t be reduced to a “race film” or "black film." So far, I think people are talking about the film in the right way. They are comparing it to films that are not necessarily by directors of color or about people of color. It’s absurd to even consider [the opposite.] It’s a shared story with an ensemble. If I were a white director, there wouldn’t even be a consideration that it’s a black film. It’s a pioneer story. It’s a war story. It’s a romance story. Any one of those pairings could be a movie in itself. It’s an epic, classic, American ensemble piece. This is like John Ford, this is like "Days of Heaven," Terence Malick …

The final piece of that is getting a distributor who is passionate about it, and sees it as an epic film and a universal film, and an American film. So we’re going to hold out until we get the best deal.

The film comes out such a crucial time in America, especially after the election we had. While it’s a period film, many of its themes are timeless. What do you hope it adds to the conversation today? 

That we are all in the same boat. This illusion of safety, the illusion of well-being … it’s sad, but we’re in danger. And if we don’t deal with our history and if we don’t deal with the truth, it’s going to happen over and over again. If we don’t admit what the system is and who Pappy is, you’re going to keep repeating those behaviors and those attitudes. And [I hope it] helps us see each other more in particular and break down this myth of us vs. them. For instance, a woman came up [to me] after one of our screenings. I would have perhaps stereotyped her as a Trump voter, but she came to me with tears in her eyes and we were hugging. Two days ago, we [maybe] wouldn’t be able to see or hear each other. But by watching a movie, we were able to see each other specifically. And hopefully the film will do that, and show the working class that we aren’t each other’s enemies. The enemy is the system. And the system is made up of people, and we have a choice in that.

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