Fall 2014

Not Singing the Blues

After the success of her first film, Pariah, Dee Rees’ career is on track with a biopic about the legendary Bessie Smith—warts and all.


DGA Quarterly Magazine Independent Voice Dee Rees
GOING DEEPER: Rees is most interested in character and story. "I wanted to understand why Bessie was the way she was." (Photo: Marcie Revens)

Dee Rees instantly made a name for herself three years ago with the debut of her acclaimed first feature film, Pariah, at the Sundance Film Festival. The engrossing, heartfelt, and sometimes gently funny drama, autobiographical in its underpinnings, is the story of a 17-year-old African-American lesbian, living with her middle-class family in Brooklyn and struggling to shape her identity. And Rees, who wrote as well as directed, was praised in particular for the vivacity of her storytelling style and her ability to capture narrative detail with economy.

Pariah won a clutch of awards, including the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award and the Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Director. After which the filmmaker, then 34, found herself presented with projects that were … more of the same. “I kept getting offered all this young adult stuff,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t want to keep telling teen coming-of-age stories!” Instead, the director-writer held out for material that truly grabbed her. Something did: a biopic about Bessie Smith, the great African-American blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s.

The HBO production stars Queen Latifah in the title role, a project the singer-actor-entertainer had been nurturing for more than two decades before Rees was brought in to tell the story her way. Rees jumped at the chance two years ago to write a new, myth-debunking script, and leapt again when a change in production personnel resulted in the opportunity to direct. “I’m interested in characters and relationships,” she says. “That was my approach to telling the story—not to fall into the typical biopic tropes. I wanted to understand why Bessie was the way she was. The thematic idea is that what is very beautiful from afar is often very painful from close up.”

To convey her vision, to HBO executives as well as to her cast and crew, Rees created collaged inspiration boards full of photos (particularly from the 1930s South Carolina portraiture work of Richard Samuel Roberts and from the photo book Juke Joint by contemporary Mississippi photographer Birney Imes) and color swatches to create a visual style she articulates precisely. “The first act is grays, blacks, browns, the color of insecurity,” she explains. “In the second act, it’s metallic colors, colors that are almost not from nature, oranges you wouldn’t believe. And then in the third act, the colors are more from nature, like peach, greens, earth tones. I wanted a lot of conflicting textures, looking through things.” In fact, Rees can whip out a smartphone showing her combinations. She also kept beautiful old photos of her grandparents and great-grandparents “on my ‘shrine’ during production.”

Working with cinematographer Jeff Jur (Carnivàle, Dexter), Rees also used a lot of Steadicam shots to enhance her theme of the personal transformed into the public. “I want to show that what we see in this objective camera view is not actually what is going on inside her. I wanted to play with that objectifying of her.” And she paid close attention to what blocking can do in communicating power balances in relationships. “The best thing in the world,” she says, “is to put two characters who hate each other side by side. Or put two people who love each other far away, so they have to reach for each other with their looks.”

In addition to Latifah, the cast of Bessie includes Mo’Nique (as blues powerhouse Ma Rainey), Charles S. Dutton, Mike Epps, and Michael K. Williams. Taking advantage of the ensemble’s collective performance expertise, Rees devoted some time in the prep schedule to putting her actors through a series of relationship exercises, particularly involving Smith and Rainey. “I had them in a room bouncing off each other,” Rees recalls, “talking about their lovers, talking about their lives. So when you get to the set, all that is there. How they move around each other is already there.”

DGA Quarterly Magazine Independent Voice Dee Ree directing Bessie
COMPOSED: Rees, with cinematographer Jeff Jur, shot Bessie digitally but making Pariah on film gave her a sense of discipline and economy. (Photo: Frank Masi)

Once production started in Atlanta, Rees structured the 35-day shoot so that scenes about personal relationships were done first; she held off on the performance sequences (songs popularized by Bessie Smith, sung by Queen Latifah) until the third week. She was so efficient and so used to the rigors and tight budget—on Pariah, she not only directed, she also drove the grip truck and picked up the doughnuts—that one of the few notes she received during production, she says, was, “‘Oh, take your time, you can shoot more, go over!’ And I was, like, ‘No, I’ve got to get it done!’”

Bessie was shot digitally, with the Arri Alexa, but working with film during Pariah was a vital education. “Shooting on film is great because it imparts discipline: What do you need to see, so you’re not finding it in the camera. When I’m shooting I have the scene in mind, where I’m going to have certain lines. I learned to overlap and to shoot more than I think I need. That was the learning curve.”

Rees had previously received an influential lesson in on-the-job efficiency while shadowing producer-director and DGA President Paris Barclay on the set of the FX series Sons of Anarchy. “He was, ‘Get it, got it, good, move on.’ That was really instructive. I was amazed at how he would move through the day. He’d have a fistfight, a chase, and a shootout—all before lunch!”

And from her mentor, Spike Lee—Rees’ advisor while she was in film school and her boss when she interned on Inside Man (2006)—she learned the importance of clear storytelling.

“He always says, when you show the film, you can’t stand by and explain what you mean to do. It has to be on the screen. So with every shot, with the framing, with the composition, it was, What are we seeing and why are we seeing it? You don’t get to stand by with a laser pointer and say, ‘No look here, here’s what I wanted you to notice.’ It was good advice.”

The calmly analytical director analyzes further: “I wanted to get a lot done with one shot. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but I think the secret of moving through the day is to know the pieces you need, and creating dynamism with the fewest possible pieces.” So, for example, for a shot of a bloody toe, Rees is clear about how she wants to see the owner of that toe. “I like a lot of stacked-up profiles, things that aren’t fully frontal. I like coming around characters, discovering people, extracting the image. I like dirty compositions—seeing people through things, seeing the sides of things, the backs of things. Because to me there’s no pretension, there’s no putting on. You see someone as vulnerable. So I approach Bessie from the back.”

Bessie is scheduled to air early next year. Meanwhile, Rees, who lists Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose, and the work of John Cassavetes, the Coen brothers, and Alejandro González Iñárritu among her influences, is considering a range of projects, including an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel. She has also been wrestling with an adaptation of a book by Toni Morrison.

“I like scripts that have a narrative prose feel,” she says. “For me, a lot of it is about not letting myself be pigeonholed, put in a box: ‘Oh, you can only do gay films, teenage films, films about women.’ I happen to love women and doing films with women, so that’s true. But I also want to expand.”

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