Summer 2018


Justin Simien's Movie Mind

The director uses cinematic language on Dear White People, which series directors find liberating

BY T.L. Stanley

Director Justin Simien (Photo: Smallz & Raskind/Getty Images)

It's not unusual for Justin Simien to reference everything from Barry Lyndon to Network to Fritz Lang when describing the influences on his show, Dear White People, based on his 2014 Sundance feature of the same name. In spite of those shout outs, Dear White People is not a period piece—it's current day and of-the-moment in its depiction of race relations, identity, sexuality and privilege.

"We're using imagery to tell the story in a different way," says Simien, who has directed seven episodes of the satirical series, set at the fictional Ivy League school, Winchester University, in a leafy unnamed East Coast town.

That includes the stripped-down bottle episode of season 2 that revolves solely around two characters in one setting, facing off in a battle of words and wills that more closely resembles a stage play than a TV show. It allowed Simien to return to his theater roots—he went to a performing arts high school in Houston—and focus solely on the essentials.

"I've been able to do flashier things in other episodes," he says, "but this was the Sidney Lumet/Mike Nichols moment I'd dreamed of having as a director."

Turning the indie feature that Simien called "a little avant-garde" into two 10-episode half-hour seasons required some tweaking, mainly to shift from brief character sketches in the 108-minute movie to serialized character studies. He kept the large ensemble cast, with mostly new actors, and put the characters in the foreground. The humor—sometimes cringe-inducing—remained intact.

And what carried over unequivocally was Simien's stylized approach to storytelling, which includes a Rashomon-like structure, fantasy sequences, evocotive music cues and extreme close-ups. At least once every episode, a character stares directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall in a move that's meant to be "a little arresting," Simien explains. There's no bright sitcom-like lighting, and there are repeated low-angle Dutch shots to convey "gravitas and power."

Simien's so clear about his visual cues that he created a dictionary of sorts to share with his fellow series directors. The 10-page document breaks down the "very particular construction" of the original movie, like single-person, single-frame shots and carefully selected color palettes, and includes stills from Simien's favorite movies. (Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey holds a place of honor among his influences.)

Despite the detailed template, Simien encourages fellow directors to "add their spin," he says. "This is the melody, but I want their harmony."

That was evident to Steven Tsuchida (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Inside Amy Schumer), when he directed episodes in both seasons of Dear White People, including a trippy, psychedelics-fueled half-hour with a talking dog.

"Justin has a very distinct vision and strong opinions on the look and dynamic of the show," Tsuchida says. "But he makes it very easy to collaborate, and he's very generous in how we explore the story together."

Tsuchida says he's never had as much access to actors to discuss scenes before shooting. It's a luxury not usually afforded in the churn-and-burn TV landscape, and it helped immeasurably with the arduous single-camera work.

"I felt like I was making a mini-movie every time," Tsuchida says, noting that the approach eschews "traditional, wide coverage and over-the-shoulder. There's usually one camera, not two."

While it's a demanding, time-consuming way to choreograph and shoot, Tsuchida found it "very liberating."

Simien, center, consults with actors DeRon Horton, left, and Logan Browning on the set of Dear White People. (Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix)

The series, shot on location at UCLA and constructed stages in the San Fernando Valley, uses the point of view of one character per episode, tracking journeys that involve student activism, sexual awakenings, cultural appropriation, gender politics, Internet trolling, police misconduct and a host of coming-of-age and societal issues in the so-called post-racial America. (That notion flies out the window in the wake of a blackface party at a campus frat house and a confrontation involving a cop pulling a gun on an African-American student.)

Though it's filled with quirky, off-kilter shots and scenes, Simien often uses the word "deliberate" when describing his philosophy.

"Everything has to be intentional," he says, adding that if there's camera movement, there should be motivation behind it.

Yet his colleagues have plenty of room to breathe, and Simien admits to having "director envy" when guest helmers like Barry Jenkins come up with innovative ways to shoot the show that he hadn't considered. For example, Jenkins skipped the zoom lens and instead used a dolly that stopped the camera just inches from an actor's face for an extreme close-up. And director Kevin Bray brought in a crane for his season 2 half-hour, leading Simien to call the experience his "master class" in filmmaking.

To steep herself in the vernacular of Dear White People before her guest-directing stint, Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, I Love Dick) says she shadowed Simien for five days.

"I wanted to understand his rhythm, hear his concerns and corrections, and get the vibe on set," says Peirce, who also watched his dailies. "It's like watching somebody cook," adding that she aimed for her episode to "speak the same language."

"The characters are sometimes in profile, sometimes you zoom into them, which is unusual but beautiful," she says. "Sometimes it's off-angle, above or below. There are experimental things I'd never seen done before."

Peirce flexed a few new creative muscles, she says, on the episode that centers on a fan-favorite character who learns she's pregnant and decides, after much soul searching, to have an abortion.

There are shades of The Godfather in a group scene—the ambitious Coco (played by Antoinette Robertson) is asserting her dominance over her peers—and a flash-forward fantasy sequence of Coco admiring her expanded belly, falling in love with being pregnant, though it would torpedo her career plans.

"It's dreamy, but it needs to be believable to us and to her," says Peirce, who used a Steadicam, placed low so that it pointed up at the prosthetic belly and Coco's face. "In the storyboard, you just see her eyeballs looking over the belly, like a moon crater."

The episode packs the kind of punch that has become a Simien trademark, Peirce says, due in part to its precision.

"If there wasn't so much care in all the details, I don't think you could pump so much meaning into it," Peirce says of the series overall. "I love that it's non-normative and explores all kinds of issues. It's telling stories that haven't been told before."

Simien's next project, a music-infused horror movie shooting this summer called Bad Hair, will see him once again writing and directing a passion project. It's a 1980s-set film with shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rosemary's Baby and Get Out that he'll use to make a statement about "dude privilege," among other things.

"It's a very contained universe, which I love," he says, "and it's a kooky concept about a possessed weave. I'm trying to take this campy horror conceit and say something about the culture with it. And I'm chomping at the bit to get started."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

More from this topic
More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly features a focus on television, including a DGA Interview with director Dan Attias, articles about crime comedies, late night talk shows, the documentary series American Masters, a Shot to Remember featuring Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée, and more!