Movies

Dee Rees On Directing One Of The Best Movies Of The Year, ‘Mudbound’

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The inherent problem with labeling a movie “important” is that, often, people will just assume the movie is “boring.” This cannot be stressed enough: Dee Rees’ Mudbound is anything but boring. It’s a sprawling epic that knows how to tell an incredibly interesting, intimate story. It just also happens to be important.

At the heart of Mudbound (adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel) are Ronsel (Jason Mitchel) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), two returning heroes, coming back home to Mississippi from World War II – one black, one white. When Ronsel returns, as Rees says ahead, he’s in more danger than he was driving a tank around Europe. The two men form a friendship that is destined for tragedy.

When I first saw this movie at Sundance, it was before white supremacists openly marched through the streets of Charlottesville – then were defended by our current president. I was naïve, thinking the open racism on display in this film had to now be hidden, or be shunned by normal society. Since I’ve seen this film nine months ago, this kind of open racism has become mainstream. I asked Rees about this and how it correlates to her film. And it’s obvious she’s put a lot of thought into this.

Ahead, I met Rees at her hotel here at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss her epic of a film. And it really is an epic. Her prior films – like Pariah and Bessie – were intimate, individual character studies. Here, she has a lot more prominent characters to juggle, but it’s still handled as an intimate character study. Mudbound is an incredible film and Rees is an incredible director.

Compared to your last movies, this time you went for “an epic.”

Yeah.

Is that intimidating? A lot of directors try this and come up short.

Well, for me, no, because I just go for the relationships. It’s by [screenwriter] Virgil Williams, so what I responded to was the chance to explore these multiple points of view. With me, I get off on characters. So I was like, Oh, I get seven?

Right, your prior films had basically one major character…

Yeah. I just love these multiple relationships and how each one, they’re all kind of knotted together and there can’t be tension in one without slack in another. So that’s what I got excited about, and this chance to talk about these two guys coming home before there is really a name for PTSD. I think the multiple points of view is also what I appreciate most about Hillary’s novel.

I knew this would be an important film, but often that word can mean “dull.” This is not a dull movie.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, for me, my focus is on getting the audience invested in the characters, because if you’re invested in the characters you don’t care where we’re going with it, you know? And I wanted the audience to feel like just when you think you know what this movie is about, it changes. When you open it, you think it’s just about these two brothers. Like that in itself could be a film. And then we come to see how these seven people that come together and why they can’t get away from each other – and the mud itself just becomes like a allegory for race and for time. It’s like we’re all stuck and we’re all mired in it, you know?

I think also the word “mud” might make a person think this going to be slow? It is not slow. This movie just zips.

Thank you so much. Yeah, just narratively, I wanted to approach it like a Western or like a pioneer story. So that was my approach. I want to shoot this like a Western, like the pioneers. So it’s these standoffs and it’s the landscape that kind of dwarfs our characters. And this kind of idea that it feels like nature’s working against you, but it’s not. Nature’s actually just indifferent to you.

It’s tough to watch Ronsel Jackson come back from being a war hero in World War II, to then be treated so terrible by trash people who weren’t fighting.

Yeah, it was supposed to feel like in that whole town. Even finding that location – that town location was the hardest one to find because it needed, like, a general store…

Yeah, how did you even find that? It really looks like it’s from the forties.

We just drove around Louisiana and finally found it. And so, we came out and it was worth it.

Were they happy when you wanted to film a movie there?

Well, it cost more [Laughs.], but it was necessary because the feeling was that Ronsel comes home to be behind enemy lines, metaphorically. You’re fighting with allies but you come home behind enemy lines. And we have to wonder, is he going to get down the street? We’ve just seen him in a tank, but we’re more worried about him walking down the sidewalk than we were on the battlefield. So I just really wanted to juxtapose the battle abroad versus the battle at home and how, on both families, the battle at home was bloodier.

And you also show how in Europe he’s treated well, comparatively.

Comparatively, yeah, yeah. Better. In Europe, he’s seen as an American first, then he’s black. And at home, he’s just black first and then he’s not an American. You know? So that kind of like irony about how he’s only American when he leaves.

How much research did you do into that aspect?

Well, both my grandfathers had fought in wars. One fought in Korea; one fought in World War II. And so I had these grandfathers that had this history of service to the country and they came back and they didn’t get the benefits that they were promised and they very much kind of didn’t feel like citizens, in a way. So I just had their experience to draw upon. And I really wanted to show how Jamie and Ronsel, in a way, are more brothers. They’re united by the trauma, more than Henry and Jamie are. But then that comes at a cost. They’re not really allowed to consummate that brotherhood in the way that Henry and Jamie are blood brothers.

There a battle scene with Jamie and the Red Tails show up. That’s extremely emotional when we figure out what’s going on in Jamie’s head…

Yeah, it’s not just out of altruism, it’s that because he’s had a direct personal experience that for him was humanizing.

What a great scene. You knew that one was going to hit, right?

It was great, yeah. I wanted us to feel, with Jamie, in all of the kind of photography, we really went for very subjective, so we’re not just outside of it. You’re with Jamie, so you feel that relief. Like, “Okay, I just thought I was going to die. I’m not going to die.” It just really was designed to put the audience in that tight space, and we shot in an actual B-25 plane.

Really?

Yeah. It was this tiny, tight space.

I know how naïve this will sound, but when I saw this at Sundance, I couldn’t help but think, well, at least in 2017, the people who are openly racist either have to wear hoods to hide their identity or they’re shunned by most of society. And now I feel differently after what happened in Charlottesville. These kind of attitudes, they’re becoming mainstream. And, again, I’m sure that’s naïve white guy saying that.

Well, I think it’s good that it’s revelatory. But I think it’s not that we’ve changed, it’s that we’ve always been this way. And it’s like we’ve just scraped off the top layer and said, oh, yeah, this old table’s still there. It’s like, those ideas haven’t changed, those attitudes haven’t changed. It’s just people developed language around it and didn’t say it out loud, and now we’re just back to saying it out loud again because we never dealt with our original sin. We never kind of addressed it or admitted it or like understood how it’s connected to the ’50s or the ’60s or the ’70s. Or wage inequality, we never addressed it. Oh, people are doing the same job for different amounts of money. Or, oh, people are still living like we’ve been redlined out of certain neighborhoods, that then create these kind of perpetuating things. I feel like it’s just maybe opening people’s eyes to what’s already there, it’s not that there’s new stuff there.

And I’m not saying I didn’t think it wasn’t there, I just thought they kind of had to hide more. And now it’s like, oh, they’re just saying this out loud now, just walking down the street.

Yeah, totally. So I think it’s kind of like the “whites only” signs went away, but they were replaced by policies. So it was still codified and still kind of there and even more insidious because there were no signs to point to. So, you know, there’s this illusion of, oh, it’s fine now and no one’s going to say something to your face. But I think that it’s more insidious when it’s not being said.

Do you think Mudbound is more relevant now than even nine months ago?

I think, maybe, it gives people the critical distance to really kind of be open to the film, so there won’t be a defensiveness or there won’t be a feeling of, oh, this is over the top. I think the people that would watch it and relate. Like last year, people said, “Oh, I can’t talk to my Uncle So-and-So.” And it’s kind of like, well, if you can’t talk to your Uncle So-and-So, I can’t.

I was that person. I didn’t go home for the holidays.

Yeah. So I think this starts at home, and I think it just shows you can find the Pappy in your family. You know what I mean? And it’s going to start on an individual level. It’s going to be someone they love might change their minds.

Being on Netflix, a lot of people will have access to it. But is Netflix going to give this a theatrical run? Like we were talking about, this is an epic and looks so great on a movie theater screen.

Well, I think it’s about the group experience than the size of the screen, you know? It’s kind of about that tension of being with other bodies and being with other people and, you know, just the discomfort of being in a group is like the solace of being in a group. I feel like it’s a group experience, so if people are watching with their families, you still get that shoulder-to-shoulder kind of like tension in the room, you know? So, yeah, yeah. We’ll see.

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