A big reason Dee Rees has become one of my favorite filmmakers working today is you never know quite what’s up her sleeve next. In 2017, Mudbound took Sundance by storm. Rees’ epic about the racism experienced by a black soldier returning to his southern home, after being a hero fighting in Europe during World War II, became a cultural touchstone that entire year and wound up with four Oscar nominations.
So, yes, as Rees explains, of course when deciding what her next film would be, people with checkbooks wanted another Mudbound. But Rees is adament she’s not here to make the movies people might expect her to make. Case in point: her latest, premiering Monday night at Sundance, is a political thriller starring Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck, based on a 1996 Joan Didion novel.
The Last Thing He Wanted follows Hathaway’s Elena, who has to leave her job as a journalist covering the 1984 election to take care of her ailing father (Willem Dafoe). A series of events get her caught up in her father’s plot to sell arms to the Contras (the CIA is involved in all this, of course) and brings her into direct contact with a shady U.S. government official, Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck). It’s a frantic movie as Elana learns she can’t trust anyone as she falls further and further down this hole her father helped dig for her. It’s a movie Rees says was inspired ’70s political thrillers, mentioning The Parallax View by name.
Like no one would have guessed Scorsese would make Silence after The Wolf of Wall Street, not many people were expecting this, as Rees well knows. And not many people will see her next film coming (if she can find the financing) — a futuristic sci-fi musical, which she explains in detail ahead. Which is what makes Rees a special director.
This is why you are one of my favorite filmmakers. After Mudbound, I would never have guessed a Joan Didion novel from 1996 is what you’d do next.
No, it’s funny because during the Sundance Mudbound premiere, I was pitching Last Thing. So it was like you get everybody happy, have a glass of wine, and it’s like, here’s an adaptation I really want to do. It’s Joan Didion! It’s her fiction, which to me gets underplayed. Her fiction is gorgeous and still feels like it’s very happening, like a lived experience. All of her prose has this kind of machine gun clarity and just cuts through.
“Machine gun language,” that’s an interesting way to put it. Because in that book she doesn’t stop and explain a lot of things. It just goes.
Yeah, so for this, The Last Thing He Wanted, there is no why. There is no why Elena really went. For me, the thing that attracted me was a father-daughter kind of love through the center of it.
When you were pitching it, how often did you get people telling you, “Oh, this book is great but it’s too crazy to be a movie”?
Not often. I didn’t go into the pitch meetings. It was like, “Hey, we have Dee Rees, we have Joan Didion. Do you want it?” All the studios said, “No.”
See, right there, that sounds pretty good.
Yeah. So I was surprised. I thought just since reading the book people would be signing up. But yeah, I didn’t attend the pitch meetings. Cassian, my agent, went around with the book and no studios bit. Maybe they didn’t bite because they felt it was too complicated. But Netflix did, so here we are.
I do appreciate that Netflix takes those chances.
Yeah, the story is a woman coming undone, and when have we seen that? The prose is very internal. And so, Elena, I wanted to make the tension very internal. She’s always missing something. She’s not sure what. Even in the aspect ratios, what Bobby [Bukowski] and I chose, a squarer frame, it feels like the seventies and also there’s always something just outside the picture.
And a lot of movies have the man she doesn’t think she can trust, but then learns he’s on her side and they get through it together. And this movie flirts with that, but that’s not what happens.
Well, yeah. And I was playing with race a lot. Who do we think the heroes are? So you’re like, “Oh, it’s Ben Affleck. It’s the handsome white guy! Of course, he’s the hero.“ It was like, “No, not at all. He’s not the hero.”
Well, he works for the Reagan administration during the Contra scandal. So I did have my doubts.
And the black guy is trying to save her. And so the black man’s the hero who’s trying to save her. It’s also Elena’s blind spot.
Getting this movie pitched and accepted, how have things changed for you since Mudbound? Can you notice more people are listening? Not that they weren’t before, but that movie was such a success.
In some ways, but then I think people want you to do that again. It’s like, oh, here’s another ’50s drama that has to do with Southern racism. You can get pigeon-holed. So for me it doesn’t necessarily get easier, to not do anything like the last thing. So after Pariah, the next thing was Bessie. It was like, “Wait, how are you going to do a musical biopic? You just did a character-driven drama.” And then Mudbound. So then it’s like, “How are you going to do a ’70s style political thriller when the last thing we did was a period Southern piece?” For me, the next thing to do is a musical, a futuristic musical. So how are you going to do a future musical when the last film was a 70s political thriller? For me, I’m such a moving target in terms of the stories I want to tell.
You are. That’s why I’m so fascinated with your career. It’s like Scorsese after The Wolf of Wall Street the last thing we were expecting was Silence.
Yeah, I choose characters. I choose characters no matter what period they go to or genre they go to. But this character, I just like characters who are… I guess, the uniting thing might be identity. I like characters who are kind of coming undone, questioning their identity. I guess identity would be the common theme for all my protagonists. Like in Mudbound, you have five or six people figure out who they are in relation to each other. Okay, these are the rules of the world, but who are we going to be? How are we going to be that?
When did you first read this book?
Seven years ago.
Was it automatic? Like, I have to do this?
Well, yeah. I wanted to leverage Mudbound to come back to it.
You don’t think you could’ve gotten this made before Mudbound?
No. Before Mudbound, I was not trying to do adaptations. My whole thing was like, let me do my own stuff. Then after Mudbound, it opened me up to the idea, okay, adaptation is not a bad thing. So let me pick the book that I want to do. It’s kind of like that opened me up to the idea of it and how it can be a form. Then I realized a lot of the movies I love are adaptations. Like No Country for Old Men.
But you did tweak the ending?
The ending is completely different. There are characters in the film that aren’t in the book.
And Treat has a very different ending than the book.
Treat has a different take. The whole ending of [huge redacted spoiler] doesn’t happen in the book. The whole ending is different.
But I didn’t see that coming.
That’s good! Thank God. I saw it coming in because in the edit I’m like, “Obviously, he’s going to do something.”
Well, yes, “something,” but certainly not that.
He’s representative of the system. That’s the way in which systems fail you and the way in which governments fail. We don’t want to believe that our governments are corrupt. We don’t want to believe that this level of deep-lying happens, but it does.
Based on what you said earlier, you mentioned a futuristic musical?
Yes, I want to do a futuristic musical. It’s called The Kids’ Exquisite Follies. It’s about this kid who comes from a town called the Same Old, Same Old, a Midwestern town. And she travels to It City, the big coastal city to make it. It’s sci-fi, but it’s real stuff that’s happening. It’s set in the context of moving to a place that’s all about appearances. It’s all about presentation and what are you willing to give up of your yourself to make it. Long story short, it’s an artist’s journey. It’s rags to riches to rags. She sells herself out and sells her love out to make it. Then, of course, the moment she makes it, she’s undone and then she has to go back home, back to her little Midwestern town. Back to the coffee shop she used to work at.
It would be funny if you try to spoil this movie, too.
[Laughs] “And then she dies. Then Ben Affleck walks into the cafe suddenly, takes her out.”
Is this close to happening?
We’ll see. We have a few interested parties.
Selfishly, I don’t want to wait three years again. That’s my point.
I know. Talk to the studios, man!
I will, I’ll give them a piece of my mind right now.
Yeah. Tell them to pull out the checkbooks!
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