TSR Exclusive: ‘Dear White People’ interview with Writer/Director Justin Simien

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Racial tension in the Obama era is given a sharp analysis in the satire Dear White People, a microcosm of modern America that takes place on a college campus, following the lives of four different students. Elements of identity and power vividly come into play, as black students confront racism at its most ridiculous and grotesque. For example: Troy (Brandon P Bell) is looking to fit in with the leaders of a satire magazine, but has to conform his ideals to do so; Coco (Teyonha Parris) wants to use what she considers to be her black identity to get a reality show contract. Writer/director Justin Simien’s film is a hilarious reflection of a society that still needs to get itself together, regardless of a black president living in the White House.

This film marks the feature debut of Simien, who has previous experience with an online series called “INST MSGS,” along with directing, writing, and producing promotional material for films like The Help and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (of which he told me did not have influences on the making of Dear White People).

I sat down with Simien in an exclusive interview (during the Chicago International Film Festival) to discuss his film, an audience’s hunger for movies to interact with, Dear White People’s influence from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and more.

Dear White People opens in Chicago on October 24.

Do you feel that regular moviegoers have an interest in interacting with films, even though there aren’t many films for them to interact with?

I hate how passive the moviegoing experience seems to be in my generation. It’s almost like you have to wait until awards time, and then there’s like three or four [films] that really succeed in doing that, and then there’s the others that try to do it. But it seems to be very awards-driven, it’s sort of not in the DNA. And the thing that sucks about that is that moviegoing audiences don’t expect it as much. They sort of don’t know what to do with it sometimes, when a movie comes along and not necessarily to pacify their worldview, but to challenge it. And that’s frustrating because it means that all the best movies are behind us. Which I know isn’t true, but it sometimes feels that way.

It’s always very specific prestige of film. Even the first blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars come out of that tradition. Star Wars is about something, Jaws is about something, it has just morphed into this thing where movies aren’t about anything necessarily except to make money.

How did ‘Dear White People’ change in both production and post-production?

In production, we had to lop off a lot of scenes just because of the nature of the way we shot it. We were under the gun time and money-wise. There were locations that just had to go. There was a lot of hurried rewriting, scenes that just didn’t make it when it came time to making the hard choices. And editing was reeling from a lot of that. The impact of losing scenes, and still making the narrative function well and balanced. But also editing was when we first started to test the movie and find out where the laughs were, and that definitely shaped the movie very much so. It was out of editing that I decided to put the actual blackface parties at the end of the movie, because as I was watching the movie I did know that these things happened, and before I knew that they happened, I actually took my blackface scene out of the movie. I felt like it would be important for people to know, even if it was after the fact, that this actually had a context.

You had a different climax from what’s in the final cut?

It climaxed at this party and it still sort of went there, but I thought I was being dogmatic and sort of making too much of a point. And then when I realized how real it was, and I was able to see more clearly what the different dynamics at play were, I felt more confident having it in the script.

How did you organize the references that you wanted to make through visuals or dialogue?

The references were mostly visual; some music references I know I wanted to make. But I did aggressive mood boarding, I couldn’t hire a storyboard artist and I’m a terrible drawer. So for each scene there was lots of visual references and tone references and musical references. Dialogue I’d say, and it’s not even a reference, that the biggest influence was Network. A dark satire that sounds written, it sounds like Paddy Chayefsky, even though they all sound different, that was a big influence. And kind of when watching that movie over and over again that I realized that it wasn’t slice of life, it is a written piece, this is not improv style, these characters are going to be written.

Talk a bit about this film’s influences, in regards to visuals and tone.

For this one in particular, and I honestly didn’t realize this until I was talking to people, but there were four films that I kept referencing, and I didn’t realize that I was subconsciously associating each film with a character. Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is often referenced musically and visually when we’re dealing with Troy. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona comes out when we’re dealing with Coco. And Fritz Lang’s Metropolis comes up when we are dealing with Sam. And obviously Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing has an influence on the film just in general, but I think part of it is because Metropolis is a movie about a society of people who look just like each other but are divided. They’re divided as one half of the side is benefitting from the labor of the other. It had so many parallels to this movie. I am always gobsmacked by that film.

The thought occurred to me to recreate, there’s a frame from the “Dance of the Dead” sequence where Marie is twirling around, and the men are kind of objectifying her. I recreated that for the box office scene for the trailer, and I don’t know where that parallel came from but this happened, and I found myself, the more I watched Metropolis pulling even more. There’s just a lot of times, particularly when Sam is on the screen, I treat her as Marie is treated visually in Metropolis.

What was your introduction to ‘Metropolis’?

I think my first introduction to Metropolis, it was before they had re-released this restored version of it, I had an old VHS copy, and I was interested in it for any reason any sci-fi geek is interested in it, they always say that’s where all of the ideas came from. And watching it was interesting, and then as I got better qualities of it and got further into my craft, I was blown away. Visually it’s just so innovative and we really still are doing a lot of the same things. This “Dance of the Dead” sequence is very modern cutting, it’s very modern dance cutting that we absolutely continue to copy this day, and there’s a lot of straight-to-camera, there’s a lot of center framing, out of that German expressionist period. But because it’s the future, everything has a reason to look the way that it does. I know that even though some versions say it is not the future, it’s the future. Visually I thought the film says so much with images, that is something that happened in my subconscious. I just really relate to the way that it was shot.

And you know, it’s political propaganda, but it’s way ahead of its time. And when they restored stuff, you see them transporting, all the eyes, it’s always spellbinding.

What do you think the construction of a film like ‘Metropolis’ best says about filmmaking potential today?

I think it’s the limits of technology that brings about the best, or the more iconic moments of cinema history. That to me is what’s a little troublesome about CGI, is that prospect that you can do anything, when sometimes you see a movie and they do everything. It’s limiting the point of view of the audience that brings the most visceral of experiences. That’s something that Pixar knows, because they were the first people who could do anything but they don’t do anything. They choose to shoot their movies from very specific points-of-views. I have a thing for those old optical effects and when people were still animating electricity, there’s something more effective for me to that than CGI. When you can do everything, it’s sort of nothing is special. But when there’s a moments of it, it really pops.

Classical music adds a distinct style to your online series “INST MSGS”, and it has a distinct presence in ‘Dear White People’ as well. What effect do you think classical music specifically has on your films?

It works for two reasons. The real reason is because of Stanley Kubrick’s influence on me. He was right, he said, “This is the best music in the world. Why not use the best music in the world in my films?” And he’s right. There are some amazing composers out there mind you, but I find that really because of his influence when I’m writing the screenplay, I have classical music playing. It just helps my mind, and it helps me to key into the scene, where I can’t really separate the scene from the song or from the mood of the song. That naturally carries over into the cut. But the other thing is that I was really excited about scoring with pre-existing music, one because the film is very referential, and I think film in general is very referential right now, we are in a very post-modern referential place, and I like the idea of taking a song out of context and creating a new context for it, it’s the way to use score as counterpoint as opposed to sort of just embellishing what is already on the screen. But also, I think it’s fun that it’s a black movie and it’s a college movie and it’s a young movie, and the presumption about that is no one involved with it would listen to classical music, let alone have enough taste to put it in certain scenes. I think it’s a little subversive that the film has classical music for that reason, it helps change the perception of what a black film is.

What was your mindset when endeavoring into this project, regarding maintaining the confidence that would help you keep the content as bold as it appears in the film?

I definitely had to keep the what-if-I-come-across-as thoughts at bay, because that limits how honest I was able to be. I just sort of kept coming back to, “what am I saying? What is the argument of this film? It’s a film about identity vs. self. Is this furthering that argument or conversation, or does it have nothing to do with it, or is it redundant? And if it is redundant, which one is better?” That was my organizing principle.

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