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February 23rd, 2019

Justin Simien Interview Dear White People

Writer-director Justin Simien is an exciting new filmmaker with a fresh voice and a sharp ear for comedy. His feature debut, “Dear White People,” is a pointed satire about race relations in the age of Obama that turns familiar stereotypes on their heads as it follows an eclectic group of African American students navigating campus life and racial politics at a predominantly white college. The comedy-drama stars Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Kyle Gallner, Malcolm Barrett, Brittany Curran, Marque Richardson, and Dennis Haysbert and opens in theaters on October 17th.

At our roundtable interview, Simien spoke about how the film was inspired by conversations he had in college about identity and the contemporary black experience, his love for an era of cinema that included films like “Do the Right Thing” and multi-protagonist storytelling, how the film uses college as a microcosm of the American experience, and why he wanted the narrative to be as complicated and as truthful as possible and leave audiences with something to think about. He also discussed the state of filmmaking today for people of color and his upcoming projects including a possible TV series based on the film, a new satire he’s writing, and a couple of exciting studio projects.

Here’s what he had to say:

QUESTION: When did this project first begin?

JUSTIN SIMIEN: It started in 2006. I was just a kid in college having these conversations with my friends about, “Isn’t it funny that we play up different aspects of our identities? We kind of black it up for some groups of people and we black it down for others.” We were having this conversation about our black experience that I continued to have as I became an adult and entered the workplace. We were just wondering why the black experience wasn’t being talked about in the culture. In 2006, I was a senior in film school starting the very beginnings of this film as a screenplay. I longed for the time when you could talk about those things in the cinema, when there were “Do the Right Thing” and “Love Jones” and “Hollywood Shuffle,” and there were all of these different stories trying to talk about the complexity of our experiences. It was just very absent in 2006. It’s gotten a little bit better in recent years, but it was really just a love for that era of cinema and a desire to see myself in the culture that really began the film for me.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about that framework and culture and walk us through those influences?

SIMIEN: Absolutely. One of the things that struck me so profoundly about something like “Do the Right Thing” is that the movie is called “Do the Right Thing,” and when you watch that film, you’re waiting for someone to very clearly do the right thing and for the movie to condone one course of action. You never really get that from the movie. What you see is from all of these different points of views how this horrible thing can happen. That, to me, told a truth about the human condition. Other movies about racism maybe dealt with it from a more moral sort of morality play standpoint, but they didn’t get into the truth of how it actually happens. Nobody seeks out to commit racial violence, but it still takes place to this day, and that was what was so profound about “Do the Right Thing” and multi-protagonist storytelling. For me, I did start the film while I was having a college experience, but I kept going back to it because so many great movies use the college as a microcosm, and it’s such a great way to talk about America. “School Daze” and “Fame” have had a huge impact on me. So have “Animal House” and “Election.” I love films from all these different points of views that used the idea of the school as a way to talk about the American experience. It took me a while to figure how to write a movie like that, because that’s not something you learn at film school. They don’t really teach you. They don’t write books about how to write those kinds of stories. They’re kind of out of vogue. Those aren’t the things that studio executives are looking for. For whatever reason, I just got this bug in my head that that’s the only way I could tell this story.

Q: Why did you decide to use an Ivy League school as opposed to an HBCU as the place to have that kind of discussion? Why did you choose to go that direction with it?

SIMIEN: I felt like what was so profound about “School Daze” was it talks about the black experience within the black experience, and it talks about all of the different issues that black people face within black communities. One of the facets of growing up the way I did, I never had the experience of being solely in the black community. Even my family, my mother is what they call Creole, so she’s part French, part black, and grew up in Louisiana. It’s a very specific kind of blackness that is different than what is traditionally thought of as the black community and black culture. So, I never felt a part of whatever that was. My black experience was always different than what was in the culture and what I was told the black experience was. I always found myself being the only one like me in the environment, whatever that environment was. I found that to be the experience that me and my friends were having, more so than being surrounded from the beginning of the day to the end of it by all black people. That was never my experience. I felt that was an aspect of the black experience that should have been and needed to be talked about. Ultimately, I began to see the movie as more than just about the black experience, but about identity and about the ways in which when you’re a person of ambition, you have to use identity to get on in life. Sometimes identity can be your salvation. It can be liberating to find your place in the world, but at some point, identity can hold you back. I think that’s why I was drawn to do it at this fictional Ivy League school because I wanted these people to be sharks in a tank. I didn’t want any big fish and small. I wanted everyone to be hyper-ambitious and very smart and get into that cutthroat thing that happens, especially now in the age of the selfie where your identity and the way you’re presented in the world means so much to your potential and the ways in which you can get on in society. That’s why I felt that at a school like Winchester, which is intentionally an amalgamation of Princeton and Harvard and some other private schools, the stakes would be raised in that kind of environment where everyone was really at the top of their game.

Q: How did the screenplay change from inception to the final film?

SIMIEN: The first draft was really just about my college experience because I had had no other experience. College was the most adult experience I had had at that point. It was anecdotal. It didn’t necessarily have anything particular to say other than to articulate the experience I was having. There were a lot more characters. It was much more “Nashville” than “Do the Right Thing,” because there were lots and lots of different narrative threads that were kind of related but weren’t all saying the same thing. That’s really where I began and it was a hot mess. It had its moments, but it was really costly to make a movie like that. Already the odds are stacked against a movie like this. But it just didn’t have any real focus. When I realized that the movie was about identity and the relationship between identity and self and potential, that’s when I honed in on what the movie is now. That’s when I decided that okay, Winchester is about America. It’s not just about my college experience or “the college experience.” It’s about *the* experience.

Q: Could you talk a little about protagonist and antagonist in the film and whether the film intends to call or crook anybody out or simply allow folks to be whoever they are?

SIMIEN: I think the movie attempts to point everybody out that appears on the screen. Everyone has these demons that they’re trying to hide from the other characters. Even perhaps some would say Lionel is probably one of the most sympathetic characters. There is something sort of passive about going through the world and not picking a side, and not picking an identity, and refusing to stand for anything. They all have things that are not the best, that are not the greatest, and that to me is the power of art. I love being entertained sure, but the movies that I live for, the movies that I buy and think about and stay in my mind are the movies that entertain me but leave me with something a little uncomfortable to grapple with in the lobby. That’s what I wanted to do with the movie. That’s why it was so important to me to put everyone through their paces. I think the title helped start a conversation that primes people for the movie, this “Dear White People.” But the movie certainly isn’t meant to address one group or another about all of the things that they do wrong. It’s meant to just show people in this sort of situation and be as honest as I can be, while I’m lying to you telling you this fictional story, about the human condition.

Q: Did you at any point think this title might invoke the wrong sensibilities out there? I know my mother said, “Is he writing letters to white people?” She couldn’t figure it out. Did you ever think about changing the title?

SIMIEN: That’s funny. I did. The first time it was “Two Percent” and it was about the two percent black population at a college. It’s a sleepy title. And frankly, so many great black films have come and gone with nobody even noticing that they came or went, and I wasn’t going to be that film. I knew that “Dear White People” was provocative, but I also felt like it was rooted in the characters and in the story. And certainly Sam’s show, “Dear White People,” sparks a controversy between the black characters that really begins the thrust of the narrative. But also, it’s the title that just sort of lived on its own. It was just something that people would talk about. From the Twitter account, I knew that even though there was some negative feedback from the idea of it, it overwhelmingly was positive. White or black, most people tended to get the message and tended to be comfortable with the satirical tone. So, I went for it. I felt like if there was going to be controversy, and I kind of hoped that there would be, at least people will be talking about this little independent black movie that started off as a dream, and it won’t just come and go without any attention or conversation around it. I think conversation is key. If people just saw my movie and said, “Wow, that was powerful” or “That was sad” or “That was funny” and went home, then why am I here? You know what I mean? I wanted people to be ready to have a conversation and I think the title does it. People are ready to have an opinion when they see the film and I think that has served the film once people show up to the theater and see it.

Q: Satire is the most difficult form of comedy and humor one can engage in. You have to really check yourself to see if it’s funny. What’s your check? How do you go through and decide? Do you just trust in your gut?

SIMIEN: Man, I’m still figuring that out. I’ve said this before. You write one movie and then you end up shooting another movie just because of time and money and actors and whatever. There’s a lot of stuff out of your control. Then you edit yet a third movie. Then the fourth movie, what people decide the movie is, has nothing to do with you. I remember screening the film and marveling at the lines I liked, and some of the lines I liked people didn’t laugh at all. To me, I was like, “Ah ha hell! That’s hilarious!” And then, the lines that get the biggest laughs, I thought that was a throwaway joke. I had no idea. So, I’m finding out what people are going to decide this movie is as I go and as I screen it. To a degree, I don’t know. I have this natural thing in my head that when I sit down to write something serious, I tend to make jokes. I can’t help it. I can’t help but desire for the narrative to be as complicated and as truthful as possible. That’s just the way my head works. Those are the movies that I love, and so part of that is just the way my subconscious wants to express itself, I guess. The rest is you try to just incorporate feedback when you get it. I remember when it was just a screenplay and we went out for coverage. I actually found a journal entry in my diary last night where I wrote about this. I was devastated because one of the coverage writers just read it for filth, thought it was blacker than thou propaganda, and that it was going to incite riots in the theater and all this kind of stuff. Everything that he said, I literally put it in the mouths of the characters. I had to be willing to incorporate the truth of how the movie was going to be perceived into the movie itself. Once I was willing to do that, it allowed me to move past the provocative aspects of it and the conversation that ignited. I just tried to stay open, man. I just tried to stay open throughout the whole process.

Q: You’ve got some wonderful characters. Can you talk about your casting process and your shoot length time?

SIMIEN: We had a nice, long, comfortable casting because we raised about $50,000 through an Indiegogo campaign. So I had enough money to go through casting. Locations got very leisurely as we looked for the financing for the rest of the film. Casting was great. Kim Coleman was our casting director in L.A. We saw so many wonderful people for the roles and I really got a chance to just fall in love with the versions of my characters that these actors brought to the table. They each surprised me in a way. They played the character I’d written but brought something to it I hadn’t even thought of. That was a joy to come together. The shooting, as gratifying as that was, was crazy because it’s an art show, which is how my producer Effie Brown put it, meaning that we weren’t going for a cinema verite true-to-life thing. Every frame had to be just so. I wanted to put forth a very theatrical, presentational version of this world. For movies like that, it takes months and months of prep time. We had two weeks of prep time, which is obscene for any movie, and 20 days to shoot the movie. And this was an ensemble where typically you want to shoot too much so you can kind of find the story, but really there wasn’t a ton of wiggle room. So it was crazy. It was harrowing. I was on the edge of my seat. I didn’t sleep much. I stress ate just about everything I could find in Minneapolis. But, if you’d let me do it again tomorrow, I’d jump right back in and do it again. It was exhilarating and horrifying at the same time.

Q: Because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, did you have to work with the actors when it came to saying certain things?

SIMIEN: We had a lot of deep, deep conversations. I can’t even say if you pull it off one hundred percent because it is very delicate. We are walking a bit of a tightrope. But we had lots and lots of conversations about what the intention was behind the characters, and what the intention was, not just from a performance standpoint, but what is it we’re saying. Like what truth are we saying here and are we doing things just to shock? Does this have its roots in something that actually happens? I had those conversations with everybody – with Kyle (Gallner), with Tyler (James Williams), with Teyonah (Parris), with Tessa (Thompson), with Brandon (Bell). We talked as much as we could given the time frame about what it is we were setting out to do. Then, at a certain point, we just had to go and do it and hope that we pulled it off. But we were very conscious, and I’m still very conscious or try to be very conscious about what it is we’re saying at the end of the day.

Q: Did you have to do damage control after the party scene?

SIMIEN: I didn’t. The funny thing is, it happened at Dartmouth the week we started shooting, and then it happened at Arizona State the day we premiered at Sundance. So it was one of those things where I think everyone was very aware. The poor, sweet white extras that we got in Minneapolis, they show up for this party scene, and they see what they’re about to be wearing and the makeup they’re about to be put in, and they were like, “I’m so sorry.” I was like, “I need you to do this. It’s okay. I asked you to be here and to be wearing this.”

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the state of making films for young black and brown folks today, both in terms of Indiegogo and Hollywood filmmaking?

SIMIEN: Honestly, if you’re not telling a tragic story typically about slavery or the Civil Rights Era, or you’re not telling an upwardly mobile, aspirational, kind of fluffy genre movie like a romcom or something, it’s really, really difficult. It’s very difficult to tell the stories in the middle and to tell the complicated stories because there’s no industry model for it. That’s everything in the industry. People may love the script, but if there’s nothing that looked like it that made money the last couple years, it’s not going to get through business affairs. And then, when you start to finance a film on the independent side, I think it’s something like ninety percent of independent financiers are based on an international model that factors in absolutely no talent except maybe Denzel (Washington) that is of color. And so, it’s more difficult than making any other kind of film. But if this movie comes out and makes money, then there will be more. It’s like “The Help” beget a whole new genre of films for better or for worse. It’s the same with “No Good Deed” making money and movies like “Obsessed.” That opens up a new lane. Now we can do thrillers again. We have to find a way around the gate until the gate allows us in. So it’s still incredibly difficult. I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try, but it is difficult and at least we have another difficulty going in. Let me tell you what doesn’t make you money: making an independent film. But I will shill for this one moment, for this one reason, if people will show up for this film, there will be more like it. That’s the way the industry works and we literally get what we pay for.

Q: What do you have coming up next that you’re excited about?

SIMIEN: I think that there’s a life for “Dear White People” beyond the big screen. I would love to take these characters to television. I’m in the middle of figuring that out right now. I’ve also got another satire that I’m writing that is very different from “Dear White People,” but you’ll see how this could be the second film for me. And then there’s a couple really exciting studio projects that I’m passionate about, and I’m attached to, and I’m just hoping the stars align.


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