Mon 12.9.2013

How Dear White People Went From Script to Sundance

Jonathan King at Participant asked if I’d read a script by a young writer he liked named Justin Simien. It definitely showed promise so I called Justin and we talked briefly. I told him to keep me posted on his projects and then forgot about it. Two years later I’m running the Los Angeles Film Festival. We are in the thick of it and my awesome assistant, Mel Jones, keeps bugging me about reading the Dear White People script. Mel, I’m running the Festival. Really? Yes, she said. Really.

So I sat down and read the script and watched the online trailer and that was it. Being a black face in an all-white place is my norm. In fact, I made a movie about it called Something New with Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker. Hearing this new voice grapple with the same issues struck a chord.

Stephanie Allain, exec. producer

Then I met the producing team: writer Lena Waithe, a brilliant, funny, black writer, who has Justin’s back always and forever; Angel Lopez, Latino writer, astrologer and pop culture geek; and Ann Le, Asian entrepreneur, producer and new mom.  But it wasn’t just that they were the best Benetton ad ever; I learned how they used online marketing and crowd funding to create buzz and funds to keep them afloat. How they kept in touch with their audience, posting news and snippets of their journey. It was transparent and entertaining and so damn smart. And most impressive: how they supported Justin completely, even as they pursued their own endeavors. They had me at hello.

Justin Simien, writer/director

But I was just about to start Gina Prince Bythewood’s Blackbird and Justin was set on shooting in the summer so he had a chance at Sundance. In my first bit of mogulizing, I called my colleague, Effie Brown, and asked if she was interested in producing DWP. Once you get Effie going, there is no stopping.  She made a plan. We set a date and began to put the movie together. Kim Coleman came on early to cast the film. We shopped it to a few friends at mini majors and James Schamus stepped up with immediate enthusiasm. Word got out that Focus Features was interested and we rode that wave until we mutually decided that we needed a slightly bigger budget than they were willing to front so we found ourselves back at square one. That’s when Julia Lebedev came to the rescue. Like an angelic fairy godmother, she saw the potential and stepped up to finance the film. Effie had the team in Minnesota and two weeks later they started shooting.

When I saw the first cut four weeks after the 21-day shoot, I was blown away. And when we found out the film was chosen for competition at Sundance, I felt like I did when Boyz N the Hood was chosen for Cannes, or Hustle & Flow premiered at Sundance.  It felt like we are in the flow of grace. Which is where good things happen, after doing the work.  Which is a great place to be.

By Stephanie Allain / Homegrown Pictures / Director, Los Angeles Film Festival / Executive Producer, Dear White People