Programs Thu 3.5.2015

Justin Simien Talks Storytelling Across Platforms at Directors Close-Up

Writer-director Justin Simien, whose debut feature Dear White People premiered at Sundance last January and hit theaters in the fall, was working as a publicist over five years ago when one day he got an urgent call to go meet with some executives in the office. “I’m in there with my notebook,” he recalled, “ready to prove myself, like, let’s do this.” They asked him to teach them the “Single Ladies” dance.

Simien went back to his cubicle and created a Twitter account. “Dear white people,” he tweeted, “the ‘Single Ladies’ dance is dead.”

Last night’s Directors Close-Up, the last one of this year’s program, featured Simien, Dear White People’s editor Phillip J. Bartell, composer Kathryn Bostic and cinematographer Topher Osborn. Los Angeles Film Festival Director Stephanie Allain, who also produced the movie, moderated the panel, which focused on the film’s unique approach to storytelling across multiple platforms—starting with the @DearWhitePeople Twitter account.

Simien had been working on his screenplay every night, but after a long day at work, he said, “I just wasn’t funny. The jokes weren’t popping.” He made the Twitter account from the perspective of his character Samantha White, an “Angela Davis meets Lisa Bonet meets Huey from The Boondocks character,” and tweeting enabled him to work on the project throughout the day and forced him to really find Samantha’s voice.

Another benefit of the Twitter account was that it began to build a grass-roots fanbase, and the online response directly influenced the film. “People who thought it was ‘reverse racism’—whatever that means—their reactions went into the film,” Simien said, “and stuff that really resonated with people, when you look at how many retweets you got, those are the things that got in the film.”

“As a person of color, I was just really tired of the fact that I wasn’t seeing my story in the culture,” Simien said. It had bothered him that he never saw a film starring people of color that wasn’t a broad comedy or a slavery drama. “Is this the highest art we can get?” He said. “We can’t tell any contemporary stories? [Dear White People] isn’t just a movie; it’s a movement for more stories. For me it was, ‘let’s have something new in Hollywood’. And people really responded to that.”

Having established an online presence across various social media platforms and finished his script, Simien decided to shoot a fake trailer. “It’s going to be so fucking good,” he decided, “and when people get to the end of it they’re going to be devastated that it’s not a real movie.” When the trailer was finished, he didn’t take it to executives to ask for funding; he put it on YouTube, and ended it with a call to action directing viewers to the project’s Indiegogo page.

The trailer was also a good experimental space to figure out the look of the film, especially as Simien and Osborn had absurdly little prep time between finding the location and beginning the shoot. Simien described their visual approach as a “hyper-reality—a world that only exists in the world of cinema. Those are the movies that I love; those are the directors that I love—where you’re watching a film that is aware that it’s a film [and] aware of its place in cinema history.” Simien and Osborn “visually quoted” exact frames from Simien’s favorite filmmakers, from Stanley Kubrick to Fritz Lang to Spike Lee.

Bartell, too, had a ridiculously narrow window to finish the cut to send Sundance—only about four weeks. When he first read the script, he remembered, “I was like, this is a really distinctive voice, and it’s very dense… how is this going to work?” But between Simien’s painstaking composition work and the actors knocking it out of the park, Bartell said, “it made cutting it together really simple. I won’t say effortless, but…”

Along with visually quoting a wide variety of films, Simien and Bostic’s approach to the music was similarly wide-ranging. “For me, it was a dream come true,” Bostic said, “because there are so many styles that I love… Justin, you were so emphatic that you wanted to have these concepts bumping up against each other.” Simien wanted the music to feel independent of the scene, as a counterpoint to it rather than a more traditional, fully integrated score.

With the soundtrack, too, his approach was unexpected and eclectic—he did not want to make another black movie with an entirely hip-hop soundtrack. “I wanted the soundtrack of the film to kind of sound like my iPod, which is filled with all this random shit that you think doesn’t go together, but it’s me,” he said. “And that’s kind of what you’re meant to discover throughout the course of the film—that you have assumptions about who these people are, but they’re a bunch of things. They’re not just black… They’re black and other things that you don’t think go together, but they do, because they’re human beings.”

Since the movie exploded onto the scene, Simien has won the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, taken the film to college campuses, written a book (Dear White People: A Guide to Interracial Harmony in “Post-Racial” America) and is trying to develop Dear White People into a television series. “This is one of those weird vision-board moments,” he said. “On my vision board, it was like, Dear White People is more than a movie; it’s going to be a brand.”

“It’s more than a brand,” Allain added. “It’s a movement.”

Mary Sollosi / Film Independent Blogger