Sundance Features

January 21, 2008

Dee Rees, Pariah

"I really liked the feel of the outer boroughs and just wanted to tell a story that we don't particularly see."

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

THE REELER: Can you tell me a little about Pariah's story and what attracted you to it?

DEE REES: Pariah is a coming-of-age story about a lesbian teenager who kind of unsuccessfully juggles different identities to please her friends and her family. Basically she gets called out on both, the consequences of which are pretty explosive. She's a person who, around her openly gay friends, puts on this really butch persona, and around her parents she has to be this feminine girl who she's not. She comes to realize she's neither of those things, and she stops wearing costumes to please other people. It's kind of a personal story for me; I didn't figure out my own sexuality until kind of late in life. When I moved to New York, I was surprised to see all these out-and-proud teenage girls. When I was 17, A) I didn't even know who I was and B) if I did know, there was no way I'd be out or have the courage to be myself. Pariah is that person: a chameleon who puts on different masks.

R: Were there any narrative or emotional hazards you encountered when telling such a personal, even autobiographical story?

DR: Just being objective; sometimes you can't tell things the way they actually happen. You have to put the characters first, I guess -- take yourself out of it and let the characters make choices. You can't make choices for them or advance your own agenda; they have to figure things out for themselves throughout the story.

R: How long did it take you to develop that approach for yourself and your characters in Pariah?

DR: Pariah actually started as a feature-film idea. I initially wrote the first draft in summer 2005, then I decided to take an excerpt to do as a short film. It was really hard to find a piece of the story I could tell in a short period of time that wasn't overly condensed or abruptly ended. So over the course of a year I wound up working on the short film, and then started shooting in the fall of 2006. It took a while

R: Relatively speaking, anyway, you didn't have to condense too much; at 27 minutes, the short might be the longest at Sundance.

DR: Yeah. I never had any time in mind; I just had to let the story be what it was. I knew it was a risk doing a longer short film, but once I wrote the script, it just had to be that for me. The story was above all else. My main concern was a beginning, middle and end -- something that was deep enough where you got to feel and connect with the characters. I can't write to times, you know?

R: Absolutely. A bit ago you mentioned your experience moving to New York. What was it about the city itself -- politically, culturally, even geographically -- that you wanted to depict in your film?

DR: New York is totally a character in the story. Everybody's an individual; it's come as you are. I wanted to capture that spirit of originality, and I also like that every neighborhood has its own feel -- it's own culture. You can go 10 blocks and be in a different world. I lived in Brooklyn for six years but still didn't feel like I'd seen it. So I lived in Brooklyn; some of my friends lived in the Bronx. I really liked the feel of the outer boroughs and just wanted to tell a story that we don't particularly see. The Bronx and Brooklyn have more of a community feel -- a warmer feel -- than Manhattan. I wanted to bring in that tight-knit feel.

R: What are you looking forward to at your first Sundance?

DR: I'm just really excited; for us, Sundance is like our grand finale. The short's been out on the gay festival circuit, and it's been in a few mainstream fests -- it won the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and it won at Palm Springs. But we definitely feel like we're going to reach people here that we haven't been able to reach before. So it'd be great to establish some relationships with filmmakers and some industry folks and find financing for the feature. We just attached Effie Brown as an executive producer for the feature, so hopefully you'll get to see that sooner than later.

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