The Dear White People writer-director returns to Sundance six years later with a 'quintessentially black American' story in Bad Hair.
“I’m a hot mess,” the 36-year-old writer-director tells EW. “I haven’t slept in days.”
See, six years ago, he made a splash with his satirical college movie Dear White People, which won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Now, Simien is heading back to Park City, Utah with a long-gestating psychological thriller that is unlike anything he’s done before. “I’m anxious,” Simien continues. “I’m excited to share the movie with the world because I’ve been working on it for so long, and I’ve been excited about it for so long that I don’t even know how to feel my excitement for it anymore because I’ve literally been sitting on it and working on it for several years. I’m anxious to see what impact it makes on audiences.”
Set in 1989 Los Angeles, Bad Hair follows a young black woman named Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), who is trying to rise up the ranks of a music video TV show. In order to impress her new boss (Vanessa Williams), she gets a weave, which of course turns out be a killer weave. “It is sort of doing very well for her career by day, but there is a hidden toll to pay at night,” says Simien. “It’s a psychological social thriller that is a commentary on the American experience and the kind of quiet little deaths we all have to endure to advance and be seen by mainstream society.”
Below, EW chats with Simien about the surprising inspiration behind the film, how it renewed him creatively, and how it influenced his approach to the final season of Dear White People.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know you’ve been working on this movie for quite some time. How did you come up with this idea?
JUSTIN SIMIEN: I basically started working on a treatment for it maybe a few months after Dear White People actually premiered at Sundance. The idea came out of, there are few I would say, hair horror sub-genre Korean horror films that kind of came to my attention through the producer of Dear White People. It started me thinking about what an American version would look like, and I went looking for one. There weren’t very many. There are a few things. There’s an episode of Amazing Stories called “Hell Toupee,” which is about an evil toupee. With our history with hair, it felt like there was a potential for a quintessentially American story, but specifically a quintessentially black American story.
I just began to research and think about it and eventually coming up with this story that takes place against the backdrop of New Jack Swing, which really was a moment in our culture where urban black culture joined the mainstream for the first time in a big way. 1989 was also really the year the weave became a popular sensation among everyday women. I didn’t want to interrogate at all a woman’s choice to look the way she looks. That isn’t my place to do that as a man. But I wanted to interrogate the system that sorts of mines black women for culture and cultural ideas, but ultimately gives them few choices to survive in that culture. I thought I could say something about the things that made me angry about our society but also dig deep into a genre that I just, as a filmmaker, am obsessed with.
It’s an interesting concept because hair is one of the things people change in order to fit in with the mainstream.
I think any marginalized person, man or woman — but obviously, this story is taken out black female’s experience — we all have that experience of feeling like it’s absolutely not enough to come as we are. I wanted to get into that. Again, there’s no judgment in the movie about whether or not you should get a weave or get a wig, or however you want to look. But I feel like all of us come up in a society, especially if you’re a marginalized person…[where] you have to look and talk and adjust in some way. To be just as you are isn’t acceptable. I mean, it’s literally in codes of conduct at various high schools and workplaces, coded language that basically sort of says that if you come with your hair the way it naturally grows out of your head if you’re a black person, that’s somehow unprofessional or unkempt. What happens to a person when your entire life you’re inundated with messages that say you can’t come as you are? To me, I think good horror movies, good psychological thrillers, touch on things that really make people afraid in every day life. To me, the most horrifying aspects of this movie, as crazy as the premise is, are the things that are just true.
Dear White People, both the movie and show, are very much not psychological thrillers. How did it feel to stretch yourself into a different genre?
It was extremely liberating because as a black filmmaker — and I think this is true for every filmmaker, by the way — I became very aware that I was in a box of comedy director. Even looking at my movie Dear White People, I don’t even know if that make sense. For whatever reason, that was the box that I was in. Those were the sort of things coming across my desk. But the thing about psychological thriller and horror movies is that, from a cinematic standpoint, you can do anything [in them] because you’re playing with the supernatural, you’re playing the subconscious. There’s a poetry to these films where you don’t have to exist purely in logical, genre specific framework. For me, it was incredibly liberating to show my love for cinema and my love for the craft, and tell a story that is completely in a totally different world setting, zone, and tone than Dear White People the movie or the show. It was freeing. I felt like I came alive again as a filmmaker getting to tell this story.
Do you remember a specific moment on set when you realized that’s how you were feeling?
There are so many moments, but because it’s a movie about a killer weave, so there’s a couple of things I wanted to do: We wanted to shoot the movie on film and we wanted to shoot it in Los Angeles. It’s an LA story. I needed to ground the movie as much as possible in reality so that when weird things start to happen, you go with it. One of the biggest pieces of that was shooting as much of the hair effect in the film practically — meaning in camera, with real hair, and puppeteers and that kind of thing. Getting to actually see those special effects physically come alive on camera with film running through the camera was exhilarating. Every time we got to do that, I just literally felt I was like a kid again playing pretend.
The other part is Elle, my lead, is just so astonishing in this movie. She is a real horror girl. She is going through it in the film and she’s emotional and crying and screaming in horror and all these kinds of things. But she’s also just a delight to work with and seeing her do her thing on camera and knowing that people are going to discover this amazing actor that they don’t know about yet, it’s been like sitting on a hot secret. I would say my first days on set with her and getting to do these effects in real time with real film in the camera were like really big moments for me.
What does the killer hair look like?
I don’t know how to describe it. The words we were kind of using were, “It has a life of its own. It might have a mind of its own.” I will say what the hair can do and how it operates is a big, fun part of watching the movie unfold. So, I don’t want to say too much, but it definitely is active in the world of story.
When it was time to turn your attention to the final season of Dear White People, did you find that making Bad Hair had affected your approach? Did you feel creatively renewed going back into the writers’ room?
Yeah I would say so. I did feel renewed creatively, and also it being our last season of the show, it sort of gave me a little more ounce of ambition and purpose for really doing something special with the final season. We try to do this every season, but really there’s a lot on the line with the final season to do something ambitious and special and sort of unexpected. Doing the movie definitely made me excited about pushing what the show could be even further, making a definitive season, and going out with a bang.
Bad Hair — which also stars Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Blair Underwood, and Laverne Cox — opens Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Ray Theatre.