Dee Rees talks queer filmmaking, recent setbacks, and wanting to do it all
She’s an Oscar nominee, an Emmy nominee, and a Sundance legend. Now the director of Mudbound and Bessie is ready to take things to the next level.
"Everybody hated it." Dee Rees doesn’t mince words when describing the reception to her latest film, The Last Thing He Wanted. Released on Netflix in February, the adaptation of the Joan Didion novel was widely dubbed a misfire for the writer-director, who until that point had a star that didn’t seem capable of falling. She slayed Sundance with her feature debut, Pariah (2011); scored two Emmy noms for her follow-up, the HBO biopic Bessie (2015); and exploded with Mudbound (2017), a lauded family epic that scored her an Oscar nomination for her adapted screenplay.
The chilly reception for Last Thing was a new experience. “You take your knocks, you live and you learn, you try to do better,” Rees, 43, says. “But I would make that film again. I’m still proud of it.” She admits to struggling with guilt, though: “When you're making a film, [your team] has to believe in you and trust you and spend six, seven months of their lives with you. All this toil and sacrifice, I didn't make it pay off for them."
But perhaps what’s most trailblazing about Rees is the way she so confidently forges ahead. Used to be, directors who weren’t white and male were offered precious little room for error — one flop, and you could be done. (Just ask Elaine May, circa Ishtar.) But two weeks after Last Thing premiered to pans at Sundance, Rees secured her next project, and it’s actually her biggest undertaking yet, the one that could bring her Hollywood stardom: a new musical take on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, backed by MGM and the legendary Irwin Winkler (Rocky, Goodfellas).
“Irwin was like, ‘We don’t care, it’s going to be great — onward,’ ” Rees says of the period following Last Thing’s tepid response. “[Porgy and Bess] is an iconic property. It’s a lot of pressure to get it right, a lot of nerves. I want to do the characters justice, and I feel really honored to work on it. [Winkler and MGM] have an expertise in this, so it's cool to work with people who really get how to construct these kinds of narratives.”
Rees is approaching the 10-year anniversary of Pariah, her semiautobiographical film made on a six-figure budget, about a teen girl accepting her lesbian identity. To go from that to helming an MGM musical? Rees isn’t fully satisfied with the trajectory. In fact: “I feel like I’m behind! Like, God, 10 years have gone by. I wanted to do so much more. I’m always playing catch-up.”
Yet she’s moved pretty fast. Years before making her first movie, Rees left her job in the corporate world to pursue a film education at New York University — and come to terms with her queerness around the same time. “This double-whammy change felt like an opening up on every level, but from the outside looking in, I'm sure it looked like a midlife crisis or something,” she cracks. “But it was just me getting to be myself.” She views it, now, as a necessary step toward contentment: “Looking back I’m like, ‘Oh s---, how did I make that leap?’ At the time I felt like I had to, to be a happy person.”
After Pariah, Rees experienced a struggle that many new directors of color face. “It was about convincing people that it wasn’t a one-off — it wasn’t a fluke,” she says. “It wasn’t the only story that I could tell.” She wrote a queer crime drama that couldn’t get off the ground; actors turned it down “because they didn’t want to play gay.” Eventually, Rees made her way to HBO’s Bessie, in which she explored sexuality on a larger scale. (It won the Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie.) Then came Mudbound, which Netflix bought for a staggering $12.5 million, the largest Sundance deal that year and still one of the biggest ever. “No other studio wanted to buy it,” she says. “It made the film itself, the making of it, a narrative. It elevated those who worked on it. It was a signal to the industry that this story, this filmmaking, is important. It signals to the audience, Pay attention to this.”
Even as she’s finishing up her Porgy draft, Rees keeps dreaming. Indeed, she has her next two projects mapped out already: If she could “wave a magic wand,” her long-gestating “gay futuristic fantasy musical” would come first, followed by a rich sci-fi allegory exploring social hierarchy. (Both are well fleshed-out beyond these tantalizing premises.) She’s entering this new phase of her career emboldened — and she has Last Thing, in part, to thank for that. “It felt like a rite of passage,” she says dryly. “Now there’s nothing to be afraid of. I know the worst that can happen.”