September 20, 2011 8:58pm PT by Scott Feinberg
Toronto 2011: 'Pariah' Writer/Director Dee Rees and Star Adepero Oduye on Indie's Unlikely Journey (Videos)
For my money, one of the best films of the year, thus far, is Pariah, a low-budget indie about a young black girl who is coming to terms with being a lesbian in a community and family rife with homophobia. The film premiered at Sundance (where its domestic distribution rights were purchased by Focus Features), played at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will hit select theaters on Christmas Day. In Toronto, I had the opportunity to sit down with the film's writer/director Dee Rees, 34, and star Adepero Oduye, 33, two very impressive artists who will be around for a long time to come, and was amazed to Iearn about their epic journeys prior to Pariah and their collective journey over the past five years since they teamed up to make it. I strongly urge you to check out the videos of my interviews with each of them (Rees above, Oduye below).
Rees, an openly-gay woman who calls the film "semi-autobiographical," first came up with the idea for it while serving as an intern on the set of Spike Lee's Inside Man. Not long before, armed with an M.B.A., she had been working in corporate America ("selling wart remover"), but "gradually came to figure out that my life had to have something more to it." Consequently, at the age of 27, she decided to embark on a "second career" in film. She enrolled at NYU's film school, and it was there that she met Lee, took several of his classes, visited with him during her office hours, and snagged internships on a couple of his films. She was going through her own "coming-out process" at the time that Inside Man was being shot, and recalls that she dealt with that "tough time" by jotting down the script that would eventually become Pariah on napkins during her lunch breaks. "The script was, kind of, a catharsis to what I was going through."
Though Pariah was written as a feature ("It was a 140-page monster"), Rees needed a thesis film to graduate from NYU, so she took the first act ("the first 30 pages") and used it to make a short. For the central part of Alike (pronounced "A-leak-ay"), she cast Oduye, a young American actress born to Nigerian parents who had auditioned wearing her brother's clothes and blew Rees away. (Asked a question about her own sexuality, which was not previously documented anywhere that I could see, Oduye reluctantly told me, "I used to not answer it, just because I felt, like, when people were asking me, they wanted to know, like, 'Well, is this authentic? Oh, 'cause if she is, then she's not really acting,' or whatever... but, I mean, it's not really a big deal... I'm not gay.")
The short was later accepted to and shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, after which Rees decided to try to turn it into a feature. The short, she says, helped make the process of fundraising for the feature somewhat easier, although it was still "the hardest part of the process." In order to get the feature made -- and made with Oduye in the lead, rather than a bigger "name" -- Rees and her partner sold their home. Even then, though, financing was not fully in place until the last day of the 18-day production. Fortunately, it got finished, earned Rees and Oduye a return ticket to Sundance this past January, and went over very well there. Oduye says "It's very specific," in the sense that it's about the trials and travails of a young black lesbian, "but it's also universal."