Madame Noire: We heard that you sold your apartment in Fort Greene to finance this project, what made you know this film would be so successful?
Dee Rees: We believed in the film and we couldn’t ask people to invest in the film if we weren’t willing to invest in ourselves.
Spike Lee was an executive producer for this film and you also interned with him. What lessons did you learn from him?
The lesson I learned from Spike Lee was to never stop and just to listen and accept constructive feedback. He helped us. He gave us help with the script; he would go through with a sharpie and be brutally honest. Being able to listen to his feedback and process and really think about how to make it more layered.
When I interned with him, I interned with the scripts supervisor which allowed me to be right next to the camera. I picked up a lot just being by the camera, being able to look in the monitor and see what he’s seeing, seeing how he interacted with the crew and the actors and how to be on set. Also he was a great help with the editing process, asking pounding questions like, what is this scene about and how long do we need to be here? And when everything was done he gave feedback with the distribution. He really was a great guide to the whole process. Someone who’s made a film independently and is a master at his craft, it was great to have him as a sounding board to give us advice and also as moral support when we needed it.
What influenced your decision to make the relationship behind Alike’s parents (Audrey and Arthur) so tense?
It’s important to the story because it’s one of the things that keeps Audrey on edge and isolated. It’s important to see this is a relationship where they both feel as if they’ve given up on their dreams. The back story I give the actors was that Arthur went to medical school but he waited so Audrey can get her degree first and then they had kids and never got back to that. Arthur resents the fact that he never fulfilled his dreams, Audrey resents the fact that she doesn’t have the perfect family. So you come up with parents who love their children dearly but maybe aren’t the best partners to each other. That kind of family dynamic, that kind of tension harms the whole family and heightens Alike’s need to be the placator, to be the referee to be the person to hold her family together.
You’ve said that Alike’s story is semi-autobiographical. You came out to your parents. How is your relationship with them now?
When I first came out they didn’t take it well. They had an intervention. After that there was a period of silence where we didn’t talk to each other. And then we just started talking about the other parts of my life and not really talking about what was really going on with me because there was this uneasy treaty, like we just won’t talk about it kind of like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Since then the relationship with my mom has gotten much better and she’s come forth saying, “You know I love you no matter what.” That’s been a breakthrough. Part of what I hope to accomplish is that for other families it’ll be the same. Our parents even though they still don’t “agree.” They’re at the place now where they’re like look we love you and we just want to be in your life. And that’s all that anyone can hope for to continue to love each other and be in each other’s lives even if you’re not able to get to the same place.
Editor’s Note: At the time of the interview Rees’ parents had not seen the movie, but she recently told The New York Daily News that her parents attended a red carpet screening of the film.
What do you want audiences to learn from this film or what do you want them to take away from it?
I want audiences and people to know that it’s ok to not check a box and it’s ok to be themselves. And within families, I would want families to take away that being together and cherishing those relationships is more important than putting forth one point of view over another. For example the relationship between Alike and Arthur is going to be richer because he maintained the same relationship with his daughter. And I think Alike and Audrey maybe twenty years down the line or five years down the line maybe they’ll start to find a place and make up but I think families can learn to accept each other and not isolate themselves from one another and to support each other and be themselves.