Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of Pariah
Writer and director Dee Rees made her feature film debut, Pariah, in 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Pariah is a coming-of-age film that chronicles the story of Alike, a 17-year-old lesbian discovering how to be. It features a breakout performance by actress Adepero Oduye, who is supported by a rich cast, including Aasha Davis, Pernell Walker, Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans. After its Sundance debut, the film, which was executive produced by Spike Lee, was acquired by Focus Features. Authentic, beautiful, stirring. We can’t say enough great things about Pariah. Read on to learn some secrets behind the making of the film.
It was initially a short film.
Pariah was initially shot as a short film. Dee Rees wrote a feature-length version of it in 2005 while she was an intern for Spike Lee and working on Inside Man, but she needed a thesis film in order to graduate from NYU. So she shot Pariah, a short version, which garnered attention and helped her then shoot the feature film.
It had a semi-autobiographical tone.
Rees has always described Pariah as semi-autobiographical. She came out when she was 27, though in the film, Alike comes out at 17. Rees also struggled with her identity because she felt like she had to check the butch or femme box – neither of which described her. She eventually realized that she could simply continue to be who she was, and that’s what Alike learns as well.
It was shopped at Sundance twice.
Pariah was workshopped at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2007, and then again in 2008 at their Directors Lab. Both Adepero Oduye and actress Aasha Davis were along for that ride and further developed their characters.
Rehearsals were unconventional.
Instead of doing a traditional rehearsal, Rees brought a therapist in and conducted mock psychotherapy sessions with her actors. “To me that did more to crystallize the relationships than any amount of rehearsal,” Rees said. “I’m concerned with them understanding the relationships and why they’re acting a certain way. Once they understand the why of it, then everything else is imbued with a subtext and meaning.”
Spike Lee is a mentor to Dee Rees.
Having attended NYU and interned on the set of Inside Man, Rees had come to consider Spike Lee as a mentor. He continued that role while also serving as an executive producer on Pariah.
Adepero Oduye was there from the beginning.
It wasn’t a long, drawn-out process to find Oduye. She showed up on the very first day of auditions for the short version of the film. Rees said that Oduye captured Alike and her outsider-ness perfectly.
Getting into character…
Dee Rees had Oduye and Pernell Walker get into character by sending them to Dave & Buster’s in Times Square. She wanted them to experience being Black lesbians in a “straight environment.” She also had them attend a Black and Latino lesbian party so they could experience that space and build a relationship.
Khia was a big part of Dee Rees’s first lesbian club experience.
Producer Nekisa Cooper took Rees to her first lesbian club. It was unlike anything Rees had experienced before. She put that moment, even down to the Khia song, “My Neck, My Back (Lick It),” in Pariah.
Audre Lorde opens the film.
An Audre Lorde quote opens Pariah: “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” To Rees, this symbolizes Alike’s struggle of feeling like she didn’t fit into the queer world or the straight world.
Costume design was important for Alike’s transformation.
Alike was undergoing a metamorphosis, much like a cocoon transforming into a butterfly. Her clothing reflected that process. Initially, we see her wearing a lot of baggy clothes in shades of brown, as well as earthy colors. She eventually starts wearing more fitted clothing with brighter pastel hues.
The film was shot within a small time frame — with a small budget.
Pariah was shot in 18 days (with one pick-up day) on a $500,000 budget. It was predominantly shot at an old funeral home in the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn. Rees and Cooper, the film’s producer, also sold the Fort Greene apartment they owned and put that money into the film.
The all-female soundtrack was intentional.
Rees wanted Pariah to have an all-female soundtrack. She also came up with a sound for each of her main characters. Alike had an acoustic soul vibe, Bina was punk, and Laura was all hip-hop. And as Alike came into her own, her voice became a mixture of those distinct sounds.
Kim Wayans’s character was almost totally different.
Rees was ready to rewrite the role of Audrey, Alike’s mother. That is, until Kim Wayans came along. During the audition process, other actresses played Audrey as an angry woman instead of a vulnerable one. But Wayans recognized who Audrey really was, so she got the part.