Writer-director Dee Rees was weeks away from rolling the camera on her first feature, “Pariah,” in July ’09. The cast was set and locations were being prepped in Brooklyn. But she felt a key financial backer was trying to assert too much control.
“It started to interfere with our creative freedom, and I had to say, ‘We can’t do this,’?” says Rees.
The investor was dismissed, forcing production to shut down.
The film’s story of a 17-year-old African-American girl named Alike (Adepero Oduye) caught between parents who refuse to accept her homosexuality and out lesbian friends eager to pigeonhole her as either butch or femme, was never an easy sell.
Inspired by the writings of Alice Walker and Audre Lorde and the documentary “Paris Is Burning,” the 33-year-old Nashville, Tenn., native began writing the first draft of “Pariah” in longhand in 2005 as she was coming out to her family.
Two years later, Rees used the first act of the semi-autographical script as the basis for her NYU graduate thesis film, also titled “Pariah.” It went on to screen at 40 festivals worldwide, including Sundance, winning 25 shorts awards. But when she and producer Nekisa Cooper approached potential investors about a feature-length version, they were told it was too small and specific.
“It was just code for too black and too gay,” Rees says. “People suggested we change it to a white family.”
Rees insisted on doing the film her way, which included bringing back Oduye from the short to play Alike. Buoyed by support from executive producer Spike Lee, for whom she interned while at NYU, and an of infusion capital from Sundial Pictures, Rees finally shot “Pariah” in just 19 days in December 2009.
Thirteen months later, it screened at Sundance 2011 and sold to Focus Features for six figures.
Now signed to WME, Rees has completed a thriller script for Focus titled “Bolo,” and she’s developing an HBO series with actress Viola Davis.
Says Rees: “This is the fairy-tale ending people told us not to hope for.”