“Mudbound” had hit a raw nerve. On the afternoon Dee Rees’ operatic drama premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, it was met with rapturous reviews and Oscar buzz. Surely, distributors would be duking it out for the rights to the picture with a sprawling cast, led by Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Jason Clarke.
Yet as the evening wore on, a bidding war never materialized for the epic about race and poverty in the 1940s Mississippi Delta. “I’m surprised it didn’t sell that first night,” Rees says over a recent breakfast with Variety. “Wait, what the f—? It’s undeniable. The audience is into it. What happened?” Her producers told her that maybe buyers wanted to load up on comedies first. Days passed. “Then, at some point, the rationales fall away,” recalls Rees.
Although there were a few initial offers, they were much lower than the film’s $12 million budget. Some distributors confessed they were squeamish about spending that kind of money on a period movie about race, just a year after Fox Searchlight plopped down $17.5 million on “The Birth of a Nation,” a biopic about Nat Turner that fizzled at the box office due to a past rape allegation involving its director and star, Nate Parker.
|Alexia Silvagni for Variety|
“I feel like we were in the shadow of other films,” Rees says, clearly referring to “Birth” without mentioning its name. “This film is certainly on the level of — if not better than — that. To burden our film with that was unfair. That’s the hard thing about Hollywood; you realize it’s not fair. It’s not a meritocracy. It’s like, ‘Come on.’”
For a week, the fate of “Mudbound” hung in the balance. Finally, in the last hours of Sundance, the drama sold to Netflix for a whopping $12.5 million, giving the underdog a happy ending. “Mudbound” screens this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, the first of many stops on the awards season trail. Netflix will release the movie on its streaming service on Nov. 17, the same day it opens in select theaters.
“Mudbound” debuts against a backdrop of drastic changes in Hollywood. Deep-pocketed streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Studios are gaining ground on traditional indie players. The Academy is undergoing growing pains of its own, after adding more voters because of #OscarsSoWhite. The new members are younger and more diverse (and more likely to be female). They might not cling to the stodgy belief that a movie must play exclusively in multiplexes for awards consideration.
If “Mudbound” crashes the Oscar race, it would be the first Netflix feature to compete at the Academy Awards. The film could break another glass ceiling: Rees, the indie darling behind 2011’s “Pariah” and 2015’s “Bessie” for HBO, could become the first black woman ever nominated for best director. (Only four women in the Oscars’ 89-year history have been nominated for the award, with Kathryn Bigelow the only one to win.)
“If I were a white guy who had done ‘Pariah,’ my next film would have been huge,” says Rees, who still must fight to get her movies financed and distributed. “I do think there’s a different trajectory. Films are talked about differently. It’s like a film by an independent black director gets talked about for who made it, not for what the film is.”
“Mudbound” also arrives at a fraught time for the country, as white nationalists and the Ku Klux Klan take to the streets, emboldened by Donald Trump. Rees spent the day before her film’s Sundance premiere in Washington, D.C., protesting at the inauguration. “Everybody was worried that I wasn’t going to make it to the premiere,” she says. “It was really profound to be doing that one day and then be doing this film the next day. One’s kind of the short-term push, and the film is the long-term push,” she says.
The film’s climax features a brutal scene involving the KKK, meant to show a painful chapter of America’s past. In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, that moment takes on a frightening urgency. “It does give us perspective on ourselves,” Rees says. “We didn’t think this is who we are.”
“Mudbound” was a different movie when it first came to Rees in 2015. An early draft of the script by Virgil Williams, based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, focused more on the McAllan family — a father, Pappy (eventually played by Jonathan Banks), who lives with his two sons (Clarke and Hedlund) and his daughter-in-law (Mulligan). The Jackson family, who are their black neighbors (Blige, Rob Morgan and Mitchell), weren’t as fleshed out. “That just felt a little sweet for the kind of story I wanted to tell,” Rees says about rewriting the script. “I wanted to activate it, really make this a story about two families that are clawing their way upwards.”
The production demanded an arduous shoot over 28 days in New Orleans in the summer of 2016. The penetrating sun took its toll, as did mosquitoes that attacked the cast nonstop. Rainstorms would flood the land, delaying key scenes that had to be shot quickly. The “mud” in the film’s title was a literal reality. “If you look at the pictures, we’re all burnt,” Rees says. “To get away from the heat, you wanted to take off clothes. To get away from mosquitoes, you had to put on clothes.”
|Alexia Silvagni for Variety|
In interviews, Rees is often bombarded with questions about being a female director. At Sundance, one reporter tried to convince her that women don’t want to direct action films, which she dismissed as nonsense. “Garrett Hedlund should be the next James Bond,” she says at one point. Would she make that movie? “I totally would.” Her department heads for “Mudbound” were mostly women, including director of photography Rachel Morrison, composer Tamar-kali, editor Mako Kamitsuna, sound engineer Pud Cusack and makeup artist Angie Wells. “Two black women, a Japanese woman, a white woman who is a lesbian,” Rees says. “Everybody is an other. I loved the idea that we brought our so-called otherness to the film. That’s what makes it edgy.”
She knew they were the right ones for the job. “It’s shattering the illusion you can’t do it until you’ve done it,” she says. “For me, these are women who I know will be amazing.” Yet she concedes that’s not enough. “In terms of critical mass, the change will come when men give shots to women. It can’t just be women giving women shots.”
Rees got to Hollywood after a long U-turn. She grew up in Nashville, with a stutter that made her shy and withdrawn as a child. She used to wear Wonder Woman Underoos at home, spinning around, imagining that an invisible jet would appear. In college, she studied business administration and earned an MBA, landing her first job at Procter & Gamble. “I was working with the all-day panty-liner business,” she says. “You’re trying to make women buy something they don’t really need. It’s kind of a David Foster Wallace-ian, soul-crushing environment.”
She fled, at 26, to NYU film school because she wanted to tell stories. It was there, as she started to come out of the closet, that she wrote the script for “Pariah,” reflecting on what her life would have been like if she had realized her sexual orientation at 17. She hustled to raise the $450,000 she needed to make the film, ducking past would-be financiers with ludicrous notes. “It was these stupid casting ideas,” she says. “What if you made these characters white?”
Focus Features, which bought “Pariah” out of Sundance following an ecstatic reception, decided not to produce her next script, which centered on a black female Memphis cop trying to solve a mystery. “They didn’t feel like it had enough appeal,” Rees says. “The idea that black doesn’t sell overseas, that’s not true. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The prolonged sale of “Mudbound” points to extra hurdles that exist for black filmmakers. “When the bidding wasn’t happening, it was discouraging,” says one of the film’s producers, Tim Zajaros of Armory Films. “You just felt bad.” If Netflix hadn’t saved the day at the eleventh hour, it’s not clear where the film would have gone. “They didn’t lowball us, even though they could have,” Rees says. “That in itself is a political statement. It speaks to Ted Sarandos’ commitment to filmmakers and filmmakers of color,” she says about Netflix’s chief content officer.
Sarandos says he had reason to spend big, calling “Mudbound” a “great movie” that will resonate with audiences. “We wanted them to get what their film is worth,” he says, adding that he’d like to work with Rees again. “I want them to feel good about their choices because they know from the first interaction, we have their backs.”
“Mudbound” pushes another convention. In a year when Oscar pundits are lamenting the lack of women in adult dramas, it features two strong female roles. Rees courted Mulligan to play Laura because she knew she could fill out the hard and soft edges, as a young mother adjusting to her new life on a farm. At the time, Mulligan had sworn off period pieces after doing “Suffragette” and “Far From the Madding Crowd.” “Without the right director, there’s always the fear of it being sort of run-of-the-mill,” Mulligan says. “Period dramas work when you forget the period.” A one-hour Skype conversation with Rees convinced her to do it.
For the role of Florence, the emotional core of the movie, Rees only wanted the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” known for her best-selling R&B ballads. “When I read the script,” Blige says, “I was moved because it showed at the end of the day, when it all gets down to it, love has no color.” She didn’t need to audition for the part. “It definitely speaks to today’s times. It seems like everyone is a minority to him,” Blige says, alluding to Trump. “Everybody is fighting for their rights now.”
Blige was drawn to acting at an early age, after her music teacher put her in plays at 7. She made her on-screen debut in a 2001 independent film called “Prison Song.” “I hope people don’t go digging it up,” she says. “When I see it, I get a tear from embarrassment.” And she struggled watching herself in “Rock of Ages,” the big-screen musical starring Tom Cruise, where she portrays the club owner. “I know I could have done a lot of things better,” she says.
|Alexia Silvagni for Variety|
On “Mudbound,” Rees had a rule that no wigs could be worn because she thinks they look inauthentic. That meant that Blige had to embark on a physical metamorphosis. “I had to surrender and commit completely to Florence, like the little ugly boots she was wearing every day and those dresses,” says Blige, who drew inspiration from her grandmother and her aunt, who lived in the South. She abandoned all the accessories that prop up her musical diva persona. “We couldn’t wear makeup,” Blige says. “We couldn’t have nails. We couldn’t do eyelashes. I was stripped down to the bare necessities of Mary. And that really helped me because people were saying things like, ‘Gosh — you’re so beautiful.’ It helped my self-esteem.”
It was a rough time for Blige in her personal life. Her marriage to her husband was crumbling. “I used a lot of my own heaviness from my own misery that I was living in that horrible marriage,” says the performer, who worked with an acting coach. “I was just dying in it. I knew something was wrong. I just couldn’t prove it. I just had all the heaviness of not feeling right, not feeling good. I gave it to Florence.”
She felt most conflicted about an aspect of her character that wouldn’t have been a hitch for most actresses. “The hardest part was intimacy,” she says about the scenes where she lies in bed and slow dances with her on-screen husband, Hap (Morgan). “I was married. I never touched another man other than my husband. I was petrified: ‘Oh God. I don’t want to do it.’” Rees took her aside and told her that she had to work on that. “You know what, Mary?” she told herself. “This is the job. This is acting. You’ve got to commit.” She delivered so convincingly, she made her director cry.
Blige has been open about how her divorce has shaped her outlook. A judge recently ordered that she pay $30,000 a month in temporary spousal support. “I’m doing OK,” she says with a sigh. “I’m living. I’m not happy about a lot of things. I thought someone loved me, right? Turns out, he was a con artist and he didn’t, and now he’s coming after me for all my money. When you come out of something like that, you realize you were never the one. There was someone else that was his queen. I got played. I got suckered. I have to keep smiling and keep my spirits up because this is designed to kill me.”
Playing Florence has been its own therapy. “For a long time, I didn’t want people to see my hair. I don’t know why,” says Blige, who has learned how not to depend on weaves in public. “I’m not as vain. That’s the thing about Florence that I love. I got the chance to be pure.”
Mulligan doesn’t often watch her movies at the premiere. “I’m terrible at sitting through,” she says. At Sundance, she wasn’t going to stay for “Mudbound” until she realized that it was a team effort. “I love being there for Dee in that moment, to see people respond to her and her work,” she says.
When Mulligan saw herself in her first lead role, in 2009’s “An Education,” she didn’t have high expectations. “I rang my mum and I was like, ‘I’m so boring to watch. I don’t do anything. My face is so boring. It’s going to be a disaster,’” she recalls. “And then it was bought and people were going to put it in a cinema. And I suddenly had a publicist and a stylist.”
“An Education” propelled Mulligan to the Oscars and instant stardom. Then came the tricky part. At a time when studios are churning out comic-book movies and bland franchises headlined by men (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Fast and the Furious”), Mulligan wants to consistently sink her chops into meaty parts. That’s challenging in general but even harder for women in Hollywood.
|Alexia Silvagni for Variety|
Mulligan found her way by learning how to be picky and padding her career with stage roles. She only works on movies that move her. And she’s the rare star who has collaborated with multiple female directors, including Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), Shana Feste (“The Greatest”), Sarah Gavron (“Suffragette”) and S.J. Clarkson (on the upcoming miniseries “Collateral”). “I feel like you have to be so much better as a woman to get opportunities as a director,” Mulligan says. “If you make a mediocre movie as a man, your chances of progressing are much higher. And so, I always get excited when I get offered a film directed by a woman.”
The actress has made only two studio movies: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and “The Great Gatsby,” for which she beat out every other young starlet to play Daisy Buchanan. “I didn’t love my work in ‘Gatsby,’” she says. “I’m not sure if I slightly kind of lost my way because I was intimidated by the scale of it. I think I might have been overawed by the experience and intimidated by the level of performances around me.”
She concedes the Warner Bros. blockbuster directed by Baz Luhrmann led to her doing smaller pictures, where there’s the comfort of knowing the name of every person on the crew. “Maybe it made me a little more independent film-centric to try to find something more containable,” she says.
To find Laura’s voice in “Mudbound,” Mulligan worked with her longtime dialect coach, Tim Monich. She listened to tapes of people from the region speaking and studied up on the period. She also knew something about the life. “I live on a farm,” Mulligan says of her home in England. “And my grandparents are Welsh, so I spent a lot of time on farms when I was little. But I wouldn’t call myself a farmer by any stretch of the imagination.”
Before shooting began, Rees made the actors submit to an unconventional exercise. She paired them off and had them stare at each other for 30 seconds in silence, before revealing hard truths about their characters. “It was just to think about these two women,” says Mulligan of performing the activity with Blige. “They are obviously fictional but based on all the relationships that happened at that time — what was put between them and how it got broken down.” She pauses. “It was really lovely.”
See behind-the-scenes footage with Rees, Mulligan, and Blige below.