Justin Simien understands the value of a compelling story.
Before he broke out with his award-winning indie satire “Dear White People” in 2014, the 36-year-old American filmmaker worked in publicity, doing gigs at studios like Paramount and Focus Features. It was this experience, working on massively successful hits such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Paranormal Activity,” that taught Simien the art of selling an idea to an audience.
“I learned that the story about the story is really important,” Simien explains, as he prepares to bring his latest picture, the comic horror film “Bad Hair,” to Sundance, where Variety is honoring him with its Creative Impact Award. “You have to prepare people to watch something — not only help an audience find a film, but help them understand the kind of film they’re walking into. That was extremely enlightening.”
Simien’s breakthrough was “Dear White People,” an acerbic comedy about black students enduring ignorance and racism on their predominantly white college campus. The film’s progressive politics and mordant sense of humor are certainly familiar in the world of “Get Out” and “Sorry To Bother You,” but when Simien was trying to get the project off the ground at the start of the last decade, he found he had a hard time selling it.
“There was literally nothing in the marketplace like it at the time,” he says. “I instinctively knew that people wanted something like that — because I knew I wanted something like that. I knew it was speaking to something in the culture, but it was difficult to explain. The explanations were a necessary part of that film’s life and trajectory.”
Things have changed somewhat in the years since, for the better — as Simien notes, this kind of “millennial take on black experience in America” has been done so often since that “it’s almost passe now.” It’s everywhere. “But when I was trying to get that movie made, it felt impossible. Not only to get financing. But to even argue that a movie like this could be successful and that people would get it.”
But while the success of films such as “Dear White People” have helped get more movies about the black experience made, Simien is quick to point out that this is “still Hollywood,” with all that entails. “It’s still very difficult being a person of color trying to tell stories about people of color within the confines of the marketplace we’re in,” he says. “We’re still having the same conversations, trying to convince producers that people will show up for casts of color.”
Since “Dear White People” debuted in 2014, Simien has mainly been honing his chops as a director on his TV series of the same name. Netflix ordered a long-form adaptation of “Dear White People” in 2016, and Simien and his team are currently writing the fourth — and Simien insists final — season. “I haven’t said everything I want to say with this show yet, but I think after this season I’ll feel it’s complete,” he says. “I’ve been using the show as a laboratory as a director. I’m able to keep making cinema on a consistent basis with the series, even though it remains to difficult to make actual feature films.”
His latest has been a long-time coming. Indebted to “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives,” among other classic 70s horror flicks, “Bad Hair” is set in the late 1980s in Los Angeles, in what Simien describes as “the cutthroat music-television world.” The heroine, down on her luck, gets “a literal killer weave” — a kind of murderous, supernatural wig, which Simien notes has long been a staple of Korean horror cinema. “It’s one of those great B-movie concepts, but with a realistic world built around it.”
As in “Get Out,” there is a strong social theme, too — in this case, it’s about the treatment of black women by society. “I wanted to make an indictment of the system within the context of a really engaging psychological thriller,” he explains. “I’m not a black woman, but I’m a black gay man, and I felt like something needed to be said about this group of people that are so often mined for their ideas and then discarded by the rest of society.”
For Simien, that’s the story about the story. And you can see how an audience will be prepared for “Bad Hair.”