PARK CITY, UTAH— Director Justin Simien’s Dear White People was one of the most talked about films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was also filmed in Minnesota. It had plenty of buzz entering the festival and played to packed public screenings with additional press screenings to accommodate press and distributors. While it took some time after Sundance ended for Dear White People to find U.S. distribution, Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions eventually picked it up and it will be released in the fall of 2014. The film’s much-anticipated Minnesota premiere is this Friday, May 2 at 7:30pm at the Walker Art Center. The series is part of the Walker’s NEXT LOOK series featuring five films premiering at Sundance in 2014. IFP’s Midwest Filmmaker Conference will feature Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper who will introduce Dear White People along with Simien. Producer Effie T. Brown (Real Women Have Curves) and actors Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) and Tessa Thompson (Veronica Mars) will also be at the screening.
Simien’s Dear White People takes a unique look of the African-American students at Winchester University, an Ivy League college that is predominantly white students. Radio show host Samantha White (Thompson) starts looking to change the culture of the university. When she decides to run for hall president and wins, she sets off a complicated chain-reaction affecting all the students, black and white, at the university. Simien’s film tackles many subjects like gender issues and provides a contemporary commentary on race and the effect on its students and personnel at Winchester University.
I saw Dear White People at the Sundance Film Festival after its world premiere screening the night before, I raced to meet Simien at the Yarrow Hotel for an interview. Simien was in good spirits, laughing and talking about his first Sundance experience. He had only seen one other film (Whiplash) and was thrilled by the response from press and media less he had gotten so far. When we sat down we started laughing talking about how exhausted both of us were, but talked for a good fifteen minutes before the actual interview got going. He has fond memories of the Twin Cities, and hopefully, he’ll get to entertain some of them and hit the restaurants he misses this weekend.
The story of Dear White People started as a huge social media buzz, so tell me how the buzz translated into making this film?
It was a script first. I started writing the first draft in 2007 and it was a very different kind of project. When it started devolving into Dear White People, that’s when I employed the Twitter account for Dear White People so I could test out one of the characters and see how people would respond to her jokes and her sense of humor and her aggressive, edgy style of communicating. I wanted to think and talk like her throughout the day when I was writing the script, so when I got home I was in her headspace and that’s when the social media really started. I knew I was going to be pitching the story to people in a room, I just knew to put it online gave it a chance to find an audience and thankfully, people really got this going in a major way and helped get financing.
Once the buzz got going and you were able to find financing, how difficult was the process to finally get the film made?
The scariest part about the buzz was that people were buzzing about a film I hadn’t made yet, so I wondered if I’m going to live up to it or am I going to satisfy people. Movies like this are not common, particularly with black leads it was challenging. It was a challenge to find actors who were available and interested in doing edgy material and who are ready for a movie like this. The casting for this film was so interesting and we didn’t want the film to go in any routes that were expected. The cast we ended up with were phenomenal kids.
Who was the hardest character to cast?
Probably Lionel (Williams). He is a character that is struggling with racial and sexual identities and I didn’t want someone who was going to play gay, or someone who was going to hit it too right on. Lionel is supposed to play the kind of person where you don’t quite know what his deal is and to do that with authenticity is really hard to pull off. Tyler really nailed it, and I think this is the first time people will see him in a role doing this kind of work as an actor is very exciting to me.
Now that audiences have had the chance to see it at Sundance, and mainly in the social media part of it, what has surprised you the most?
I don’t know if I’m surprised but a lot of white people have been coming up to me and telling me they love the film and were so happy with me that I made it and they have connected with the characters. I know they weren’t bullshitting either. They have been going into depth about what aspects of the characters they connected with. I mean just because I’m not a neurotic Jewish filmmaker in New York doesn’t mean that I can’t love Annie Hall and connect to Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer. [Laughs.] I know when I try to be specific and authentic to my point of view that people who are not necessarily black filmmakers or people who are going through this identity crisis that these characters are going through, they are able to connect with it too.
Much of Dear White People was shot on the University of Minnesota campus. From a filmmaker POV, what got you interested in bringing the film to Minnesota to shoot?
From a financial standpoint, the tax rebate or Snowbate was amazing and working with Lucinda [Winter, executive director at the MN Film and TV board] was very helpful. The locations were so beautiful and we were able to cobble together this fictional Ivy League universe with locations I don’t think people were used to seeing on film. For instance, Willy Winchester is not really supposed to be in any place in reality and there is this campus that cobbled together from different locations in Minneapolis for an imaginary campus and so much of the architecture has a gothic style. It was perfect.
Was Minnesota your first choice to shoot?
Not really. We put together lists of a few places that could work and I came to Minneapolis to scout and once scouting was done, I just stayed here and never left. It came together pretty quickly after the first time I visited and wanted to shoot there.
When was that?
July and August of 2013 and we finished in early September. And it took less than 30 days and more than 15 days to shoot.
The story behind Dear White People—was it fictionalized or based on personal experiences?
It’s certainly fictionalized and drawn from research and news headlines where most of the ideas came from. The general experience of being a black person at a white school in my experience and even in the workforce too, bled into the film. With a few expectations, most of the stuff in the film is just an amalgamation of things it’s not specific of things happened at Chapman University (located in Orange, CA). My experience at Chapman were very mild and vaguely humorous, which is what most of the first script was about and it didn’t have much of a plot it was just a bunch of scenes. I had great friends and times there and it helped as a good starting point for the script. There are autobiographic threads of me in all of the characters but nothing specific.
Once the film was ready to start shooting, what did you find was your toughest obstacle?
The biggest challenge was probably there is no kind of model for this movie. It’s been awhile since we’ve had black satire or a satire about “black life” or even an ensemble piece about black people. I love multi-protagonists movies like Network, Nashville, Election, Do the Right Thing, and School Daze these are movies that deal with multiple characters because they are dealing with issues that can’t really be handled from one point of view. People were interested in the material, but they weren’t sure how to make it because it had been a long time since a movie like that had been made. What was cool about the concept trailer was to see a movie that didn’t exist. A million people showed up for it and were dying to see it in theaters.
Speaking of satirizing, you do satirize Tyler Perry. Do you think he would be a good person to endorse your film?
He has a good sense of humor and he might be. One of the fun things about the movie is that Sam is very critical of Tyler Perry at one point in the film, but she also defends him at another point. I was just speaking to another press person right before you and they were asking me about being a black person— do I feel pressured to support other black filmmakers and to me it is a very conflicting thing. I think, “Yes, I do.” But if it’s not good it does become a conflict. And I wanted to be honest about it and maybe it doesn’t speak to me so I feel conflicted at times.
The irony is that Tessa Thompson has been in a Tyler Perry movie.
I think in no way, shape or form I’m touching his empire. I hope audiences are sophisticated enough to know that these are characters and not just mouthpieces for me. They are meant to be real people and the kinds of opinions that people are saying. I don’t treat Sam or any one character as a platform for me to say racial theories on people.
That’s an interesting point. You’re juggling different themes in the film, including race, class, religion and sexuality. Is there one theme in particular that was very important for you to address in the film?
The biggest one is identity versus self. Everyone has a version of them that they play and people expect it and that does come into conflict at some point in your life with who you are. It may happen in a minor occurrence or a big life moment but we also wear masks and we play the role and I wanted to talk about that perspective being a black person and that was the most central theme in the film. And culture. How culture can influence your potential and limit your potential because you’re surrounded by images of what is expected of you. I wanted to talk about how that can be a prison for people and constantly having to respond to the expectations of the culture. I think that’s why the title, Dear White People works? The first time you hear the title, you may feel like you’re going to be indicted. Admitting to black culture is very much a response to the mainstream.
Now that you have seen it on the big screen, is there anything you would have liked to do differently?
Absolutely, I wish I had billions of more dollars and infinite time. I’m very proud of what we did and the resources that we had and there is nothing more exciting for me to be a first-time filmmaker to be at Sundance with my first film and to start my career and get into the next one.
Would you come back to Minnesota to make another feature?
Yes, I would come back to Minnesota just to eat. The food was so good. We would go to Bar La Grassa by our hotel just about every night. And even Cuzzy’s was a great place, but you don’t think of Cuzzy’s as a fine restaurant but we had fun there.
What are your plans after Dear White People?
I have a television show called Twenties that was written by one of my producers Lena Waithe, and I’ll be a producer on that show and will be directing the pilot. I have a couple of feature projects in the works, which I’m very excited about but can’t discuss them yet.
What do you hope audiences take away from Dear White People?
I want people to talk about it. I think my favorite stories are the ones that force you to self-examine a little bit. And a good film challenges an audience, even if you see something for the first time, you may hate them, I know I did, because they fuckin’ challenged me in some way and I want to be that type of filmmaker. I’m excited about sharpen my skills and be better with each film and that’s the type of filmmaker I’d like to be.