Writer and Director Dee Rees Discusses Mudbound

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviewed Dee Rees and her Mudbound ensemble cast.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Mudbound Cast

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviewed Dee Rees and her ‘Mudbound ensemble cast Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Jason Clarke in a thought-provoking discussion. Dee Rees previous projects include the critically acclaimed Pariah in 2011 and HBO’s Bessie in 2015.

Mudbound poignantly incorporates poetic voiceovers, shifting between the characters’ internal monologues as the story unfolds. Although set in Mississippi of the 1940s, this is not a typical period drama; the themes of oppression and violence powerfully reflect contemporary issues and a history repeating itself.

About Mudbound

An historical epic drama based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound details the daily hardships and vicissitudes of farm life in Mississippi during the post–World War II era. Two families, one white (the landlords) and one black (the sharecroppers), work the same miserable piece of farmland. Out of need and empathy, the mothers of the two families bond as their younger male relatives go off to war and learn that there is a world beyond racial hatred and fear.

REES:  “I wanted this to be good old-fashioned film. I wanted this to be the kind of film they don’t make anymore. I wanted to break out of the 90-minute artificial construct and just let the voices ring out, let the story live and have the audience become invested in the characters.”

Adaptation

For this publication, I recently wrote about writer and director Lucrecia Martel adapting Zama from a novel to a screenplay as well as other articles about adaptation, including Adapting Novels, Memoirs and Short Stories:  What to Keep and What to Cut.

I asked Dee Rees about the process of adapting the book to the screenplay.

REES: “Virgil Williams wrote the first adaptation of the script in 2015. Reading the script prompted me to read the book to see what else was there, and then I rewrote the script before we shot it.”

Rees went on to describe how the acting ensemble found other passages in the book they had questions about, which Rees then included into the script.

REES: “Carey Mulligan asked about a passage how Jamie would see her, and I put that in, then Jason found a passage about Henry on the land, so I put that in there. The whole sequence about Hap breaking his leg; I thought that should be included, and Hap’s occupation as a preacher because I thought it was important to show his faith, and the half-built church – in the book it’s fully built, but I wanted it more incomplete so it’s more symbolic.

I wrote a lot of individual monologues for the characters, like Hap’s monologue. I wrote, what good is a deed, and the play on words “deed” and “deed” and the fact that no matter how much he is invested in this land, he’ll never be vested. And Florence going to care for Lauren’s children, I wrote the meditation because it’s important to hear that chord of dissonance of her doing the very things she said she would never do. Then Ronsel leaving for war, I wrote that scene because it was important to establish Ronsel not just as the son of Hap and Florence, but a son of the community.

There were a lot of details I also included like when Hap and Florence slow dance, to show them as a loving sexual couple who talk about other things not just white people.  I wrote the candy bar scene between Florence and Ronsel to establish their special connection. We see Florence as this self-sacrificing person who will eat only one square, and wants to share.  I wanted to give dimension to the Jackson family, they didn’t just come with the house, it’s not just about the circumstances of their existence, they have agency, they have ideas about who they are.”

Character Parallels

REES: “The fathers. Henry and Hap both have a sense of disinheritance. Hap literally has his blood and sweat in the land; he can never take title to it.

What it means to be a mother. Florence has to come to terms with love and love can be a tool; by loving Laura’s children she can keep her own family intact. Florence and Laura are also linked by economic empowerment; they both have husbands who try to tell them what to do, and they have their small rebellions.

The brothers: Rosel and Jamie are linked by the trauma of war, shell-shock. They’re both not understood. They both are expected to step back into this context in which they no longer fit. In a way, they become more brothers than Henry and Jamie. It was interesting to have those parallels, and to ask: what is brotherhood?”

Final Words

REES: “I hope people take away from this film the fact that we can’t begin to tackle our collective history until we tear down our personal histories. More expansively, I think it’s about inheritance. It’s just not about race. It’s about what ideas we have inherited, what attitudes we have inherited, and what we are unconsciously passing on.”

A Netflix release: November 17, 2017

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