A Satire About Being a Black Face in a White Place
Dear White People, a new film produced by LMU alumna Effie Brown (Film and Television – B.A. ’93), opens in theaters October 17. Winner of the 2014 Special Jury Prize at Sundance and Best Picture at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Dear White People has been called “a button-pushing word-of-mouth dynamo” (The Wall Street Journal), “a smart hilarious satire of the Obama age” (IndieWire), and “monumentally topical” (SLANT). Effie will be on campus for a preview screening during the Monday Nights Series in Mayer Theater on October 13, 2014. The screening is followed by a Q&A with Professor Stephen V. Duncan. Loglines caught up with Effie to learn about her journey creating the satire film.
First let me offer congratulations on the success of Dear White People. What has the experience been like so far? You know, it’s been really great. I have to say, every time we show it and every time people write about it or put it on Facebook or engage their community about it, it feels like I’m taking a deeper exhale every time. I knew what this movie would mean to someone like me. And if I were someone on the come up, I’d want to watch this movie. But it could be perceived as controversial. The fact that it’s a satire, and it’s done tongue-in-cheek so you can laugh, I hoped people could see that and be accepting towards it.
When I saw the film at Sundance, I could pick out several scenes that were from my college experience. I know the film deals with complex themes, but it’s really struck a chord with every audience. Why do you feel it’s been able to cross these different barriers and different groups? At the end of the day it’s a universal story about identity, acceptance and fame. A story, it doesn’t matter what it is: why do people like Gone with the Wind or why do people like Schindler’s List? You didn’t have to be of that [group] to understand it or enjoy it.
At what part of the process did you join, and how did you get the movie made? What was beautiful about this experience was that the script was fully formed and had already gone through a rigorous development process. The development producers who were attached were able to develop and cultivate the voices of the characters, so when I got it, it was more so about getting the movie production ready. Meaning that it’s a fully realized script, and if we had $10 million we could shoot it all, but we only have x amount of dollars. We had to streamline it to figure out what was most important, what is the thematic through line, things of that nature. That’s the development that I had a heavy hand in. It just had to be put in a production-ready mode.
Speaking of production, why did you shoot in Minnesota? Looking for a conceivable location where someone could be the only black face in a white place. What’s great about Minnesota is that it’s also an extremely liberal place. This was my second film in Minnesota and Lucinda Winter, who is the film commissioner there, is wonderful. The main reason we looked to shoot in Minnesota was the 20 percent cash rebate. It’s not a tax credit, which is great because so many people go for the big tax credit, 50 or 60 percent, and you’re like good luck on that you’ll probably only get 30 percent back. But a 1:1 cash rebate is awesome. From a purely creative standpoint we needed an Ivy League looking school, and the University of Minnesota was great for that.
This was Justin Simien’s first feature film. What was the process of working with him like? Justin Simien is one of a kind. It’s very rare when you meet someone that’s the real deal. It’s akin to being a casting director and seeing an actor come in and saying “Oh my goodness, you’re a star!” I have to say, and this is not stealing any thunder from other first time directors I’ve worked with, Justin stood out from all the other projects I was receiving at the time because he was going to make this movie with or without you. Not only make the movie but be a strong director and a force to be reckoned with, and that to me was important.
Do you have any tips for students coming out of film school looking to make their first features and working with producers? Well one thing is having the courage of your convictions. With Dear White People, Justin knew what he had. The way he says it is that no one was checking for a black ensemble or a satire but he was, and he had the courage to make the movie. He also really worked with the script. He didn’t show up and say, “Oh, my script is genius after six months.” What he did, which was smart, was he got his friends, who were up and coming producers, to help move it along. What I would recommend for students is to assemble your team early and collaborate. Even if your team is someone who can work with you and get the script into good shape. Everyone has a role when it comes to making a movie and any student can learn from that. You also need a good spiritual foundation cause filmmaking can be soul crushing; you need to keep your mind, body and spirit to be one.
This movie had one of the most unique roads to the screen and social media approaches, especially with its crowdfunding. Do you see this becoming a bigger trend and was there anything about this that made it effective? I mean it’s happening all the time, with Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Right now I’m working at The Collective Digital Studios, which is all about digital content and people who are making their careers this way. People today aren’t necessarily going to the gatekeepers of the studios and they’re making a good living. Theatrical is awesome and TV is great, but having an online presence is important because people are looking for communities to be a part of. And where do they search for that community? On Twitter, Facebook, Vine, etc.
What can young filmmakers do to leverage this shift? Start creating now. Don’t wait for anyone to allow you to make something. The gatekeepers are more willing now to come to you if you’ve created your own voice. YouTube is a beautiful instrument to see if your voice is resonating. It might be overwhelming in the digital hemisphere, but the voices that resonate rise to the top.
To switch gears a bit, how did LMU prepare you to enter the business? This is a really interesting question, and I have a fun story about it. When I was there, Professor Howard Lavick was the reason I got into the film department. I had come from Jersey, I didn’t have a Super 8 camera–that was a rich kid thing–so I got into LMU on theater. I knew where I was going to go, however. So I went over and barged into his office and was like, “Look, you don’t have any women here or people of color and I am going to be big. Just you wait.” I laid it all down and laid down every possible card you could think of. [laughs] He found it really endearing, and he let me in, after petitioning and showing my merit. That was the first test for me, that not everyone may be looking for you, but you have to have the drive. There are also people out there who will support you, but you have to be willing to take the extra step. Howard and LMU have been very supportive since then and allowed me to learn that I could be a good producer even when my heart was set on directing.
What are the key things for students interested in producing to take away from their time here? First of all, they need to find their voice. Producers have a voice and a lot of times people think producers just grab onto the next big thing. However, the projects you choose to do are often not for the monetary gain. They’re gonna be for love and passion. Start working on those projects in school that fulfill your voice. Being resourceful is also important, as there is more than one way to make a movie. You have to get your mind right as well. Producers are dealing with both the business-side and the creative; you don’t have the luxury of just living inside one bubble or the other. The final piece is collaboration and understanding how all of the pieces fit together. It used to be that you could focus on one thing, but now it’s important to know how the DP works or how a director works, etc. We can always come out knowing how a script works, but you need to know the other parts of how to make a movie to aid in creating budgets, schedules and project teams.
Thanks so much for your time Effie! Thanks for having me.