Meet the new hotshots of American film-making

As Dee Reess racially charged, Oscar-tipped film Mudbound debuts on Netflix, we speak to the director about challenging the establishment, while below, we profile directors Eliza Hittman, the Safdie brothers and Chlo Zhao

In the opening scene of the new film Mudbound, two bedraggled white men are digging a hole, ominous storm clouds overhead. They are using old-fashioned shovels and its difficult immediately to date the action, but it becomes clear they are brothers, burying their father. When they realise the coffin will be too heavy for them to lower in, they stop a black family, passing by in a horse and trap. Only a few words are spoken, but the looks they exchange make it clear that there is history between these two families.

The ambiguity of the films time frame was intentional, explains Dee Rees, Mudbounds 40-year-old director. The film is actually set in the 1940s in the Mississippi delta, but the scene could have taken place a century earlier or even, to a degree, shockingly recently. Black people, we didnt get the right to vote in America until 1965, says Rees. Thats not long ago at all! Women got the right in 1920, we got the vote in 65. Even when I was growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, as a suburban middle-class kid in a poor white suburb, we were the only black family on the block and there were confederate flags as curtains. Growing up in the 1980s, which we think of as contemporary, I was bussed to school because a lot of the public schools in Nashville were still segregated. This was in the 80s! So our history is with us, this isnt some far-away thing.

Mudbound caused a stir when it was first shown at the Sundance festival in January. The story, adapted from the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, follows two families: the white McAllans, who own the land, and a black family, the Jacksons, who are sharecroppers, giving up a part of each years harvest for rent. Their interactions are straightforward, albeit hierarchical and bigoted, until two of them, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) are sent to fight in the second world war. Ronsel discovers that he feels more valued, more at home, in the army in Europe than he ever did in the American south. What happens when he returns to Mississippi is unflinching in its realism and brutality, as the local white nationalist community turn on him with venom, despite his service for their country.

At Sundance, there were standing ovations and five-star reviews: timely and timeless, read one. There was instant speculation that Mudbound had set the bar early for the 2018 awards season, in particular a revelatory Mary J Blige as Florence, matriarch of the Jacksons, alongside Carey Mulligan as Laura McAllan and Rees for her adapted screenplay and directing. But in the days following the premiere, something strange happened: none of the major studios made a bid to distribute the film. There were murmurs that, 12 months on from Fox Searchlight spending $17.5m on The Birth of a Nation, a story based on Nat Turners 1831 slave rebellion (the films reception was tainted by a 2001 rape case involving itsdirector andstar Nate Parker, who was acquitted at trial), there was little appetite for a period film about race.

This story, however, does at least end well. As the festival wound down, Netflix came in with an offer of $12.5m for Mudbound. It was more than they needed to pay, they knew that, but Ted Sarandos, the companys chief content officer, felt the film had a universality and epic scale other distributors had missed. And it is starting to look like a smart bet. If Mudbound does make the Oscar shortlist, it will be a first for the streaming service giant. And were Rees to be nominated, she would be only the fifth woman in the history of the awards to make the shortlist for best director, and the first black woman. In the New York Times critic AO Scott credited her with rejuvenating an old Hollywood tradition of ethically rigorous, dramatically vigorous movie-making. Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan would recognise her as a kindred spirit.

Watch a trailer for Mudbound.

Its clear that the reticence of the Hollywood establishment continues to irk Rees. Yeah, they didnt know how to sell it, they didnt know how to talk about it, she says. They had a reductive view and put it in a box, whereas Ted saw the bigness of it: this is a good story. He wasnt viewing it comparatively and that was the breakthrough. Certain other directors films arent compared to each other: you dont compare Wes Anderson to Steven Soderbergh just because they are both straight white guys making indie films. In that same way, Mudbound shouldnt have been compared to anything else just because of the maker.

Netflix are representative of what Hollywood used to be, she continues. [Hollywood] used to take risks, it used to be about discovery and now its about profit, its about foreign sales value, so I think Netflix are disrupters and maybe they will shake up the system and get the studios back to making original interesting things. Back to discovering new actors and not just hiring the same three actors over and over again.

Rees purses her lips. This could have repercussions; it will show that sometimes art wins and that would be great if that happens.

While there is no road map to becoming a movie director, Rees has taken a particularly circuitous path to the job. She did not grow up corralling her friends to make short films, or schooling herself in the works of foreign auteurs. Instead, after school, she did an MBA at Florida A&M University and set out on a career in brand management. I liked to write, but being a kid of the 80s, Reaganomics was de rigueur, she recalls. It was about getting a job that was practical, so a business degree was what my middle-class parents could be proud of: Shes got a business degree, she can do anything!

But, after three years working in corporate America, for the likes of Procter & Gamble, marketing all-day panty liners, Rees realised shed taken a wrong turn. Aged 26, she applied to New York Universitys graduate film programme and, to her surprise, was accepted. So all the things my parents feared came true: I was broke, it was really difficult, she laughs. Youre trying to get internships and competing to work for free. Youre competing to get someones coffee and walk someones dog! And by the time you get to make a photocopy youre elated: Im making a photocopy of the script! Im not just walking the dog.

Rees probably exercised some fairly high-calibre mutts one of her first jobs was on Spike Lees 2006 crime thriller Inside Man. I was working with the script supervisor, which is great because shes right by the monitor which meant I got to be right by the monitor, says Rees. So I was looking at composition, working with actors and interacting with the director of photography. That was my first time being able to see the breadth of a film crew and all the communication thats required.

Carey
Carey Mulligan in Mudbound. Photograph: Netflix

Around this time, Rees came out as gay, and turned some of her repressed experiences into her 2011 debut, Pariah. Having written the script she decided she had to direct it herself because she couldnt face handing such personal material over to someone else. No one talks about what happens after film school, says Rees. Like no ones going to come round: You know what we need? We need a first-time director! Fresh out of college! It took her two years to make Pariah, borrowing a camera and somehow persuading Kodak to give her free film. In the end, she spent just under half a million dollars. But the film was accepted by Sundance, and Rees won backing from its mentoring programme, which supports emerging screenwriters and directors.

Rees who followed Pariah with Bessie, a 2015 HBO biopic of the blues singer Bessie Smith, starring Queen Latifah sympathises with anyone trying to make it as a director. Its relationships and the hard thing is how do you get in those circles, she says. For me I went to NYU, so in a way it was a pedigree, it was a place of privilege, but if I couldnt have afforded NYU, how would I have gotten those internships? How would I have been taken seriously? Or even got into the room?

As a woman, the odds against are stacked even higher. Carey Mulligan has noted that she seeks out female film-makers because you have to be so much better as a woman to get opportunities as a director. Rees nods, Its like my dad would say: You have to work twice as hard to get half as far. As a woman, you are presumed incompetent until proven otherwise. Whereas as a man you are assumed competent until proven otherwise. Ive walked on to sets and been directed to extras holding. People dont assume Im the director. So I feel like if you see a woman in any position, you know shes fucking 10 times better than anybody else, because she had to fight to get there.

When it came to choosing a crew for Mudbound, Rees followed this impulse. So it was a deliberate move that the director of photography, composer, sound engineer, editor and head of makeup were all women, she says. And I want to make it clear: its not tokenism; I wanted the people who are the best at what they do. To have survived that long and have these big shots, you know they didnt beat out one other person, they had to beat out 10 other people and they had to do it consistently. Because theres little forgiveness or room for error, because people think, Oh well, thats why its not for you.

I tell Rees that she will be part of an Observer feature on the new generation of American film-makers. Does she feel that we are finally hearing more diverse voices in movies now? Following Moonlights win in the best film category last year and the Oscars So White campaign, is Hollywood becoming more open? Rees looks sceptical: I hesitate to say improvement or progress, she replies. I just think these things are really cyclical. So were in an upswing now and five years from now well be in a downswing. People thought we were over this in the 1970s and here we are now, so well see what happens. Lets reconvene in 2060 and see. If, in 2060, this is no longer a news item, that means its the status quo.

Mary
Mary J Blige and Rob Morgan in a scene from Reess film Mudbound. Photograph: Netflix

As a child, Rees had a stutter. These days, she projects formidable competence and utter self-belief. She wears her hair natural, an almost perfect halo, and today her clothes are all different shades of brown. Its an appropriate choice for promoting Mudbound. When I think of the farm I think of mud, says Carey Mulligans character early on in the film, marching through shin-high gloop. I dreamed in brown.

It was not an easy shoot: for 28 days, the cast and crew were eaten alive by mosquitoes and baked in the midsummer heat of plantation country in Louisiana, where they filmed. We had to create the mud and that was probably the most expensive part of the shoot, smiles Rees. The mud wasnt free! Rees did have considerably more money to spend on Mudbound than her previous productions, but she found the difference negligible. A big budget will buy you extras, it will maybe buy you a little more time, although it didnt on this one, but it wont buy you performances, she says. For me, this is like Pariah if the performances dont work then nothing else matters.

The performances certainly deliver. In preparation for the shoot, Rees says, she made all the actors stand face to face, very close, in silence. You go quickly to the discomfort, she explains. So by the time you get to set youve breathed each others breath. Youve stared into each others eyes, youve done the uncomfortable thing. Youve gotten to the core of things, so now the lines are just the icing. For Blige, Rees insisted that she couldnt have makeup, nails, eyelashes or a wig. The transformation is so profound that it can take a few scenes to recognise her. Its transcendent and its a testament to Marys willingness to be vulnerable, says Rees.

Despite being set 70-odd years ago, Mudbound feels like an indispensible film for now. In August, Rees spoke powerfully about the violence that had just taken place in Charlottesville where white nationalists clashed with counter-protesters over the removal of confederate monuments in the American south. A state of emergency was declared and Donald Trump was evasive in his condemnation of the violence, blaming hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides and refusing to single out any of the white nationalist groups.

For Rees, the attitudes present in Mudbound persist today. I live in a neighbourhood thats expensive and a white man got in the elevator in my building with me, she says. Im walking my dog, and he was like, Oh, are you with the dog-walking service? His assumption is, black woman in an expensive building she must be working here. Im a maid or something.

She sighs. These things have existed for a long time. In this film I really wanted to get behind the mythology of the greatest generation [Americans who grew up in the Depression and contributed in the second world war] because this is a time period so often romanticised. This is the again that a certain demagogue was referring to and I wanted him to see there is no again. The country was never great for everybody. It came at the expense of life and labour.

Mudbound will be available on Netflix from 17November

Eliza Hittman, director of Beach Rats

Eliza
For me its about the joy of having a project in my life that I get to realise: Eliza Hittman, photographed in London for the Observer by Antonio Olmos.

By day, 19-year-old Frankie is a beach rat: a kid from Gerritsen Beach, a working-class neighbourhood of Brooklyn. He hangs out with his deadbeat friends, getting high, playing ball, picking up girls. At night, in his parents basement, he turns off the lights and cruises the internet for older men.

Eliza Hittmans second feature film, Beach Rats, explores several tensions night and day, public and private, danger and desire and the chaos that unfolds when the two collide. While Moonlight, last years Oscar-winner directed by Hittmans friend Barry Jenkins, focused on the connection between sexuality and race, Hittmans looks at its relationship with class. There are still corners of the world where its hard to lead an authentic life, she tells me when we meet in a hotel in central London. The surge in hate crimes after Trumps election, she says, shows that there are class issues, there is violence in those communities when you introduce any kind of otherness.

The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year to critical acclaim, a directing award for Hittman, and rumours that Malia Obama attended a screening. The Atlantic named it one of the years boldest dramas; according to i-D its a piercing look at adolescence… that feels like equal parts Larry Clark and Andrea Arnold. In between the accolades, however, There were a few dissenting voices: what was a straight woman doing writing and directing a film about gay men? She looks exasperated. Its absurd Ive never really owned my representation as a woman. My history has been invented by the imaginations of men.

Theres an expectation, she says, that women only write about their own lives, that the work should be confessional or diaristic, and God forbid a woman tackles something about a man, God forbid a woman should tackle something political or dealing with violence. But the controversy has taught her a lesson: Theres a minefield of narratives that the world thinks I cant make, and I wont be beholden to those expectations.

Watch a trailer for Beach Rats.

Hittman was raised in Brooklyn and, for the film, says she drew on memories (which she is deliberately vague about) of growing up in a household with someone who was struggling to find acceptance. The film is not autobiographical: she researched cruising spots, looked into gay dating sites, used her imagination. The adolescent mind is a familiar subject for Hittman: her 2013 debut, It Felt Like Love, dealt with a teenage girls sexual awakening, she teaches film-making to undergraduates at the Pratt Institute in New York, and earlier this year directed two episodes of the new season of Netflix teen drama 13 Reasons Why.

Teenage is a very lonely period, she says, yet a pivotal time that defines who we are later in life. And there is a special energy that you can capture from either a first-time or young actor that is harder to get from adults: Beach Rats features a star-making performance from 21-year-old British actor Harris Dickinson, who playsFrankie with a mix of vulnerability and toughness. Hittman was hoping to find a young Robert De Niro type in New York, but Dickinson sort of tricked us we didnt know he was a UK-based actor.

Whereas Moonlights love scenes amounted to little more than a kiss, and this months Oscar-tipped Call Me By Your Name disappointed some for avoiding full frontal male nudity, Beach Ratss sex scenes are not coy about the male anatomy. Yet they never feel gratuitous: Hittman is aware that there are these young, beautiful bodies in front of the camera, but I never want them to feel erotic I want to feel theres a tension, that something could happen thats either romantic or hurtful. The films female gaze has prompted almost every reviewer to reference the sensual depiction of French soldiers in Claire Deniss Beau Travail. I guess there arent that many films by women that explore the male body, Hittman remarks (Beach Rats cinematographer Hlne Louvart, who knows Denis, reassured her: Claire does not own the male body).

Next, shes working on a film about abortion tourism, a long-term project she put on hold to have a baby, now even more relevant in light of the threats to Planned Parenthood in the US.Butshe is aware of the hurdles faced by female directors: Women have a hard time getting a studio deal or working their way through the system. Everybodys always looking for an It boy and every Sundance youre always in their shadow, even if you walk offstage with a best director award.

Nevertheless, the futurelooks bright for Hittman, who was tipped earlier this year by the New York Times chief film critic AO Scott as a director to watch. She continues: I dont care that Im not getting the budgets that my male counterparts are getting. For me its about the process, and the joy of having a project in my life that I get to realise. You just have to keep on persevering.
Kathryn Bromwich

Beach Rats is released on 24 November

The Safdie brothers, directors, Good Time

Josh,
Josh, left, and Benny Safdie. Photograph: Henny Garfunkel/Camera Press

Siblings Josh and Benny Safdie, aka the Safdie brothers, have been making films for a decade so why are we only just starting to hear about them? It may have something to do with the poster boy of their new film, Twilights former teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson. But the latters performance a career best is more than matched by the overall genius of this crime thriller about two brothers, a botched bank heist, and a jailbreak gone wrong. An ambitious genre exercise, its a huge step up for the Safdies. Pattinson contacted the brothers after seeing a still from their previous film, Heaven Knows What, and they developed Good Time with him in mind. He returns the favour with a gasoline-fuelled transformation into petty criminal Connie thats had critics singing his praises since the film premiered in competition atCannes in May. At the festival Josh told the LA Times, We wanted the movie to speak to America in 2017 and they have confidently achieved this aim: the New Yorkers Richard Brody described Good Times pulp thrills as a brilliant artistic distillation of the age of Trump.

There is a resourceful, opportunistic scrappiness to the Safdie way of making movies. Their first feature film, The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), about a miserable kleptomaniac, was initially conceived as a short advertorial for Kate Spade Handbags, while their raw, drug addiction-themed drama Heaven Knows What (released in the UK in 2016), began as the unpublished memoir of real-life street kid Arielle Holmes.

Watch a trailer for Good Time.

New Yorkers Josh, 33, and Benny, 31, grew up in Queens and Manhattan, shuffling between their divorced parents. All their films are set in New York, the city itself in character as an unvarnished place of enterprising weirdos, all rough edges and tender pockets. They binged on movies as kids before going on to make their own while studying at Boston University, their tastes inherited mostly from their laissez-faire father. When they shared a list of their top 10 films with the Criterion Collection, the cult classic home video channel, Josh described John Cassavetes as a God and a hero, while Benny said he loves the clumsily precise style of the avant-garde sight gags in Jacques Tatis Monsieur Hulots Holiday. Cassavetes, Josh said, turned actors into people and vice versa. The same could be said of the performances they pull from their own actors; in Good Time, Pattinson sheds his celebrity skin and disappears into Connies, unrecognisable save the sheer screen charisma, while first-time actor Arielle Holmes radiates a superstar magnetism as her fictionalised counterpart, Harley, in Heaven Knows What. Ronald Bronstein, who plays, or rather is, the reckless, scowling Lenny, a version of their own father, in their semi-autobiographical 2009 film Daddy Long Legs (2009), hadnt acted before (and hasnt since).

In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Benny described himself as the more critical or more analytical, while Josh sees himself as the duos right brain component (I can romanticise things). Still, the Safdie spirit is of collaboration: in the case of Good Time, Josh wrote it with Bronstein, Benny co-stars, and both are billed as director. The Safdies movie-making project is to show a side of New York thats rarely seen. The unemployed, the lonely and the dysfunctional, addicts, criminals and failed fathers the citys underclass is their subject. Instead of treating their characters with documentary-style solemnity or, worse, pity, they depict them with rambunctious humour and blunt honesty, and gift them huge, cinematic stories.
Simran Hans

Good Time is released on 17 November

Chlo Zhao, director, The Rider

Chlo
Chlo Zhao. Photograph: Christopher Patey/Getty Images Portrait

Of the glowing reviews that met festival screenings of Chinese-American Chlo Zhaos second feature, The Rider,it is probably the one from venerable German auteur Werner Herzog she treasures most. Just when you think cinema is entering a phase of stagnation, he said, along comes a film like that. Its very encouraging. Its an apt endorsement, coming from a boundary-pusher in both fiction and documentary, since Zhao, whose wandering creative spirit has taken her from her home city of Beijing to the prairies of South Dakota, is simultaneously looking to test both forms. A documentary film-maker cant help but use poetry to tell the story, she told the streaming service Mubi. I bring truth tomy fiction. These things go hand in hand.

The Rider, like Zhaos 2015 debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me, is a scripted drama drawn from the real lives of people Zhao has encountered on South Dakotas Pine Ridge Indian reservation: it stars 20-year-old Native American rodeo rider Brady Jandreau as a version of himself, depicting his struggle to find himself after an accident dashes his dreams of bronco stardom. A critical and audience favourite at Cannes in May, where it won the Directors Fortnight competition, it was snapped up by international distributors.

Its sweet reward for a project many years and miles in the making. Zhao who finished secondary school in London before moving to the States to study political science, eventually entering NYUs graduate film-making programme spent 17 months over three years living in Pine Ridge while seeking inspiration for Songs My Brother Taught Me, gradually winning the trust of the community. A tender study of hard-up Lakota Sioux siblings, the project caught the eye of Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker, who got on board as a producer. The Riderupped the challenge: I thought my last film was hard, Zhao quipped to the film industry site Deadline, but for a Chinese woman to try to wrangle a bunch of young cowboys?

Brady
Brady Jandreau in The Rider. Photograph: Highwayman Films

She may joke, but The Riders outsiders view of cowboy culture is integral to a film that empathetically questions definitions of masculinity in Americas heartland: Its very important for feminism for us to tell our daughters that they should be strong, she toldAnother Gaze journal, but to tell our sons that they can be vulnerable, to have these characters on screen that are not perfectly masculine cowboys that never fail, for our boys to change their psyche as well, thats equally important for feminism.

Meanwhile, Zhao will continue to re-examine the social geography of her favourite landscape in her next project, which she described to HuffPost as a period western about a very unlikely hero in the American west, a black sheriff whose story should really be heard, set at a time in America when a lot of cultures and races came together and set the foundation for everything we are debating today. With Zhao around, a genre once dedicated to simple cowboys-and-Indians conflict is about to get a lot more interesting.
Guy Lodge

The Rider is out next year

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/22/meet-the-new-hotshots-of-american-film-making-director-dee-rees-mudbound-eliza-hittman

Author: Billy Roland

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