How di­rec­tor Dee Rees braved mud and mozzies to bring Mis­sis­sippi’s grim past to life



in ev­ery sense on Dee Rees’ new Mis­sis­sippi-set drama, Mud­bound. “It was ab­so­lutely muddy,” laughs the di­rec­tor of a shoot in the swel­ter­ing boon­docks out­side New Or­leans. “Be­tween the waders, the mos­qui­tos and the heat, we were al­ways un­com­fort­able. One of the pro­duc­ers sent me a pic­ture from the set where I’m in ripped jeans and a ban­dana, and I won­dered how we sur­vived it.”

The film’s ti­tle, of course, isn’t just a de­scrip­tion of the on-set con­di­tions. Named af­ter the Hil­lary Jordan novel on which it’s based, the “mud­bound” metaphor refers to a bleak era in post-world War II South­ern life. Two fam­i­lies — one black and one white — find them­selves mired in racial in­equal­ity, ek­ing out lives, and love af­fairs, in an un­for­giv­ing land­scape. The landown­ing Mcallans (Carey Mul­li­gan, Gar­rett Hed­lund and Ja­son Clarke) and the share­crop­ping Jack­son clan (Ja­son Mitchell, Rob Mor­gan and Mary J Blige) form the heart of Rees’ third fea­ture (her first, Pariah, earned raves in 2011). It is, she says, a “big story” that par­al­lels con­flicts at home with Naz­i­bat­tling abroad. “You think it’s a love story, then a war story or a [story] about Jim Crow,” says Rees, “but it’s about all those things.”

None­the­less, the spec­tre of slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion hangs over the story like the hu­mid South­ern fug. The di­a­logue is pep­pered with racist ep­i­thets, and sim­mer­ing ten­sions ex­plode into a fierce Ku Klux Klan lynch­ing scene that took two days to film and tested its di­rec­tor’s skills in un­usual ways. “The white ac­tors needed to feel safe say­ing these lines,” she notes. “I said to my head Klan guy, ‘You’re go­ing to say hor­ri­ble things and I want you to lean into it.’”

Mud­bound’s Mis­sis­sippi scenes were shot in Louisiana (the war scenes were shot in Bu­dapest and on a Long Is­land sound­stage) be­cause au­then­tic lo­ca­tions were eas­ier to come by there — right down to the orig­i­nal, if now leaky share­crop­per cab­ins. “Ev­ery slave movie now gets shot in New Or­leans, be­cause they kept all that stuff,” Rees ex­plains. “Mis­sis­sippi didn’t pre­serve its his­tory in that way.”

The pay-off for this mix of sto­ry­telling am­bi­tion and painstak­ing au­then­tic­ity came when Netflix paid $12.5 mil­lion for Mud­bound at Sun­dance in Jan­uary. It is, as Rees re­mem­bers, a break­out suc­cess sev­eral hun­dred mos­quito bites in the mak­ing. “If there was any Zika virus on lo­ca­tion,” she laughs, “I have it.”

Above: Jamie (Gar­rett Hed­lund) and Ron­sel (Ja­son Mitchell) forge an un­easy friend­ship. Left: Landown­ers Henry Mcallan (Ja­son Clarke) and Laura Mcallan (Carey Mul­li­gan).

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