How director Dee Rees braved mud and mozzies to bring Mississippi’s grim past to life
THINGS WENT SOUTH
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).