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Director Dee Rees Explores Racism In Post-War Mississippi In 'Mudbound'

Mudbound follows two families — one white and one black — just before, during and after WWII. Rees' experiences growing up in Nashville, Tenn., informed her film. Originally broadcast Nov. 14, 2017.


Other segments from the episode on February 2, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 2, 2018: Interview with Greta Gerwig; Interview with Dee Rees; Review of film 'On Body & Soul.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest, Greta Gerwig, is an actress who starred in the films "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America," movies she had co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach. But he had directed those films. Greta herself never directed a movie until last year with her semi-autobiographical film "Lady Bird," which she also wrote.

And now she's the first woman in eight years to be nominated for a best director Oscar and only the fifth woman ever in that category. She's also up for best original screenplay. And "Lady Bird" also is nominated as best picture and for two of its stars, Saoirse Ronan in the best actress category and Laurie Metcalf as a best supporting actress nominee. Terry spoke with Greta Gerwig last year.

"Lady Bird" draws on Greta Gerwig's experiences when she was making the transition out of high school, preparing to leave home and start college. The movie centers on a complex mother-daughter relationship, a relationship that becomes particularly fraught when the teenage daughter is trying to assert her identity as a soon-to-be adult. This will be recognizable territory for a lot of mothers and daughters. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. One of the ways she's asserting her independence is by renaming herself Lady Bird and insisting that her mother call her by that name.

The movie opens with Lady Bird and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, alone in the car, coming back from checking out local colleges. The mother is driving. They've been listening to the conclusion of the audiobook of Steinbeck's "The Grapes Of Wrath," which leaves them both in tears. But they're soon arguing about where Lady Bird wants to go to college.


SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I want to go where culture is, like New York.

LAURIE METCALF: (As Marion) How in the world did I raise such a snob?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) ...Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.

METCALF: (As Marion) Well, you couldn't get into those schools anyway.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Mom...

METCALF: (As Marion) You can't even pass your driver's test.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Because you wouldn't let me practice enough.

METCALF: (As Marion) The way that you work - or the way that you don't work, you're not even worth state tuition, Christine.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) My name is Lady Bird.

METCALF: (As Marion) Well, actually, it's not, and it's ridiculous because your name is Christine.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Call me Lady Bird like you said you would.

METCALF: (As Marion) Just - you should just go to City College. You know, with your work ethic, just go to City College and then to jail and then back to City College. And then maybe you'd learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything - (yelling).


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Greta Gerwig, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I should explain - do you want to explain what just happened when the mother is screaming?

GRETA GERWIG: Oh, yes. What just happened is the actress, Saoirse Ronan, playing Christine Lady Bird McPherson - she just jumps out of the moving car with her mother.

GROSS: So this is the daughter - the daughter's just, like - she's so angry with her mother, she just jumps out of the car.

GERWIG: That's right.

GROSS: And it's the only, like, totally crazy, unhinged thing that she does during the movie. Why did you want her character to start by doing something so extreme?

GERWIG: Well, I think everybody knows what it feels like to be in a car, particularly with your mother and - or with your daughter, and either you want to shove them out of the car or you want to jump out of the car. There's a quality to fighting in cars where you're trapped. And it felt like it kind of gave the right tone for the movie, and it's going for something that's emotionally real.

And then the entire scene to me - it starts off with them listening to John Steinbeck's "Grapes Of Wrath" on Book on Tape (ph) that they checked out from the public library. And they're having this moment where they're both crying at the end of the book, and they're really connecting. And then within two minutes, it's completely off the rails.

GROSS: Why did you want a mother-daughter relationship to be so central in your directorial debut?

GERWIG: Well, I feel that it's such a rich relationship. It has a tremendous amount of love and a tremendous amount of angst. And I don't know any woman who has a simple relationship with their mother or with their daughter. And I knew I wanted to set something in Sacramento, Calif., which is my hometown, which I love very much. And I knew that I wanted to make something about a mother and a daughter, but I didn't know what it was going to exactly end up being. But I did have a hunch. And I had a hunch that the mother-daughter dynamic was something that would be infinitely interesting and also would feel both like the oldest story and new somehow.

GROSS: You said that you're interested in how women fight. Do you think women fight differently than men when it comes to an argument?

GERWIG: I do. I - well, you know, I never really thought about it as being different until I had the script for the film and I was going around and I was talking to different financiers about putting money into the film and making it. And most of those people are men. And if they were raised with sisters or if they had daughters, they knew what it was.

They said, oh, yes, that's my mother and my sister, or that's my wife and my daughter. But if they didn't, they had no idea that that was how women fought and how they loved, too. I think it was kind of like they were getting to look into a world that they didn't know existed.

GROSS: So the title of your film, "Lady Bird," is the name that the main character, the daughter, gives herself.

GERWIG: That's right.

GROSS: Her real name - her birth name is Christine, but she wants to be called Lady Bird. She wants her school to call her Lady Bird. She wants her mother to call her Lady Bird. And it seems like there's something so passive-aggressive of insisting that your mother, who named you Christine, should now have to call you by a totally different name, Lady Bird (laughter).

GERWIG: Yeah, it's a rejection of everything her mother gave her, including her hair color. It was just totally, like, I'm not yours.

GROSS: So in this mother-and-daughter story that you've written, the daughter rejects the name her mother gave her. Her mother gave her the name Christine. And she says, no, you have to call me Lady Bird now. That's my name.

GERWIG: Right.

GROSS: But the name you gave the character, Christine, if I'm not mistaken, is the name of your actual mother.

GERWIG: It is.

GROSS: Was it also a way - naming the daughter Christine - was it also a way of kind of telegraphing to your mother, I'm not angry with you? This movie is not trying to make you into a monster.

GERWIG: Maybe, maybe. And, you know, it's funny. I think I always liked the name Christine, too, because it's a religious name.

GROSS: Because it has Christ in it.

GERWIG: It's Christ. It's the female version of Christ. And I spent a lot of time thinking about saints - lives of saints. And I, you know, read documents of lives of saints and how - I was always interested in who they were as people and that they both were these people who were divinely inspired but they were also, on the one - also kind of just annoying teenagers.

Like I - the story of St. Ignatius, who started the Jesuits, he has a saint story of he was a military man. And he was a soldier. And he wanted to be a great soldier and a hero. And he was very ambitious. And - but he hurt his leg. And while he was recuperating, he was reading the lives of the saints. And he had this kind of teenage ambition moment of - he basically looked at it and said, I could do that. I can do that better than those saints. I could be the best saint there ever was.

And he set out, in almost this childish way, to do it. And sort of the - the story is - I've read it - was that the moral of it, in a way, is that God can use whatever you have, even if it looks unpromising. Even if you're just kind of an arrogant teenager, that can be something that's transformed into something holy. And so I think giving her a name like Christine, to me, it kind of drew that connection. And it's not something I need the audience to know while they're watching it. But I think for me, it becomes an organizing principle.

GROSS: What was your saint name when you were given one?

GERWIG: You know, the - I'm not Catholic. I was not raised Catholic.

GROSS: You're not Catholic? Oh, I assumed you were a Catholic 'cause...

GERWIG: No, no.

GROSS: ...There's so much Catholicism in the movie. She goes to a Catholic school.


GROSS: Oh, right...


GROSS: ...I read you were raised Unitarian.

GERWIG: Yeah. I mean...

GROSS: That's right.

GERWIG: ...I was raised Unitarian Universalist. But I did go to a Catholic high school. And I've always been drawn to Catholicism. And I like the ritual. And I liked - I knew a lot of really interesting priests and nuns. And I think, you know, I am interested in the faith and tradition and how it functions and how it informs people's lives. And it's something I've been serious about without ever being a Catholic.

GROSS: So when you went to Catholic school in high school and you were not Catholic, did you feel like you were more Catholic than a lot of the Catholic kids in the school because you were actually interested in the rituals (laughter) and in the saints?

GERWIG: Yeah. Well, I think because it wasn't my background, I was allowed to love it in a way that if maybe it had been, you would seek to reject it.

GROSS: Because it couldn't oppress you because it had no power over you. You could just take what was beautiful from it.

GERWIG: Exactly. That's right. And I didn't have to feel like it was something I had to define myself against. It could be something that just was enriching. But I think - I also think Unitarian Universalism, which my dad always describes as, we believe in, at most, one god - it does have - it's - I think this is the right word - ecumenical. Is that what I - is that what I think it means?


GERWIG: All the different - it has a sense of really instilling a reverence for other religions that I think can be a way in to some - a tradition that's not yours.

BIANCULLI: Greta Gerwig, writer and director of "Lady Bird" speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with actress, screenwriter and now director Greta Gerwig. Her movie "Lady Bird" is up for five Oscars this year, including best picture and for Gerwig's work as both screenwriter and director. Also nominated for Academy Awards are Saoirse Ronan, who plays a teenager on the verge of leaving home for college, as best actress and Laurie Metcalf, who plays her mother, as best supporting actress.


GROSS: So there's a scene when they're shopping together for her prom dress. And shopping is such a thing for mothers and daughters. Like, you're together doing an activity. It can be a real bonding experience - except that your taste can really be different. And when your mother really likes something and she's paying for it because you're not earning a salary yet and you really hate it (laughter) or vice versa, it's like such trouble. And, like, all these other issues can come up as a result.

So let's hear this shopping scene. And so they're shopping for the prom dress. And Lady Bird is coming out of the dressing room that her mother's waiting outside of in this, like, pink dress - like, below-the-knee dress that's very - it's a little princess-y (ph), I'd say, and very pink.


GROSS: And here's the conversation they're having about it.


RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I love it.

METCALF: (As Marion McPherson) Is it too pink? What?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Why can't you say I look nice?

METCALF: (As Marion McPherson) I thought you didn't even care what I think.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I still want you to think I look good.

METCALF: (As Laurie Metcalf) OK. I'm sorry. I was telling you the truth. You want me to lie?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) No, I mean - I just wish - I just - I wish that you liked me.

METCALF: (As Laurie Metcalf) Of course I love you.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) But do you like me?

METCALF: (As Laurie Metcalf) I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) What if this is the best version?

GROSS: That's Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan from "Lady Bird."

Why can't the mother just say I love you and I like you?

GERWIG: Well, I think she's terrified that if she says, you're good just as you are, that she won't continue to grow. And I think immediately after, she doesn't - immediately after she says it in the film, Saoirse closes the door. And Laurie has this look like she's going to knock and then say something and then decides not to. And to me, I think, you know, it's a heartbreaking scene because they're missing each other. And her mother can't concede the point because she's too scared.

And I'm always interested in how people use language to not say what they mean. And I think in so many of the fights with Lady Bird and her mother, what her mother wants to say is, I'm terrified. And she can't say it because it feels too vulnerable or, you know, for the myriad reasons that you can't say you're scared. But she just can't do it. And I talked with Saoirse and Laurie about this a lot, that I wanted the audience to feel like I know exactly where that mother is and I know exactly where that daughter is and that you don't feel that either one of them is a villain but you do think - oh, man, it's so hard to love people and to be in a family.

GROSS: So it seems to me like you're in a transition in your life now, going from being, like, the young actress to being, like, the director.

GERWIG: An old lady.

GROSS: No, no - to being, like, the director who isn't even in the new movie.


GROSS: It's a really new stage of your career. And the reviews that I've seen have been really good. So it's a new stage of your career that seems like the door remains open for you to continue, you know, walking through. So what's this transition feeling like to you?

GERWIG: Well, it's happened in stages, in a way, because I worked on the script for so long. And then I had this script I thought was good. And then I started involving people. And I involved producers and my cinematographer and then these different actors. And I had time to prepare. I had a year to prepare with my DP and Sam Levy, who also shot "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America."

And we had a whole year to talk about it. And I'd cast Saoirse a year before we started shooting. And so this sort of stepping into the role of director - I had an adequate amount of time and space to really overprepare for that moment. And then once I was on set - and even really before I was on set - it's just the most fun I've ever had doing anything. And I loved it so much that I...

GROSS: Really? Directing?

GERWIG: Oh, God, I just love it. Film is such an inherently collaborative art form. And I just - I have never felt more happiness in my life than I have sitting next to the camera with Sam operating, listening to great actors say the words I've written but bring them to life. And it's some combination of complete and total control - because it's your vision and your words - and a total lack of control, which is that you give all these other people faith that they will bring their best and that they will elevate what you've done. And it's extraordinary. I absolutely love it.

GROSS: So in your movie "Lady Bird," the main character starts doing theater in high school. And the show that they're doing is Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." I love that show. I love the songs from that show.

GERWIG: Me, too.

GROSS: And it's interesting that you chose that show because it begins with three friends in middle age.


GROSS: And their lives have not worked out as they'd hoped. And they've all become, like, really cynical about life and about each other. Then the show goes backwards in time. As the show goes deeper and deeper into the past, the characters become less and less cynical and more and more idealistic and more and more just kind of in love with being together. And you're starting off, you know (laughter), in high school, where that show kind of ends. So tell me why you chose "Merrily."

GERWIG: Well, "Merrily" is my favorite musical. I have listened to the original cast recording so many times. It makes me cry instantly. I'm a big Stephen Sondheim fan in general.

GROSS: Me, too. Yeah (laughter).

GERWIG: I had written it into the script. And I didn't - I had no idea how I was going to get the rights to do it. I just loved it. And it has - again, it has that quality of time slipping away faster than you can hold onto it. Even though it's going backwards, it feels like - you're always like, oh, that time's gone. Now we're in another time. And that quality was something that I wanted to capture.

And I thought it would be - I never did "Merrily We Roll Along" in high school because it would be a completely odd show for a high school to do - although since showing the movie to a lot of people, people have come up to me and said my high school did it, which I find totally amazing. And I just thought there's something about it to me, that it has this central ache that I had hoped that my movie would have. So I felt like...

GROSS: About transitions?

GERWIG: Yeah and about how - where you end up and where you're from, how they're connected and how they're also so different. And I felt like it answered something in that to me. And even the songs in the middle the, you know - yesterday is gone, see the pretty countryside; or dreams don't die, so keep an eye on your dreams because before you know where you are, there you are. That felt to me like those songs and those lyrics spoke so deeply to what I was trying to capture that it just seemed perfect to me. And...

GROSS: How did you get the rights for it?

GERWIG: Well, I was very lucky because I - when Scott Rudin signed on to make this film, he has produced Stephen Sondheim. And he's friends with Stephen. And he said - I wrote Stephen Sondheim a letter, which Scott to him. And he said yes. So that was just the most exciting thing that could have happened to me (laughter) because it meant it's Stephen Sondheim. And I've still never met Stephen Sondheim.

GROSS: Greta Gerwig, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much, and congratulations on the film.

GERWIG: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Actress, writer and director Greta Gerwig speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her film "Lady Bird" is up for five Academy Awards, including best picture and personal nominations to Greta Gerwig for best direction and best original screenplay.


BIANCULLI: After a break, we'll visit with another Oscar contender in the writing and directing categories, Dee Rees of the movie "Mudbound." And film critic Justin Chang will review "On Body And Soul," an Oscar nominee in the best foreign language film category. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is Fresh AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, Dee Rees, directed the film "Mudbound," which has earned four Academy Award nominations including one for its screenplay, which was co-written by Rees and Virgil Williams. The other nominations are for cinematography, best original song and for Mary J. Blige as best supporting actress.

"Mudbound," adapted from Hillary Jordan's novel of the same name, is about two families in the segregated Mississippi Delta just before, during and after World War II. The African-American family are poor sharecroppers. The white family owns their land, but they're also struggling. Each family has a member who goes off to fight in the war. The white soldier returns emotionally devastated. The black soldier returns to find that although he helped Europe, back home in Mississippi he has no rights.

Here's a scene in which the returning black soldier Ronsel, played by Jason Mitchell, is shopping in the general store. He's still in uniform. But when he leaves the store by the front door, he's confronted by a couple of white men. One is played by Jason Clarke, the other by Jonathan Banks, who speaks first.


JONATHAN BANKS: (As Pappy McAllan) You use the backdoor.

JASON CLARKE: (As Henry McAllan) Go on, son. Son, we don't want no trouble here. Go on. Go on.

JASON MITCHELL: (As Ronsel Jackson) You know what? You're absolutely right. When we was overseas, they didn't make us use the backdoor. General Patton put us on the front line. Yes, sir. And you know what we did? We kicked the hell out of Hitler and them Jerries while y'all at home safe and sound.

BIANCULLI: "Mudbound" director and co-writer Dee Rees also directed HBO's "Bessie," a drama about Bessie Smith, and the film "Pariah," about a 17-year-old African-American girl coming out and dealing with the resulting complications in her life. Terry interviewed Dee Rees last November.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Dee Rees, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, some of the story about the kind of overt racism in Mississippi during and after the war, World War II, there's some really horrible things that happen in the film. Without giving anything away, did this film have a different meaning for you after Charlottesville? The film was probably completed by then, but, you know, the march in Charlottesville, that's the kind of, like, overt racism that people had, you know, more or less stopped expressing in marches, in big marches. And to see that was really just, like, shocking and horrifying to so many Americans.

DEE REES: Yeah. I think Charlottesville was shocking for some, but it wasn't for me or for my family, I mean, because I grew up in 1980s Nashville. I grew up next to a Klan member. Like, everyone knew he was a Klan member. My dad was a cop, you know, and I grew up three houses down from people who used Confederate flags as curtains. I remember one summer I played, like, with the granddaughter of this known Klan member.

Like, all summer, we caught cicadas. And we had grown close, and so it was, like, time for her birthday party, and I said, oh, like, what time do I come for your party? And she's like, oh, no, you can't come to my house because my parents don't like black people. So it was this thing where, you know, even though we're two kids playing all along, like, still, like, this thing is, like, stated and, like, stated, like, without a blink. And later that night, she came by with a piece of her birthday cake, I remember, to the backdoor. My mom was like, you can keep your cake.

So for me, these attitudes, these beliefs, aren't something that ever died down or ever went away or weren't visible. You know, I grew up being called nigger. Like, this is not new. And so I think the surprise kind of reveals the depths to which we've deluded ourselves, you know, and the depths to which we've kind of, like, denied kind of who we are as a country.

GROSS: So when you have a friend growing up whose father is a member of the Klan, is that something...

REES: Grandfather, yeah.

GROSS: Grandfather - is that something you can talk about with her, or was that something that was, like, off - you know, like, you could not actually bring that up and discuss it?

REES: Well, I would just say, like, oh, why can't I eat - so in terms of our play, like, she would always come to my backyard and play. So she could come to my house to play but never inside, like only in the yard. But I could never go even to her yard to play. And so it was, like, a known thing, and it was just kind of like, you know, my parents don't like black people said with, like, a straight face and with this kind of matter-of-factness.

And so that's something that I think kind of sits with you and is one of the things that struck me in this story about this friendship because for the longest time I questioned friendship and what was possible and whether or not, like, you could be friends with someone who is white and that they would really be your friend, you know, throughout, you know, everything.

Or there'd be friends in school where you'd play in school, but if you saw them at the grocery store with their parents, they'd pretend like not to know you. And so, like, that was real. And so those kind of things I think sink into your psyche and kind of, like, draw these very real lines in, like, interactions and in relationships. And, you know, even when, like, no one's calling you a name, like, these experiences are the evidence.

GROSS: So you're directing this movie that's set in the Mississippi Delta, but you grew up in I think a suburb of Nashville. I - you've lived for many years in Brooklyn. So, you know, you're a city and suburb person largely, but now you really had to immerse yourself in country life to understand the characters and the setting of the film. There's a scene that's a voiceover about the violence of day-to-day country life.

And the Carey Mulligan character is stuck on this, like, dirt farm, and she used to live in a city. And she doesn't really want to be on this farm, but that's where her husband insisted on moving the family. And she's reflecting on the violence of country life, and this happens just after in the African-American family the father has had to shoot the mule because the mule was dying and is lame and can't - you know, it's the humane thing to do.


CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Laura McAllan) Violence is part and parcel of country life. You're forever being assailed by dead things - dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums. You find them in the yard. You smell them rotting under the house. And then there are the creatures you kill for food - chicken, hogs, deer, frogs, squirrels; pluck, skin, disembowel, debone, fry, eat, start again, kill. I learned how to stitch up a bleeding wound, load and fire a shotgun, reach into the womb of a heaving sow to deliver a breached piglet. My hands did these things, but I was never easy in my mind.

GROSS: So, Dee Rees, what did you have to do to get in that mindset of that kind of violence of country life?

REES: Yeah, so this passage was one of my favorite from Hillary's book because it set such a tone for the world, as you mentioned, like, the easiness of death. I'm looking at the indifference of nature where, you know, it seems that nature is working against them, but in fact, it's just that nature is indifferent to them.

GROSS: I know one of your grandmothers, or maybe it was your great-grandmother, kept a journal. Tell me who it was and also if you were able to use anything from her to help you understand the characters you were writing about in the era you were writing about.

REES: Absolutely. So my grandmother's name is Earnestine Smith. She was born in 1925 in Ferriday, La., and she wrote this journal or this unpublished book about, you know, her life growing up. And so she wrote about her parents picking cotton, my great-grandmother, Famie. And so she would tell me stories about how she and her little brother, Clarence, would ride on the - her mother's cotton sack and how she herself, you know, vowed she would never pick cotton. She didn't want to chop cotton. She wouldn't work as a domestic worker. She wanted to be a stenographer.

GROSS: So with your grandmother, like, her grandparents would have been slaves, right?

REES: Exactly, yes, and there's pictures of them. So I have this picture of them, Emma and Bill. And the photograph I have of them is actually taken from a larger photo of a plantation of, like, a group of slaves, so every family stood in their family group and had this picture. And then everyone cut out the square that had their members in it. So the picture I have of them is, like, an excerpt from a larger picture, so it's just a square with just their faces in it.

GROSS: Not everybody has photographs or writing or anything that dates back that far, you know, like, several generations back. What does it mean to you to have that evidence of your family's past?

REES: It's invaluable to have it. Like, my grandmother's a very meticulous, you know, organized person, you know. And the fact that she, you know, even, you know, took the time to sit down and, like, not just write, but, like, type out her experiences - there's, like, anecdotes about going to the market truck or anecdotes about funerals or people being sick. And, like, there's some pages that's like - they're like biblical. It was, like, you know, where it was, like, these begats where who had who and, you know, how they looked. And she gives, like, physical descriptions and demeanors. And it's amazing to have it, and it gives me a sense of connectedness.

BIANCULLI: "Mudbound" director and co-writer Dee Rees speaking to Terry Gross last year - more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last November with director and co-writer Dee Rees. Her script for "Mudbound," which she wrote with Virgil Williams, has been nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.


GROSS: So, you know, in the movie, family and home are not necessarily safe places. In the African-American family, it's not a safe place because of the location, because it's Mississippi and because, you know, there's so much racism. There are very strict limitations in terms of what they're allowed to do with their lives and what kind of relationships they're allowed to have, where they're allowed to go. And in the white family, the family isn't a safe place because, you know, the grandfather is really a monster. And in terms of Carey Mulligan's character, her husband - you know, he's the husband, so he's going to tell her what to do. And even though she's wiser than he is, she has to take orders from him. So, I mean, family and home are not safe.

It seems to be a theme for you because in "Pariah," you know, your earlier film, it's about a 17-year-old girl who's figuring out that she's a lesbian and is trying to figure out how - like, what does that mean? And who is she? And does she tell her parents? And if so, how does she tell them? And they're not going to be happy about it. And she's going to have to leave home to become who she is. So it seems to be a theme in your work. Was that a theme in your early life, that you had to leave home to become yourself?

REES: Yeah, I think for me as someone growing up, you know, in, like, Antioch, Tenn., I definitely felt the desire to, like - I definitely knew there was an elsewhere. I definitely knew that, like, if I were going to be free, I needed to be away from kind of, like, Nashville and kind of get out of the South and get out of the country. And even though, like, - well, like, when I first went to school, it was in Florida, I just knew that I didn't want to go to college in the same place I grew up.

I knew that expansiveness was necessary. Like, I think, like as a teenager, I did a program. There's, like, this thing called the lead program in business because I was going to go into business so - and you could apply to which school you wanted to do this kind of, like, summer program at. And so I put down Columbia University as the place I wanted to go.

And so, you know, junior high, like, I had got to go to Columbia University and spent a summer there in New York City. And, like, I knew from that moment on, like, that New York City was a place where I could be. Like, New York City is a place you can be yourself completely. And, you know, as long as it's authentic - like it's kind of like no questions asked and so - there's definitely something I felt like as a teenager and wanted to get away. And I just think getting away from home is just helpful.

GROSS: So you said that when you made "Pariah," your film about the 17-year-old girl who's realizing that she's a lesbian, that you were imagining what would've been like had you come out earlier because you were in your 20s, I think, when you came out. What got you thinking about that, what it would've been like had you come out when you were 17?

REES: I think it was living in Brooklyn and seeing it, you know. So I came out. It was, like, my second year of film school. And so my parents were already freaked out that I'd quit my job and gone to film school. And then this double, like, you know, hit of like and also by the way I love women, so I think they thought I was having a nervous breakdown and tried to have a couple of like interventions. And so for me, it was - and I remember just feeling, like, such guilt, you know, feeling like I'd hurt my parents, feeling like I'd like, you know, I was, like, hurting them in some major way.

And I was a grown person. Like, I wasn't living, you know, under their roof. I was paying my own bills. And so I was surprised of the magnitude of guilt like that I felt and, like, just fear that I was doing the wrong thing. And so, you know, meanwhile I'm living in Brooklyn where I'm seeing teenagers who not only, like, know who they are but are actively being it. And I was just kind of amazed at their bravery, like, amazed that they were able to, like, do this, you know, in any small degree. And so I figured wow. You know, if I - you know, like, what would it have been like if I had come out earlier?

GROSS: In the movie, the mother's Christian, and that has a lot to do with why she's so upset that her daughter is a lesbian. Are your parents Christian? And did that have to do with their initial reaction to you coming out?

REES: They are, yeah, yeah, which for me is the other thing I wanted to explore. Like, it's not these mutual exclusive things, like sexuality and spirituality because I would identify as a Christian, and I'm also a lesbian, you know. And so for my parents, it felt like a major exclusive thing. Like, oh, well you can't be a Christian if you're this way. You know, so they had this very kind of, like, finite idea of spirituality and belief. And that didn't ring true for me.

And so, like, I felt like - well, actually, like my grandmother, I remember, like, one Thanksgiving because I'd limited, like, my going home just to holidays. And so we're at Thanksgiving table. It's me, my mother and my grandmother. And so my grandmother, like, says the grace over the table and in her prayer she says you're perfect the way you are. There's not one thing I would change about you. And my mom said, oh, well, there's one thing. And my grandmother said, nope, there's not one thing I would change about you. And, like, that moment on I felt vindicated. Like, I almost cried. Like, I felt like she was telling me in that moment that she accepted me for who I am and that she loved me unconditionally.

And in that same way, it's like she kind of led my mom around. Like, my parents have come around where they love me unconditionally. And, you know, I understand they still might - I do think they still struggle. I think there's, like, not a spirituality. There's like a religiosity, you know, at least that tells them that I'm somehow in the wrong. And I think they probably have moments where that bothers them. But on the whole, you know, I feel loved. And I feel like that they are dealing with their own kind of beliefs about it.

GROSS: When you were 24, you changed your name from Denise to Dee.

REES: That's not true, actually.

GROSS: That's not true?

REES: My name was never Denise. No, my name is Diandrea, and I never changed it. But Dee is my screen name.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Why do you prefer Dee?

REES: Just because it's a brand - right? - it's branding. So like, Dee is what my aunties always called me growing up. So it's like a thing that's always been with me. And for the purposes of filmmaking - like in the middle of film school, you know, instead of Diandrea Rees on the screen, Dee Rees. So it's like pithier. It's androgynous. And it's an easier handle to pick you up by. Like, I would probably get far less press coverage as Diandrea Rees than as Dee Rees. And like, when people can't pronounce something, they're less likely to engage with it. And so I feel like all my life I was teaching people how to say my name - how to say Diandrea.

And as I made the transition to being an artist to being a filmmaker, I looked at this history of artists that changed their names. And like, my grandmother had actually changed her name from, like, Auberstine (ph) to Earnestine. And so I kind of took it on as something that was available to me. Like, you can name yourself. Audre Lord took the Y off her name. So to me, it seemed like a noble thing that was possible and accessible and that I should - you know, shouldn't hesitate to do.

GROSS: Dee Rees, thank you so much for talking with us.

REES: Thanks for having me, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Director and co-writer Dee Rees speaking to Terry Gross last November. Her movie "Mudbound" is up for four Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "On Body And Soul," which is nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign film category. It also won the top prize at last year's Berlin International Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. "On Body And Soul" won the top prize at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and is nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category. It's the first feature in 18 years from the Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi, whose previous films include "My 20th Century" and "Simon The Magician." Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A slaughterhouse is a strange place to fall in love. But strangeness seems to be what the Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi is going for with her earthy yet ethereal romance "On Body And Soul." This mostly beguiling, intermittently brutal movie takes place at an abattoir on the outskirts of Budapest. And it doesn't shy away from the place's everyday horror - the ghastly metal instruments, the blood-slicked floors, the stunned cows calmly being shorn of their heads and limbs. If last year's "Okja" didn't turn you into a vegetarian, this latest Netflix title might just do the trick. Enyedi isn't afraid to get up close and clinical. But at the same time, she isn't bent on rubbing our noses in entrails and squalor either. She employs violence as a punctuation and a contrast, occasionally shaking the story out of its soothingly arty stupor.

As its title might suggest, "On Body And Soul" is founded on a number of striking contrasts - man versus woman, human versus animal, natural paradise versus industrial hell. The gorgeous opening sequence in which a stag and a doe slowly make their way through a wintry forest is about as far removed from a factory killing floor as you can imagine. The movie keeps returning to that scene. And before long, we realize that it is in fact a recurring dream, one shared by two lonely individuals who work at the slaughterhouse. Think of it as a metaphysical meet cute.

Endre, the company's financial director, is a fiftyish-looking man with a contorted hand, a grave manner and a vaguely implied history of pain and suffering. He is immediately smitten with Maria, a new quality inspector, but he's too reserved to make any overtures. Maria, meanwhile, is so withdrawn that she makes Endre look gregarious. Impervious to her co-workers' attempts at small talk, she goes about her job with a fastidious attention to detail and the razor-sharp memory of a computer.

When a strange crime is committed at the factory, the employees are subjected to a round of psychiatric evaluations. It is through these inquiries that Endre and Maria learn that they have been dreaming the same dreams - that he is, in fact, the stag and she is the doe. While the purpose of these visions will not be lost on anyone in the audience, Endre and Maria are in no hurry to figure out what it all means. They circle each other warily at first, wondering if they might be the victims of some elaborate prank. Eventually, Endre suggests that they sleep together - in the chaste sense - so they can dream alongside each other.

Endre is played by Geza Morcsanyi, a Hungarian playwright making his film acting debut. He's an imposingly grizzled presence, and he pairs nicely with Alexandra Borbely as the brittle, fragile Maria, whose role is at once the movie's most striking and its most artificial. She's an obsessive compulsive pixie dream girl.

Enyedi gets a lot of low-key comic mileage out of her two deadpan leads. And at times, the movie plays like one of Aki Kaurismaki's finished satires as filtered through the high-concept rom-com sensibility of Nora Ephron. That may sound like a winningly demented combination. But, if anything, I wish "On Body And Soul" were weirder or rather that its weirdness felt less calculated and more challenging.

At nearly two hours, the movie is as reticent and slow to reveal itself as its protagonists are. But it turns out to be more or less what you expect it to be, a tale of two damaged, socially awkward individuals forced to overcome a lot of hazily manufactured contrivance to find their way into each other's arms. I'm not surprised that it's been nominated for an Oscar by the Motion Picture Academy, an organization that loves its genteel crowd-pleasers in any language.

"On Body And Soul" is easy enough on the eyes and ears. But a better movie would have taken more daring aim at the heart and mind.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the LA Times.

On Monday's show, Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell describes her 17 brushes with death, including nearly being raped and killed, almost dying during labor, nearly drowning and contracting encephalitis as a child. She wrote her new memoir in part for her daughter who has a life-threatening immune disorder. We'll talk with Maggie O'Farrell. Hope you can join us.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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