Premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Dee Rees’ Mudbound was met with a rapturous response from critics and the public alike, acquired by Netflix in one of the biggest deals of the festival. On Friday, at Deadline’s Contenders London event, the filmmaker sat down with several members of her cast — including Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, and Garrett Hedlund — to discuss the project, in a panel moderated by Joe Utichi.
A period drama set in post-World War II Mississippi, based on a novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound tells the story of two men — one African American, one white — returning home from the war to go to work on a rural Mississippi farm, each struggling to readjust to the realities of American life, including the intense racism of the period. Unaware of the novel at the time of its release, Rees came to the project via producer Cassian Elwes, who turned her on to Virgil Williams’ original script.
“I read the script and really liked it—there’s a lot of there there—and that prompted me to go back and read Hillary’s book, and find out what else was in there. The thing that I really responded to in her writing was the internal dialogue, the internal monologue,” Rees began. “The chance to dig in and have these multiple points of view was what drew me to the material. I really wanted to go in and make it a story about two families, and a dark symbiosis in how they’re mirrors of each other.”
Coming aboard the project as director and co-writer, Rees made her own additions and revisions, and the themes of interest were many. “I just really worked organically, and tried to explore the themes of not being able to come back home,” the filmmaker said. “I wanted to explore this idea of the battle at home versus the battle abroad, and demonstrate how the battle at home was bloodier, and also this idea of porousness. The women in this film are constantly, physically trying to keep the outside out and the inside in, and they realize they can’t. Their environments are porous.”
Speaking to their reasons for coming aboard the project, the actors on the panel responded strongly to the material, as well as Rees’ ambition. “I was automatically attracted to it because, in order to tell these sorts of stories, you have to tell them right,” Mitchell shared. “They always have something missing, they always have a punch that’s held — they always have something that’s drawn back, and I felt like if all the right people were getting in the right places with this film, it was going to be a hit. There’s no missing the mark, and we shot this film in 28 days. It was incredible to see everybody put that 100 percent forward, but in the script, it was already all there.”
Clarke commented on the “size and scope” of the story, the factor that intrigued him the most, which also initially caused him the greatest concern. “You don’t get a script with this many characters, telling a story over this length of time. I loved that—I thought I’d be part of a great American tale,” the actor said. “You knew it was going to take somebody [great] to helm this because it’s a very big ship, in 28 days, on an independent film. That was my big concern, that we’d take this thing and it would just shrink into a small ball and be a completely different film.” Seeing the film for the first time — not at Sundance, like the rest of the cast, but in a theater in Paris — Clarke recognized that Rees had successfully translated this scope to the screen. “I was just stunned by how big it had become again,” he said. “It put back in the size and the scope [of the script], which is not easy to do, even for great filmmakers with a lot of money.”
For Hedlund, the script resonated in the way it aligned with his personal life experience. “This was something that I related to greatly because I did grow up on a farm, not in the South, but in northern Minnesota, with my older brother and my father. I related to it because that wasn’t what I wanted in my life,” Hedlund explained. “I knew what it was to be in a family that was on a farm that wasn’t for commercial growth but just to put food on the table. It was such a beautiful, poetic, painful story that I would’ve done anything to be a part of.”
Asked if there was a moment where she knew she had accomplished what she wanted with her film, Rees explained her intuitive process, which requires her to work away at each beat and each scene in a given film until she’s satisfied. “I don’t even watch dailies because there’s no point in watching them — I like to have as much distance from the material as possible so that when I get to the edit, it’s new to me, and I’m watching it objectively,” the director said. “I’m not married to a shot just because we hung upside down on a tree to get it.”
“Everybody always asks me how she works. I’m like, ‘Full speed.’ It was a whirlwind, but it was such a beautiful time,” Mitchell added. “I’m just happy to say we’ve got a fearless leader. Dee’s the most assured black woman I’ve ever met in my life.”
Wrapping up the panel, the filmmaker and her stars discussed the added political resonance the film has taken on, in light of Charlottesville and tensions that have mounted since Donald Trump was sworn in as President.
“As an artist, I never want to lead with a message. I’m not into polemic, I’m into characters and relationships, and if the characters aren’t real, audiences can sense sentimentality a mile off,” Rees explained. “I feel like any art always comments on the time in which it’s made so this could’ve been set in 2040, but it would’ve been commenting always on 2016.”
“I lead with the themes, lead with the characters and let the audience be inspired to consider themselves, or see themselves differently. I think any time you lead with the message, it’s going to fail,” the filmmaker continued. “Like, do you know the characters’ names at the end of the film? That’s the test. If you can’t, that’s flat characterization. You’re pushing something on the audience, rather than letting them search within themselves.”
“I think it’s foolish to think that every new, young generation shouldn’t have to contribute to what has been brought forth before, what has been struggled for and sacrificed to achieve,” Clarke commented. “We’re in the middle of that now, and I think art has to contribute to that. We have to keep doing what we can do.”
With a cast led on by Carey Mulligan that also features Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks and singer-songwriter Mary J. Blige, Mudbound bows on Netflix on November 17. Pulling off the remarkable task of remaining in peoples’ minds months after its initial release—much like last year’s Sundance-bowing Manchester by the Sea—Rees’ latest may well be a player come Oscar time.