Dee Rees On Her “Otherworldly” Walmart Ad, Reuniting The ‘Mudbound’ Band, And Why Netflix Is Indie Film’s Best Hope

Writer-director Dee Rees, whose film Mudbound is a multi-category contender at Sunday’s Oscars, will also put her stamp on an entire 60-second block of the broadcast during a commercial break. Rees, along with Melissa McCarthy and Nancy Meyers, was picked by Walmart to direct a short spot on the theme of a shipping box. The retail giant began a Hollywood-affiliated commercial effort last year with a trio of minute-long spots directed by Marc Forster, Antoine Fuqua and the team of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen.

Deadline spoke with Rees about her experience with Mudbound, whose release on Netflix gave her a different kind of platform than other specialty titles in the Oscar race, as well as what viewers can expect from her Walmart short. “It will completely not be what people expect of the brand or maybe of a small spot,” she predicts. “I’m really proud of everybody’s work. Even the character, I could see this being a feature spinoff.” An edited version of the conversation follows.

DEADLINE: Where did the opportunity to direct a Walmart spot come from?

REES: It kind of came out of nowhere, honestly. I was approached and the thing that drew me to it was that these other two filmmakers were attached. So the whole proposal was, ‘We want you to do a short story about a box. You can do whatever you want with it. The only parameters are that the box has to arrive.’ It was a fun chance to do a little short film.

DEADLINE: Did you see last year’s three short films on the theme of “The Receipt?”

REES: Yes, and I remember thinking it was cool. But at the time, I didn’t register it as a big promotional thing. But this year when they approached me, I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, you guys have done this before.’ It’s a chance to write something original. I shamelessly got all of my collaborators back together again, like Mary J. Blige, [Mudbound cinematographer] Rachel Morrison to shoot it, Hannah Beachler, who just production-designed Black Panther, got her into it. Colleen Atwood, costume designer. For me, it was just a shameless assembling of all-star talent to tell a story.

DEADLINE: When’s the last time you made a film as short as 60 seconds?

REES: I’ve never done a 60-second piece. Most of the short films I’ve done were between 15 minutes and 30 minutes. It’s a real challenge — what can you do in a minute? I really wanted to push that. I wanted to go to the maximum.

DEADLINE: How does it compare with your other work?

REES: It’s exhilarating. It’s fast-paced. It’s playful. It’s otherworldly.

DEADLINE: Walmart’s decision to offer female filmmakers a chance to direct this year’s spots has particular importance given the #MeToo movement. Do you see the campaign having a chance to resonate more deeply now than in a different year?

REES: I think so and I think it’s good that they’re using their resources and power to try to help change the culture in a positive way. I think this could be just the beginning of the ways to more positively affect the larger community. So I hope to keep things going in the same direction.

DEADLINE: Now that Mudbound is reaching one of its last big milestones, the Oscars, what can you say about having it distributed on Netflix as you reflect back on the whole journey?

REES: My first encounter with Netflix was on [2011 feature] Pariah and even though that was a traditional, theatrically released film it had very small reach. Most people saw it because it ended up on Netflix. Going into Mudbound, it was great that they picked it up because none of the traditional studios bid on it or wanted it. It was making a statement that they felt it was a film that deserved to be seen globally. I was really pleasantly surprised by the amount of support they put behind the film and me as a filmmaker and all of the craftspeople. It’s a big deal that they promoted this film against all odds and supported this film and they’re now being rewarded for it.

DEADLINE: The last few months have seen a lot of experimentation on the film side for Netflix, between Mudbound, the Will Smith movie Bright and the post-Super Bowl release of Cloverfield Paradox. How meaningful is it that they are out there trying to redefine the nature of feature film distribution?

REES: A feature film is anything over 60 minutes. They’re pushing on the idea of ‘What is cinema?’ Audiences are smart. ‘What is cinema’ has nothing to do with how you receive it. It has to do with the content. So I love that they’re pushing great content, like Strong Island, an amazing social-justice doc and it was them who brought it to life. Netflix is the next big tool for indie distribution. For me, making independent films, you’d hope for a mini-major to put you out in 500 theaters and that was a win. But now with Netflix, your indie film can be global. It’s beyond what any of us could have imagined.

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