By Iain Blair
The TV graveyard is bursting at the seams with failed adaptations of hit movies. But there are rare exceptions, such as Netflix’s acclaimed hit comedy Dear White People, which creator Justin Simien adapted from his 2014 indie movie of the same name. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Simien went on to also win Best First Screenplay and a nomination for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Now a series on Netflix and enjoying its second season (it was just picked up for its third!), this college dramedy is set at Winchester University, a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college, where racial tensions bubble just below the surface. It stars a large, charismatic ensemble cast (most of whom appeared in the film) that includes Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, Antoinette Robertson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Marque Richardson and Giancarlo Esposito (as the narrator), dealing with such timely and timeless issues as racism, inclusion, social injustice, politics, abortion, body image, cultural bias, political correctness (or lack thereof), activism and, of course, romance in the millennial age.
Through an absurdist lens, Dear White People uses sharp, quick-fire dialogue, biting irony, self-deprecation and brutal honesty to hold up a mirror to some of the problems plaguing society today. It also makes the medicine go down easy by leading with big laughs.
The show is also a master class in how to successfully make that tricky transition from the big to small screen, and tellingly it has retained a coveted and rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for both seasons (take note, Emmy voters!).
I recently spoke with Simien about making the show, the changing TV landscape, the Emmys and his next movie.
The TV landscape is full of the corpses of failed movie adaptations. How did you avoid that fate when you adapted your film for TV?
(Laughs) You’re so right. Movies often don’t translate very well to TV, but I felt my film was in the great tradition of multi-protagonist ensemble films I love so much. I also felt that in the confines of 90 minutes or so, you can never really truly get into the hearts of all the characters. By the end, the audience wanted more from them, so it lent itself to the longer format. And I felt it would be much more interesting than the typical show if we [borrowed] a bit of that cinematic tradition — like films by Robert Altman and Spike Lee — where you really get a strong point-of-view and multiple stories are carefully woven together, and then apply it to TV.
It seems that in many ways, the film’s concerns and issues work even better in an extended TV series. What were the big themes you wanted to explore?
As with the film, it’s really a conversation about identity and self, and the roles that you play in society. We all do it in order to navigate society, but for people of color, those identities have been chosen for them, so it often takes us a lot longer to get to the heart of who we really are and what the self is. We’re taught from a very early age to always be aware that you’re different, and that people see you differently. We deal with all that through comedy and satire. It has a lot on its mind.
Where do you shoot?
All in LA. Most of the interiors are done at Tamarack Studios in Sun Valley, and then we shoot our exteriors at UCLA and at a former school in Alhambra.
Do you direct a lot of the episodes?
I direct some. I did three in the first season, and four in the second, but since I run the show along with Yvette Lee Bowser, I’m just too busy to direct them all. So I handpick other directors who come in, such as Barry Jenkins, Charlie McDowell, Tina Mabry and others. But they don’t come into this world to paint by numbers. It’s more a case of them riffing off of what I did, like a jazz musician. It’s a very cohesive and collaborative process, and I’m very involved in all the episodes.
Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, but to be honest I like directing and writing more. The storytelling is the part of the gig that I’m in it for. But it is satisfying to run the larger operation and work closely with all these fantastic writers, directors and actors, and creating this environment where they can all do their best work.
Where do you post?
All at Tamarack, and it’s very convenient since it’s important for me to be able to bounce between the set and the edit bay on each episode. We did all the sound at Warners, and the DI at Universal with colorist Scott Gregory.
Do you like the post process?
I love post because it’s where you figure out if what you shot really works, and it’s your last chance to write the show. It’s the final rewrite, and a chance to fix the things that don’t work, so it’s scary and challenging. Post is also where you get to see the arc of the whole season and see all the episodes as like a five-hour movie. It’s where I get to apply all my final ideas. When I’m writing the show, we’re in a process of discovery, and it’s not until post that you really get a sense of how the beginning fits with the end, and that what you’re trying to say is there and working.
Can you talk about the editing? You have several editors on the show, yes?
We use two editors per season. Phil Bartell, who cut the film for me, is always one of them. Steve Edwards was the other one on Season 1, and Omar Hassan-Reep was on Season 2. Post schedules are so jammed in TV that using two editors helps speed it all up. We allot a certain amount of time for each episode, so I can spend time with it. Same with the director and the editor.
You have a big cast and a lot of storylines. What are the big editing challenges?
The big one is that none of the show is turnkey. Directors don’t paint by numbers and the scripts are not written to any kind of format or formula — other than we stay with one point of view at a time. So that means that editing each episode is like editing its own mini-movie. One episode is film noir, another’s about mushrooms and hallucinations, so each one requires different styles, techniques, and different approaches work for different points of view. Each time we have to reinvent the wheel.
VFX play a big role in some episodes. Can you talk about working on them?
There’s far more than normal for a show like this, and mostly because social media is such an integral part of the characters’ lives. So we really try and use all that in a cinematic way and give you the feeling of what they’re going through instead of just cutting to the cell phone or computer every time. We really work hard to integrate all that.
Ingenuity does all the overlay VFX and it can take a while to figure it all out and get it right.
Unlike movies, sound in television has arguably always played second fiddle to the images, but this has a great score by Kris Bowers and great sound design. Please talk about the importance of sound and music to you.
Sound in movies has always gotten more attention, but TV’s changing and getting more cinematic. Music is so important to me, and I make sure the score isn’t just filler or interstitial — it has to be able to operate independently of the visuals, like it does with the movies of my favorite filmmakers, like Stanley Kubrick. It’s not just supplemental, and Kris is brilliant — just as adept at jazz as classical — and we have recurring themes and motifs and thematic hooks, and it’s very multi-layered.
How important are the Emmys to a show like this?
Very. We live in a world where there’s so much to watch now, and I don’t think there’s anything like it out there. But it can take effort to get people to watch and give the show and the characters a shot. So the Emmys can really help shine a light.
I’ll be directing my second film, which I wrote and is titled Bad Hair. It’s a horror satire that’s set in the late ‘80s about an ambitious young woman who wants to be a DJ but who doesn’t have the right look, so she gets a weave that may or may not have a mind of its own. I’m casting right now and hope to start shooting this summer.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.