Carey Mulligan, Mary J Blige, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Headland and director Dee Rees talk through their Oscar-bound adaptation of Hillary Jordan's 2008 historical novel
Ensemble piece Mudbound arrives on Netflix on November 17, telling an unflinching tale of how racism and PTSD affect two families – one black, one white – in 1940s Mississippi, both before and after WWII. NME sat down with the film’s cast and director to talk it out.
Dee – what was is it about the novel that made you want to write and direct the film?
DR: “I was drawn to the multiple points of view. It’s an interesting black story that’s told from different points of view and that’s what I was drawn to – specifically the inner monologues are what I found most interesting, versus the dialogue between characters. I wanted to make this balance and give it a story of two families. It’s a dark symbiotic relationship showing how they’re both connected to each other because of trauma, because of disinheritance, feelings of economic disparity, motherhood – and also, they’re rooted to the land. They’re all stuck in the muck.
“The challenge with this kind of work is in trying to make it everyone’s story. That can quickly make it no one’s story, and so I like projects that are risky and scary and that aren’t sure-shots. That’s why I wanted to attack this film and have a true ensemble cast, have this multiplicity of relationships where these actors aren’t just managing one arc – they’re managing many arcs. Florence has got this relationship with Hap, she has this relationship with Ronsel, she has this relationship with Laura… so for an actor, these guys are pulling off an amazing feat, not just managing one arc. They’re managing, like, five.”
Mary – how did you go about transforming into Florence?
DR: “You know, one actor in the room didn’t recognise her. One of the actors playing her son, literally two feet away, because Mary was so deep between takes.”
Mary J Blige: “Mary J Blige – the business, not the person – is manufactured, material, vain. Once I saw Florence’s wardrobe and I found that I couldn’t wear any lace fronts, and I couldn’t get a perm, and I couldn’t wear lashes, and I couldn’t wear nails. I had to shatter the manufactured ‘business Mary’. Once I shattered her it was easy for me to say ‘you know what, I’m gonna give every piece of darkness that I’m dealing with right now – because I have some challenges in my life as well – so I’m gonna give you all of this heaviness and all of this sadness and insecurity and feeling inferior. But I’m also gonna give you Mary’s strength, so you can have all these different things. Once I committed to Florence, Florence actually started saving Mary’s life.”
What were you channelling in particular?
MJB: “All of the sadness that I was feeling – I’m in the middle of a divorce, and during that time I wasn’t divorced yet, I was just in the middle of thinking: ‘Something’s wrong and I can’t prove what’s wrong, but I’m sad and I’m miserable and I’ve been sad and miserable for five years now’. I just gave that five years of misery to Florence, so she can look at her children like: ‘I love you and I don’t want anything to happen to you’, and look at her husband like: ‘I’m gonna take care of you and protect you the way I’m supposed to’, and to love her son Ronsel so much because he’s not there. He’s not there and she wants to make sure he comes home alive, and that part is the part where I say I have to survive this thing. It was too heavy, so I gave all that to Florence.”
Is it true that Adam Sandler helped get the film picked up by Netflix?
DR: “Yeah. I don’t know when, but he saw the film and got [Netflix’s chief content officer] Ted Sarandos to watch. I think people are debating the merits of a film being on Netflix and I would just say that if it weren’t for Netflix, this film wouldn’t be seen right now. The studios were afraid of this film. They had reduced it and made it very small. They focussed it just on race, but this is a film about family. This is a film about citizenship, about country. And I think Netflix is forcing people to think more expansively about the material.”
How did working on this film change your understanding of American history, Carey?
Carey Mulligan: “Part of the reason I was interested in the film in the first place is that it was a period of history that I didn’t really know anything about, or hadn’t thought about: I hadn’t thought about the fact that there – of course – were black soldiers fighting for America in the war, risking their lives for their country, getting killed and the survivors coming home and being treated the way they were. I hadn’t imagined it – I’ve never seen a picture of a black solider in the war. To learn that when they returned from war they returned into segregation and were treated differently to their white counterparts was really shocking. And it was also a really interesting time for women. In Britain, women went into the workplace and left their family bases and started working, which gave them a whole different experience in life which was empowering but also very confusing. All of that sort of stuff was very interesting to get into.”
What was it like shooting in the Deep South?
CM: “It was pretty uncomfortable. It was really hot, sweaty, it rained a lot and it was baking a lot. We were eaten alive by mosquitoes and we had a snake wrangler on set to keep us safe from the snakes. And he did find a lot of snakes.”
JC: “We were at an old plantation. It was an hour and a half outside of New Orleans and it is plantation alley – there were swamps and ‘gators. It’s for real. It was oppressive.”
Jason and Garrett – what was it like shooting the Klan scene?
Jason Mitchell: “That day I broke down. There was a lot of tears. I’m getting emotional thinking about it. Everybody under those hoods are not bad people. They were definitely there for me. The guy who was holding the rope, I even had to be aggressive with him, like: ‘No, you gotta choke me, if you don’t choke me then it’s not right.’ Nobody wanted to go there, but we realised that if we didn’t do that right then it would change the whole film. And Garrett – he’s a kickass partner. I couldn’t have asked for nobody better to do this film with.
Garrett Hedlund: “Those scenes were obviously sickening to film, sickening to watch, but in the book, Hillary Jordan did a wonderful job and this was a depiction of what happened to these particular families and this particular story at this particular time. We were just trying to do our best and fulfil our characters.”
JM: “Jonathan Banks actually had a hard day that day too. He cried a bunch that day. He just was like: ‘I can’t believe people do stuff like this.'”
Jason Clarke: “But Jonathan doesn’t moan about it, that’s what he had to bring. He had to bring it. I think there was a number actors that were scared and didn’t want the role because of it – they’d said: ‘I don’t feel like doing that now.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think that the film has shown that it was more than worthwhile to do, and that the reasons for doing it are good.”
Can you describe what it was like working with Jonathan Banks?
JM: “Jonathan is so dope. I’ll never forget when I read the script: that was one of the only things that turned my stomach, like ‘who’s gonna play Pappy?’ Then when I met Jonathan, he was just the sweetest guy. He takes the craft so seriously, but at the same time it breaks him to have to do things like that. The day that he has to drop the N-bomb on me right to my face as I’m trying to walk out of that door – oh, so tough for him. He was like: ‘I’ve got a few of these in me and then… I can’t keep doing this.'”
GH: “At the end of that that scene, I walked into the hotel and he was just sitting there, and nobody was in the hotel bar. He’s sitting there by himself, and I just walked up, and he goes: ‘You guys just did something that you’re gonna be proud of for the rest of your life.'”
What was it like incorporating that racism – to be that person?
JC: “Dee and Jason and Rob and Mary J and everyone else on set were really great about really encouraging it and opening it up. We were there to tell a story we believe in, and that’s the reason I wanted to play Henry and wanted to be part of what this story is. It’s a big, well-rounded ensemble, whereas a lot of times the scene is sort of chiseled down where, let’s say, the McAllans get smaller and smaller with the oppression and that’s that.
“What Dee has done is kept the size and the scope, so that it still tells all these individual stories, but you still get the overall picture. I think that gives a better education and empathy for what really is the heart of it for her as a filmmaker.”
At this year’s Sundance, for the first time one third of the films there were directed by women. Is that increase noticeable in the industry as a whole?
CM: “That’s a great statistic. That’s impressive. In the UK only 4.5% of films made this year were made by women. So – that’s great, but we’ve also got a huge disparity with a long, long way to go. And it’s just about films like this being recognised, and the fact that it was directed by a woman, and it’s a brilliant film. If this film was directed by a man he’d be offered the next Star Wars film, because it is such a good film and if that happens to a man in this industry they immediately jump to the top of the pile and get offered everything under the sun.”
JC: “Absolutely. If you manage to direct a big epic movie and bring it in on time and on budget and get the right amount of scope and the characters, then absolutely you jump to the top.”
CM: “But the question is whether or not that will happen because Dee is a woman — and it should by every other standard. By merit she should probably win best director [at the Academy Awards] in February. But I don’t know if we’re there yet. We should be, but we might not be.”
Mudbound is on Netflix and in cinemas with Curzon now