Note: An abridged version of this interview was first featured on Loop 21.
Justin Simien took the internet by storm last summer when he released the trailer for his directorial debut film, Dear White People, “a satire about being a Black face in a white place.” Those who wanted to see the witty one-liners and captivating plot line come to the big screen were asked to donate and spread the word. In just one month, the campaign raised over $40,000 on Indiegogo and established a loyal fan base. A year later, Dear White People just finished shooting in Minneapolis. Writer, Director, and Producer Justin Simien took time out of his busy shooting schedule to discuss how social media made Dear White People possible.
Who are you?
I see myself as a storyteller, first and foremost. I think that it’s the job of storytellers to put life into some sort of perspective, and for me that means telling the truth; even though I work in fiction, movies and in—you know—the lie. I went to Pomona Arts High School and my acting teacher always said that theater, sound and narrative is the lie that tells the truth. All the situations are fictional, but the purpose of it is to hold a mirror up and tell the truth about the given thing.
As a storyteller, my responsibility is to always to tell the truth about something and to show something that hasn’t been seen the way that I see it. And if I can do that and find an audience for it, I feel like I’m living up to what I’ve been put here to do.
Can you describe Dear White People in three words?
I’d say that it’s satirical, surprising and bold.
And what about the journey from its inception until now?
Challenging, long, and unexpected.
When you started the Dear White People Twitter page, what were your wildest expectations? Did you have any idea that social media would play such a big role in the filmmaking process?
I thought it might, but I didn’t really have a lot of expectations for it because the script had already been around under a different name for about six years. I started the Twitter account because I wanted to work on the voice of Sam White, the character in the film who has the radio show, “Dear White People,” that starts the initial controversy. I wanted to test her humor out and see how people would respond to it. Plus, it was the sort of humor that lent itself to Twitter.
To me, it was just a tool as a screenwriter. I’ve always been a filmmaker, but I earned my money doing marketing and publicity, specifically online, so I understand social media. It’s the language of our generation. I always knew that it would play a part, but I didn’t realize how big a part until after the trailer took off the way it did.
Did you initially have an elaborate social media strategy? Or did the publicity and subsequent funding come organically?
I think it’s always important to have a strategy, but I also think that you really can’t plan for every scenario. I knew that I wanted to put the trailer out and give people a call to action. If people were moved by it in some way, I wanted to give them something to do. We also needed some money so the thought was to pair up a fundraising campaign with the trailer.
I didn’t realize as many people would donate or that we were gonna reach that number in any way, shape or form. But I knew that there should be something in place because if we had only raised $5,000 and gotten 100,000 views, that’s still something I could’ve taken into a pitch meeting to say, “Hey! Look at this audience that showed up for this concept trailer.”
What are some of the main challenges that come with crowd-funding and independent filmmaking in general?
When people don’t know who you are and you don’t have any brand recognition, you really need to do something special in order to get people to give at the level needed to make a film. With our film it was really difficult because I made a concept trailer with some friends who helped me workshop the script and a couple people we brought in to read, but we were just making a trailer.
It was great that we raised $46,000 and it was great that people loved the look of the trailer and all that, but the truth is that we needed over $1 million and part of that meant that I would have to go through a real casting process in order to make everyone happy and to give myself the opportunity to ensure that everyone was right for each part. And so that was a little difficult for us because not everyone understood that piece of it. I think a lot of people wondered why the movie wasn’t just out in theaters. [Laughs]
I wish I could make a feature film for $46,000 at this scope, but I can’t. There was a lot more that had to happen after the trailer popped off. Luckily, there are a few familiar faces from the trailer in the movie. There are new faces, too, in some of those roles. It’s been a challenge to communicate that to our fan base, but it’s the journey that you have to go on when you make a movie.
With more and more filmmakers using Kickstarter and Indiegogo to fund their films, some people fear that it’s becoming harder to identify worthy projects. Other than making quality art, what are some tangible ways for filmmakers to make sure that their film gets noticed and fully funded?
This is a medium where you have to have an audience show up. You have to! And so I would say, put your best work out there and “wow” people. You have to do something really unique and special to pop against all these other projects.
If for whatever reason the results aren’t what you hoped they would be, that’s okay too. At the end of the day, if you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re getting it done, the rest of it doesn’t really matter.
Don’t compare yourself to other projects and really put your best effort out there. That’s what we did with the trailer. The mantra was that this couldn’t look like the typical movie trailer. It had to feel like it was cut from a finished, funded, great-looking movie. We were relentless about not compromising, even though we had limited funds and limited time to make it look really sharp and professional.
How did you go about finding your audience?
You really can’t find them. You have to just do something that people respond to. There was an article up on Shadow and Act, the Black independent film blog on Indiewire, and that was kind of it. And I told everyone in my life about it, obviously. The day the trailer launched, everyone who knew me got an email. [Laughs] Truly, the audience found us.
The best you can do is to keep engaging the audience once they show up, which is what we’ve been trying to do through our social media pages with materials and information about our journey so that the people who showed up for us can stay engaged and get special updates and all those sorts of things. But we didn’t find them; they found us.
As a recent graduate of a PWI [predominately white institution], I can definitely relate to all of the issues presented in the trailer, among many more. But why is Dear White People an important film for all people to see? What makes it universal?
I think that it’s an important film for all people to see for a few reasons. At the end of the day, race serves as the backdrop of the film, but it’s not about race. It’s about being othered and about being the only “blank” in a given place and not seeing yourself in the culture. And that’s not just something that Black people can respond to. Feeling different than what the culture says you should be and fighting against that to find your true potential in life is a universal, human condition. I happen to be talking about it from the point of view of the Black man, but everyone can relate to that particular feeling.
In Hollywood, we’re in a place now where Black films are specifically for Black people and Black people “only want to see these types of movies.” It’s gotten very myopic and I think it’s important to shake that kind of thing up every once in a while. I don’t happen to see things in the way that other prevalent Black filmmakers may see them so I have to create a lane for myself and hopefully in doing so, an audience who hasn’t gone to the movies in a while and seen themselves will show up for what I’m doing.
Lastly, what do you have to say to those who still underestimate the power of social media and personal storytelling?
In my life, the more honest I am and the more true to myself that I am, the more success that I find. I’ve worked in a number of things before and I’ve tried to get a number of things off the ground. Dear White People was one of the stories that was always really personal to me and really true to my heart. And I could just see it in people’s eyes like, “Oh gosh, that’ll never happen. Good luck with that.”
Spending the last eight years, since I finished the first draft of the script, getting past all that doubt has proven to me that you have to go with what you know. You’ve gotta go with what’s in your heart to tell and what’s in your heart to do and people will just show up. That’s been my experience.
And in terms of social media, it’s the voice of my generation. It’s how we absorb communication. And that’s only going to continue and increase whether you like it or not. From the ground up, it’s probably always going to be a part of my process. And I think that it will probably be the new norm in the future.