Dee Rees Takes on Didion

Tamara Warren
Photo credit: Shayan Asgharnia

From ELLE

When Dee Rees met author Sarah M. Broom in 2012, they made a bet over who owned more books. Broom sent Rees a photo of a tall stack in her bathroom. “She had more books than me in [that] one room—it’s crazy,” Rees says.

It was Broom who introduced the 43-year-old Oscar nominee to the work of Joan Didion. Rees started with Play It As It Lays, Didion’s 1970 novel about an actress experiencing a mental breakdown, adapted for the screen by Mommie Dearest director Frank Perry. Next came The Last Thing He Wanted, about which a New York Times critic wrote, “The story comes to us in fragments, out of sequence, full of mystery, littered with glances at the movie it might make—will make, if we are lucky.” Rees, now married to Broom, has brought us that movie.

“I’m trying to make movies that are about someone’s lived experience,” says the director, whose work up until now—like the unflinching, character-driven Mudbound and her semi-autobiographical debut Pariah—has centered on identity. She says she was drawn to The Last Thing’s “strangely omniscient narrator,” as well as its treatment of family relationships and legacy.

Photo credit: Laura T Magruder

Considering that her HBO biopic on Bessie Smith earned four Emmys and that Mudbound was nominated for four Oscars (including best adapted screenplay, making her the first black woman to achieve that honor), it’s surprising to learn that directing is Rees’s second act. Raised in Tennessee, she moved to Florida to attend business school, then began a career in brand marketing, “where I was selling toothpaste and hating life,” she says. She quit corporate America, enrolled in NYU’s film school, and eventually landed an internship on the set of Inside Man with her professor Spike Lee. “She was a hard worker,” Lee told Time in 2017, when asked for a first impression of his former student and mentee.

Following Mudbound’s acclaim, Rees optioned the rights to The Last Thing He Wanted, which chronicles the unraveling of a woman’s life amid a political scandal not unlike the Iran-contra affair. Anne Hathaway stars as disillusioned journalist Elena McMahon; Willem Dafoe plays her father, Dick; and Ben Affleck is Treat Morrison, a mysterious, highly connected American government official who has his hands in everything. Under Rees’s direction, the script fills in Didion’s blanks while preserving her sharp prose and fluid observations.

As Elena, Hathaway plays a weathered beat reporter who longs to return to investigative journalism. Her character has dusty blond hair and spends too much time in the sun. “[Hathaway] came in for fittings, and though she doesn’t even smoke, she was like, ‘Do you want to get a cigarette?’ ” Rees says. “It was this gruff thing.” Rees mines the vantage point of Elena and her friend, a photojournalist played by Rosie Perez, working in a jocular, aggressive press scrum, and is quick to note that while The Last Thing takes place in the Reagan-Bush years, the issues at hand feel current.

Photo credit: Laura T Magruder - Netflix

“[Televangelist] Jerry Falwell is talking about Nicaragua, about abortion rates,” Rees says of the film, much of which was shot in Puerto Rico, post–Hurricane Maria. “People were rebuilding their homes, rebuilding their lives. It was a complicated place to be.”

Rees comes alive as she raves about the cast in detail, explaining how strong acting performances inspire her nonstop pace. She’s already at work on her next project, a fantasy musical called The Kyd’s Exquisite Follies. “Ideas don’t wait their turn,” she says. “I want to create work that lasts and make films that matter 20 years from now.”

This article appears in the March 2020 issue of ELLE.

Get the latest issue of ELLE

You Might Also Like