3 Important Lessons from ‘Dear White People’ Writer Justin Simien
Chase Jarvis may have jokingly called “Dear White People” writer and creator Justin Simien a “10-year overnight success” during their chat on cjLIVE, but it’s actually a fairly accurate description. The film, which has now won a series of accolades including the Sundance Spirit Award, was a long time coming — and all the while, Justin was there pushing it along on good faith and a deep desire to make the movie he’d never seen himself as a film student. Taking a bit of an unusual approach, Justin launched the first trailer for the film long before the film itself was anywhere near being funded (and quit his job shortly thereafter) — but, he says, that was really the only way to do it.
Here are a few themes from his talk with Chase.
If it doesn’t exist, make it. Just because something hasn’t been done doesn’t mean something can’t be done — or shouldn’t be done.
“Let me tell you who was looking for this movie: Nobody.” explained Justin, who struggled to find funding for the film through traditional channels. A movie that dealt with race in an “artful, daring way” that included people of many races just wasn’t something he’d seen before, and that wasn’t a cultural gap that studios were looking to fix. Still, that exact
“When I was in film school, you saw black people in all black worlds,” he told Chase — which wasn’t his experience at all. “I felt like this was something new that I could add to the cultural conversation.”
Blazing the new trail certainly isn’t easy — “there’s no roadmap. And there were many times when it was just not working,” Justin confessed — but it is rewarding.
Some projects are a long time coming — and that’s ok. “Dear White People” hit theaters this year, but Justin, who has wanted to be a filmmaker his entire life, says he started writing it nearly a decade ago. For years — as he worked a day job in PR — the idea kicked around in his head, sometimes coming to the forefront, but usually residing as a kind of lingering desire.
“It’s a blessing to know what you want to do from an early age, but it’s a curse because you have many years of not doing it,” he explained. Eventually, though, he hit a point where he knew he needed to just commit. “I had a job that I liked and it paid me well, but it wasn’t what I liked, but it wasn’t what was in my heart to be doing…for me it was like, ‘I just need to do this. I can’t spend another year wishing I had done this.'”
Justin’s advice for knowing when it’s time to launch: “Find a project you can’t sleep at night without doing.” Then do that.
Your network really is your net worth. “I didn’t have anything. I had $2,000 and some friends,” he says of the making of the movie, whose original trailer was funded by crowdsourcing. “The best action that people could take was to give me some money.”
People did give.
“What ended up happening was we got to a million views and $25,000 in, like, three days. And we hit our IndieGoGo limit…right at the top of the campaign. And we were able to, really, in earnest, start pre-production.”
That same audience proved crucial in the making of the movie itself; Justin admits that he started using Twitter to test some of the material that would eventually end up in the movie.
Justin’s network also ended up being extremely valuable when he began to shop the movie around. Because he and his crew had already been able to draw so much momentum online — people were clamoring for more webisodes and other content — it was much easier to pitch the movie, get it fully funded, and then get it entered into festivals.
“The person who came in and financed it, it was based on watching our progress over a year and a half and looking at how we were able to build an audience….I never had to pitch it. I never had to start from zero.”
“Dear White People” is in select theaters now. You can watch Justin and Chase’s complete conversation here.
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