Interview with Nekisa Cooper producer of Pariah

After seeing the greatest film ever made, QFR caught up with “Pariah” producer, Nekisa Cooper. Now at work, on making a feature of the popular short, she was able to sit down and answer some of our questions! Her film, “Pariah”, recently went to the Sundance Film Festival. It is available to watch on the iTunes stores. Nekisa, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Pariah In “Pariah”, what character did you identify with the most, and what compelled you about him or her?

Nekisa Cooper: In “Pariah”, the character I identify with the most is the lead character Alike. I, like her, have felt like a chameleon that never quite fit in anywhere, especially right after I discovered I liked women. Once I accepted myself, which took me over 6 years, I felt compelled to figure out how to express myself and had some really funny and sad times coming to a space where I felt OK in my own skin.

QFR: What was it about “Pariah”, as well as Dee Rees, that encouraged you to take that leap to produce the film?

NC: I didn’t need any encouragement to produce “Pariah” or to work with Dee Rees. I had the pleasure of producing another one of Dee’s shorts titled “Orange Bow”, which chronicled the journey of a 16 year old black teenager juggling multiple obstacles on his way to a party. I don’t want to give away the story, but that film had a social consciousness bent to it and she was so innovative in the way she told the story that I knew I wanted to continue to work with her on whatever projects she had. Also, because the story of “Pariah” was very similar to my own, it was really an honor that Dee wanted me to produce for her.

Clip from “Orange Bow”

QFR: How did you address some of the production problems?

NC: First, I wouldn’t call them “production problems,” I’d call them “production challenges.” We faced the same challenges that most filmmakers face—financing and gathering dedicated crew for little money. I met those challenges head on with creative resourcefulness and a lot of planning—preproduction for the short was almost 6 months. When you have a small amount of money, you have to plan way ahead so that when you’re on set, the only challenges you are dealing with are the production specific ones, not getting the right people and equipment at the right place at the right time.

QFR: “Pariah” just opened a new space/// even if it’s just within myself. What other films/ works do you think allowed this film to be done?

NC: If you asked Dee that question, she would say her main influences were the literary works of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, etc. For me, whether it is a literary work or a Spike Lee film, any piece of media that gave voice to the voiceless served as an inspiration for us to tell this story. Our mission as a production company is to use the pop culture medium of film to serve the marginalized and misrepresented because we believe it has the power to make people aware and perhaps even change hearts and minds—even if it is just one heart and one mind—it’s absolutely worth it.

QFR: What was the location of the film? Dee Rees is from Tennessee, where are you from? And how do you think your geography
influenced the film?

NC: “Pariah” was shot in multiple locations in NYC. The main setting was the South Bronx, but we also shot in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Yes, Dee is from Tennessee and I’m actually a “military brat,” my father was in the Army and throughout my childhood I basically moved every 2-3 years. I’ve lived all over the southeastern US and also in Germany for 6 years.

QFR: Where’d the title come from? What does it mean to you?

NC: The title for the film was another sign of Dee’s brilliance. In one word it sums up the essence of the main character. She is a person who feels alienated even in places where she should be comfortable—at home, with her best friend at a club… The title and that sentiment—a pariah— really informed all of the aesthetic choices you see in the film, from the tight interior spaces to the spatial arrangement of the elements in a scene.

QFR: Can you speak more on Brad Young, director of photography? Where can we find more of his work/ his background? What do you think it is that makes the three of you work together so well?

NC: Brad Young, the director of photography for “Pariah” is like a brother to Dee and I. He is an exceptionally talented artist who not only works well with moving images, but is also an incredible still photographer. He went to Howard for his MFA in film and he has shot numerous commercials, music videos, You can check out more of his work on his website— Brad, Dee and I work so well together because we truly look at each other as family and we’re all determined to sacrifice as needed to tell our stories. He is an incredibly collaborative partner that makes Dee and I better at what we do and I feel so blessed to have him on our team.

QFR: Adepero Oduye. How did you find her? Why did you choose her?

NC: You may not believe this, but we found Adepero Oduye, who plays the lead character in the film, on the first day of auditions at NYU. She is a rising star in the NY scene having done LAW & ORDER, ON THE OUTS, and a small part in HALF NELSON. She is represented, but actually saw our casting breakdown online and submitted herself to audition. We loved her look instantly as we were perusing headshots and we were blown away by her audition. Dee knew right away that she was “the one,” but my producer’s instinct wanted her to see more people. Honestly, though, when her audition was over and she left the room, I rushed to the bathroom and didn’t expect to find her in there, but she was there changing from the more masculine clothes she had worn to the audition into much more feminine garb and I almost cried right there in the bathroom. Just from reading the casting breakdown, she had the foresight and intuition to prepare in such a way that she was Alike on the first day of auditions… I’m sure she thought I was crazy, but at that moment I knew she was “the one,” too.

QFR: When did you know you were going to become a filmmaker?

NC: Filmmaking is actually my third career. I know today that everything I have done in the past has led me to producing film, but if you’d asked me 4 years ago what I’d be doing today, I definitely wouldn’t have said producing. It would’ve been more along the lines of Marketing Director for Colgate Palmolive in Australia or something. Right after I graduated with my BA, I went and coached college basketball and then I thought that I would go back to school to get an MBA so that I could work in athletics administration and I got the “brand management” bug. I interned at SC Johnson on a Glade product and was hooked on the idea that through these consumer products I could learn how to run a business so I pursued brand management and wound up, for my second career, working at companies Colgate Palmolive, L’Oreal, and General Electric on everything from kids toothbrushes to credit cards. Although the money was great and the learning was incredible, I didn’t feel fulfilled and it wasn’t until I found Dee and film that I was able to marry my skills with my passion and I’m never letting go.

–reviewed by jade foster

for more information:
Pariah: Official Website

One Comment

  1. Abbey wrote:

    This is a great interview — thanks for sharing with us.