Unhealthy Hair: Pricey White Folks creator explains horror film’s politics

[Ed. note: A short excerpt from this interview ran in January in conjunction with Bad Hair’s premiere at Sundance 2020.]

It’s laborious to overstate the seeming camp worth of Unhealthy Hair, Justin Simien’s newly launched Hulu horror-satire a few Black girl whose weave begins murdering individuals. Set in 1989, it’s a throwback to an period when absolutely anything may very well be a horror-movie antagonist, together with an evil flooring lamp.

However Simien’s follow-up to Pricey White Folks and his Netflix collection of the identical identify is rather more difficult than the tagline makes it appear. Elle Lorraine stars as Anna, a TV govt hoping to turn into the subsequent huge VJ star. Her flashy new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams) thinks she has potential — however provided that she updates her fashion to match the glossy new look of feminine pop stars like Sandra (Kelly Rowland). Anna complies, heading to hairdressing famous person Virgie (Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox) for a weave. However the course of of getting hair sewn onto her scalp is bloody and traumatizing, and the brand new hair has a vicious thoughts of its personal, in ways in which mirror each Simien’s personal life as a Black artist making an attempt to slot in, and his tastes in classical filmmaking. Polygon sat down with Simien at Sundance to speak about Unhealthy Hair’s difficult politics, and to think about the difficulties of working with evil hair.

This interview has been edited for concision and readability.

You’ve stated Unhealthy Hair was partially impressed by the Korean horror movie The Wig, which led you down a path of obsessing over Asian hair-horror. Do you might have a private Finest Evil Hair Motion pictures listing?

Justin Simien: The Wig and Exte: Hair Extensions are fairly laborious to beat. Like a number of nice Korean horror films, they use the premise to enter every kind of locations — like, The Wig goes into trans points. They’re each actually out-there films. It felt like there was a blueprint there to create one thing new, however American, which I used to be shocked hadn’t occurred already. On the boys’s facet of issues, there was “Hell Toupee,” an episode of Wonderful Tales a few toupee from hell, and [the anthology Body Bags] includes a balding man who will get these items that sparks evil hair. I believed, “That’s attention-grabbing territory for a film.”

I felt like a Black girl needed to be on the middle of a film like that, as a result of with this style, you’ve received to have a Last Woman. That’s the way in which we’ve processed psychological thrillers and horror. And I felt like there was a possibility there to do what white male filmmakers did with Carrie, and Dressed To Kill, and Rosemary’s Child, the place you utilize style machinations to tug in all these cinematic types that usually don’t match collectively. In psychological thrillers, as a result of they function on such a unconscious degree, you’ll be able to go there just a little bit extra. And once they’re performed in a sure method, they’re saying one thing about society. That’s actually the place it began for me.

Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine, and Lena Waithe stare offscreen in Bad Hair by Justin Simien

Picture: Sundance Institute

After which the subsequent step for me was to seek out actually sensible Black ladies and ask, “Hey, I’m not a Black girl, however I’m marginalized in a bunch of the way. I’m homosexual, and rising up, I felt extra at dwelling in Black feminine tradition than I did in Black male tradition. I really feel like I’ve one thing to say right here. However what are your experiences?” And lots of horrifying hair experiences got here up, like enjoyable your hair and getting a chemical burn, or the precise technique of getting a weave.

I talked to ladies who had been getting weaves in 1989. The styling, the way in which we do Anna’s hair within the movie, is the strategy of the time, other than the blood and the witchcraft. As horrifying because the weave strategies sounded to me, the true horror I felt was coming by way of was the sensation that Black ladies continuously have to decide on between themselves and their ambitions. Coming as you’re is rarely the primary possibility. Perhaps you’re a girl who likes to have her hair straight, or possibly you like it kinky and pure, however “as you’re” is rarely the primary alternative. It’s important to determine, “What do they need?” After which, “What elements of myself do I’ve to chop off to slot in the field of what they need?”

That’s the horror that was being communicated to me, and that’s after I received enthusiastic about this movie, as a result of now we’re speaking a few system. We’re not moralizing a lady’s alternative. We’re exploring a system the place selections are introduced, however are they ever actually selections? When you’re instructed, “Get a weave or be fired,” is {that a} alternative?

I might relate to that additionally, as a homosexual Black filmmaker. What are the tales that might by no means even happen to me to inform, that I’ll by no means inform, that can simply die in my soul as a result of I’ve to make sure selections to slot in that field? To make it to Netflix, to make it into theaters, to go to Sundance, to get picked up, to get a finances to inform a much bigger story. I’ve to ask, “What selections do I’ve to make to get in these containers?” earlier than I may even test in with who I’m or what I wish to do.

As soon as I spotted that’s what I used to be speaking about with this movie, I hung a number of obsessions that felt associated to that onto it: the time interval of 1989, the New Jack Swing motion, which is occurring within the background of the movie. The slave folklore that the majority Black individuals had been by no means taught about — individuals usually, however particularly for Black of us, that is precise knowledge from our ancestors, the primary of our individuals who stepped foot on this nation, who skilled the American system. I simply felt like all of that belongs in the identical film. [Laughs] “Nobody’s tried to do that earlier than, and I’m in all probability not supposed to do that.” That’s after I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna do this.”

Laverne Cox in Bad Hair


You’ve talked in regards to the issue of being pigeonholed as a Black comedy director. Did you wish to develop into horror partially to get exterior that field?

It’s not even a fallacious factor. It’s simply that I do really feel like this style — horror, psychological thriller, no matter we name it, it’s all form of the identical style. That is the one the place filmmakers actually get to play. Particularly, white male filmmakers. That’s once they get to throw all their obsessions and fetishes on the door. Beginning, actually, with Hitchcock. I feel Vertigo started this custom of white males having the ability to actually throw their fetishes and obsessions into a movie, to make one thing actually private, and possibly just a little soiled, and possibly just a little odd. All of the issues you’ll be able to’t be in different conventional genres.

And so I wished in! I wished in on that style, completely. Simply because I knew I might play, and create one thing dense and sophisticated and mangled, feeling not comfortable and uncomfortable as a part of the expertise. I knew if I used to be going to make issues that inform uncomfortable truths, that is likely to be a cool style to do it in. I began writing a remedy for this proper after we did Pricey White Folks. After which when Get Out got here into theaters, it was like, “Okay, now there’s a longtime market. Let’s truly make this film.”

When I talked to you for Pricey White Folks, a number of that dialog was in regards to the course of of making a viral viewers, and utilizing your advertising expertise to get to a spot the place you may get funded. Have you ever discovered it any simpler now, particularly submit Get Out?

No. [Laughs] There’s nothing simple about it. We made this film independently, however it’s been six years since my first film. There have been loads of films that I’ve been hooked up to, or tried to make, or no matter, at studios, in any respect the completely different ranges. It’s not simple. You might be speaking a few solid of among the most proficient individuals, award-winning, A-list. However once they’re Black, particularly in the event that they’re Black ladies, all of a sudden individuals get chilly toes. “Oh, I don’t know if we all know the way to attain these individuals. We don’t know the way to help this movie.”

It’s wild. I speak about this with my white pals and my Black pals, however particularly filmmakers who went to Sundance [the same year he was accepted there with Dear White People]. The distinction between our experiences after which can be clear. And I’m not complaining, as a result of having a present on Netflix go for 4 years, I’m very happy with that. Attending to make a second film, I’m very happy with that. However I’m conscious of the checks I by no means received, I’m conscious of the conferences I by no means received, I’m conscious of the pitches that by no means went went to a inexperienced mild.

As a result of I additionally produce a present, and I’m a showrunner, I get to be an advocate. One in all my favourite issues is to see Black ladies administrators work on Pricey White Folks. As a result of on my set, you are able to do no matter you need, so long as it’s cinematic. If it’s primarily based on the character journey, do regardless of the fuck you need.

It’s cool to see individuals who don’t get these alternatives doing that. I’m very conscious that the system is just not actually reduce out for individuals who aren’t white males to get on the market and discover their passions, and discover bizarre shit about themselves as artists. A part of making this film is just a little rebellious streak in me, like, “I get to make these form of films too!” And I get to make them about Black tales, they usually get to be difficult, they usually get to boost questions. It’s the identical spirit with which I made Pricey White Folks.

Anna (Elle Lorraine) weeps while getting a torturous weave in Bad Hair

Picture: Tobin Yellan / Hulu

The tone of this film is so difficult — it’s camp, it’s a drama about racial points, there’s gore, there’s politics. How did you navigate placing all these various things on high of one another?

I’m simply listening to the melody in my very own head. I acknowledge that oftentimes, it’s not a melody different persons are singing. [Laughs] However I really like films when there’s nothing else like them. We needed to get used to Brian De Palma. We needed to get used to Stanley Kubrick. We needed to get used to Roman Polanski — I’m not going into the horrific nature of his actual life and politics. However as filmmakers, these white males made us used to the artwork they make. So a part of it’s, these items really feel proper in my soul, so I’m going to mix them in the way in which that feels proper to me. Pricey White Folks was the identical method.

Once I rewatch a few of my favourite films, I’m stunned — I keep in mind Carrie completely different from after I watch it. Similar with The Shining, and Physique Snatchers, Dressed To Kill, The Wicker Man. They really have these extremely screwball-comedy moments, and sci-fi moments, and camp, B-movie components. And so they all go collectively. What’s the unifying factor about all of them? That director is obsessive about all these issues, so they only put them of their film. That’s why Vertigo is so good, despite the fact that nothing about it makes any fucking sense, or ought to work. [Laughs] Hitchcock was simply really obsessive about these issues.

I simply wished to present myself the expertise of following that, but in addition pair that with actual, fixed conversations with the experiences of precise Black ladies. All the time, I wished to ask Black ladies, “Did I get your expertise proper? What you’re telling me is horrifying, and must be interrogated.” These are the 2 driving philosophies of Unhealthy Hair: What am I obsessive about? And what are my chosen sisters telling me is on their minds?

Unhealthy Hair jogged my memory in elements of Suspiria, and The Shining, and Little Store of Horrors. There are such a lot of components in play. Do any of these really feel like influences for you?

Completely. Particularly Little Store. The best way the music works on this film is like little Greek choruses. The songs are designed in the identical method New Jack Swing is. These 1990s songs are bops, they usually actually make you wish to dance. However then you definately begin to take heed to the messages, and also you’re like, “Oh, that feels form of rapey!” Or “That’s very misogynistic, truly.” I imply, “Poison,” which is like one among my favourite songs of all time is principally, “Don’t belief that woman, she’s enticing!” [Laughs] However all of us dance to it, as a result of it makes us really feel good!

However these are the matters Black individuals might sing about on the time. These are the songs their white-owned document labels allowed them to do. We’re by no means actually in command of the system, even after we’re allowed to get sure levers in it. And I believed like, “Oh, that may very well be cool to borrow from.”

And that’s what Little Store of Horrors does. That trio [of singers] seems each time one thing scary is about to occur, virtually to warn the characters. In Unhealthy Hair, it form of works in reverse. It’s within the tradition round Anna, simply earlier than she comes to a decision, or simply earlier than one thing occurs to her, feeding her this message, pulling her deeper into the film, getting us and her conditioned to make sure selections.

Amos (Blair Underwood) holds up a book of African folklore displaying a monster called The Moss Haired Girl in Bad Hair

Picture: Tobin Yellan / Hulu

Anna’s characterization is uncommon. She needs to be a star, she needs to be a pacesetter and form different individuals’s tastes. However she’s so susceptible, shy, and awkward. She has such a tough time talking up for herself. What went into constructing her?

On each degree, any character somebody writes might be a model of them. I feel Anna might be elements of my inside female blended in with actual conversations with Black ladies. The factor I felt is true about her, which is true about me and true about ladies I talked to is that we acknowledge that we will’t be seen in any respect, except we take the aspirational bait. She’s grown up on Sandra films and Sandra music movies, her entire life. And that’s a part of why it’s so cool to me that Kelly Rowland [who plays Sandra] and Elle Lorraine, who performs Anna, look form of comparable. Anna’s thrust into this tradition in society the place she’s not singing, she’s not heard from, she’s made to really feel ashamed of who she is of course is. The one factor dangling in entrance of her instead is Sandra’s model of being a girl, so after all that’s the model she gravitates towards.

I’ve parallels to that as a filmmaker. I solely have a couple of selections out there, as I see it, to do the issues I’m making an attempt to do on this lifetime. It doesn’t matter that I’m an introvert. It doesn’t matter that my obsessions are weird and disparate. I nonetheless wish to be seen! Anna’s ambition is partly hers, and partly not-hers. It’s partly an ambition she inherited. You’ll be able to see the seeds of her conditioning from her aunt, from her uncle, from the tales she’s instructed, from the place she works, from the music movies, from her obsession with Sandra.

And since we’re not in control of this society, our aspirations will not be actually ours. One of many issues I feel is so attention-grabbing in regards to the idea of want, like, “What do you wish to be if you develop up?” is you can solely actually choose from the issues that exist in society already. Nobody wish to be an astronaut earlier than individuals went to area. Nobody might wish to be a filmmaker earlier than there was movie. You’re restricted and outlined by the alternatives tradition provides you.

Anna is simply given a couple of choices of the way to be on the earth, as a way to be seen. Not even to outlive or thrive, however to simply even be allowed for individuals to know who she is, and that she belongs within the room. She’s solely given a couple of variations of girl to be, and she or he picks the one which’s closest to her. In order that’s why she’s like a bundle of all of these tensions, nervousness and naïveté and shyness, however ambition and power, as a result of that’s telling the reality, as I see it.

Zora (Vanessa Williams) and Anna (Elle Lorraine) sit in a business meeting after Anna gets her new weave in Bad Hair

Picture: Tobin Yellan / Hulu

It’s so frequent for horror films’ Last Ladies to show into grim action-hero badasses. However Anna stays susceptible as much as the tip. She by no means will get previous being scared. Was that an necessary plot level for you?

I don’t suppose it was like a particular alternative, like “It needs to be like this!” However I do really feel like a number of instances, a minimum of for my part, when the Last Woman turns into all that, it’s very fetishy. It’s a person’s fetish about what a robust girl ought to be and really feel like. The reality of the matter is that I’m scared. Like, I’m scared proper now! I’m scared with each step I absorb American society! That’s simply me being sincere. There’s a false narrative that claims, “It’s important to be this sturdy, impenetrable, invulnerable, unfeeling factor as a way to survive!” That’s a bullshit lie. That’s a jail in disguise. This felt extra sincere to me.

And a part of it’s, Elle is simply so fucking nice at being susceptible on digicam, and taking us emotionally into issues which can be so absurd. She finds the human notice to strike. My job as a director is to hear as a lot as it’s to talk, and to lean into the alternatives my actors are making. This simply felt like probably the most genuine one to me.

What’s concerned in directing an evil weave? Among the hair results in Unhealthy Hair are CGI, however you utilize a number of puppetry and stop-motion sensible results, too.

The corporate that did it’s referred to as Alterian. Tony Gardner, who innovated a number of particular results, we had a dialog early on about how the idea is nuts, so we gotta floor individuals in a actuality that feels bodily. There have been hair-related issues in in style tradition that I don’t suppose are terribly profitable, as a result of they relied on CGI. I felt between capturing on movie and utilizing actual hair… One, it appeared like a very enjoyable method to make a film. It felt just like the form of moviemaking I grew up considering I’d get to do. Not being in an antiseptic pc lab the place you’re punching in knowledge and seeing issues on the display screen. I grew up watching George Lucas principally play with what regarded like toys to make Star Wars, and Steven Spielberg working with puppets. So it felt like a enjoyable method to make the film. Nevertheless it’s additionally a method to floor the ridiculousness of it. As unbelievable as it’s, you’re seeing it taking place. Even after we’re accentuating the results pictures with digital results, there’s that base there of actual hair, actually doing issues — actually grabbing individuals, actually braiding itself.

There’s a number of reverse images that we used, a number of tips. We threw hair in water tanks and spiraled it and noticed what it did. A lot stuff comes from the physicality of constructing it with actual stuff that might by no means happen to you an animator sitting in a room, considering, “What would hair do if it was alive?” This fashion, we might see. In order that’s why. However the greatest purpose was, it was simply actually enjoyable.

What’s your finest hair-wrangling story?

There was simply hair all over the place, on a regular basis. You understand, it was humorous, ‘trigger we had been truly capturing on movie, and “Examine the gate” after we had been clearing the digicam was not a euphemism. We actually needed to test the gate, as a result of oftentimes there was hair within the gate. [Laughs] On this film, hair was simply in all types of locations you didn’t suppose hair ought to be. We’d all go dwelling on the finish of every day pulling strands out of assorted orifices and nooks and crannies.

I don’t have any horror tales, however the factor about sensible results is, you provide you with all these items — Alterian examined for a very long time — however then you definately get on set, and you actually don’t know what it’s gonna do, the way it’s gonna look, whether or not it’s gonna work. You bought to seek out out on time and in finances, with precise movie rolling by way of the digicam. It was anxiety-ridden for certain, the expertise of constructing it, however I feel in a great way.

The movie has a 1980s interval look. Why did you need that fashion?

Partly to floor it. In any killer-weave film [Laughs], we’re going to go to some ridiculous locations, and I felt just like the movie grain made you consider you had been in Los Angeles in 1989, with out me having to essentially do the rest. Clearly the costume work and manufacturing design is impeccable. Simply seeing the way in which the movie captured that made me consider I used to be there. It additionally gave the precise capturing of the film a very fantastic tempo. Capturing on movie has a rhythm of its personal. And I believed it might be cool if it felt such as you discovered some film from 1989 that was by no means launched for some purpose, or that you simply had simply by no means heard of, which is form of how I felt like watching The Wig, or Exte. It’s identical to somebody smuggled this factor to you that feels prefer it should have existed, again then. I simply thought that was cool.

There’s been a small run of horror movies currently, like The Love Witch or In Cloth or The Visitor, which can be acutely aware throwbacks to the 1970s and 1980s. Do you suppose there’s a purpose filmmakers are wanting again to that period proper now?

I feel it’s partially as a result of the 1970s is among the golden ages of cinema. I made Pricey White Folks on a digital digicam. We shoot the present on digital cameras. There’s one thing that was misplaced in that course of that I feel a number of us are simply reaching out for, to really feel once more. There’s simply one thing about the way in which New York appears shot on movie, or the Overlook Resort appears shot on movie. It makes you’re feeling such as you’re there. It has a dreamlike high quality. It feels prefer it’s each actual and false on the similar time. At the very least that was the attraction for me.

And thematically, I felt like 1989 was the correct time to set the film, as a result of that was a time when city Black tradition was being appropriated below the guise of being celebrated. It was additionally the time that the weave actually burst into in style tradition.

You convey up The Shining so typically if you speak about your films, and cinema usually. Was the axe-dragging shot in Unhealthy Hair a reference to it?

[Laughs] Most likely subconsciously! Truthfully, there are such a lot of references to The Shining which can be intentional, and actually, that one is simply unconscious. There are a number of axes in horror films, too. However The Shining is a type of films — I don’t even know if I actually knew what the film was about till the fifth time I watched it. My thought was simply, “You can do this with Black shit!” You may make one thing that seems like one factor the primary time you watch it, however there’s issues about it that form of stick in your craw.

With the ending of The Shining, you go “Actually? What the fuck? Is it about reincarnation? Is he a ghost? I’m confused.” And it forces you to observe the film once more, and notice, there’s a simple starting, center, and finish narrative, however then there are all these facet passages which can be truly about America, in regards to the home household, about alcoholism. The truth that you are able to do all of that, in a film that’s solely two hours lengthy… The entire films I reference do this ultimately. That’s in all probability why I convey it up so typically.

You named the protagonist after your mother, and three of the first characters after her sisters. Was there extra to that than a private in-joke?

All of my aunts are useless. My Aunt Virgie died whereas I used to be capturing Pricey White Folks, and I simply felt like — I wished their names to be in in style tradition. That basically is the place I made the film — there are such a lot of tales, so many issues we’re made to really feel ashamed about, and so many elements of our lives that we by no means speak about in a public area, they usually get buried with us. The identical is true for African folklore. I made up The Moss-Haired Woman for the film, however the different tales talked about within the film are actual piece of the folklore which can be good and tutorial for Black of us. However we don’t have entry to them. They’re simply buried with the those who got here up with them. Nonetheless, there was simply one thing, actually, that had nothing to do with any form of calculus. I simply wished to place their names in one thing that might stay.

Unhealthy Hair is streaming on Hulu now.

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