[Ed. note: A short excerpt from this interview ran in January in conjunction with Bad Hair’s premiere at Sundance 2020.]
It’s hard to overstate the seeming camp value of Bad Hair, Justin Simien’s newly released Hulu horror-satire about a Black woman whose weave starts murdering people. Set in 1989, it’s a throwback to an era when just about anything could be a horror-movie antagonist, including an evil floor lamp.
But Simien’s follow-up to Dear White People and his Netflix series of the same name is much more complicated than the tagline makes it seem. Elle Lorraine stars as Anna, a TV executive hoping to become the next big VJ star. Her flashy new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams) thinks she has potential — but only if she updates her style to match the sleek new look of female pop stars like Sandra (Kelly Rowland). Anna complies, heading to hairdressing superstar Virgie (Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox) for a weave. But the process of having hair sewn onto her scalp is bloody and traumatizing, and the new hair has a vicious mind of its own, in ways that reflect both Simien’s own life as a Black artist trying to fit in, and his tastes in classical filmmaking. Polygon sat down with Simien at Sundance to talk about Bad Hair’s complicated politics, and to consider the difficulties of working with evil hair.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
You’ve said Bad Hair was partially inspired by the Korean horror film The Wig, which led you down a path of obsessing over Asian hair-horror. Do you have a personal Best Evil Hair Movies list?
Justin Simien: The Wig and Exte: Hair Extensions are pretty hard to beat. Like a lot of great Korean horror movies, they use the premise to go into all kinds of places — like, The Wig is going into trans issues. They’re both really out-there movies. It felt like there was a blueprint there to create something new, but American, which I was shocked hadn’t happened already. On the men’s side of things, there was “Hell Toupee,” an episode of Amazing Stories about a toupee from hell, and [the anthology Body Bags] features a balding guy who gets this stuff that sparks evil hair. I thought, “That’s interesting territory for a movie.”
I felt like a Black woman had to be at the center of a movie like that, because with this genre, you’ve got to have a Final Girl. That’s the way we’ve processed psychological thrillers and horror. And I felt like there was an opportunity there to do what white male filmmakers did with Carrie, and Dressed To Kill, and Rosemary’s Baby, where you use genre machinations to pull in all these cinematic styles that normally don’t fit together. In psychological thrillers, because they operate on such a subconscious level, you can go there a little bit more. And when they’re done in a certain way, they’re saying something about society. That’s really where it started for me.
And then the next step for me was to find really smart Black women and ask, “Hey, I’m not a Black woman, but I’m marginalized in a bunch of ways. I’m gay, and growing up, I felt more at home in Black female culture than I did in Black male culture. I feel like I have something to say here. But what are your experiences?” And many horrifying hair experiences came up, like relaxing your hair and getting a chemical burn, or the actual process of getting a weave.
I talked to women who were getting weaves in 1989. The styling, the way we do Anna’s hair in the film, is the technique of the time, aside from the blood and the witchcraft. As horrifying as the weave techniques sounded to me, the real horror I felt was coming through was the feeling that Black women constantly have to choose between themselves and their ambitions. Coming as you are is never the first option. Maybe you’re a woman who likes to have her hair straight, or maybe you prefer it kinky and natural, but “as you are” is never the first choice. You have to figure out, “What do they want?” And then, “What parts of myself do I have to cut off to fit in the box of what they want?”
That’s the horror that was being communicated to me, and that’s when I got excited about this film, because now we’re talking about a system. We’re not moralizing a girl’s choice. We’re exploring a system where choices are presented, but are they ever really choices? If you’re told, “Get a weave or be fired,” is that a choice?
I could relate to that also, as a gay Black filmmaker. What are the stories that would never even occur to me to tell, that I’ll never tell, that will just die in my soul because I have to make certain choices to fit in that box? To make it to Netflix, to make it into theaters, to go to Sundance, to get picked up, to get a budget to tell a bigger story. I have to ask, “What choices do I have to make to get in those boxes?” before I can even check in with who I am or what I want to do.
Once I realized that’s what I was talking about with this film, I hung a lot of obsessions that felt related to that onto it: the time period of 1989, the New Jack Swing movement, which is happening in the background of the film. The slave folklore that most Black people were never taught about — people in general, but especially for Black folks, this is actual wisdom from our ancestors, the first of our people who stepped foot in this country, who experienced the American system. I just felt like all of that belongs in the same movie. [Laughs] “No one’s tried to do this before, and I’m probably not supposed to do this.” That’s when I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna do that.”
You’ve talked about the difficulty of being pigeonholed as a Black comedy director. Did you want to expand into horror in part to get outside that box?
It’s not even a wrong thing. It’s just that I do feel like this genre — horror, psychological thriller, whatever we call it, it’s all kind of the same genre. This is the one where filmmakers really get to play. Specifically, white male filmmakers. That’s when they get to throw all their obsessions and fetishes at the door. Starting, really, with Hitchcock. I think Vertigo began this tradition of white men being able to literally throw their fetishes and obsessions into a film, to make something really personal, and maybe a little dirty, and maybe a little odd. All the things you can’t be in other traditional genres.
And so I wanted in! I wanted in on that genre, absolutely. Just because I knew I could play, and create something dense and complicated and mangled, feeling not at ease and uncomfortable as part of the experience. I knew if I was going to make things that tell uncomfortable truths, that might be a cool genre to do it in. I started writing a treatment for this right after we did Dear White People. And then when Get Out came into theaters, it was like, “Okay, now there’s an established marketplace. Let’s actually make this movie.”
When I talked to you for Dear White People, a lot of that conversation was about the process of creating a viral audience, and using your marketing experience to get to a place where you could get funded. Have you found it any easier now, especially post Get Out?
No. [Laughs] There’s nothing easy about it. We made this movie independently, but it’s been six years since my first movie. There have been plenty of movies that I’ve been attached to, or tried to make, or whatever, at studios, at all the different levels. It is not easy. You can be talking about a cast of some of the most talented people, award-winning, A-list. But when they’re Black, especially if they’re Black women, suddenly people get cold feet. “Oh, I don’t know if we know how to reach these people. We don’t know how to support this film.”
It is wild. I talk about this with my white friends and my Black friends, but specifically filmmakers who went to Sundance [the same year he was accepted there with Dear White People]. The difference between our experiences after that are clear. And I’m not complaining, because having a show on Netflix go for four years, I’m very proud of that. Getting to make a second movie, I’m very proud of that. But I’m aware of the checks I never got, I’m aware of the meetings I never got, I’m aware of the pitches that never went went to a green light.
Because I also produce a show, and I’m a showrunner, I get to be an advocate. One of my favorite things is to see Black women directors work on Dear White People. Because on my set, you can do whatever you want, as long as it’s cinematic. If it’s based on the character journey, do whatever the fuck you want.
It’s cool to see people who don’t get these opportunities doing that. I’m very aware that the system is not really cut out for people who aren’t white men to get out there and explore their passions, and explore weird shit about themselves as artists. Part of making this movie is a little rebellious streak in me, like, “I get to make these kind of movies too!” And I get to make them about Black stories, and they get to be complicated, and they get to raise questions. It’s the same spirit with which I made Dear White People.
The tone of this movie is so complicated — it’s camp, it’s a drama about racial issues, there’s gore, there’s politics. How did you navigate putting all these different things on top of each other?
I’m just listening to the melody in my own head. I recognize that oftentimes, it’s not a melody other people are singing. [Laughs] But I love movies when there’s nothing else like them. We had to get used to Brian De Palma. We had to get used to Stanley Kubrick. We had to get used to Roman Polanski — I’m not going into the horrific nature of his real life and politics. But as filmmakers, these white men made us used to the art they make. So part of it is, these things feel right in my soul, so I’m going to blend them in the way that feels right to me. Dear White People was the same way.
When I rewatch some of my favorite movies, I’m surprised — I remember Carrie different from when I watch it. Same with The Shining, and Body Snatchers, Dressed To Kill, The Wicker Man. They actually have these incredibly screwball-comedy moments, and sci-fi moments, and camp, B-movie elements. And they all go together. What’s the unifying thing about them all? That director is obsessed with all those things, so they just put them in their movie. That’s why Vertigo is so brilliant, even though nothing about it makes any fucking sense, or should work. [Laughs] Hitchcock was just truly obsessed with those things.
I just wanted to give myself the experience of following that, but also pair that with real, constant conversations with the experiences of actual Black women. Always, I wanted to ask Black women, “Did I get your experience right? What you’re telling me is horrifying, and needs to be interrogated.” Those are the two driving philosophies of Bad Hair: What am I obsessed with? And what are my chosen sisters telling me is on their minds?
Bad Hair reminded me in parts of Suspiria, and The Shining, and Little Shop of Horrors. There are so many elements in play. Do any of those feel like influences for you?
Absolutely. Especially Little Shop. The way the music works in this movie is like little Greek choruses. The songs are designed in the same way New Jack Swing is. Those 1990s songs are bops, and they really make you want to dance. But then you start to listen to the messages, and you’re like, “Oh, that feels kind of rapey!” Or “That’s very misogynistic, actually.” I mean, “Poison,” which is like one of my favorite songs of all time is basically, “Don’t trust that girl, she’s attractive!” [Laughs] But we all dance to it, because it makes us feel good!
But those are the topics Black people could sing about at the time. Those are the songs their white-owned record labels allowed them to do. We’re never really in control of the system, even when we’re allowed to get certain levers in it. And I thought like, “Oh, that could be cool to borrow from.”
And that’s what Little Shop of Horrors does. That trio [of singers] appears every time something scary is about to happen, almost to warn the characters. In Bad Hair, it kind of works in reverse. It’s in the culture around Anna, just before she makes a decision, or just before something happens to her, feeding her this message, pulling her deeper into the movie, getting us and her conditioned to make certain choices.
Anna’s characterization is unusual. She wants to be a star, she wants to be a leader and shape other people’s tastes. But she’s so vulnerable, shy, and awkward. She has such a hard time speaking up for herself. What went into building her?
On every level, any character someone writes is probably a version of them. I think Anna is probably parts of my inner feminine mixed in with real conversations with Black women. The thing I felt is true about her, which is true about me and true about women I talked to is that we recognize that we can’t be seen at all, unless we take the aspirational bait. She’s grown up on Sandra movies and Sandra music videos, her whole life. And that’s part of why it’s so cool to me that Kelly Rowland [who plays Sandra] and Elle Lorraine, who plays Anna, look kind of similar. Anna’s thrust into this culture in society where she’s not singing, she’s not heard from, she’s made to feel ashamed of who she is naturally is. The only thing dangling in front of her as an alternative is Sandra’s version of being a woman, so of course that’s the version she gravitates toward.
I have parallels to that as a filmmaker. I only have a few choices available, as I see it, to do the things I’m trying to do in this lifetime. It doesn’t matter that I’m an introvert. It doesn’t matter that my obsessions are bizarre and disparate. I still want to be seen! Anna’s ambition is partly hers, and partly not-hers. It’s partly an ambition she inherited. You can see the seeds of her conditioning from her aunt, from her uncle, from the stories she’s told, from the place she works, from the music videos, from her obsession with Sandra.
And because we’re not in charge of this society, our aspirations are not really ours. One of the things I think is so interesting about the concept of desire, like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is that you can only really pick from the things that exist in society already. No one want to be an astronaut before people went to space. No one could want to be a filmmaker before there was film. You’re limited and defined by the choices culture gives you.
Anna is only given a few options of how to be in the world, in order to be seen. Not even to survive or thrive, but to just even be allowed for people to know who she is, and that she belongs in the room. She’s only given a few versions of woman to be, and she picks the one that’s closest to her. So that’s why she’s like a bundle of all of those tensions, anxiety and naïveté and shyness, but ambition and strength, because that’s telling the truth, as I see it.
It’s so common for horror movies’ Final Girls to turn into grim action-hero badasses. But Anna stays vulnerable up to the end. She never gets past being scared. Was that an important plot point for you?
I don’t think it was like a specific choice, like “It has to be like this!” But I do feel like a lot of times, at least in my opinion, when the Final Girl becomes all that, it’s very fetishy. It’s a man’s fetish about what a powerful woman should be and feel like. The truth of the matter is that I’m scared. Like, I’m scared right now! I’m scared with every step I take in American society! That’s just me being honest. There’s a false narrative that says, “You have to be this strong, impenetrable, invulnerable, unfeeling thing in order to survive!” That’s a bullshit lie. That’s a prison in disguise. This felt more honest to me.
And part of it is, Elle is just so fucking great at being vulnerable on camera, and taking us emotionally into things that are so absurd. She finds the human note to strike. My job as a director is to listen as much as it is to speak, and to lean into the choices my actors are making. This just felt like the most authentic one to me.
What’s involved in directing an evil weave? Some of the hair effects in Bad Hair are CGI, but you use a lot of puppetry and stop-motion practical effects, too.
The company that did it is called Alterian. Tony Gardner, who innovated a lot of special effects, we had a conversation early on about how the concept is nuts, so we gotta ground people in a reality that feels physical. There have been hair-related things in popular culture that I don’t think are terribly successful, because they relied on CGI. I felt between shooting on film and using real hair… One, it seemed like a really fun way to make a movie. It felt like the kind of moviemaking I grew up thinking I would get to do. Not being in an antiseptic computer lab where you’re punching in data and seeing things on the screen. I grew up watching George Lucas basically play with what looked like toys to make Star Wars, and Steven Spielberg working with puppets. So it felt like a fun way to make the movie. But it’s also a way to ground the ridiculousness of it. As unbelievable as it is, you’re seeing it happening. Even when we’re accentuating the effects shots with digital effects, there’s that base there of real hair, really doing things — really grabbing people, really braiding itself.
There’s a lot of reverse photography that we used, a lot of tricks. We threw hair in water tanks and spiraled it and saw what it did. So much stuff comes from the physicality of making it with real stuff that would never occur to you an animator sitting in a room, thinking, “What would hair do if it was alive?” This way, we could see. So that’s why. But the biggest reason was, it was just really fun.
What’s your best hair-wrangling story?
There was just hair everywhere, all the time. You know, it was funny, ‘cause we were actually shooting on film, and “Check the gate” when we were clearing the camera was not a euphemism. We really had to check the gate, because oftentimes there was hair in the gate. [Laughs] On this movie, hair was just in all sorts of places you didn’t think hair should be. We would all go home at the end of each day pulling strands out of various orifices and nooks and crannies.
I don’t have any horror stories, but the thing about practical effects is, you come up with all this stuff — Alterian tested for a long time — but then you get on set, and you really have no idea what it’s gonna do, how it’s gonna look, whether it’s gonna work. You got to find out on time and in budget, with actual film rolling through the camera. It was anxiety-ridden for sure, the experience of making it, but I think in a good way.
The film has a 1980s period look. Why did you want that style?
Partly to ground it. In any killer-weave movie [Laughs], we’re going to go to some ridiculous places, and I felt like the film grain made you believe you were in Los Angeles in 1989, without me having to really do anything else. Obviously the costume work and production design is impeccable. Just seeing the way the film captured that made me believe I was there. It also gave the actual shooting of the movie a really wonderful pace. Shooting on film has a rhythm of its own. And I thought it would be cool if it felt like you found some movie from 1989 that was never released for some reason, or that you had just never heard of, which is kind of how I felt like watching The Wig, or Exte. It’s just like someone smuggled this thing to you that feels like it must have existed, back then. I just thought that was cool.
There’s been a small run of horror films lately, like The Love Witch or In Fabric or The Guest, that are conscious throwbacks to the 1970s and 1980s. Do you think there’s a reason filmmakers are looking back to that era right now?
I think it’s partially because the 1970s is one of the golden ages of cinema. I made Dear White People on a digital camera. We shoot the show on digital cameras. There’s something that was lost in that process that I think a lot of us are just reaching out for, to feel again. There’s just something about the way New York looks shot on film, or the Overlook Hotel looks shot on film. It makes you feel like you’re there. It has a dreamlike quality. It feels like it’s both real and false at the same time. At least that was the appeal for me.
And thematically, I felt like 1989 was the right time to set the movie, because that was a time when urban Black culture was being appropriated under the guise of being celebrated. It was also the time that the weave really burst into popular culture.
You bring up The Shining so often when you talk about your movies, and cinema in general. Was the axe-dragging shot in Bad Hair a reference to it?
[Laughs] Probably subconsciously! Honestly, there are so many references to The Shining that are intentional, and honestly, that one is just subconscious. There are a lot of axes in horror movies, too. But The Shining is one of those movies — I don’t even know if I really knew what the movie was about until the fifth time I watched it. My thought was just, “You could do that with Black shit!” You can make something that feels like one thing the first time you watch it, but there’s things about it that kind of stick in your craw.
With the ending of The Shining, you go “Really? What the fuck? Is it about reincarnation? Is he a ghost? I’m confused.” And it forces you to watch the movie again, and realize, there’s a straightforward beginning, middle, and end narrative, but then there are all these side passages that are actually about America, about the domestic family, about alcoholism. The fact that you can do all of that, in a movie that’s only two hours long… All of the movies I reference do that in some way. That’s probably why I bring it up so often.
You named the protagonist after your mom, and three of the primary characters after her sisters. Was there more to that than a personal in-joke?
All of my aunts are dead. My Aunt Virgie died while I was shooting Dear White People, and I just felt like — I wanted their names to be in popular culture. That really is the place I made the movie — there are so many stories, so many things we’re made to feel ashamed about, and so many aspects of our lives that we never talk about in a public space, and they get buried with us. The same is true for African folklore. I made up The Moss-Haired Girl for the movie, but the other stories mentioned in the movie are real piece of the folklore that are brilliant and instructional for Black folks. But we don’t have access to them. They’re just buried with the people that came up with them. Still, there was just something, honestly, that had nothing to do with any kind of calculus. I just wanted to put their names in something that would live.
Bad Hair is streaming on Hulu now.