You probably recognize Jordana Spiro as an actress, notably from her TV work on The Huntress, My Boys and Blindspot, and last season’s Ozark (to name a few). But since 2009, she’s been pursuing another side of the industry as a filmmaker. After directing three shorts and completing her MFA at Columbia University, she’s debuted on the festival circuit with her feature debut, Night Comes On. Winning the Next Innovator Award for directing and co-writing (with Angelica Nwandu, founder of Instagram-based company The Shade Room), the film tells the story of sisters Angel (Dominque Fishback), a young woman who’s just aged out of the foster system after spending time in juvenile detention, and her younger sister Abby (newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall). Without out a job, home, or support system, Angel focuses her attention on confronting her criminal father. We spoke with Spiro about her first film, using genre to tell a character-driven story, and her transition from actress to director.
Lesley Coffin: Had you been looking to move into directing for a while before starting work on this film?
Jordana Spiro: I went to Columbia for filmmaking and graduated in 2016. And I made a couple of short films while I was there, and my short Skin had a pretty good festival run. And with that film I felt that I’d learned enough to have the confidence to make a feature film. I felt like I was ready to get across the ideas I’d been trying to portray.
Lesley Coffin: How did you first connect with your co-writer Angelica Nwandu?
Jordana Spiro: I’d been volunteering for a long time with an organization called Peace for Kids, which works with the foster youth community. And volunteering with them I realized what it means to age out of foster care. And I was pretty blown away by what I was learning. As I was thinking about the first film, I wanted to develop my time with those kids. [It] really stood out as something deeply meaningful. I knew I wanted to tell the story of a person aging out of foster care. But because that wasn’t my background, I felt it wouldn’t be responsible to write that story without the contributions of someone who had been through that experience firsthand. And while I was at Columbia, I reached out to the director of Peace for Kids and asked if he knew of any young women who’d recently aged out and would be interested in working with me. And he recommended Angelica for two reasons. The story I described, he felt, would resonate with her and she was already a writer. She was writing very beautiful, visual poetry at the time. And we hit it off right away.
Lesley Coffin: You mentioned the idea of being responsible about whose experiences you should be telling. And I wanted to ask how you navigate the issue of telling stories which don’t come from your life but they are stories that need to be told and mean something to you.
Jordana Spiro: I believe I have a responsibility to myself as an artist, a word I’m just getting used to saying, that if I have an idea for something to carry it out to its fullest extent. I need to question and explore those ideas to the fullest extent that I know how or can think of doing. And to not be afraid to step into territories which are controversial or problematic. However if that leads me to a place where I’m portraying something which is historically misrepresented, I need to understand that misrepresentation to the best of my capabilities. And with this story I felt the best way to do that was to partner up with someone who could speak to these experiences first hand, on top of the research I’d already done. I spoke with many people who are on both sides of the system. On top of all that I wanted to mention that Angelica didn’t just bring her experiences to the project but her talent as a writer and a true partnership.
Lesley Coffin: It’s interesting that you would say you’re just starting to refer to yourself as an artist, considering your long career as an actress. Did you not see acting that way? Did it become a profession deferring your pursuit to be a filmmaker?
Jordana Spiro: Artist feels like such an overused and loaded word. I set out to be an artist as an actress, in the sense that I wanted to explore, very different types of characters, fully explore them and be very honest in my portrayals. But the track I felt I was on, with the exception of some really wonderful parts I am really grateful for, was one where how you look was more important than what you were bringing to the role. And got to a point in my life where I felt kind of lost and felt like I wasn’t doing what I’d set out to do. At the same time, I’d always been very passionate about photography and had been looking for other avenues of work, which brought me to volunteering with foster youths. I don’t even recall what brought me to looking at film as something where I could be the creator, rather than the actor taking on a pre-conceived role. I know seeing certain films changed how I saw film, specifically the films of Jane Campion, Lynne Ramsay, and Lucrecia Martel. It wasn’t until recently that it dawned on me that these influential directors were all women. I try not to look at the world in that way. I want to receive something because it speaks to me or moves me, not because a specific person made it. But it doesn’t go unnoticed that the filmmakers that made me feel that I had something to say as a filmmaker were all women.
Lesley Coffin: The story is clearly a character-driven, intimate story but you are using the thriller genre as a blanket to wrap that story around. Why choose to make a film that uses genre in that specific way? What did you feel the thriller aspect adds to this personal story?
Jordana Spiro: I knew I wanted to make a movie which was be very detailed in its portrayal of character. But when I watch movies, I like to be engaged in the narrative. When I watch a film which is just pure character portrait, without a narrative thrust, I find myself checking out. So I knew that I wanted to make a film with that thrust to move the film forward, which would in turn allow for a lot of character development. I wanted just enough of an engine to sit with this character. But that also really came from this moment of feeling kind of directionless in my life. There were mornings when I’d wake up and feel kind of desperate to have a purpose. And developing this film, I asked myself if someone in need of a purpose in their life could latch onto something which is ultimately self-destructive. Just driven by the sheer desire to have a purpose. So it just felt instinctive to give the film this kind of revenge device. But because it was so important to me to handle this character carefully, especially because she has one foot in potential criminality, I really didn’t want to make something that felt exploitative. I never wanted the genre elements to use the character, I wanted her to use the genre as a device to tell her story.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask you about the casting of the two leads and working with them to develop the bond they have as a sisters. I know Dominique has been working pretty consistently recently, but this is Tatum’s first film. How did you find her?
Jordana Spiro: We spotted Tatum at a step competition at the Bronx, toward the end of a lengthy period of a yearlong process of looking for someone to play the Abby character. That search was conducted by Olivia Creser and Marlena Skrobe, who were so committed to finding the perfect young actress for that part and making sure we were able to see young women who didn’t have access to professional industry representation.
So we met Tatum that way and knew right away that she was really right for the character of Abby. She has all the charisma and energy and life-force that Abby has. And Tatum also had this wonderful ability to be emotionally accessible. So we were really only concerned with seeing how well she could access those emotions on command, or through pre-written dialogue. And at every audition stage she completely knocked us out with her talent. And I also knew from the very beginning that I wanted a lot of rehearsal time. As an actor you’re used to coming in after a conversation with the director and a wardrobe fitting, but then you’re just rolling. But because so much of the film would depend of scenes which played on silences, I wanted time to give Dominque and Tatum time to develop their relationships so those scenes would feel layered and full of nuance. We spent our time discussing the scenes and talking about the things they’re not saying to each other, so every scene felt like something was cooking underneath when we were on set.
© Lesley Coffin (8/3/18) FF2 Media