Jordana Spiro: Directing Comes On

February 17, 2019
She has been acting for over two decades, most recently in Ozark, but now takes the reins on her feature film debut, Night Comes On.

Nights Comes On is an uncompromising tale about a young woman’s pursuit for revenge, whilst rebuilding her relationship with her younger sister. Starring The Hate U Give’s Dominique Fishback, the film marks the feature length directorial debut of Jordana Spiro, who most may recognise from Netflix’s Ozark.

Jordana Spiro in Ozark

Jordana kindly let Filmink into her busy schedule to talk about her writing partner Angelica Nwandu (The Shade Room), finding your eureka moment in filming and the importance of seeing as many different independent films as you can.

Let’s start by talking about Peace 4 Kids (P4K) and how it brought you and Angelica together?

P4K is a non-profit that supports the foster youth community in Los Angeles. I had volunteered there for years. Then, while I was developing the story of Night Comes On, I was interested to set the story with this background because there was so much I admired about the young people I interacted with.

Having said that, as it wasn’t my own background, and so often misrepresented, I needed someone by my side who could help me keep the nuances of that point of view honest. When I told the head of Peace4kids the story I had written, he introduced me to Angelica because he felt between her own life experiences and her interest in writing that we’d complement each other. I’m so glad he did. I learned so much from her and I don’t think I could have moved forward with this story had I not found such a partner in her.

What was the writing process between you two like?

It was pretty fluid. We talked a lot, traded ideas and thoughts, and once we had a good sense of what each scene needed to do, we would go into our own quiet corners and work by ourselves and then come back together, build on those ideas, and then I would generally gather it up based on our chats, always coming back to discussion.

Did you always think of Night Comes On as being your feature length directorial debut? 

Yes, for sure. The idea came to me before I even fully decided to be a director. I tucked it away for a while to learn about filmmaking, went to film school, made some shorts, all the while having this story in the back of my mind.

Moving to casting, what can you tell me about Dominque and Tatum Marilyn Hall, who plays the younger sister? I understand that you worked with Dominique on another show.

Yeah, as a matter of fact, I had already begun the street casting process, and I took a job for a couple of episodes on a TV show [Royal Pains], where I was acting alongside Dominique. I just thought she was so compelling.

I wanted to see more of her work, and she told me she was acting in a one woman show that she wrote, playing 22 different characters! I went to go see that and was just really impressed. Our street casting process lasted over a year, headed by these two amazing people Olivia Creser and Marlena Skrobe and they first met Tatum on a casting search at a step competition in Harlem. She was 9 and had never acted before, but she just had that very special combination of being able to be sharp and funny and tough, and also able to access her vulnerability too.

Did her age effect how you tackled certain scenes?

Because I wrote it with the character’s youth in mind, and I knew I was going to direct it, I didn’t have to rethink how they should play out because of the actor’s age. The heavy lifting really came more from just making sure I had cast a kid who could handle the challenges of the role.

The film is being shown on the festival circuit here in Australia. What’s the response been like in America?

I’ve been really moved by the reception; the response was really positive. You know, this story doesn’t rush to unfold and there is a kind of meditative mood about it. So, I figured it wouldn’t be for everyone, but in life everything moves so fast and we are always doing a hundred things at once, so I wanted to make a film that allows for some quieter reflection.  I’m really touched and glad that people were willing to go on that ride.

Independent filmmakers over here have said they’ve struggled for space against wall to wall blockbusters. Is there a similar feeling in the US?

Oh yeah for sure. We were not able to have much of a theatrical presence in the US for that reason. I think it’s incredible that we have access now to so many more kinds of stories from all over the world through streaming. But I do think there is something special about turning off your life for a couple of hours, which is more challenging I find at home, and sitting in a dark theatre for all kinds of films, so I really, really hope the pendulum swings back to offering a wider variety.

Instead of focusing on what was hard during the shoot, what were your eureka moments? What were the times where you thought, ‘yeah, this is all coming together’?

The ocean scene [where the film’s two leads share a moment playing on the beach] was a spectacular experience for me. That water was so cold, and those waves were really rough! Of course, we had all the safety precautions, but if the actors were shivering or intimidated by the waves, which would both be really understandable, we’d have had to change the scene to be something else.

And when Dominique and Tatum charged right in and stayed in character and took on those waves, and then when my DP and crew did the same and we were all in this freezing water, as if there were no challenges at all, I was just so bowled over by the dedication and the teamwork. It was really one of those incredible moments when you are in a kind of zone of focus that’s like nothing else.

Do you think you will continue to direct your own work, or will there be a time when you’d like to tackle someone else’s work? An adaptation, even.

Funny you say adaptation, because that’s actually one of the things I’m exploring right now.  I’m really excited by the idea of doing something with a more heightened visual world. And whether that stems from my own ideas or off another person’s work that I felt I could get inside of and have something to add… I’m open to all possibilities, I’d love that. I imagine there’s some similarities to acting, in that you are taking something that already exists on a page, finding your angle on it and giving it a 3-dimensional life.

Read our review of Night Comes On

Night Comes On is screening at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival

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