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Nia DaCosta
Nia DaCostavia

Nia DaCosta makes vital films about ‘unconventional women’

The rising director on casting Tessa Thompson in her debut film, and being tapped by Jordan Peele to direct his Candyman sequel

In a fight with her sister, late at night in an isolated North Dakota oil town, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) finally erupts and declares with indignation: “I’m so tired.”  It’s a moment borne of mounting stress throughout the film Little Woods, in which audiences watch Ollie go from smuggling medication over the border from Canada, to being on parole and getting her life in line, and then giving it up to look out for her sister Deb (Lily James) when she needs an abortion. The film is set in the fictional town of Little Woods, but it’s based on the very real lives of women in Williston, North Dakota – one of the American cities where reproductive healthcare is the most difficult to access.

First-time director Nia DaCosta wanted to make a film about how poverty is compounded by gender, and Little Woods turns the camera towards women in the margins of rural life, who are exhausted by the staggering effort it takes just to survive. Ultimately, it becomes a love story about two sisters, and the nourishing power of female friendship in the thick of adversity. As DaCosta tells it, she’s drawn to writing and directing stories “about the in-between spaces of society… about women who are unconventional to the point of being dangerous, whether that’s physically dangerous, or that people think they’re dangerous because they operate or exist differently.”  

Little Woods is quietly moving and sensitive, a high-stakes study on rural American life that feels far more intentional and precise than most first features. Hollywood, it seems, agrees, and DaCosta has been tapped by Jordan Peele to direct a reboot of the 1992 horror film Candyman later this year. As her star rises, Dazed spoke with DaCosta on the night of Little Woods’ Los Angeles premiere, to talk about how she made such a perceptive first film.

You’ve talked about how Little Woods is about poverty through the lens of gender and social identity. I’m wondering what you want viewers to come away with?

Nia DaCosta: I think for me in particular, it was just the idea that poverty could be a gendered experience – just in the way that we talk about, for example, women’s healthcare, as if it’s separate from healthcare overall. It makes it very apparent that the male, cis body is the default for our healthcare and that’s what everything is oriented towards, and in particular white men. It’s less, for me, about wanting there to be a political statement and more for people to realise that there are other lived experiences that are very valid and are ignored to the detriment of those people who make up most of the world. That’s in part what I want people to feel, but also to be inside of this story about sisters and their relationship, and to see themselves in it.

Even though you showed how difficult it was for these women, you also had these really beautiful moments of affection between them.  Can you talk about how you built their relationship?

Nia DaCosta: I always knew that it was going to be a story about these sisters who were estranged at the beginning, and through helping each other and themselves, would find each other again. That’s why the movie culminates in this moment where they say they love each other, because, yes, you can show that in action, but it’s so important to hear. Within all the action and all the struggle, it’s the fact that moment by moment, they’re taking a step closer together until they’re finally together in the end – that is sort of how I tracked it.  

You had a largely female-led crew. What do you think the effect of that was?

Nia DaCosta: I feel like it was a very positive effect. I can’t quantify exactly what it is, and if I did, I might sound a bit trite, like ‘there was so much more empathy’, or whatever – things like that would be wrong to say. But at the same time, I think having mostly women on a movie like this was really helpful for creating a space that felt safe, not from violence necessarily, but safe from the male gaze. Not just a sexual way, but in terms of like… a doubting sort of gaze. So that was really useful. We did have men on the crew, but most of our department heads were women, and our producers were all women.

“It was nice for (James) to work with a director who was a young woman, which I think was a first for her, and to see a crew of young women, who were, like, boss bitches” – Nia DaCosta

How did you get Tessa Thompson and Lily James in your first feature film?

Nia DaCosta: Tessa and I met at the Sundance Director’s Lab, where we connected immediately and we just fell in love. She was exactly who I wanted for that character in ways I didn’t even know. We just worked really well together and it became obvious that she had to be in the movie, so I asked her, way back in 2015. And then Lily came on when we were in prep for the film, and she was someone who I really loved and had seen in a play in London, and I really wanted to see her draw on her own darkness and the depth I thought she had. And I think she really wanted to do that as well, so she came out to play.

You’re all around a similar age, the three of you. I’m curious how that affected the dynamic on set, having some shared territory?

Nia DaCosta: It was really nice to feel like you were among peers. Lily had just come off a movie where everyone was like old dudes – not that she didn’t have an amazing experience, because she spoke really highly of it – but I think it was also nice for her to work with a director who was a young woman, which I think was a first for her, and to see a crew of young women, who were, like, boss bitches. And then for me, it was exciting too – there’s pressure, but no added pressure that you need to impress some 60-year-old.

Little Woods fits into this canon of films about women, by women, often centred around tough female characters on the outskirts of society, like Wendy and Lucy, Vagabond, or Winter’s Bone.  What films were touchstones for you when you were making this?

Nia DaCosta: I love Wendy and Lucy! It wasn’t a touchstone for me, but I just want to say that I love that film so much. Winter’s Bone and Frozen River were the biggest and clearest touchstones, just in terms of the fact that those were the first movies where I was like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know anything about the women that this story is about.’ And I was so excited to be able to engage in a similar story.

I also read that you like Westerns. Is Little Woods a bit of a Western?

Nia DaCosta: For me, Westerns are about how people are on a frontier, between society and the wild, and what being in that middle ground makes you do to survive. This movie is all about your choices only being as good as your options, and I think in Westerns, that is hugely what they are about, but also about having to make a choice between two worlds, even if that choice is impossible or is forced upon you. In that conceptual way, (Little Woods) is (a Western). But in a practical way, I always imagine it as about like, this lone gunslinger who puts down her guns and someone has to convince her to pick them back up again, and here that’s her sister.

After #MeToo, there are more women’s stories being told, but a lot of them have this quasi-girl power, commercial, very sanitised idea of what women are like. I found Little Woods to be so refreshing because it’s very nuanced and intersectional. Is making socially conscious film something you see yourself doing throughout your career?

Nia DaCosta: I think the way people want to see women being in power is, like, them being hot in mini skirts shooting guns, you know? There’s a lot of change happening in Hollywood, but the people making the decisions are more or less the same. But there are also younger creatives like myself, or Tessa in particular, who speaks up very clearly about the industry and suggests things for change.  

For me, I always want to make movies that have something to say. The next thing I’m doing is much bigger – Candyman – but it’s also about a lot of stuff, and… I can’t talk too much about it… but it is a horror film, and it has a lot to say about who we are, and black America, and Chicago, and gentrification, and all this stuff. Those are really important conversations to be having, and I love to be having them in a genre space, because I think it’s easier for people to digest – or even ingest in the first place. I love big superhero movies – when they are good – and I love big worlds and scope and genre, but there should never be a movie that’s just mindless entertainment. Even if you pretend it is. It should say something about who we are.

“The work that I create for myself has to be enough to sustain me, creatively. This industry is so much about having an audience and having people give you approval, but you have to learn how to exist without it in whatever shape that takes” – Nia DaCosta

How did that opportunity come about?

Nia DaCosta: The opportunity is because my agent’s really great, and also because Jordan (Peele) and Win (Rosenfeld), who are co-writing and producing it, really loved Little Woods, which was a wonderful surprise. I went in to pitch and we had a really good conversation; I think Jordan and I really connected on our references and about how we both loved the original – it was such a big part of our childhood.

What did you wish you had known when you started making films?  

Nia DaCosta: A big thing for me is – in a really practical sense – that the work has to be enough, because there’s nothing to say that future projects like Candyman don’t tank, and everyone’s like ‘please never work again’. The work that I create for myself has to be enough to sustain me, creatively. It’s tricky because this industry is so much about having an audience and having people support you and give you approval, but you have to learn how to exist without it in whatever shape that takes.

Also, producing more work – which I found difficult because making a short, for example, is prohibitively expensive, but finding ways to produce work is super important, and making time for it is too. I was PA-ing for a long time, or at the time what felt long, and associate producing reality TV, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?’ But if I hadn’t taken the time to write Little Woods, I wouldn’t have applied to the Sundance Lab and I wouldn’t have gotten in, etcetera, etcetera, so really making that time for yourself is so important. And then – apply to everything.

Little Woods will be released in theaters across the United States on April 19, 2019