Jordana Spiro had been acting for almost two decades when she decided it was time to direct.
"I was at a time in my life where I was pretty dismayed by the parts that were out there, the representation of women," she said in an interview with Refinery29. "I didn’t relate to the way they were portrayed, and I really wanted to develop a story with a strong female protagonist,
Her short film Skin, about a teenage female taxidermist, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim, and set the stage for her next project, Night Comes On, her feature debut which premieres at the festival on Friday.
The film, co-written with Shade Room co-founder Angelica Nwandu under the auspices of the Sundance Institute's Director's Lab, tells the story of Angel LaMere (Dominique Fishback), who, after being released from juvenile detention on her 18th birthday, embarks on a revenge mission against her father, whom she holds responsible for her mother's death. Along the way, she reconnects with her 10-year-old sister Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), who's been living in foster care and yearning for a motherly connection of her own.
The result of their collaboration is a story that's powerful and moving, but also highlights the rare opportunities that come with having women writing about specifically female experiences. A scene that shows Abby getting her period in a gas station bathroom, for example, would, I suspect, have played out quite differently — or not at all — in the hands of a male director.
This seems like an obvious statement, but it's a sad reality that women made up only 18% of writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, and executive producers on the top 250 films of 2017, according to The Celluloid Ceiling. That was a slight improvement (1%) on 2016's record, but it's still a dismally low number given that women make up just over half of the population of the United States. The success of female-driven films like Wonder Woman, Girl's Trip, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Lady Bird proves that women are hungry to see honest representations of themselves onscreen. Still, that box-office success and critical acclaim has yet to translate into actual recognition at awards shows.
But there is reason to be hopeful. This is a record year for women at Sundance — 37% of directors are female — and the increased awareness around the #MeToo movement and Time's Up initiative means that they will be in the spotlight, for once.
On the eve of the film's Sundance premiere, we talked to Spiro, who's also currently starring in Netflix's Ozark, about her experience as a woman in Hollywood, the importance of having more women behind the camera, and #MeToo. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
Refinery29: Do you think this movie had to have a female director in order to be done right? I’m specifically thinking of that scene where Abby gets her period, which seems like it could only have come from having women behind the camera.
Jordana Spiro: "That scene came about because in some ways, the story is about [how] through mourning the loss of Angel’s mother, she becomes one. And I was trying to think about moments in my life where I felt I needed my mother the most, and that was one of them. I think that’s one of the exciting things about the more focused intention to get more female voices in writer’s rooms and as directors. There is a perspective and viewpoint that has long been missing from our film canon. I'm really hoping that we’re seeing something new and extraordinary, because I feel like for the last I don’t know how many years, anytime there was a woman directing, they said, ‘ Oh, well now it’s really time for women to direct,’ and then nothing happened. But I feel like this moment that we’re in is different, and it’s really exciting."
Did you face any challenges as a first-time female director?
"It’s difficult for me to separate what is difficult in independent film in general, and what is difficult specifically because I was a woman. No one told me directly, ‘I’m not giving you money because you’re a woman,’ but it took a very long time, it was very difficult. I didn’t take a salary on it, I put my own money into it. When we went the more traditional production company route, we got a lot of rejections, and we got a lot of people saying ‘Oh, I really like the script, but I already made my female film this year.’ Or, because our two leads were going to be of color, ‘We already made our Black film this year.’ As if there’s only one spot. So, in that sense I think it did make it much more difficult — to have a film about women, and more specifically a film about Black women falls into this subcategory, and so there can only be so few of them."
What advice do you have for women who are trying to break through into a male-dominated field, like directing?
"I have a lot of things that I’ve needed to tell myself pretty consistently. One thing is: ‘Jump in.' Don’t wait until you’re fully ready, because you’ll never feel fully ready. You will make mistakes. And don’t back away from something that you believe is necessary to your story because you’re afraid you might be a nuisance, or you’ve already asked for too many things. Certainly there’s a lot of compromise that needs to be made in film — logistical, budgetary — but I think in your heart, you know the ones you have to compromise on because they’re smart choices in the overall making of the film, and the ones you’re compromising on because you don’t want to be a bother. Bother people."
The movie is premiering at Sundance. What do you think the mood will like be this year in light of #MeToo and Time’s Up?
"I think and I hope that it will be positive, that it will be a call to action, and a call to really try to understand and unpack why there aren’t more women behind the camera, why there aren’t more female-led films. I’m hoping it’ll be what I’m feeling, which is a very real and powerful movement."
Do you think it'll affect how the film is received? Because there is definitely a scene that depicts sexual violence.
"I’ve reflected on that scene a lot since this has happened, and of course we shot it before all of this happened. It’s interesting and not coincidental to me that so many women, including within the family of Night Comes On have experienced some form of abuse. So, that is reflected in our movie. I appreciate that it’s in our movie because it’s another sign and example of how incredibly prevalent it is, and the ways in which we deal with it. In the film, our character really blanks out to it, and that could potentially aggravate somebody. I think it’s an interesting potential conversation to have about all the different ways women feel that they need to, or have become accustomed to responding."
What do you hope women take away from the film?
"The power of sisterhood. The power of women coming together, both in the writer’s room and also in the messaging, and onscreen."
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