'Night Comes On': Jordana Spiro on What to Remember When Making Your First Feature
Actress Jordana Spiro makes her feature directorial debut with a moving tale of a sibling bond and a quest for vengeance.
Co-winner of the NEXT Innovator Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Jordana Spiro's debut feature, Night Comes On, is both sociological and personal, as much a story of two young women's futures as it is the innocent childhoods society usurped them of. After serving her required sentence at a youth detention facility, Angel (Dominique Fishback) returns back to Philadelphia, determined to get her life back on track by securing a job and reconnecting with her younger sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall). The sisters had been separated via foster care; as young children, the girls' father murdered their mother in the bathroom of their home as Angel helplessly stood frozen in the hallway.
Now a free woman, Angel has made a commitment to herself to secure a firearm and murder her father, a man who has been released from prison thanks to an unethical but highly competent lawyer. If she succeeds, her sister (who claims to know where their father is living and demands to go on the road trip with her big sis to find him) won't have to live in further fear.
Whether Angel carries out the murder or not is a climax the film builds to, but it's the interactions between our two lead actresses that serve as the film's true selling point. In her debut performance, Hall is incredible as a young girl who loves her older sibling and Fishback's performance is both hardened and emotionally revealing as a woman whose past has placed her on the road toward a very unclear future.
As Night Comes On opens in theaters and On Demand August 3rd, No Film School spoke with Spiro about visually capturing a young woman whose guardian is the state, a sound mixing choice that enhanced a specific story detail, and what she learned by making her feature directorial debut.
No Film School: How did your working relationship with co-writer Angelica Nwandu begin and what made this story the ideal fit for your feature directorial debut?
Jordana Spiro: Well, Angelica and I met through an organization called Peace 4 Kids. It's an organization that supports foster youth, and I had been volunteering there. It was around that time that I started to think about this story. It came about as a result of my trying to find something more meaningful, searching to find more meaning, within my work. I started to play around with the idea of a character who was on a search, and then at the same time, when I was volunteering with Peace4Kids, I started to understand what aging out of foster care is like and how difficult it is.
I was interested in exploring that and saying, "If I'm having all of these feelings of longing for something else, longing for more meaning and more purpose, what must it be like when you have all of those feelings and yet you have zero support around you, and, in fact, a million societal forces actively working against you? What must that be like?"
I started to think more and more about being the driver of my own stories outside of [my acting career] and so I decided to go to film school at Columbia University. When I was there, I started developing this story, soon realizing that when I was ready to expand on the treatment, I didn't feel like I could honestly capture the nuance of that experience. I felt like I would be phony, especially when you're writing for a protagonist who you're giving this kind of given circumstances that make them chronically misrepresented or underrepresented. I felt it was vital to work with somebody who could actually speak to those experiences first hand.
I reached out to Peace 4 Kids and they thought that Angelica would be an interesting fit for me. It was sort of bizarre, as there were these very deep resonances between what I had been writing and what she had experienced, and so it felt very natural but also very odd. There was something bigger than us putting us together, you know what I mean? It felt like a spiritual alignment was happening, and we just started to work together. I think our relationship had a sisterly thing about it in that we both had things to teach each other, while at the same time, remaining opinionated and unafraid to argue. It felt sisterly in a lot of ways, and because of that, I think the sister relationship in the film really got pulled to the foreground.
"It actually turned out to be deceptively challenging, or logistically deceptively challenging."
Spiro: Regarding my short films, I started working on Night Comes On before I made those shorts. I had started working on this before attending Columbia and making the shorts. I always had Night Comes On in the back of my mind as a good directorial debut. Why was it a good [fit] for a directorial debut? In a lot of ways, it felt like a small movie and, logistically, it felt manageable. It features two emotionally-driven characters. There is no pyrotechnics.
It actually turned out to be deceptively challenging, or logistically deceptively challenging. If you read the script, you would be like, "Okay, that's actually quite simple," but then, in fact, we were scratching our heads a lot of time because there's not really a repeat set, so every scene takes place on a different set, and we're constantly in motion and shooting on a bus.
It still sucks no matter what, and then, of course, half of the film has a nine-year-old in it, and so that's another sort of [challenge], working with a minor, the hours they are designated, and everything like that. There was a lot of actual logistical challenges throughout this small film, and I have to hand it to my producers, Alvaro Valente and Jonathan Montepare, who helped make it, to me, a perfect first film. It really allowed me to just focus on these two characters.
NFS: This is the film debut of Tatum Marilyn Hall, who expertly plays that young child, Abby, in the film. Were there any challenges or special considerations that came with directing a young performer working with the occasionally sensitive material?
Spiro: Yeah, this was the first time she had ever acted. In fact, on a very long casting search where we auditioned over 1,000 girls, we actually met Tatum at a step competition in the Bronx.
Of course, there's the basic challenge of children only being allowed to work so many hours a day, and then of those hours, needing to be with their school tutor, which, of course, presents challenges we all understand. I think we got really lucky because her parents were such an incredible source of support for her Tatum and for us. They're really wonderful, wonderful people, and they helped be a real support system. We all knew the nightmare stories of "don't cast the kid, cast the parents," all that kind of stuff, but we got really lucky.
A real generosity on both Dominique and Tatum's part was able to provide a lot of rehearsal time before we began shooting. We got to have what would be considered a very, very lengthy amount of rehearsal time for Dominique and Tatum to establish their sisterhood before shooting, and to make sure that Tatum really understood [the role] and could tap in to it, and then also importantly, to tap out of all the emotions that we needed her to delve into.
"On a very long casting search where we auditioned over 1,000 girls, we actually met Tatum at a step competition in the Bronx."
NFS: The film opens with Angel finishing her one-year sentence at a youth detention center. Before she leaves, she meets with the center's staff, and their faces are briefly obscured; the two sides literally can't see each other. What went into subtly planning, visually, how Angel sees the outside world?
Spiro: I think what I wanted that scene to portray was the way in which any time you talk with a young person whose guardian is the state, they have an entire team of people: lawyers, guardian ad litems [someone who acts in a lawsuit on behalf of a child], social workers, foster parents, group counselors, behavioral managers, all of these incredible teams of people, and yet they feel like there's not one person that's truly looking after them. A child might say, like, "Oh, my social worker...I forget their name," and there's just this incredible bureaucracy around the raising of our children, and it feels very faceless, and so that was our way of portraying that.
At the same time, in doing the research for this film, if you actually sit down and talk to a social worker or sit down and talk to somebody that's working in the system, more often than not, they're not bad people. There's nothing glamorous about the work that made them choose that job. They chose it because they wanted to help, but the system is just so broken and fractured that this just felt like the right way to portray it.
NFS: One of the film's recurring motifs is what Angel's mother tells her as a little girl, that if you close your eyes, the sounds of the roaring cars outside your window will begin to sound like the waves of the ocean. What was it about this dramatic comparison that spoke to you?
Spiro: One of my hopes for the film was for it to give a dignity, a grace, a kind of poetry to the inner life of a character for whom we don't often get to see an inner life given to (let alone one that is sensitive or complicated or deep in thought). I wanted to find ways to tap into the beauty and poetry of her inner life.
The idea with the cars and the waves came just came from the screenwriting process where we were thinking, "Okay, we know we want them to go to the beach," and then when we got to the father's house and Angel sits in that room, we thought, "Well, okay, 10 years [removed from her mother's murder], there would be other renters and owners of the house, and so the house itself would be different. How do we make it feel like Angel's been here before?" There needed to be some meaning and memory within the actual house.
We thought, "Well, what are some things about a house that don't really change?" It's like, "Yes, renovation is where the windows are and how the car lights pass a window thanks to its positioning to the street." When we started to think about that, then all of a sudden the whoosh came in from there, and then because that whoosh tied into the waves, I built it up and it escalated from there. We thought, "Oh, okay. There's something really nice there," and in fact, we could tie it to the beginning of our story, which would give the audience a memory, so that when we get to the end, they would possess a memory of that place as well.
"You don't realize that there's been a change in the sound, but in fact, there has been a journey through what's certainly there and then what Angel is remembering."
NFS: Did you work with your sound designer on getting that mix—the two sounds literally blend into one another at times—as seamless as possible?
Spiro: Yeah, that was actually a really great idea [on their part] and I'm so impressed that you noticed that. I had a great editor, Taylor Levy, and a great sound mixer, Chris Foster, and the mix was a combination of their ideas.
You first hear a car, and then it's a car and a wave, and then it's just a wave, and so you don't realize that there's been a change in the sound, but in fact, there has been a journey through what's certainly there and then what Angel is remembering. That was thanks to my editor and sound mixer coming up with a really beautiful and great idea there.
NFS: As April remembers back to that tragic evening in which her mother was slain, we're shown low lit, darkly poetic flashbacks. How did you work with your cinematographer to give those flashbacks a visual tone far removed from the rest of the film?
Spiro: My DP, Hatuey Viveros Lavielle, and I have a nice shorthand as we had worked together before on a short film called Skin. First of all, it involved making sure we drove our location manager sufficiently crazy enough to scout for the houses that had a really good hallway with a bathroom in them, just-so positioned, and the bedroom in this just-so position. We then started playing with slow motion.
Hatuey and I looked at a lot of pictures together, a lot of photography, and I liked the idea that the mother would always be shown in fragments, just the way our memories work, you know? We, or at least I don't, remember full anecdotes, but rather little fragments of things, the way something smelled or looked or sounded, and so we were just trying to capture that in the bathroom, along with the remembrance that you were frozen. Angel, as a child, was frozen in that she had some actual real guilt and shame about the fact that she froze [in the moment].
"You have to have a little bit more confidence on the days where you've crafted this incredibly specific shot list, and then in the morning there's whatever element working against you."
NFS: What did you learn from the experience of making a first feature that you might've wished you had known going in? And what surprised you about the experience?
Spiro: Well, you have to have great endurance. There were so, so, so many things that I learned. You have to have a little bit more confidence on the days where you've crafted this incredibly specific shot list, and then in the morning there's whatever element working against you, weather or traffic or the complications that come from filming on a bus or no-shows or whatever it is, and you have to take that shot list, rip it up, and blow it away into the wind.
You need the ability to have confidence, as long as you're asking, "What are the essential beats of the scene that must be captured?" Just tap back into, "What are those essential beats that must be captured," and just have confidence around them.