Jordana Spiro is in tune with fear. She’s afraid of the unknown; she’s afraid of loss; and, as an actress (she’s gearing up for season 2 of her Netflix hit Ozark), she sometimes admittedly fears the inability to harness power over her creative talents.
“But I have all these safety nets around me,” she tells EW of the inspiration for Night Comes On, her exquisitely crafted, emotionally complex feature directorial debut (on digital platforms and in select theaters now) about an 18-year-old woman, Angel (Dominique Fishback), fresh from a stint in juvenile detention navigating life on her own after growing up in the U.S. foster care system. “How on earth are these young kids doing it when they’re let out on their own with really virtually no help or guidance, and a million forces acting against them?…. It came out of total admiration that I wanted to set a story and give the characters that background.”
She found the answer with co-writer Angelica Nwandu, whom she met while connecting with real-life foster care children at Peace4Kids, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of foster youth. Thus, their story evolved into an unconventional tale of revenge as Angel comes to terms with the death of her mother, murdered years prior at the hands of her emotionally disturbed father. With her little sister Abby (newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall, whom Spiro scouted at a step competition in the Bronx) in tow, Angel sets out on an eye-for-an-eye quest to fill the void. And Spiro made sure the corresponding narrative was one of strength and agency versus pity and suffering.
“We never wanted to make it feel as if Angel’s situation was hopeless, because that’s not how Angelica and I perceive the youth coming out of foster care,” Spiro continues. In stark contrast to more bombastic movies about personal justice like Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge or Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Angel’s path is a slow burn en route to an abstract form of vengeance that proves justice of the heart flows thicker than blood.
“If they’re going to thrive, it’s because…. They found that power inside of themselves,” Spiro finishes. “There aren’t any saviors around them.” There’s just a filmmaker shining a light where fearless passion already burns.
Night Comes On is in limited theatrical release and on VOD now. Read on for EW’s full Q&A with Spiro.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to set the film against the backdrop of the foster care system?
JORDANA SPIRO: I was volunteering with an organization called Peace4Kids, which services foster youth in Los Angeles. I learned there what it means to age out of foster care. I just started thinking, if I can have all these feelings — fear of the unknown, fear of loss, fear of not knowing how to access my own power — but I have all these safety nets around me, how on earth are these young kids doing it when they’re let out [of care] on their own with really virtually no help or guidance and a million forces acting against them? How are they rising above the circumstances and finding their own self-worth and having healthy relationships and ambitions? And they are doing that. It came out of total admiration that I wanted to set a story and give the characters that background. Having said that, because that background isn’t my own, I wanted to collaborate with somebody who could speak firsthand to that experience, so I met Angelica through Peace4Kids while looking for a co-writer…. it seemed to be aligned with a lot of the things she would like to express about the system and the kids coming out of it.
The film emphasizes the visual and auditory senses so much, almost as if we’re viewing this world through a wide-eyed child’s perspective. Was that intentional?
That was very purposeful for me. My heroes are Lynne Ramsay, Jane Campion, and Lucrecia Martel. The way they film, you just feel all of those sensorial details of the world around the characters, through the character’s eyes…. I wanted anybody watching the film to feel like they were in Angel’s experience. So the more subjective I could make the style of the filmmaking, the more of a chance I had to allow us to attach ourselves onto Angel through the film and go through what she goes through with her in the hopes that we could understand that, while there’s nothing universal about her given circumstances or how she’s treated, there is a universality in what we want in life, which is self-respect, love, these kind of essential human rights.
Obviously this is a story about two young, black girls. And we often see stories like this criticized for pitying the characters or their suffering. But this isn’t doing that at all. Were you working against that?
That was kept in conversation constantly. We never wanted to make it feel as if Angel’s situation was hopeless, because that’s not how Angelica and I perceive the youth coming out of foster care…. If they’re going to thrive, it’s because of themselves and their peers. They found that power inside of themselves…. They fostered those relationships. There aren’t any saviors around them.
This film is also billed as a revenge story. But it doesn’t play like a revenge story in the sense most people would suspect.
The revenge idea was a starting place for me in that I knew I wanted to make a film that allowed for a lot of exploration of the character, her nuances, and the great detail in the push and pull of how we go about working towards the thing that are good for us and also often times against the things that are good for us. I don’t particularly like films that are portraiture. I like films that have more of a classic narrative structure, where you’re being propelled forward and there’s momentum…. This revenge idea was a way to give this person an attempt at feeling powerful, albeit in a totally misguided way, and use it as an opportunity to really unpack her character…. It’s about a young woman who feels so powerless and hungry to have a purpose or be meaningful that she attaches herself to a mission of retribution that’s essentially only self-destructive.
This film was with Sundance’s Cinereach program, and, of course, screened there. Recently, the head of the Venice Film Festival addressed criticisms that his festival only had one female filmmaker in competition. He feels it’s not the job of festivals to change that conversation for parity. Given your experience with Sundance, do you agree with that?
What I’d separate in this case is that in terms of Sundance’s support, they have two arms — the festival and the institute, and our support in terms of the making of the film came from the institute. I’m very grateful for their support and I know their mission is to support films of worlds that we don’t typically get to see…. It is not the responsibility of a festival to choose a less strong film only because that filmmaker is a woman. However, because we understand that there is a disparity in the access to resources to make a film, which ultimately makes for a smaller sample size of films directed by women, that they are doing everything they can in the scouting process, to allow the pool of considered films to more accurately represent the makeup of the worlds’ population so that art can best stand the chance to be truly reflective of the human experience.