Tribeca 2018: Nia DaCosta, director of “Little Woods”

Debut film features Tessa Thompson and Lily James

May 07, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


 

Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is a reformed drug runner in the far northern oil town of Little Woods, North Dakota. When her mother dies and her estranged sister Deb (Lily James) shows up on her doorstep with a hungry child and another on the way, Ollie sees only one real choice: quickly raise money to pay back the bank and keep their mother’s home, where Deb can raise her family away from an abusive ex. To do so, she’ll need to return to the illicit (and dangerous) career she thought she’d left behind.

Writer-director Nia DaCosta won the Tribeca Film Festival’s 2018 Nora Ephron Award, a highly prestigious prize bestowed each year upon a female, first-time filmmaker. We spoke with her ahead of that announcement, days after Little Woods' first screening at this year’s festival.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Before we get started on Little Woods, I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up, and what led you into film?

Nia DaCosta: I was born and raised in New York City: born in Brooklyn, raised mostly in Harlem. I went o Tisch Film School. I started getting into film when I was 16, maybe 15. I always knew I was going to be a writer, even when I was really young I wanted to be a poet. Later I realized that wasn’t going to work for me. [Laughs] When I was 16, I read Heart of Darkness for an A.P. English Class, and then we thought we should watch Apocalypse Now, because it’s an adaptation. I fell in love with Apocalypse Now. I fell in love with the story behind it getting made, and I fell in love with Coppola’s audacity. Around the same time I watch The Godfather, and I watched Dog Day Afternoon – I went through the ‘70s, that time in film, and I was so inspired by what I saw and by filmmakers like Lumet and Spielberg and Coppola. They made me think, “Oh, I could do anything with film.” And so that’s where it started.

And what led to Little Woods? What inspired you to tell this story, about these characters?

It came from me wanting to tell a story about two women in a rural part of America. That had come from me realizing my privilege of being from a city and relatively well-educated, not being well-off but having access to so many things in spite of that. I thought about how different it would be to be living in a rural part of America, and to be a woman living there in poverty. Then I went about doing a ton of research and finding the right place for it to be set. I stumbled upon Williston [North Dakota] when I was looking at a map of where it might be the hardest place to get an abortion, if you needed one. I realized that was the perfect place to tell this story, because at the time it was two-to-one men to women, and completely overrun with oil and construction. It just made sense to me to set it there.

Little Woods is the fictional place you based on this real city, Williston. You went there, as part of your research – can you describe a few of your first-hand experiences there?

It’s two-fold. First, it was so beautiful; there’s this huge sky and canola fields. Especially coming from New York City, where the skyline just ends. Going there was so gorgeous. And then when I was able to talk to people – I would go to the bars, and hang out – I realized it was a very specific place to live. I’d done a lot of research before I went out there, but I got to talking to people first-hand and started being invited into people’s homes. I think we had one interview planned when I went out there, and we left with ten. People were just so willing to talk, and be open, and also wanted to set the record straight about what their experience was like.

The second thing was how people were struggling there, but they were also surviving. Their joys, as well as their sad times. In particular, the women I met were really amazing and compelling. It left me with this feeling that I really needed to be true to them.

There was one woman that I met who worked in a coffee shack, and when she wasn’t there she would be home watching Law & Order for hours and hours waiting for her boyfriend, who works on the rigs, to come home. He works an 18-hour day, so they barely see each other, and she’d moved to Williston to be with him. That’s what her life looks like. It’s hard for her to make friends because she can’t go out after dark, because women just can’t do that there. Things have gotten better since I first went there, but it’s still a struggle. It’s a very different way of existing.

How much of the story did you have in place before you did the research trip, and how much came together after doing these interviews?

I’d written the script before I went out there, mostly because I couldn’t afford to go out there. I did phone interviews, and had watched documentaries; there was so much information out there on this particular town. The craziest thing was that I’d have people from New York and L.A. read the script and they would ask, “Is this set in the future? Is this the past? Why don’t they just do this…?” And then when I went [to Williston] and asked people to read the script, they’d go, “Oh, no, it’s actually much worse.” In the script it says it costs, like, $8,000 to have a baby, and one woman told me it’s like $20,000 now. A lot less people had health insurance than I’d thought would. A lot of things were added to the script afterward that were very specific and personal to the things I’d heard and seen. It was really interesting. I’d been worried – I was afraid I was going to get it wrong. But it turned out it was awfully right.

You’ve described this as a Western. What are the Western elements you wanted to bring into the film?

A big part of it was the scenery. Like I said, when I went there it was so beautiful. I also love Westerns, and the way they talk about America, idealism, and the American dream, and whether that promise is being delivered upon or not. A movie like The Searchers, for example, which is about this man who’s in between worlds; he’s not of the frontier, and he’s not part of this new society that’s being built. That was interesting to me. Cities like Williston, they aren’t on a frontier, they’re in between spaces, and that’s sort of where Little Woods lives. So that Western ideology, I guess, was important to me.

And then, there are these certain tropes. Like, the lone gunslinger who’s put down her guns, but one person brings her back in – which is obviously the plot of this movie. [Laughs] That was also really important to me, but I really love telling stories about women. Ollie (Tessa Thompson) became that woman to me, who is like, “I’m done. I have to be done.” But the person who comes to her is her sister, who says “I need your help.”

My DP and I would talk a lot about Western imagery, and what would and wouldn’t make sense to put in.

Both Tessa Thompson and Lily James’ stars have shot upwards very quickly. How’d you manage to snag the both of them for an independent film?

So I did the Sundance Directors Lab in 2015 with an early version of this script. You workshop the script there, and you get to cast three actors from anywhere in the country. I had Tessa Thompson, Emmy Rossum, and Luke Kirby. Tessa became the character when we were rehearsing, and we connected so much as collaborators – she has an amazing mind, and she’s so smart – and I knew that was what I needed in the person who’d be #1 on the call sheet. As a human, she’s amazing as well. And so I asked her then to do the movie, and she said yes. So, she’s been attached since then; of course, that was between Dear White People and Creed. And then, you know… [gestures thumb rising into air like rocket, laughs]

And then with Lily, I’d seen her on stage in London. I thought she was so amazing – she had this power. Then I saw her in Downton Abbey and Cinderella, and she was great in those, but I thought I’d really like to see her more in something like what I saw on stage. We were in prep and it was a hard role to cast. We sent her the script, and she loved it. We talked, and I kind of tried to scare her out of doing it. Like, “Listen, we don’t have any money.” I mean, she’s Cinderella! But she was so down. It was amazing.

***
Little Woods premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

 



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