‘Nanny’ Director Nikyatu Jusu On Her Ghostly Supernatural Thriller From Sundance [Interview]
Feb 14, 2023
Premiering in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Nikyatu Jusu’s unsettling “Nanny” is a supernatural thriller that weaves together strands of domestic drama and West African folklore. For Jusu, combining these elements came naturally.
In approaching the story of Aisha (Anna Diop), an undocumented nanny who’s haunted by paranormal forces while working for a privileged couple in New York City, Jusu drew upon formative memories of her mother, an artist, and self-published writer, performing domestic labor for families other than her own.
‘Nanny’ Review: Social Horror Meshes Uneasily with Character Drama in Nikyatu Jusu-Directed Chiller [Sundance]
“It was something that really left a salient mark on me, the reality that your mother would have to go care for other families in spite of the tremendous love that you had for her,” says Jusu, speaking by phone. “She had to, at least from nine to five, portray this love to a whole other set of people — who may or may not be taking her for granted.”
Jusu’s family hails from Sierra Leone; she was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, as a first-generation American. After attending Duke University for an undergraduate degree unrelated to film, she fell in love with screenwriting and switched her major, later attending and earning an MFA from NYU’s Tisch Grad Film school. In making her feature debut as a writer-director, Jusu felt it was important to represent West African cultures on screen. She also wanted to explore the fraught nature of both the immigrant experience and motherhood in a country like the United States, where forces of what Jusu succinctly refers to as “imperial racist patriarchy” often lead families to outsource child care across various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.
“Attending Tisch, you see these brown women caring for white children all over the city,” says Jusu. “It’s just a visual staple of places like New York City. That cemented that I needed to pursue this idea that had been nagging at me for so long.”
Writing the script for “Nanny” took Jusu eight years, during which time she made multiple short films and thrived in academia as an assistant professor, teaching fiction directing and screenwriting. But once she’d finished it, the project gained traction faster than she had anticipated.
“Nanny” marks a particularly triumphant return to Sundance for Jusu, whose short film “Suicide By Sunlight” premiered at the festival in 2019. To call the project anticipated by industry insiders would be an understatement; Jusu’s script was shortlisted for the 2020 Black List, and the project, which Jusu developed with producing partner Nikkia Moulterie, was selected for the 2019 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Lab and IFP Project Forum as well as the 2020 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs and Creative Capital Award.
It’s been a whirlwind. “We were able to just take this project and nurture it in these labs, fully supported by these institutions,” says Jusu. “We got financing and shot in July, in New York City. I just turned in the finished product to Sundance last Friday. I haven’t really been able to really process what’s happening yet, because it’s just been such a fast trajectory.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Given how fast “Nanny” came together in terms of financing, and the added challenges of production during the pandemic, how have these past few months felt for you? Where have your thoughts been?That’s a good question. It’s hard enough to make a film not in a pandemic. And so making it in a pandemic is just this significant, added layer of difficulty that is physical, intellectual, and spiritual. On set, you’re constantly at risk of infecting each other. You don’t know how this thing is going to run through people’s bodies. It was really difficult to have the intimacy that you would ideally have on set, because of the pandemic. Communicating for 27 days behind a mask was really difficult and taxing. I’m thinking a lot about creating films within this new landscape. What do I want my trajectory to look like in the next five years, based on what we’re navigating? Prior to the pandemic, I think I would have wanted to be a lot more prolific. But I’m thinking now about how I can make the things I really, really want to make — even if it’s one thing every couple of years. How can I really create a trajectory for myself where I’m saying yes to the projects that truly resonate with me?
In terms of what resonates with you, do you see yourself continuing to work in the horror genre?For now, I’m very happy to stay in the darker genres of thriller and horror. At some point, I definitely want to venture into superhero and action territory. Candidly, right now, all I know is that I don’t want to do a straightforward drama or film that is considered a meditation. I like the challenge of keeping people’s attention over the course of a piece, as much as I can, of staying ahead of the audience. It’s just so much fun to figure out ways to circumvent and undermine people’s expectations of what a film is.
For that reason, I love South Korean cinema. Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook are two of my favorite creators. Wong Kar-wai is a little more meditative, but Asian cinema is generally a major influence in terms of the ways its best filmmakers do such an amazing job of keeping the audience on the edge of their feet and blending across genres. In America, cinema is such a business, and you have to talk about art in terms of, “Is this horror? Is this action?” I know film can be multiple things simultaneously, and I’m more interested in content that skirts multiple genres. Guillermo del Toro is a filmmaker I really am inspired by, especially his approach to creature and monster creation. There’s so much Black and African diasporic folklore that hasn’t been introduced to the American cinematic paradigm.
“Nanny” draws upon West African mythology and speaks to the painful social realities of caregiving; your story folds the two into each other beautifully. How did you determine the tonal balance this film would have?As people see more of my work, they’ll be curious about my inspirations, and I just have to say again: Bong Joon-ho. You might have a creature, but you also have these familial relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and family units that we can all understand, universally. His films understand our navigation of family and romantic love, all of these interhuman relationships. But then, at another level, you have this fantastical world that supplements that without being separate from it. The films I’ve always gravitated toward have those traits, by people like Michael Haneke, Kasi Lemmons, Lynne Ramsay, and Andrea Arnold, who do such an interesting job of building specific worlds with thriller, action, and dramatic elements. I’m starting to flex that same muscle, of how to incorporate genre and mainstream elements into something resonant, that upsets the audience’s emotions to some degree.
“Nanny” strikes that balance, as does your short “Suicide By Sunlight,” which followed a vampire who, protected from the damaging effects of sunlight by melanin in her skin, is going through the process of trying to regain custody of her children. I love that balance of social realism and horror, the way it plays within a recognizable world. “Suicide by Sunlight” is near and dear to my heart. Knock on wood, that’s the next project that we’re actively developing as a feature. I have a co-writer, and it’s found a home. Hopefully, we’ll have an announcement in the next couple of weeks about it. In this industry, you get these amazing deals, and it doesn’t really feel real, because everything is just so anticlimactic. You sign the paperwork and ask, “Is this happening?” I’m still in that place where it’s like, “Okay, this is the best-case scenario for ‘Suicide by Sunlight,’ and I hope that it’s real.” I don’t want to jinx it. But, hopefully, there’s an announcement about that. “Suicide by Sunlight” is another project that has lived with me for so long. And the goal was always to make it an original series. But because of the way the industry works, and I’m a relatively new voice to the industry itself, nobody’s going to give me that kind of money for an original series.
I’m having to prove my chops, with very expensive work samples in “Nanny” the feature and and “Suicide by Sunlight” the feature. I’m really influenced by writers. My first love in terms of storytelling was reading and writing. Toni Morrison, Octavia E. Butler, and Zora Neale Hurston are just some of the many writers I have a lot of reverence for, who have so much magic in their writing. When I read “Fledgling,” Octavia Butler’s vampire concept, forever ago in undergrad, I was like, “Oh, my God, day-walking Black vampires and climate disaster.” She was just so ahead of her time, whether she wanted to accept the hat of being clairvoyant or not.
More from this interview on the second page.
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