Day 5 of 25: Tayarisha Poe, Lauren McBride, Jomo Fray on Selah and the Spades
“She found no joy in fully formed things, she sought those times of the year, those people, who were discovering their potential. Selah loved potential.”
Quoted in Filmmaker’s Winter, 2015 print issue, in our now-defunct Super 8 column, those are the words of the narrator of the first iteration of Tayarisha Poe’s wickedly beguiling, sociologically astute teen crime drama, Selah and the Spades. At that time, “transmedia” was a bit more the rage, and Poe’s hybrid website/webseries/photography/literary site had a smart, sprawling appeal. By the time we caught up with Poe again, selecting her for our Summer, 2015 issues’ 25 New Faces series, a full-fledged feature version of Selah — which Poe described as “if Sweet Valley High met The Godfather on the way to The Wire” — was set to begin shooting. But a blip in the financing wound up leading to further development (Poe took the project to both the Sundance Institute Screenwriters and Directors Labs), a Summer, 2018 shoot, and just six months later, a world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. A darkly alluring teen noir that successfully refracts its adult influences through the writer/director’s personal, unpredictable style, Poe’s Selah — now available on Amazon Prime via Amazon Studios — has more than lived up to its potential.
Selah and the Spades tells the story of Haldwell School, a New England prep school where students dwell in and amongst five girl gangs, the toughest of which, the drug-dealing Spades, is led by the ice-veined Selah (Lovey Simone). Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) is the still photographer — as is also Poe — and potential protege who circles around her in a plot filled with Machiavellian teen rivalry, possible murder and more.
In this column, The Shooting Schedule, I look at a film and its production through the prism of a single shoot day. The Selah and the Spades team — Poe, producer Lauren McBride and cinematographer Jomo Fray (also a 25 New Face pick) — selected the fifth shoot day of their 25-day production. Four scenes were shot on the day, all in the gym of a Peabody, MA elementary school that represents part of the campus of the film’s fictitious Haldwell School. The general crew call was 7:00 AM; it was the first day the crew traveled away from the location where the majority of the school scenes were shot. Here are the scenes, with their page counts, found on that day’s call sheet.
SCENE 19 — INT. HALDWELL SCHOOL, ATHLETIC GYM — DAY. SELAH goes through her Spirit Squad routine. 1 4/8 page.
SCENE 17 — INT. HALDWELL SCHOOL, ATHLETIC GYM — DAY. SPIRIT SQUAD MEMBERS change into their uniforms as SELAH commands them to get ready. 4/8 PAGE.
SCENE 18 — INT. HALDWELL SCHOOL, ATHLETIC GYM — DAY. SELAH leads the SPIRIT SQUAD in suicide sprints. 1 3/8 page.
SCENE 117 — INT. HALDWELL SCHOOL, ATHLETIC GYM — DAY. SELAH congratulates NURI on performance. NURI & SQUAD leave — SELAH is alone. 5/8 page.
Filmmaker: First, why did you pick this day to talk about?
Fray: I think it’s a cool one to talk about because there were a few aspects about production that crystallized in interesting and different ways on the day. In my opinion, it’s a day that’s very emblematic of Tayarisha’s and my working style at its best. It’s also an interesting day because even though it was a short and contained one, we ended up having miscommunications with the building [location], which then made it hard. We got behind on time but needed to do these big looks and iconic scenes. Ever since the first draft of the screenplay, three and a half years ago, [Selah’s] monologue has been in this scene [scene 19].
Poe: What’s interesting also is that it was a day that we couldn’t really communicate with exact specificity what we were going to shoot. We were just going to have to figure it out in the moment. I remember I kept saying, “We’ll move around these girls and let them do what they do and we’ll capture it like a music video.”
Filmmaker: Had you rehearsed the choreography for the dance scene before, or were you doing it on the day? And how precise was your shotlist going in?
Poe: [The actors] did a rehearsal in advance — a very light afternoon of rehearsal. And then they showed up on the day and we had a click track for them to dance to, and the choreographer was there. We broke down the routine into these little repetitive moments. Each of the Spirit Squad members had their own moment that they would do over and over again to settle into their bodies. And that helped inform how we shot them.
Fray: We took a lot of time in prep to shotlist the movie — every moment, every beat, every edit, every sound cue. In prep we’d spend four or five hours a day going through the script and creating the shotlist. But what is great about this day five is that once we get to the [shooting location], we become inspired by what we are seeing rather than what our plan was. And I think we were really good about letting go of our intellectualizations and our ego around a scene.
Because of some of the [problems] with the location, we ended shooting some of the pieces in Selah’s monologue — the ones without Selah speaking — in maybe seven minutes before lunch. It was me on a tripod with rollers on it and a three-axis tripod head so I could tilt pan and change the horizon. Tayarisha would direct the carousel of dancers into an action or a moment, and I’d find a composition and we’d keep moving. There were no second takes, no re-compositions, and a lot of those shots ended up being some of my favorites. Almost having a jazz-like approach to it worked very well.
Filmmaker: Lauren, what were some of those challenges at the start of the day?
McBride: On the one hand it was our first day away from our main location. We shot probably 70% of the movie on a big campus in Wynham, Massachusetts. This was our first day going somewhere else — to this elementary school, where we shot all of our choreographed scenes. So that had us all a bit nervous — wanting to make sure everything would be good and together. And then the fire department had to come, which was the best part of it! But we probably got the nicest fire department in all of Massachusetts. They were lovely; they had to come twice because the haze was creating an issue for the fire alarm. The second time they came [the fire chief] just kind of hung out with us. He was like, “If it comes on again, we’ll turn it off.”
Filmmaker: The fire department came because you guys set off the alarm?
McBride: Yeah. the haze machine set off the alarm. Obviously there was no real smoke or fire.
Filmmaker: You were shooting in the summer, correct? The school wasn’t in session.
McBride: It was all in the summer, and the school was ours completely. We did our holding in the cafeteria, we were shooting in the gym and we had a couple of classrooms for wardrobe. It’s a testament to our AD and line producers that it was a well-planned and nice day, even with the hiccups. The crew was phenomenal — everyone really pulled it together.
Filmmaker: Were there any challenges in securing school locations due to the content of the script?
McBride: We got really lucky. We had a great local location manager, Matt Melia. He did a really good job of leveraging his relationships and finding us really great locations. The gym was just really hard for us to find. I think we looked at eight of them to fit what Tayarisha was looking for, and we found this elementary school four days before we shot there. But from a content perspective, we ran into that issue with one other school, which we ended us not using because they wanted to read the script. When we were looking for our core location, an elite private school, a lot of folks [asked], “What’s in the film?” As soon as we mentioned, “We’ll, she’s a drug dealer,” it was like, “Ah….” But we found really great partners in our core location, and it wasn’t an issue in some of the smaller locations because the spaces weren’t ultimately identifiable.
Filmmaker: Tayarisha and Jomo, what was your immediate reaction when the fire alarm went off during this very important scene?
Fray: Someone once told me about filmmaking is that from the moment you walk on set it’s like you’re the captain on an already sinking ship. You’re always fighting against variables that are uncontrollable but that we like to pretend like we have control over. Like, I tell myself, I can control light, but I can’t control light. At my best I can modulate light. But if a generator blows, or if the forecast was supposed to be sunny coming in from the south and now it’s not anymore, all of a sudden I have to adapt and change. I think I always approach it as trying to honor the day and the moment more than honoring necessarily what I think it should be, or how I best want it to be. I also think I build a plan that way. For this scene, the lighting setup had no artificial light. It was all natural light, and we set up a bunch of mirrors around the gym to give it a look I was interested in. When the fire alarm went off, it was more, “Okay, we can’t go with dialogue. Are there any shots that we can get of someone having a private moment, or Selah sitting here amongst these women?”
Poe: Yeah. I feel like with fire alarms going off, it’s just like a little bit of drama. You remember that movie, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm? I used to love that movie in high school. I had this idea that making movies was a little bit like reality TV or something. As writer/director you have so much power, but you are so unimportant in the day-to-day lives of production in many ways. I’ll sort of get to the point of, “Oh my God, something awful is happening, something’s changing our plan!” And then I’ll be cackling inside: “Yes, drama! It’s all going to be fine, it’s going to work out. It’ll just be different, and that’s okay.” So it felt really easy for me to just ride the wave of drama.
Filmmaker: These scenes are from two different parts of the movie, and from the first three scenes on the call sheet to the last one, there’s a different color temperature, a different look. Could you talk about the way you used color and light in these scenes?
Fray: Tayarisha and I would always be talking about as the concept of duality — as it relates to the script, as it relates to the scenes, as it relates to the characters. So, for the monologue scene, which is incredibly stylized — the character is quite literally talking to the camera — it was trying to create as sharp a juxtaposition as we could. So, if the performance is going to be stylized, and the camera physics are going to be stylized in terms of these formalist tableaus, then we really wanted the light to feel super naturalistic — again, to create that duality, create that tension. I set up a bunch of 4’ by 4’ mirrors around the [room], all four cardinal directionrs, and basically we were bending them in across the day.
Poe: But can I ask you something, Jomo, going off of Scott’s question? I also just rewatched these scenes for the first time in a long time today. The way everything looks where the Spirit Squad is running suicides feels like the same world as the scene in the end when Selah is saying, “Good job, Mary.” Whereas the Spirit Squad sequence itself is so tonally different [in terms of the lighting]. How did we come to that decision to make that scene be so otherworldly feeling?
Fray: It was a lot about thinking about color temperature as language. The entire movie almost has a cold feel to it. Like blue and particularly green, based on the locations, are really profound. Our LUT, our color, was bending towards blue the entire time, and our lenses went towards blue. So those scenes before the Spirit Squad and then the mirror conversation, “natural” was around 4,600 as a color temperature. So it wasn’t correcting out blue from natural sunlight, it was making natural lights still feel pretty cold. And then for the cheerleading scene it was really trying to make a pretty stark departure for us. In our conversations we were like, “Let’s make the color feel totally different.” That cut from them running the suicides into the monologue scene, it’s going from a very cold feeling world into a very warm world, where Selah is showing her vulnerabilities within a scene that is super warm. The “Macbeth scene,” where Selah asks Paloma to beat up that faction member, the lenses have this really interesting [quality] where they resolve pretty cold. They were Kowar Promaninar spherical lenses, which have a cold bend to them. But when they flare the whole lens becomes really, really warm. And so we chose those lenses and then we’re like, “The only time when we’ll flare is in moments of inhumanity and the only times we’ll [be] warm are in moments that break from reality.” Whereas I think most people use the language of “warm” to be nostalgic, to be comforting. When we brought warmth into the movie, that was almost always [because] something unnatural is happening or there is deep violence entering into the space.
Filmmaker: Tayarisha, can you tell me about casting the Spirit Squad? What process did you go through to find them, and what were you looking for in terms of conceiving of them as individuals in a group?
Poe: It was like a very patchwork way of doing it. We had a great background casting coordinator, Artemis Shaw, and she helped us find these women to audition. And we worked with our choreographer, Donte Beacham, to find the ones who seemed as though they would have the easiest time learning the specific style of dance that we do in the film, which is called J-setting. I found out about J-sette because my brother is a dancer and a choreographer and he often works with it. It’s related to the tradition of drill teams at HBCUs — it’s like a very powerful “feminine meets military drills” style of dance. Every time I see it it makes me feel like I can dance that way, and I know that I cannot. So, whatever makes me feel like I could possibly dance is the kind of dance I wanted to represent the film. And then it was the process of getting all the girls on the same page with the choreography, which was kind of hilarious. I am a non dancer, and I definitely assumed that it would be super easy for everybody, and it wasn’t. We actually ended up hiding Lovie in the back row because it was just a little bit difficult to have her front and center with the dance. But she was a real trouper about it.
Filmmaker: The first thing that popped out when I looked at the call sheet was “Day 5 of 25.” Twenty-five days — pretty good! Years ago, independent first features, you’d often see 22 or 23 days. Then it went down to 18, 19. How did you land on what is a relatively generous schedule for a low-budget independent these days, and were they any budgetary issues?
McBride: One of the things we wanted to make sure of, from a producing perspective, was that Tyarisha had the time she needed to shoot. It was her first feature, and we didn’t want to set her or the film up for a 15- or 18-day shoot if it wasn’t realistic. Luckily we had investors who were onboard and really wanted to make sure Tayarisha was fully supported. The other reality of it too was just where many of our locations landed and the total number of locations we wound up shooting at. It was going to take us time to get from point A to point B.
Fray: From our earliest conversations, Tayarisha and I were more interested in time versus a piece of equipment, and I feel really fortunate that Lauren and the production were good about prioritizing those things with us. What that looked like on the ground was, again, the cheerleading scene. We were way more interested in creating a process where surprises could come to us. Having the time to know exactly what four shots will execute a scene and then we can get out of there… And then also having time after to be like, “Cool, we have that. What is the deeper texture in this scene instead of just getting it in the can.”
Poe: The focus moved away from “let’s capture every word on this script” and more into “let’s understand the script and play on the day.” It’s incredibly important to me to make sure that we’re always leaving the actors time to try things. It feels so good to me to say “yes” when they ask, “I don’t know if my character would do this thing. Can we try it this other way?”
Filmmaker: At the very top of the call sheet you have what is now a standard prohibition: No social media without approval. But I remember a time when you didn’t see that on call sheets. Tayarisha, you were involved with other films’s social media campaigns, such as The Fits. What was your social media strategy on this film, and did crew ask permission to post?
Poe: Lauren, did people ask to post, because we were posting a lot?
McBride: They didn’t strictly follow the instructions.
Poe: I feel like everyone was posting.
McBride: We were trying to keep a relatively low profile before we wrapped up and were ready to really come out with a social media campaign. That said, the crew got some awesome pictures and wanted to share with their friends. But our official social media strategy was not active during production. We had an amazing stills photographer on set, Makeda Lane, and she captured some amazing photos that we were able to then use once production was over and to be really intentional. And because Tyarisha is a stills photographer too, it was non-negotiable that we were going to have one.
Poe: It’s a fine line. You definitely want to keep all the good stuff for the movies so that people can see it and post about it then. But people also want to feel a little bit like they’re a part of things as it’s happening. I’ve found that it makes people significantly more loyal audience members when the project is done. That’s my thought about social media.
Filmmaker: As the editor of a print magazine, I thank you for having a still photographer on set. That position seems to have fallen by the wayside on so many shoots. People assume frame grabs are going to be sufficient, but for a print magazine they are not. You need 300 dpi stills, and up-rezzing doesn’t really suffice.
Fray: Also, as artists, documenting what we do is really important. When I finish [watching] a movie, I’ll want to read all the interviews about it and then I want to look for the behind-the-scenes photos to show how someone holds a camera, or what a setup was, a how close the director is to set, or to the actors. Those are such valuable pieces of informtioant that aren’t conveyed just from a shot from the film.