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Wayward Spirits: Nia DaCosta Interviews Nanny Writer/Director Nikyatu Jusu

Anna Diop in NannyAnna Diop in Nanny

Nanny, the feature debut from writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, evokes a truly rebellious spirit, channeling West African folklore as a liberatory chaos agent to confront the xenophobia, racism and misogyny that regularly besets immigrants working as domestic laborers in the United States. Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese woman living in New York City, is initially ecstatic when she lands a gig as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family in Manhattan. Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector) appear to be well-intentioned employers, and their daughter Rose (Rose Decker) instantly connects with Aisha. However, she quickly realizes that the family’s swanky (if blandly minimalist) apartment and adorable daughter are pretty much the only tangible perks: Aisha’s wages begin to go unaccounted for, she’s forbidden from cooking Senegalese meals in the house and the couple are unresponsive to her repeated requests for her son, who’s still in Africa, to join her in NYC permanently. 

On top of these stressors, Aisha begins to experience vivid encounters with otherworldly spirits, the siren deity Mami Wata and trickster spider Anansi. Is their newfound presence in her life because her sanity is slipping or something far more sinister? With the help of her casual love interest, Malik (Sinqua Walls), and his spiritually insightful grandmother, Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), Aisha begins to unravel the significance behind the creatures in her visions. As it turns out, their appearance might just result in the emotional emancipation that she desperately needs, even if their supernatural methods undoubtedly relish cathartic chaos. 

Jusu, a 2020 Filmmaker 25 New Face, developed Nanny for nearly a decade, finding financing after her short film Suicide by Sunlight, about Black vampires, played Sundance in 2019. Nanny premiered at Sundance in 2022, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and was subsequently bought by Amazon Prime Video and Blumhouse Pictures in a worldwide deal. Before heading to the Prime Video platform, it will premiere in theaters this November. 

To interview Jusu, we asked fellow writer-director Nia DaCosta (Little Woods, 2021’s Candyman), also a filmmaker within the horror genre whose work is similarly fascinated with the chilling consequences of social inequality. Their conversation spans a wide array of subjects, which include their non-cinematic cultural influences, the overarching reverence for elders within the African diaspora and Jusu’s intense interest in adapting a certain Marvel character.—Natalia Keogan

DaCosta: I want to start at the beautiful beginning image of Nanny, before the title. I always find opening images really interesting because I went to film school, where it was like, “The opening image, the final image, blah, blah, blah.” I think opening images are really important, and this one’s indelible. How and when did you come upon this as the opening?

Jusu: What has been beaten into my head in academia [is that] the opening and closing images should, ideally, be poetic opposites. But what I wrote is completely different from the final cut. I imagined this massive setpiece, where [Aisha] is in a bed, then she’s literally drowning in a body of water. The editing process was a journey—a lot of improvisation on set, [then] a lot of going back to what we had and remixing. I kept looking at Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, a big reference point in terms of opening and closing [images]. The opening and the closing were two of the hardest things to land on in the final edit, but luckily we had so much poetry and texture that we had stuff to pull from.

DaCosta: Can you talk about any other references you felt resonated as it related to this story?

Jusu: I am a voracious reader, or at least used to be when I had time. Now I’m literally pulling from everything I read during my teenage angst, when I was just pushing through novels: Saidiya Hartman, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Octavia Butler. My way into motion pictures really was through reading, and there’s a lot more agency in the written form for the types of women I like to create on the scree. Painters like Boscoe Holder, photographers like the young Dominican Renell Medrano, and Mar+Vin, the Brazilian duo. It was literally culling feelings and images and colors and texture. I always talk about the fact that, if everything is from cinema, you just end up paying homage throughout your whole body of work. So, I tried to be a citizen of the world and be present because that’s where so much of my inspiration comes from. And living in New York: I was born and raised in Atlanta, but I truly became not only a woman, in so many regards, but a filmmaker, in New York. 

DaCosta: I love that you talk about having to cull references and feelings and emotions and visuals from things that aren’t film because I completely agree with you. There are some directors who are amazing pastiche artists, and you do feel the references. [Their work] is beautiful, but it doesn’t always feel idiosyncratic or personal. For Candyman, so much [inspiration] was photography, in particular Chicago photographers.

Jusu: Who were some of your people?

DaCosta: Gordon Parks was a huge one, especially Segregation Story. I feel like I’ve actually seen a couple of TV bibles, and they’re always like, “Gordon Parks.” And I’m like, “OK, I guess I’m not the only one.”

Jusu: You’re not!

DaCosta: I want to go more into the look of the movie because it’s so beautiful. You clearly made very specific choices about lifting it out of reality, but it still had a very grounded feeling. The color blue obviously is water. That was such a beautiful motif. In the beginning, I loved how you see her in blue. Then, when she’s getting ready to go out, she’s in blue and orange, and when she’s out, it’s orange. I was like, “That’s an interesting way to create movement.” Then, when you meet the little girl for the first time, she’s wearing blue as well. It’s almost like, “Oh, there’s an allegiance there.” Can you talk a bit about creating this grounded unreality for your film?

Jusu: Our costume designer was Charlese Antoinette [Jones], whose body of work is becoming super vast. The film she did prior was Judas and the Black Messiah with Shaka [King]. We had such a beautiful marriage between department heads, and that was the key to every facet of the frame. My right hand, my producer, Nikkia Moulterie, she’s born and bred in New York, and she’s become an integral part to my process. She always fights for us to have prep, for me to have rehearsals, for me to have time with my department heads. I know we’re all moving at an insane pace, especially in this current climate, but time is priceless because you’re learning each other’s languages, and you’re learning where people are landing on color palettes [and] motifs and why.

Charlese and Jonathan Guggenheim, our production designer—who did Scream [2022] right after Nanny, two completely different projects—had time to talk. When we landed on this lagoon aqua aesthetic that speaks to Mami Wata and the water motif, Jonathan was showing us tile in every range of blue and green for the bathroom in Amy and Adam’s house. Charlese was talking about marigold as an indicator of joy for [Aisha] when she’s in her African community or in the Black diaspora community in New York. When you have to fight for every slice of time, these conversations [are] priceless. 

DaCosta: Anna Diop is so good.

Jusu: Right?

DaCosta: Obviously, she has worked a lot, but in this I felt like we were seeing so much more of her as an actor. In cinema, characters who are a maid or nanny in this sort of dynamic—a Black immigrant with a white, rich family—even when they’re asserting themselves and have presence and the stories are about them, can often fall into this trap of being very small, submissive. I love that this character has so much humanity and dimension and would be like, “I hate you, you’re dumb. I need my money.”

Jusu: “I hate you, you’re dumb.” That’s clearly me on the page!

DaCosta: Can you talk about building out this character in the script and working with Anna?

Jusu: We gotta get through production, but it’s not my favorite part of the process. Casting, rehearsals, editing—those are my favorite chapters. And I’m a face person. I’m a Libra, so you know what piques my interest: Can I look at this person? Can I look at these faces for 90-plus minutes? It’s not even about the superficiality of traditional beauty. Are these interesting faces? Are these eyes telling me something? Am I looking at cheekbones that can be accentuated by lighting? So, superficially and initially, my interest was piqued because of Anna’s face. Her face takes up every pixel of every frame in the best ways possible. And I was like, “Please, lord, I don’t know”—like I literally don’t have [a work sample] that speaks to her range because, like many Black actresses, she’s underutilized, you know? All I had was Titans, and Titans is what it is, but it’s not going to show you the full range of what she can do.

We had an amazing casting director, Kim Coleman. Anna went through the process—I had other actors because, you know, the agency dance. Everybody wants a “name actor.” So, I was dancing the “offer only” situation from certain people, and Anna was down to go through the process. She auditioned a couple of times, then I had her audition for chemistry casting with my Maliks and my Roses. She was down, she did it and she killed it.

DaCosta: She’s so good.

Jusu: Right, Nia? She’s Storm. I’m trying to manifest Storm.

DaCosta: Oh my gosh. She’d be an amazing Storm.

Jusu: Hopefully, you don’t beat me to that. That’s literally the one Marvel thing I want to direct. I’m like, “Nia might beat me to it, but if that’s who beats me to it, you got my blessing.”

DaCosta: Listen, if you want, I’ll just be like, “Kevin [Feige], have you seen Nanny”? [DaCosta is directing The Marvels for the MCU.] Honestly, there are just so many white men [at Marvel], and they’re doing better—Bassam [Tariq] is there, Chloé [Zhao]—but I’m also like, “That’s still not enough.”

Jusu: Yeah, and [the character of Storm] is one of the few that’s actually originally Black on the page, you know? It’s not wedging Blackness into pre-existing white IP. 

DaCosta: I feel you on that. It’s so funny, I talked to another Black filmmaker, and they were talking about their Storm movie, and I was like, “There’s going to be a fucking brawl.”

Jusu: I know. And I’m down to bleed. I’m down to cut people for this one.

DaCosta: [We were] speaking earlier of Mami Wata. There’s the diasporic relationship to water as a beautiful element but it also references slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and trauma. I loved the way you interlaced the mythology side of this story through [Aisha’s] love interest [Malik] and [his] grandmother. Integrating West African mythology through the diaspora, through an elder into the story, did you know you wanted to do that from the beginning?

Jusu: Growing up in Atlanta, my dad used to DJ. We had parties. The Black diaspora [was] funneling through our house at all times. So, I grew up with many different cultures, but the consistency was the reverence for our elders, whether it was my Liberian American friend or my Jamaican American friend. I don’t want to generalize, but I think consistently what I’ve noticed in the Black diaspora in particular, when you have a healthy situation, is a reverence for our elders. My mom is an older mom, and I’m her first born. She had me at 37—my dad is seven years younger—and I think that was a blessing because she was so mature and patient and really initiated me into what it’s like to age. And seeing her age, and seeing older and younger millennials and how we’re handling having to take care of our parents—that’s a whole other chapter of adulthood I don’t think we anticipate in this culture because back home, in Sierra Leone, ideally the community takes care of the elders. The community takes care of the mentally ill. The community takes care of so much, and we’re so estranged from that in a society that neither cares for children nor the elderly. And the women that I admire, like Toni Morrison and Saidiya Hartman, they’re older women, so, I value that wisdom. Clearly, they have shit to say. And clearly, we should listen.

DaCosta: When I think back to the ending of your film, I’m like, “They’re warning her.” When and how did you come to this ending?

Jusu: Again, the opening and ending were a battle—on the page, during production, in post. We shot this ending that was married to the script, and it felt like a Lifetime movie. I remember sitting in the edit and being like, “This is not the same film as the rest of the film.” Even the aesthetic was different. I try to listen to the universe, and I think it was like, “We’re going to fuck this up so badly that you can’t use this ending, because this is not the ending that you’re supposed to use.” I always like ambiguous endings; I love giving the audience homework. I had to trust myself and what I recalled from set, which [I did on] literally every frame of this film. This is what we landed on, which feels good. I wanted it to still speak to the water, birth and rebirth, and the ambiguity of her being forced to carve out this new life in America that inevitably, indelibly leaves what you left behind.

DaCosta: It made me think about—this is going to sound so random—Bong Joon-ho’s The Host.

Jusu: Not random at all.

DaCosta: I love that movie so much. It was my first Bong Joon-ho film.

Jusu: Same, same.

DaCosta: I went to boarding school in high school. We had a lot of Korean students, and the film would play in the common room. We watched it randomly, and I was like, “Oh, that was such a sad ending. His daughter died after all of that.” Then, my Korean friend goes, “Well, but he has that little boy now.” And I thought, “That’s such an interesting way of looking at it—this cycle of rebirth.”

Jusu: I love that film, and I love that you connected that because that’s a reference. This is not random at all. I have a couple of really good Korean friends, and I don’t think they realize how much they have in common with African culture.

DaCosta: My Korean friend actually said, “I feel like Jamaicans and Koreans are very similar.” I was like, “Yes.”

Jusu: Black diaspora and Koreans, I’m just like, “Well, that’s why you all own all the beauty supply stores.” We give each other enough money, so it makes sense.

DaCosta: One of my favorite parts of the film was when Kathleen was saying [to Aisha] that these spirits challenge the dominant order by sowing chaos. There are those things that embolden you to just say “fuck it” to the status quo because, you know, it’s all bullshit. The fact that you have to adhere to it is bullshit, and [because] you have to survive you have to do that. But then you think, “Actually, if it’s not real, why am I participating in this charade?” I loved that part. The other thing I liked about it was that it puts the responsibility on us. I love that she said, “You should be asking the spirits what they want for you.” So, how do you apply this to yourself as a filmmaker?

Jusu: Wow, Nia, I knew you were going to end this with an Iyanla Vanzant question. It’s an ongoing dialogue that I think that you probably have in your process with each project. We’re anomalies in every sense of the word on these sets. I’ve walked onto sets where I’m directing, and people come up to me the first couple of days, and they’re like, “Are you crafty?” And I’m like, “No, I’m not, but it’s over there.” You learn to not internalize what people expect because it doesn’t help you. It doesn’t help your process, and it doesn’t help you focus on what is important. I think I’m constantly straddling this line of educating people and feeling the burden of having to educate people, versus existing and thriving and allocating my energy and my battles in a way that will serve me. So, I’m constantly creating these Black women characters who are navigating systems where they feel like they fought a lot, or they’re tired, and they’re trying to step into this power that they don’t realize they have. It definitely is very meta in terms of what I’m navigating and what I’m writing. But yeah, I love a chaos agent that’s like, “Even if you burn this shit down and you burn in the process, at least you burnt this shit down for the next generation.”

DaCosta: 100 percent.

Jusu: I’m constantly enamored, interested and intrigued by the ways we rebelled in the past and the ways that we continue to rebel in the present because the motion picture is powerful. Like, this is messaging. This can inform how you feel about yourself. If you’re constantly being given imagery that shows that you’ve laid down and just taken it, you’re going to internalize that. That’s a strategy in both education and cinema. So, I’m interested in imbuing people with wish fulfillment and tools for survival, and not judging fighting violence with violence. Or not judging fighting chaos with chaos, you know?

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