A brooding atmosphere envelops every frame of Night Comes On, the debut feature by actor-turned-director Jordana Spiro. Spiro’s most staggering triumph is crafting a movie that lets us understand its thunderous silences.
Fresh out of a juvenile detention center, Angel (Dominique Fishback) renounces her future for the sake of avenging her deceased mother. Her 10-year-old sister, Abby (newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall), who is in the foster care system, is Angel’s only anchor to kindness and hope. Their relationship is based on their shared pain and profound desperation to be part of each other’s lives.
Actively working to avoid misrepresentation of people of color on screen, Spiro, who is also one of the stars of Netflix’s Ozark, collaborated with co-writer Angelica Nwandu, an artist whose personal experiences hue closer to those in the screenplay. Their connection was facilitated by a mutual contact at Peace4Kids, an organization in Los Angeles that advocates for better foster care.
Throughout multiple development programs such as the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs in 2014, the project evolved, secured financing, cast its protagonists, and eventually premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. There the film won the NEXT Innovator Award—a well-deserved accolade recognizing the team’s commitment to honesty and compassion.
MovieMaker spoke with Spiro ahead of the release about the extensive writing process, how being an actor helps her direct, and the purposeful score she enriched Night Comes On with.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Walk me through the long writing process, which I understand had many changes, from the original spark to deciding you needed a co-writer and beyond.
Jordana Spiro (JS): The initial spark started over 10 years ago. I wanted to make a movie about a young woman who is typically cast aside, and get inside of her journey and explore the beauty and also the darkness that comes with what’s going on with her.
I asked the executive director of Peace4Kids if he might recommend somebody to work with me. He heard the story I was developing, which has since taken a very different shape, and he recommended Angelica Nwandu. At the time, Angelica was writing very beautiful, visceral poetry about her experiences in the system. We met and found a real complicity in the way we wanted to express ourselves, what we wanted to say. With her on board, the script became a living, breathing thing.
MM: What did Angelica bring into the writing process with you?
JS: Initially, I didn’t know what I was looking for. Was I looking for a co-writer, or was I looking for a kind of consultant to educate me? But it became very clear, as we started working together, that I wanted to ask her to be my partner in writing. We are both drawn towards a kind of lyrical and poetic sensibility, which allowed us to bounce ideas off each other. You’ve got an idea that you can only see a part of, but when you bounce it off of another person, the idea evolves and grows into something else. We had a similar appreciation for the poetry that you find in the details. It was a rich partnership.
MM: Did your approach to sisterhood on the page and on set emanate from your personal experience?
JS: It’s actually funny that you say that, because in the original conception of the story, she had a little brother. Angelica has many sisters; I have many sisters, and as we were working together our relationship felt sisterly. So it made sense that we would make them sisters.
MM: Tell me about casting Dominque Fishback, who plays Angel. Were you after a professional actor for this particular role or was a non-actor a possibility?
JS: Working with non-actors in the past has always been an exciting and positive experience for me, especially when it comes to young people. I was working on casting a non-actor, but as I went on, it dawned on me that I needed someone for the role of Angel that had some experience and skill to draw on.
Dominique wrote and performed a one-woman show called Subverted where she played 22 different characters, and I was blown away by her. At the same time Dominique was one of the first people that Julie Schubert, our casting director, recommended. She was on The Deuce, and had done Show Me A Hero previous to that, so she had a history as a very hard-working person.
The big problem with a character who is emotionally cut-off to the point where she never says what she’s really thinking is that you have to have somebody who—even when you’re just watching their face and their eyes in quiet—can give you so much to put yourself in their shoes. She has one of those old souls, where she can sit there in quiet. She does so much character work that she truly begins to think the thoughts of her character and gets so much out of the simple act of sitting in stillness. That was essential for me.
MM: Tatum Marilyn Hall is a revelation as Abby. I understand this was her first time in front of a camera. What was the casting process like for her?
JS: Our incredible team working on non-professional casting, Marlena Skrobe and Olivia Creser, were hitting the pavement for over a year. They auditioned over a thousand young women and scouted Tatum at a Step competition in the Bronx. Initially beginning with improvisation, they knew right away that Tatum had something. Every time we worked with her, she was just able to take in information and digest it and move to the next level of complexity very easily. I was very lucky in that Dominique and Tatum were very generous with giving me rehearsal time. That was key, because it allowed them to find a shorthand as sisters. It allowed Tatum to get more comfortable with the words so that she could throw them away, and we could see another side of her. The rehearsal process was an essential piece of the process.
MM: In your role as a director, how does your experience as an actress help you work with actors?
JS: I can recognize when dialogue isn’t working—when you can’t find a way into the dialogue. I know that feeling, where you’re trying to put a square peg into a round hole, where you’re trying to push for something that isn’t working in the text. That’s helpful, because you can stop, regroup, and figure out if something needs to be changed.
MM: What does your role as a director provide for you as an artist that acting doesn’t?
JS: With acting you are perceiving somebody else’s story and digesting it to make it your own. With directing, you are deciding what story should be told. In this particular case, I felt like there was a story here that I hadn’t seen. It’s really just being able to be in the driver’s seat, in terms of the construction of an idea and then being able to see it all the way through in the way that you had imagined.
MM: The music in Night Comes On is incredibly transcendent and sticks with you long after watching the movie. It’s a subtly potent asset for the story.
JS: We had two composers working on the film. One was Matthew Cooper of Eluvium. I’m a big fan of Eluvium and I listened to a lot of them when I was writing. In fact, I put one of their songs in my script: Repose in Blue. Then, as I started working with him, he was willing to come on board and create an original score for us. At the same time, locally, because our post-production schedule was very tight making the Sundance deadline, we also worked with Nathan Halpern who did the score for The Rider. What we wanted to do with the music was for it to give us a sensitive way to watch and be with Angel, to give some quiet to her thoughts. We wanted the music to allow us to be in that space while, at the same time, remain minimal and sparse. In that sparseness, we have to have all of this texture and layers.
MM: The way you handle revenge and forgiveness in the film is simultaneously uplifting and devastating. It’s a truly tender portrayal of complex emotions done with deep compassion.
JS: We wanted to make a film that was not necessarily about forgiving the person that has harmed you in such an irreversible way, but forgiveness of yourself for any shame or guilt that you carry around—especially when you’re dealing with children. One of the biggest problems with the foster care system is that there’s so much danger. In every house that a child goes into, they don’t know whether that person’s going to be potentially harmful to them, and so there needs to be these incredible defense mechanisms that get built around themselves.
Somebody once said to me that vulnerability is a luxury that you can’t afford. What happens then is that you can also block out well-intentioned people in your life. That’s what happened to Angel. Her own significance has been devalued so much that she’s begun to believe her lack of significance, and she’s trying to make sense of her sister’s landscape without her significance as part of it. It was really about being able to explore what it means to allow yourself to be open to love and somebody believing in you. MM
Night Comes On opened in theaters on August 3, 2018, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films. All images courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.