Night Comes On weighs on you long after the final scene fades to black. As great films do, it draws you in and forces you to sit with it as you meditate on the magnetism of the work. The pace is slow-moving and haunting to emphasize its sadness; its authenticity allows the audience to genuinely understand the magnitude of trauma many black children face. And if you're left sobbing at the onscreen performances of Dominique Fishback and newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall, so be it. That's how Jordana Spiro intended.
As the winner of the NEXT Innovator Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the indie darling and Spiro's directorial debut is about the impact of abandonment, revenge and the unexpected presence of hope. Co-written with Angelica Nwandu, founder of The Shade Room, the moving drama centers on 18-year-old Angel (Fishback) who is released from juvenile detention and sets out to avenge her mother's death while simultaneously on a journey to find her purpose.
"I don’t know that I would have felt responsible writing this particular script with a black character, and specifically a black foster youth, without somebody by my side who understood and could speak to that perspective firsthand," Spiro says of tackling this story with Nwandu's authentic voice and experience. "That made it possible for me to tell this story."
S&A: Let's start with how this story came to be; talk about the “sweat equity” you put into this film.
Jordana Spiro: It started from being inspired by the young people that I was meeting, for many years, with this organization called Peace4Kids, where I learned about what it means to age out of foster care. What I wanted, initially, was to make a movie about a young woman who is typically cast aside and really get the chance to sit inside her journey—the beauty of it, the tenderness of it—and also really delve into the darker sides of how she’s thinking. The real stuff. And not shy away from the difficult.
And, at the same time in my life, I was feeling a bit lost and directionless. I was finding very few instances of really being able to feel like I was contributing to something. And I just started to wonder that if I felt lost and directionless and I have all of these ways in which I am safe, privileged, supported, how in the world are these young people finding the resilience and the incredible bravery and strength to do what they’re doing? So my hope was to honor that.
S&A: You touched directly on that with the heaviness of Angel’s story. And while it is tender, there’s such a deep sadness that you feel almost instantly.
Spiro: It was a journey fraught with much worry.
S&A: So you worried about the story connecting?
Spiro: I was worried about making sure I got the story right.
S&A: To that point, why did you feel that you wanted to tell this story about a black girl, specifically?
Spiro: It’s interesting because it was never actually an active choice. It came about much more organically than that. Peace4Kids (P4K) is located in the Compton/Watts area of Los Angeles, and those are the neighborhoods that they serve. Those neighborhoods are predominantly black, or at least I should say the youth at P4K is predominantly black. So as I was writing, I didn’t necessarily have an exact face, but these were the young people that I was inspired by.
S&A: You know a girl like Angel or Abby.
Spiro: Right. And on top of that, Angelica Nwandu joined and became my writing partner, and she is African-American. Then when you look at the statistics, and you see that foster youth are disproportionately black, it felt somehow that it would be not right to make the character white. But having said that, it then becomes its own concerns for me as a filmmaker because I’m not black. The decision came with a lot of conversation with Angelica and myself, for which I’m grateful. We could be so honest and candid and talk out some difficult stuff.
S&A: How did you and Angelica first connect?
Spiro: I had stopped volunteering for Peace4Kids to move back to New York and go to Columbia [University], and I was working on writing and developing my first feature. This story kept sticking to me, and I kept developing it in sort of an outline/treatment form. Then when I went to write it in its script form, I felt like I wasn’t being honest. I felt like I was trying to write what I thought something might be like, but I couldn’t really speak to it.
When I reached out to Peace4Kids, because I have a close relationship with the founder, Zaid Gayle, and asked if this would be an interesting partnership for one of the people who had aged out that he knew, he said I should meet Angelica. And coincidentally the character’s name is Angel. He shared with me some of the poetry that she had written and performed, and I felt a real kinship with how she was exploring her writing.
So we met, we hit [it] off, and we connected on what we both wanted—the kind of honesty we wanted to approach our work and the kind of integrity we wanted to bring to our work. We really hit the ground running. And then from there, the script became its own thing. What I had written up until then became a nice jumping off point for us, but then it became its own thing after that.
We received a grant that enabled us to work together in person, and we started exploring the story in a deeper capacity. An epiphany happened, and we took a road trip to Philadelphia, and just even two hours in the car driving across the bridge and out of the city, all of our stuckness kind of lifted, and different ideas started to come in. And we realized how do we give this girl a shift in perspective.
S&A: That’s such an anchor in the entire story.
Spiro: Right. Because what we wanted was this character who initially decided to believe that she’s not worthwhile and she wanted to have a purpose. Angel decided that she would be this sacrificial lamb to save Abby, but, of course, what was missing from her solution was denying her significance in the landscape of her sister’s life. Because Abby has no awareness of why, and Angel never allowed herself to sit in Abby’s pain because she knew how bad it would feel. Abandonment is trauma for her.
S&A: Speaking of Angel, what was the experience like working with Dominique Fishback on set and throughout the process. She’s already proven to be a growing light in Hollywood.
Spiro: Dominique has so much respect for her work and what she wants it to do and what she wants it to express, and I really appreciated that. We were both ready to roll up our sleeves and start digging [into the story], and that’s the fun of it, you know?
S&A: That adds passion to the project.
Spiro: Yeah, the writing process is its own thing, and she just infused this real inspiration. I knew that I wanted a lot of rehearsal time, and she, who has a theater background, was very open to that idea because during rehearsal I really wanted the camera to be sitting on this character’s face, but that kind of silence is not very compelling unless there’s this activity behind the eyes.
S&A: That intense non-verbal acting where she could really convey the emotion.
Spiro: Yeah, you want the audience to lean forward like, “What is this person thinking?” and not like, “What am I gonna have for lunch?” To do that, we just needed to break down those moments to know what was really at stake in every moment so she had enough detail to feel that she could trust that her silence was captivating. It’s really hard, harder than having a ton of funny stuff to stay.
S&A: Now, shifting a little bit, we have Abby. She brings so much life and a slight comedy to this amid the extreme sadness you feel for Angel. Tell us about Tatum Marilyn Hall.
Spiro: She had to bring so many different layers and such a huge range. She had a very big responsibility, and she just ran with it and mopped the floor with the challenge. We knew that we wanted Angel to be almost like a ghost. She had diminished her value to such a degree that she was walking around as if she had already decided [to die], which is why she thinks she can commit this act. She doesn’t think she is meaningful. She doesn’t have any plans after she commits this thing. It’s not like she has a getaway scheme because, in some ways, this was a suicidal mission. She has a foot in the grave, and Abby is the life force that pulls her out.
We felt like we found Abby when we met Tatum because in one moment she can have this incredible confidence, incredible swagger, this incredible wit and sarcasm, and, at the same time, have access to very vulnerable emotions. And we needed someone who could switch back and forth with some agility, and Tatum could. She’s a force.
S&A: So with the early feedback that you all have gotten, with the award buzz and more, how do you stay grounded?
Spiro: I focus on the hope that people find the story. There’s so much content out in the world right now. And with so many shinier, louder marketing arrows pointing to other content, I just really hope people find it.
S&A: Lastly, any advice for other young directors trying to do the same thing you are, as far as telling these really human stories?
Spiro: Don’t take no for an answer. Nobody’s gonna care about your story more than you, so you have to be the driver and the engine and then you will find all these beautiful, wonderful partnerships who will support your journey. But you’ll never be able to find the person who’s going to drive it for you.