Director Jordana Spiro Delivers a Powerful First Feature in “Night Comes On”
"It’s all about finding beauty in brokenness."
Broken homes and the traumatic fallout that comes from them are at the center of the affecting drama Night Comes On. Dominique Fishback will crush your heart as Angel Lamere, an 18-year-old just released from juvenile detention. After reuniting with her younger sister Abby, she is determined to find her father and seek revenge for the killing of her mother.
Angel loves her younger sister but is willing to lie to and deceive her in order to find her father. She buys them bus tickets to the beach and they have a wonderful time until Abby finds a gun in Angel’s purse. “I’m not gonna do nothin bad!” Angel screams at Abby. “I’ve been trying to get rid of it!”
The lie continues as Angel tells her sister that she’s riding the bus back home with her and instead gets off the bus when Abby is asleep. Alone in the dark, Angel trudges ahead willing to do what it takes, even allowing herself to be abused, to seek revenge as the Night Comes On.
We caught up with director Jordana Spiro over the phone to talk about what made this such a personal story.
RCL: You’ve been an actress for many years and this is your directorial debut. What drew you to directing and this particular story in general? What made you want to tell this story?
Jordana Spiro: A lot of things converged at once. As an actress I was finding it rare that I got the chance to dive into something that felt meaningful. I have a passion for photography and I wondered if I would have the chance to say something across the camera. I got into a moment in my life where I was feeling purposeless and there was a weight on me. I didn’t know what to do with myself so I started volunteering for peace 4 kids. I watched people age out of foster care and realized that it’s fraught with challenge, societal obstacles and stigma and kids are struggling. I have a safety net, so what is it about these kids that give them bravery? I thought there needed to be a story about this that tries to sit in the difficulty and complexity of their thoughts and yearnings with grace and dignity.
There’s a lot of beauty and poetry in this film and it’s book-ended with spoken prose. How intent were you on creating moments of beauty in dark places?
JS: I’ve been influenced by filmmakers like Lynne Ramsay, Jane Campion, and Joachim Trier that find beauty in film. I thought it was essential to find a beauty and poetry in who Angel is inside and what her inner life is.
There are so many casually shocking moments in this film like Angel getting raped in the hallway of a building she fell asleep in and prostituting herself for some quick cash. Those moments will make the viewer uncomfortable for sure. What’s important about these moments?
JS: I thought a lot about the degree that we show Angel abused and wanted to be sure that they don’t feel exploitative or titillating in any way. I think it’s important to talk about their existence. Pretending that she doesn’t have to contend with those moments wouldn’t feel honest.
There’s a lot of buildup to the father character who we fully expect to a monster but instead is a very sympathetic character. How did you approach that?
JS: We thought a lot about it. It would have been easy to make him a villain, but the difficulty in life is that things are complicated and people aren’t all good or bad. Everything comes in quick bites in the news with generalizations to explain everything. I wanted to explore nuance, complexity, and feelings. It just felt more resonant that he was a complex character.
One of the most heartbreaking moments for me was when Angel tells Abby that she’s no good for her and Abby responds that she’s the greatest. This felt like an issue of identity. Who do you believe, the voice inside your head that tells you that you’re no good, or someone that loves you and can see the real you?
JS: Angel is someone who has been so cast aside as not meaningful or worthwhile in her journey through the system and she was unable to hear her own value. It’s like when you leave your significance out of a relationship and try to make sense of the landscape and that can lead you into self destructive paths. But all they want is you like the cliche’ says, “they love you for who you are.” Abby is her lifeline, she sees her meaningfulness through all the filters.
I loved the touching moments in the film where Angel sees something that reminds her of better times or dreams of how things could be. This was in a safe family home that Abby and Angel were welcomed into after meeting some girls at a bus stop but Angel was afraid to be honest with them. Why do you think that was?
JS: Someone once said to me that when you’ve been pushed down enough and lived in environments that are dangerous, that vulnerability is a luxury you can’t afford. For actual survival she can’t afford to be vulnerable while being bounced around in different homes. My intention was to show that in fact what she yearned for was really simple. We looked at giant houses to be the family home, but it’s not necessarily affluence that Angel was seeking. It was important to me that the home felt fresh and clean and cozy and family. She’s yearning for safety and love.
What was the process like co-writing something this personal with Angelica Nwandu?
JS: It was an incredible journey. In writing Night Comes On I found that I might have the best intentions, but the given circumstances I wanted to give the character were not my own, and I thought it would be arrogant to assume I understood those circumstances. Angelica was recommended to me through peace 4 kids as a talented writer who could help me understand those circumstances. Because we worked so well together it felt incredible like something bigger than us was putting it together. It was originally just Angel’s story, but what got stronger and pulled into the foreground was the relationship with the sister Abby. I thought that mirrored how we were writing together, which felt sisterly because we were so comfortable with each other. When we allowed our own lives to speak into the way we were working together, the script became about the two of them.
There are no easy answers in the film and the main characters are all damaged and processing their own trauma in different ways. How do we move on from trauma and how do we help people who have experienced something like this?
JS: I started to ask a lot of the foster youth that I knew through the research I was doing. I asked them what made them thrive and be successful, to be on a path of trying to achieve something. Unanimously each of them told me that they had a person who believed in me. That for me became where Angels hope lies in the film that the two young women have each other and believe in each other.
This feels very much like a show don’t tell kind of movie. What made you approach it from that direction?
JS: The films that I’m drawn to are perhaps a little more lyrical and try to find ways to do as much as possible without dialogue. Rarely do we say in life what we mean. Film is a beautiful expression of that part of humanity and it has that power to be able to achieve a sensorial experience of what someone is feeling.
Night Comes On is so emotionally raw. Do you hope the emotions it touches on will provoke a discussion and there is anyone in your life you made it for or who you hope would see it?
JS: I would love for people to think more about it. There’s some hope that it creates a space to step away from the noise in life and sit in the feelings that are universal, loneliness and powerlessness, and try to come through them on the other side with some questions and decisions about what you value in your life. How accessible do you make love in your life? That would be a beautiful outcome.
My father passed away a year before I was thinking about the film and in hindsight it affected my feelings of directionlessness. Sometimes the person that you want to make proud is the person that isn’t there, and so making the film was my tribute to him. The mother character is a compilation of my mom and dad and I know Angelica was also using substitutions. It was a tenderness that came from my mother and my father that led me to try to be emotionally honest.
The mother felt like a character.
JS: I wanted her to be an angelic presence and I don’t mean in a literal way, but in the way that people that loved you are no longer here and you carry them with you. Angel decided she was a bad influence on Abby. She tried to block out Abby’s love. She’s worried about herself and her mother is the only space she can fit in; she tries to tap back into the part that reminds her that she’s a good person, and that she is loved.
That reminds me of one of the things I loved about working with Dominique Fishback. She feels like such a soulful person, and you can hold the camera on her face staring out a window and what’s coming out of her eyes is a deep beautiful intelligence.
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