The big event of the festival explains her epic journey to completing her celebrated debut.
Nikyatu Jusu nice to have a movie at Sundance. Now, she’s the biggest winner: “Nanny“Jusu’s first feature, won the Grand Jury Prize at the virtual edition 2022 and immediately brought attention to the director’s distinctive vision. She’s only the second black woman director to win the award and the first horror director to do so. The results automatically make her a talent worth watching, and she has a lot to say about that.
Jusu has been participating in festivals with short films for nearly 15 years, teaching film at George Mason University and trying to make a standout film most of that time. Finally, it’s “Nanny,” the gripping story of a Senegalese immigrant (Alice Diop) tasked with taking care of a white family in New York while confronting strange supernatural forces. Strange is pulling back to her hometown. The slow-motion story is both artistic and astonishing as it delves deeply into the psyche of a woman facing recent attempts to make a living in unfamiliar terrain. The project was Blacklisted in 2020 and received support from Sundance and IFP labs prior to its completion last year; So far, it hasn’t secured US distribution, but Jusu seems poised to fill the breakout position that tends to instigate one Sundance winner each year.
She wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience when we spoke a few days before the festival, but expressed relief at the possibility of finally entering a new phase in her career. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: You’ve made short films in the same amount of time that many filmmakers make feature-rich. How would you explain the 14-year debut trip?
Nikyatu Jusu: It was a really zigzag journey for me with lots of stops and starts. Until I ran into my production partner, Nikkia Moulterie, who I met at a BBQ. Another filmmaker friend recommended it to us. I’ve started rolling around some ideas. I’m preparing the script for the movie “Liberate the Town” to shoot in Sierra Leone. We made some money from the lab in Europe but it never went anywhere. There was a time when I wanted to turn my short volume “Suicide By Sunlight” into a series. But the series is expensive and no one knows who I am. However, gaining short access to Sundance helped a lot.
Meanwhile, “Nanny” is a project I’ve been working on for eight or nine years, and it’s Nikkia’s favorite project of ideas that I have. She just always kept my feet above the bonfire to review it. We started getting involved in all the labs simultaneously in the last few years and then it gained all this traction. It’s a testament to the fast-and-waiting side of this industry. You are constantly sprinting to these deadlines but the industry pays attention to its own timing.
What frustrates you the most in this entire lengthy process?
You start going into your own head. You see the successes of others and wonder, “Is this mainstream enough?” I will not name. I went to NYU Grad film. I’m a filmmaker with roots in New York, and I ran on a team of super talented Black filmmakers. You see the trajectories of your peers and you’re like, “Oh my god, what am I doing with my life? I went to film school. I made some award winning shorts. I have to be where this other person is! ”
I don’t know if you can share your budget, but Nanny certainly doesn’t sound like a cheap movie. You have creature features and some dream sequences full of special effects. Is it hard to get the resource level you want for “Nanny”?
I would say we had a decent budget for our first feature, especially during the pandemic. It’s 30 percent higher in COVID due to PPE, people testing negative, etc. Movies have budgets under $10 million. A lot of money went to COVID, but some went to VFX. The people we attract. A lot of that went to LinLay Productions and Topic Studios, but the Sundance Catalyst program also helped.
What learning curve did you face after “Nanny” finally went into production?
How many director aspirants underestimate the skill set of communicating what you can see in your brain to collaborators? It’s one of the most important skill sets as a filmmaker. I could see these very clearly very early on. So I’ve chosen all the people I’ve worked with very specifically.
“Nanny” portrays such a specific immigrant experience and the roots of supernatural forces that hang around in the plot. What percentage of a passion project is that?
“Nanny” is a love service for so long. It’s very specific to my culture and my mother’s story. I know that I don’t want to tell a simple genre story. I wanted to remix the story of a domestic experience with this genre. A lot of the movies I love do the same. I wanted to combine the American immigrant experience with this genre. Lots of people have their way in there – whether you were raised by a nanny or your mother is one. There are many entry points for everyone.
How has your relationship with the commercial potential of the job developed?
Fortunately, as I developed this, questions arose about where the black women in terror were hiding. So suddenly there seems to be an appetite for non-white male perspectives in the horror field. It’s very random. In my case, I wanted to introduce African folklore with an American model of horror. I came across this line by accident as an American child raised by African parents.
The movie reminds me to some extent of Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl” with a hint of horror…
I have great respect for Sembene. I remember watching “Black Girl” on set and thinking, “Wow, wait a minute. There’s a whole history of Black movies that I don’t know.”
It is important that you make movies of entertainment value.
I never wanted to make a movie like meditation. I had colleagues at NYU celebrate for creating the meditations. I come from a family that loves movies. We will all gather in the basement. My mom would actually fast-forward to the second act and watch the end of a movie. I don’t want anyone to fast forward my second act. I want to create things that grab people’s attention and force them to think differently about the world, but not in a preachy or cheesy way.
How did it feel to pitch this idea to potential financiers?
Courtesy Everett Collection
Throwing the ball can be debilitating, so it loses moisture. We did a lot of lab work with “Nanny” and other projects. When I first entered the agency industry, pitches took on a different, even more dehumanizing form. People were like, “Oh, this is ‘Get Out’ meets ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ Uh, maybe if those are the only two movies you’ve ever seen, you learn to moderate your language so people can get excited about it.
How did you end up doing it?
People really pay attention to “Rosemary’s Baby.” I never brought it up. You start to notice something similar that makes people think. Once you understand that’s a means to an end, they can see your movie really isn’t what it sounds like. So I’m starting to base some of these comparisons on, but I’ll add my own flourishes. The remix is that we are showcasing creature creations. I love Guillermo del Toro, his approach to fantasy and filmmaking in general. I began to gain confidence in his upbringing and the way he thought about monsters.
You are now represented by the CAA and the management company M88. How do they help you evaluate the next chapter?
Yeah, so the vast majority of people don’t realize how this actually works. These chats start so early in the game that when you finish your feature you’ll know what your next two projects are. My next feature is – well, I don’t want to say it’s lined up, but it looks like it’s going to be a performance of my vampire short, “Suicide By Sunlight.” That is always the goal. Sometimes you have to do something a little smaller than you want to do. Knock wood, there will be an announcement coming. I am also co-writing this film with another writer. Sundance was my introduction to the industry, so we’ll see where this goes. I wanted to stay in the fantasy and thriller-horror genre and be creative in that space.
What do you do from those commercial opportunities that you see your colleagues and others joining?
I’m trying to pay attention to what’s going on with that. Lots of great first-timers are transitioning from indie lovers to Marvel with nothing in between that makes them feel like they have more creative control. I think once it got to the Marvel stage, there were actually a lot of chefs in the kitchen – like, is that your voice at the end of the process? But I want to bring Storm [the character from the X-Men] onto the screen. I want to direct the movie “Storm”. And I want to work with those tools and bigger budgets. But ideally my first two projects really have to match my voice before it becomes this machine. My team is preparing me for that right now.
How do you feel about the TV opportunities?
I want an original series. I’ve been hunting for it since I first got into the industry. Since I had management and agents, I said, “Yo, so the plan is, I want an original series based on my vampire short.” I think I’m getting closer to my goal of having an original series. Episodic seems to be the current place to stay in your power as creator. The cinema is cool and gorgeous, but this new landscape feels very sequential. I was watching “The Squid Fishing Game” and thought, “yeah, this is the kind of thing I want to make.”
Speak loudly enough and Netflix will call you.
Netflix is calling! They just need to understand that I’m not a hiring manager. Not yet.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/01/nikyatu-jusu-nanny-interview-sundance-winner-1234695026/ Nikyatu Jusu ‘Nanny’ Interview: Sundance winner of her debut