In the rare moments Jordana Spiro will let the camera drift away from Angel Lamere (Dominique Fishback), the young woman at the center of her debut feature “Night Comes On” – and likely the only time you’ll be able to take your eyes off of her – you see the childhood she should’ve had as she looks, often disdainfully, in the direction of other girls on the bus playing patty cakes or gossiping about boys at school. Having been locked up in juvie for illegal possession of a firearm after being shuttled from one foster home to another all before turning 18, Angel has lived plenty, but none of it as a young girl should, and Spiro faced the daunting prospect of showing the girlhood that she was denied without being heavy-handed.
“Angel has a problem in that she’s lived in such unsafe and downright dangerous environments that she couldn’t afford to be vulnerable and she had to get tough, so she doesn’t speak her vulnerability,” says Spiro. “So that’s tricky, right? How do you have a character that doesn’t say what they mean? Finding of those three girls to serve as a mirror of longing was really helpful in allowing us to let us see what she longed for without her having to say it.”
As it happened, Spiro didn’t say anything in particular to the young women that Angel would spy on, either, allowing them to gab away as just one way she would let life into “Night Comes On,” which manages the rare feat of making one feel the full weight that Angel carries with her as she seeks revenge on the father that abandoned her, begrudgingly letting her sister Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall) tag along, while remaining light and airy as she experiences freedom for the first time as an independent adult, able to make choices for herself that will determine her future, for better or worse.
Fishback, best known for her turn at the center of David Simon’s series “The Deuce,” makes the initially sullen Angel a wonder to behold as you see her develop an identity apart from how society is quick to define her, gradually accepting the responsibility of looking after Abby as the two make their way out to Long Beach Island, and Spiro, who somehow found the time to squeeze in film school in between a busy acting career on such shows as “My Boys” and “Ozark,” demonstrates both a keen eye and a restraint behind the camera that allows the raw power of both the performances she elicits and the vividly detailed story she co-wrote with Angelica Nwandu to come through unmediated.
While the film is filled with the unexpected, it wasn’t a surprise when Spiro was awarded the NEXT Innovator Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year where “Night Comes On” premiered and on the eve of its release in theaters, the writer/director spoke about the satisfaction of completing her first feature, having the rare luxury of rehearsal time and how an initially personal story became richer as more collaborators brought their own experience to bear on the film.
How did this come about?
A few different things came together at once, which was that I was at a place in my life where I was feeling kind of lost and directionless. I just so deeply wanted to feel like I could wake up in the morning and know what to do with myself, so I started to wonder about that as a character, and to what degree you might actually choose something that’s destructive just so you actually know what to do with yourself. This idea gave me breaks from how I was feeling because it gave me something to think about and do, and then at the same time, I started volunteering with an organization called Peace4Kids, a foster youth organization, and I learned about foster youth aging out of foster care. I just started to think my God, if I’m feeling this way and I have the privilege of having a safety net around me and a traditional family structure, how can you you come out of foster care [after] experiencing such trauma in your life, bouncing around from house to house to house [with] so much stigma and attempt to enter a workforce, sometimes without a place to live? It was just extraordinary to me, the bravery and the strength that’s needed to do that, so those two things converged.
How did you come to collaborate on the script with Angelica Nwandu?
Once I had come up with the bones of this story, I decided to move to New York to go to film school [because] I really felt like I had something to offer as the driver of the story beyond acting, where you’re inheriting someone else’s story and trying to make it your own. At Columbia, I started to develop the story more and more and then when I started to get ready to turn it into script pages, I felt like I had been removed from the foster youth community for too long and because it wasn’t in fact my own background, it didn’t feel right to me to write it, no matter how well intended I might be. So I asked the director of Peace4Kids if he thought of anybody that might be interesting for me to work with and told him the bones of the story, and he said, “You should talk to Angelica. She’s interested in writing” — she was writing poetry as well at the time — “and I think you’ll find that there’s some real resonance in what you’re creating and what she’s been through.”
We met and we got along really beautifully and what was really special for me in our writing process that then unfolded was that the script was really focused on Angel in my initial iteration of it and then as we started working on it more and more together, what got pulled into the foreground was the sister relationship. I don’t know to what degree that was an osmosis of she and I working together. Both of us have a bunch of sisters, but what ultimately became the very heart of the film was something that was really organic from the two of us working together.
I’m jumping ahead, but Tatum Hall, who plays Abby, had never acted before. How did you find her to play Angel’s sister?
I had the incredible good fortune of working with two women – Marlena Skrobe and Olivia Creser – who worked on our street casting prior to even getting our financing because I wanted to make sure that we could find this nine-year-old kid who needs to have so much emotional complexity and at the same time be funny and be this and that. So it took about a year to conduct a search of about a thousand girls and we met [Tatum] through a step competition in the Bronx one Saturday. And right away, we knew she was Abby.
We had to call her back in a bunch of times just because she had never acted before, so we needed to make sure she could get to that next level of handling the material, which she did. Every challenge that we gave her of every next audition she rose to so beautifully and she is those things [you see in the film] – she is really funny and really chatty, but she’s also incredibly deep and mature with her emotions and her thoughts. She’s just an incredibly special, innately talented, gifted kid.
Coming from an acting background yourself, was there anything that you would want as a director that you applied to how you would give your actors the room for their performances?
One of the things that I got to do on this film was something that I had wished we could do on films or on TV shows that never gets to happen, which is rehearsal time. Dominique and Tatum were both really generous with giving me that time and time for them to build a relationship. Rehearsal time was a key component that then allowed us to find things on set [so] we could cross out dialogue because in fact they had an inner language, so we didn’t need all the stuff we wrote. They could improvise a moment because they had a past.
Without spoiling the film, there’s a motif of the ocean throughout with Angel’s mother talking about waves at the start and a trip to the beach near the end. Was that fully fleshed out from the start or did one of those ideas come first?
We had decided on the beach in the early stages as part of the overall journey of the film for all the various reasons that one might send your characters to a beach. But building on that water theme, I thought of [Angel’s] last name Lamere, which of course without an “E” is the sea [in French] and with an “E” is the mother, so that was a play on this water theme. Then the opening came in one of the last drafts of the script [because] I just wanted to be pulled into [Angel’s] inner life right away and say that this is a character that in fact has a lot more beauty inside of her than is generally given credit to have, but then I thought, “Well, shoot, if she’s going to be in that house in the end, but we’ve never actually been there with her, how is this place going to have significance if we’ve never actually been there before?” So starting the film in that quiet place, in that place where in fact she did have beauty, a space for vulnerability, and love – all of those things – that would allow us to know what had been ripped from her.
What’s it been like to finish your first feature?
It’s everything. [laughs] It’s all the emotions that could ever exist. It was terrifying, utterly anxiety-inducing and one of the most deeply satisfying things I’ve gotten to do, short of being a mother. There’s so many people involved and there’s so many ways it can go off the rails, to have the team around me — the producers that I have and the DP, the actors, the production designer, the editor — all the key people helping to create this space where what we got to at the end was what we wanted to get to and to be able to look at your film and say, “Yeah, I think it actually says what I want it to say,” is a deeply satisfying thing.