Maya Cozier on Stepping Up for “She Paradise”

It’s easy to see what Sparkle (Onessa Nestor) does when she sees a group of women dancing in the middle of a street in her neck of Trinidad and Tobago in “She Paradise,” as colorful as the cars that line the street and apt to move just as fast when swirling their hips. At 17, she wishes she could dance like that, not because of the skill involved, but the freedom of spirit when she’s led a reserved life, with her grandfather (Michael Greene) taking care of her after the death of her mother – though a little rebellion has always been in the blood. (As her grandpa reminds, his daughter wore two rings on her middle finger so the people she’d flip off would at least get a little extra shine.) While Sparkle may be timid, she still works up the courage to see what these ladies are up to – as it turns out they’re backup dancers for Soca musicians – and although it becomes obvious competition is fierce for the spotlight as the chance to be a featured dancer in music videos or draw the attention of the artists, she has far more interest in fitting in than standing out.

Still, neither she nor the Maya Cozier’s zesty coming-of-age debut can help but catch one’s eye, channeling the restless young woman’s spirit into a propulsive drama as Sparkle has to find the best way forward for herself. Three years removed from representing Trinidad and Tobago at the Miss World pageant, Cozier would seem to have found the ideal profession for her various talents, combining a passion for dance with a sharp eye behind the camera and a real feel for working with actors, many of whom in “She Paradise” may never have been on camera before but have charisma to spare. Running a slender 71 minutes, the film doesn’t waste a frame as Sparkle is seduced by a sense of independence, only to find that she’s entering an industry ripe for exploitation and has to learn quick who she can trust and who she can’t.

With the film coming out after a celebrated festival run against all odds — set to premiere at Tribeca 2020 before it was cancelled as a result of COVID, it made its way to AFI Fest and set sail around the world — Cozier spoke about “She Paradise” exceeding all expectations she could’ve had for it, being reenergized by making a film in her home country after attending film school in the U.S. and how she pulled together such a dynamic ensemble to make something that could bring audiences to their feet.

How did this come about?

I co-wrote the script with Melina Brown. We both graduated from film school in New York around the same time. I’m from Trinidad, born and raised and Melina is of Caribbean parentage, so we’ve always been passionate about making work in the Caribbean region, especially telling stories about women of color and their experiences. I returned back to Trinidad and spent a couple years there after graduating from film school and I used that time to interview dancers and just kind of refamiliarize myself with the space. Melina was in New York, so I would do a lot of the on-the-ground interviewing and we spent about a year developing this screenplay and then we had to figure out how we were going to get it made, so we decided to shoot a short as a proof of concept to pitch the idea and get people excited about it. It got onto Short of the Week and everyone loved it, so that was our first step towards building momentum around the feature-length film, which we got a grant a year later to shoot. But really it just started with a conversation with a friend who had similar interests.

What was it like going back to Trinidad after being in New York for a bit? Did you come back with a fresh perspective?

It just made me appreciate it even more because being in predominantly white spaces, especially for four years in undergrad, there was this disconnect I started to feel from myself, from my voice and from my identity. For a lot of it, I think I did feel misunderstood and also questioned whether there was a place for me in the film world because I hadn’t really seen people like myself directing films. I wasn’t studying films about people from places like myself, so there was this disconnect where I wanted to be a filmmaker and I wanted to write and make work, but how do I stay connected to who I am and where I’m from. Being away from it gave me this extra appreciation for just who I am, my history and roots and how people move and express themselves and celebrate their bodies and their identity.

When the feature was written before making the short, did the process of setting up a production actually change your ideas on how to approach the feature?

Yeah, shooting the short was very helpful for everyone involved in front of and behind the camera because this is my first feature-length film with a very small crew, so it was a time for us to figure out everything, especially the actors [when it] was their very first time being on camera, so just getting comfortable with the idea of being in a movie and understanding what that meant. We would do exercises getting everyone very natural in front of the camera because especially without experience, there was this kind of approach to it from them at first where they felt they had to sort of perform or emote or be very theatrical. It was a process of bringing them down and getting everyone into character and into the process.

And shooting the short, [it was an opportunity] for me to start fleshing out the visual world because the visuals and the colors and even the saturation and the feeling of this world was so important to get right, so doing a shorter version really allowed to my cinematographer and I to figure out what this world feels like. That was also exciting because shooting films in places like the Caribbean where it’s a new industry, there aren’t a lot of feature films, especially English-speaking Caribbean, that have been made in the past, so it’s like you’re inventing something. There weren’t a lot of references I could pull from to say, “Ok, I want it to look like this.” It really did feel like this new ground that we wanted to figure out and create.

You had some dance in your background as well – did it influence how you wanted to capture movement in the film?

Yeah, I spent most of my teenage years working as a dancer or a choreographer, I’ve modeled a lot, so it just felt like making this film was a natural extension of those interests. But it was also a lot of collaboration with the cinematographer [Jackson Warner Lewis]. We would look at the routines, especially when they were being rehearsed to figure out when we should move around. I remember telling my [cinematographer], who is not Trinidadian — I think he grew up in Tulsa or something [laughs] — “This isn’t ballet. We have to get down and see their movements.” And it helped that I understood the movement and [the dancers’] process so we could really capture the choreography as it progresses.

There’s such a lively chemistry among the group. Could you cast in specific ways to get that or did it emerge naturally?

Both, even though I did cast. It was a very unconventional casting. Ones [Nestor, who plays Sparkle] showed up because there was a casting call, but [Chelsey Rampersad, who plays Mica], I reached out to on Instagram and I remember saying, “Hi, I think you’d be a great fit for this character, do you mind coming into read?” [Denisia Latchman] the dancer who plays Shan is someone I went to high school with and knew for most of my life and even danced with at one point, and based on how we cast, a dynamic formed on set that was very similar to the way it was scripted. The actors playing Mica and Sparkle naturally gravitated toward each other and they became best of friends almost and before we started filming, they would look out for each other. Then there was a little bit of a rivalry between Shan and Sparkle, so it was interesting how the dynamic onscreen naturally formed between the actors, but they all loved each other. Even though all of them were from the dance world, they never were on the same dance team, so it was the first time they really got to spend time with each other and get to know each other.

You mentioned doing research for the film and these actresses that you have must bring their own experiences when getting at the underbelly of this music video world. Could that inform the story you wanted to tell?

Oh yeah, Melina and I always talk about those teenage years where you’re figuring out yourself or how to navigate “cool” places or fit in or exude a certain confidence, and Sparkle’s journey of coming into her own and finding that confidence is one that felt very close to both of us. Like simple things of [Sparkle] getting a shot glass handed to her for the first time and timidly taking it and realizing she’s kind of out of her element, like she’s never been invited to an event like this, but she’s trying to fake it. All those experiences were ones that we could recognize and connect with and I always joke about this with my friends, but there is a clear correlation between the dynamic of the sisterhood and some of the dynamics we had growing up when we were dancers. One of my friends, who was this leader who decided what costumes we were wearing all the time and [what] time we would show up, and what the choreography is – she was like the boss naturally — whenever [my friends] look at the film, it’s like, “Oh is that? Is that this person?” [laughs] So my personal experiences were very informative to fleshing out the characters and the dynamics between the women.

Did anything happen that might have been unexpected but you really like about it now?

I think the actors definitely brought a lot of their own energy to the dialogue, but narratively for the most part, it did stay with the script. There’s a scene on the beach where Sparkle gets chosen to have a solo moment and in that scene, there’s supposed to be a couple extras who come onto the beach to try to get the attention of the director. The scene was very different on paper, but we shot this film very guerrilla style with whatever resources we could pull and in Trinidad, I had to really approach it with an open mind every day on set and really look at the open spaces that I had, what I had available to me, and I had to read the energy the actors were giving me and adapt the scenes to fit that, so the process of filming this required a flexibility and openness. I remember being on the beach that day and practically rewriting the scene just before we shot, so it could change and moments like that felt like obstacles really presented opportunities to just allow the film to take shape organically, so that was exciting.

It’s such an accomplishment having a feature under your belt. What’s it like getting it out there?

I was surprised by people’s excitement about the film because it was a very small production, so I approached it with the attitude this is my first film and I’m going to make mistakes and learn. I just wanted to make a film to get it out of my system and I wanted to tell this story, but I didn’t really think about where it would go, who would see it, or what festivals it would go to – those weren’t really thoughts that I had, so the aftermath has been surprising. It just reaffirms that there are so many women, especially West Indian women who want to see their stories told and the excitement around the film helped reaffirm that these stories need to be told and there is so much that is undocumented about our experiences.

“She Paradise” opens on November 18th in theaters, on digital and on demand.