Nana Mensah on Embarking on a Celebration of Life in “Queen of Glory”

If Nana Mensah needed any inspiration to play Sarah Obeng, the lead character who finds herself with obligations she could never fathom when working behind the counter of her late mother’s bookstore in “Queen of Glory,” she only needed to look to herself juggling the many responsibilities that came with directing her debut feature.

“I didn’t intend to do all three, right?” Mensah laughs now, knowing she had written herself a corker of a part to play as an actress, but unaware she had found a new home for herself on the set as well, uncomfortable as it may have been initially. “I intended to write it and maybe act in it. I definitely did not intend to direct it, which is really funny considering all the directing accolades that I’ve gotten since.”

Ultimately, it might’ve been audiences who weren’t entirely prepared for all that Mensah had in store with “Queen of Glory,” delighting the first crowds it played at last year’s Tribeca where she picked up a prize for Best Director en route to a celebrated festival run, but if she ever felt overwhelmed with all the hats she was wearing, she channels it into precisely capturing the feelings swirling around inside of Sarah in the wake of her mother’s passing, confronted with a number of decisions about how she’ll move forward in her life that she had either put off or not had to think about before. With both Mensah’s parents very much alive, that is the most autobiographical element of the film, though it is set inside a community in New York that the filmmaker knows well as the daughter of Ghanian immigrants where funerals are festive celebrations of life, requiring Sarah’s full attention to plan as she juggles her professional pursuit of a Ph.D at Columbia to become a neurooncologist and the entanglement of an office romance with a colleague (Adam Leon), with whom she plans to settle down with in Ohio if only he can extract himself from a bad marriage.

Although grief wafts in and out of the picture, there’s simply little time for it in Sarah’s daily routine, now having the additional duties of overseeing the family bookstore, which at least seems to be in the unexpectedly capable hands of an ex-con named Pitt (Meeko Gatuso), and as Sarah clears a way out of catastrophe, Mensah shows a distinctive and resonant voice as a filmmaker, finding the humor in carefully orchestrated chaos that unfolds in panoramic single takes and captures all the flavors stirring in the city where culture clashes can open up new avenues of thought, occurring in “Queen of Glory” as intimately as just one person leading parallel lives. Triumphantly returning to New York this week at the BAMCinematek to kick off the film’s theatrical run across the country and on VOD, Mensah spoke about looking inside herself for the strength to pull off a scrappy independent production, bringing her family into the act and gaining as much confidence behind the camera as she has long had in front of it.

Is it true this all originated with the bookstore?

Yeah, it did. My family owned a Christian bookstore in the Bronx — past-tense, they’ve since sold it, and I just wanted to tell a small story. I wrote a really, really big expensive script and a mentor was like, “Hey, look nobody’s going to make this, so why don’t you write something much smaller that you can get made on little to no money and then let that be your calling card to the next thing, let that be your launching pad.” We chipped away at it for a couple years and I wanted to shoot [at the bookstore], but it’s a business and I didn’t have a location fee to shut down their business and give them money while they were not selling products and we couldn’t have it open because then that becomes a whole logistical nightmare of getting releases from everybody who walks into the store. Luckily, because it’s a Christian bookstore and everyone who patronizes a Christian bookstore goes to church, it’s closed on Sundays, so we basically arranged our schedule around those closed Sundays, which was also lucky because the bookstore is right by the train and at that point in the Bronx, the train is elevated, so on Sundays, the train would run far less frequently than it would at rush hour on a Monday, so there was minimal audio disruption.

Oh my gosh.

Yeah, listen when I tell you this was a real bootstrapped labor of love. [laughs]

Did having the bookstore as a base of operations for the one part of this character’s life lead you to think about her other life would be?

It did. One of my friends from college did get her Ph.D in molecular neurooncology and she actually helped me a lot with some of the terminology because in earlier drafts, we spent a little bit more time in the lab. We got a little more science-y and then it was one of those things where as a writer, I realized, “Oh, these are all character things I can show and don’t have to tell, like I don’t actually need the jargon or be manipulating a bunsen burner for you to get that she’s a scientist.” So a big change early on was figuring what is the counterpoint to a Christian bookstore? And it felt like the answer to me was a scientist and then I pulled that thread and that led me to molecular neurooncology and knowing somebody in my back pocket that could give me a little advice about what that trajectory looks like academically and shape it around there. I knew we were going to start in one of those places and end up in the other.

Something that struck me the second time seeing it was how much space you create for reflection with silence when my memory of watching it the first time was what fun it was. What was it like figuring out what this would sound like?

Obviously as a writer, you love to write. You want to write the pithy, quippy dialogue and all that fun stuff, but ultimately, it made a lot of sense to me that there be some air and let there be some weight because when I had interviewed people that had been grieving, [what I learned was] you get so wrapped up in the process of things you need to do to lay this person to rest, there would be these gaps that are so emotional and that’s where things start to bubble up. You’re running around and there’s almost no time to grieve because there’s so much to do, but then there are these breaths where the gravity of what has happened hits you. I knew from early on that I needed to give space to that, especially when you’re making a dark comedy about a death and the death is one’s mother. That’s not something I take very lightly, so I really wanted to make sure to [present] how ludicrous it is – what we ask of ourselves and our community when you’re going through one of the deepest griefs you could possibly know and at the same time honor the gravity. It led me to figure out that there were going to be these very madcap, chaotic moments and then also these moments of great stillness or silence.

It takes a lot of confidence as a director to let some of those scenes unfold in the tableaux, single shot style that you do where you let chaos overtake the moment. How did you figure out how to shoot those?

Well, my background is mostly in theater, so it was not foreign to me to just get a bunch of working theater actors and for the most part, I was hiring people I worked with before or I knew just from around. That was great, because — no shade on film and TV actors — but theater actors can run circles around most film and TV actors because they understand the breadth of the piece. A lot of times film and TV actors are just given their sides or their scenes and they may not understand the full arc of the whole story, but theater actors walk into every rehearsal knowing the full arc of the whole story because that’s how you do it in a play. So you just hire the right people and be like, “Hey, look, okay, we’re going to do this thing, this is what I want to have happen and it’s going to be crazy and I’m not going to call cut for a while.” Then we would just get into it and certain things would stick and we’d throw out some other things and in that way, we’d ultimately find that carefully constructed chaos that you’re referring to.

When this starts to take on a life of its own in that way, was there anything that may have been a happy surprise or made it into the film and you can really embrace it?

No, [though] I was nervous that some of the actors I hired weren’t actually actors at all. I hired a lot of my aunties and sometimes on the day, I’d think this was a terrible mistake because they’d bring so much authenticity. [laughs] But we made the decision as a creative team that we need to come together and err on the side of authenticity, like given option A and option B [of professional actors], we will err on the side of authenticity and that ended up being absolutely the right call. Everyone had a pretty good time and if your uncle is Brad Pitt and you ask him to come and do a day on your micro budget indie film, then his expectations are very different. But if your auntie has never been on a film set and doesn’t understand how films are made, but is just happy to be there to support her niece, then she’s bringing the exact right energy. Now when I go back and watch those scenes, I’m so delighted because they feel authentic and the feedback I’ve gotten as we made our way through the festival circuit, has been “Oh my gosh, that felt like my auntie.”

Besides the necessity of it, was there a point where you felt this film was better because of the fact that you’d be directing it?

It didn’t feel like that in the moment. I just went with my instincts and God bless Jamund [Washington, my producer] because there would be moments where he would be like, “I know what you’re trying to do, but if we did it like this, then this, this and this,” and I’d be like, “Oh okay.” He was the steady hand in the midst of madness, so that was really great. And I did do some learning on the job. I feel like I got an MFA, an MBA and a little bit of a JD and kind of a PH.d as I went through the process of making this film. [laughs] But for the most part, I trusted my instincts unless I was given a good reason not to and then it was in the edit where [I saw] there were some really lovely scenes and I was like, “Oh my God, I did that.” [laughs] I guess I was a little bit surprised, especially as a first-time filmmaker, [because] you just put it together with spit and band-aids and you just hope for the best. But looking back and seeing some of the stuff that we got and feeling so excited about telling this story, it came together for me toward the end.

I’ve heard there was actually a pause in the production because the financing dried up – was there anything beneficial that came out of taking a break and coming back to it?

There absolutely was, and I think a lot of people are a little afraid of mentioning that, like, “Oooh, trouble in paradise.” But it was really for the best. Mind you, I’m definitely still frustrated at the financing that fell through. However, what came out of that was a period of reflection about what is the story and doubling down on who is this story actually about and really going through and quantifying the answers to those questions and looking at the footage we had, going okay, given what we have here, what is missing? Then basically, we pored over the footage we had, cut out the things that didn’t work and then I went through and made a really, really detailed shotlist of the scenes and shots that we needed to flesh out the story. I went through a lot emotionally as most filmmakers do during that time, but at the same time, we ended up with a better film because of it.

After learning that your uncle and aunt sold the bookstore and you’re based in England now, is it interesting to look back on as a time capsule, even though it didn’t happen so long ago?

You’re right, and one of my uncles, my dad’s brother, who is featured in the film passed away, so that was really emotional for my dad to see the film for the first time – he saw it after his brother had passed away, so it was really poignant for him and then to dedicate the film to him as well was really special. But I had a baby a year ago shortly after Tribeca and the bookstore [was sold], so it definitely a time capsule of somebody that I was and it’s really wonderful to be able to have that in my family archives.

“Queen of Glory” will open on July 15th at BAMCinematek in Brooklyn and July 22nd in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale and the Regal Westpark 8 in Irvine before expanding nationally on July 29th. A full list of theaters and cities is here.