The first time Deb (Lily James) and Ollie (Tessa Thompson) see each other in “Little Woods,” the way they hold each other’s attention is rivaled by the arresting way Nia DaCosta can boil their relationship down to a single frame – on opposite sides of a glass door, casting a mirage that they are close when in fact they are impossibly far from one another, but inextricably tied in spite of all the room to run behind them. It’s the kind of shot that you figure took hours on the day of filming to execute just right or perhaps months of thought after first conceiving it, but the first-time writer/director says this was not the case.
“We were just playing with the camera and we were like, “Oh great, we have a reflection,” says DaCosta, of figuring out the scene with cinematographer Matt Mitchell. “And then it was figuring out how to bump it up to have this moment where the sisters are with each other for the first time – together sharing the frame, but still separated.”
With so many scenes radiating such direct power in “Little Woods,” it becomes easy to believe they come effortlessly to DaCosta, almost as if it’s in direct contrast to the struggle of Deb and Ollie, sisters in Williston, North Dakota whose adoptive mother has passed away, leaving them with a whole lot of grief and a lot of debt as the bank’s about to foreclose on their home. While the resourceful Ollie has made a business of selling coffee to oil field workers, it’s not enough to secure their future, particularly when Deb has a new baby on the way with a father (James Badge Dale) unlikely to be any more supportive than he was for the first, so the two hatch plans to tap into the area’s other valued currency – prescription pain meds that Ollie can procure at a discount from Canada – to lift them out of their precarious situation.
The breadth of social issues DaCosta tackles with great compassion in “Little Woods” is extraordinary, specifically choosing Williston as a setting upon discovering that it required the furthest drive for any woman looking to obtain an abortion and had fallen victim to the opioid crisis, exacerbating pain rather than healing it for those toiling in the oil fields who have already been burned by a promise of riches from an oil boom in the last decade that fell far short of expectations. However, it is her ability to turn it into electrifying entertainment, armed with riveting performances from Thompson and James, that may be most impressive, turning all the ways in which the system has failed Deb and Ollie into exciting opportunities to demonstrate how strong and brilliant they must be just to stay above water, let alone thrive.
“Little Woods” has done just that after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, and following a celebrated festival run in the year since, the film is now rolling out to theaters across the country and to mark the occasion, DaCosta spoke about the experience of developing a story before she even had a specific location in mind, why she studied theater to become a better filmmaker and how her education abroad gave her such clarity on these trying times in America.
You’ve said this story was in mind before a specific place. What attracted you to Williston and what did you learn from nice you got there?
It was doing a lot of research, looking at news articles and documentaries and really figuring out where the story was located that I wanted to tell and where my characters would live within that story, so it was just trying to get a holistic view of the place and then I found out about Williston. I had already written a first draft of the script and my producer Rachael Fung and I drove from Winnipeg down into North Dakota and it was almost like a scouting and a research trip. We were both so struck by how beautiful it was and [what] you can’t get just from pictures or articles is the way the sky feels above you – it’s such a huge sky. We were both struck with how beautiful it was and [how] the beauty of the place [contrasted] with the struggle of the people there because it’s this open expanse – the West that you see in a Western, I just knew that sort of vibe would be really useful to building that juxtaposition between the beautiful big sky and the open space of the plains with this intimate story.
And [we saw] the kindness of the people – I met people on the same day and then they’d be driving me around to look at the oil rigs and things like that, [so the sense] of community was something that I could only have gotten by going out there and it was great to talk to people there not just about their lives and their personal stories, but talk about the story of the script and be like, “So…what do you think?” And they’d be like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Also, it’s kind of worse.” [laughs]
You were able to carve out time for rehearsals, which is something of a rarity on an indie production. Did you discover anything during that time that changes your ideas about the film?
The rehearsals were amazing and in a way, I had an opportunity to do that a bit before we were even making the movie because I did the Sundance Directors Lab and Tessa came out, so we had so much time to get to know each other and to workshop the script and the character together. Then when we were shooting and in prep, we did have time for rehearsal and it was so great to have the actors interact and to get to know each other and become comfortable before the cameras start rolling, but then there’s always more to dig up and find when being in a room together, just to play and say let’s get messy and see where we can go with this. It really helps to feel free on the day to be inside the character, but also find things we weren’t expecting.
Was that a takeaway from studying theater? I’ve heard you say you actually learned more about filmmaking from your time studying theater than the film.
Yeah, I got my masters in London, writing for the stage and broadcast media, and I was really drawn to theater, to the point where I started a theater collective to really get some of our work up on its feet with the writers I was with at the school I was at. The thing about theater is it’s all about people in a room talking to each other or in a space or in multiple spaces and every line is dramatic action. You can’t really can’t waste any dialogue and I found that really wonderful and exciting. It really informed the way I looked at a script and at dialogue, but also the way I thought about collaboration and working with actors and how important they are to the process, so it was a really a wonderful education and it was super-inspiring because there is so much exciting theater happening in London.
Did that time abroad actually shape your ideas about America in relation to making a film about this subject?
One hundred percent. It was part of why I wanted to tell a story about women in the rural part of America and why I was drawn to Williston. I was in London and I didn’t spend a lot of time away from home, but all of a sudden I was a little homesick and I was like, “Do I miss New York?” No. “Then what am I missing about America?” Is it Americana, that sort of concept? What part of the culture do I miss? And in interrogating that and interrogating how I fit into that, it was this loopty loo road that led me to this story, so it was really cool to be steeped in another culture and look at America from the outside.
Something else that was unusual about this film was hearing Brian McOmber, your composer, talk about how he had working with Meghan Currier, the music supervisor, which I know doesn’t always happen when those departments can be separate. What was it like breaking those departments down and figuring out the music for this?
It was so fun. Brian McOmber and Malcom Parson co-composed the movie together and Brian and I met at Sundance and I really loved his work and Malcom is just this phenomenal cellist, so Meghan came in as the music supervisor and we all talked about what would be the best instruments [for the soundtrack], not wanting to do a stereotypical sound, but have something really grounded in the place as well as be psychological and be inside the characters’ heads. Then when it came to the songs that we used, at a certain point we had a conversation about limiting the voices to just female voices. That ended up being really like a cool way of going about it, not that it was a huge thematic thing, but it worked really well for the film and since our leads were two women.
Was the experience of making your first feature what you thought it would be?
There’s no way of knowing what you don’t know is how I felt making this movie and I learned so much. What I was most excited about being confirmed for me is that it’s absolutely the thing I want to be doing for the rest of my life. But there’s so many surprises with filmmaking, you’re like “oh really? That’s happening?” But I’m such a baby filmmaker. I’m at the beginning of making my second film right now and I’m learning something new every day, and I think that’s a pretty good way to go to your job.
“Little Woods” opens on April 19th in limited release, including Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater and New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Landmark 57.