Interview: Tayarisha Poe on Coming Up Aces with “Selah and the Spades”

A few weeks ago, Amazon Studios put out a promotional teaser for “Selah and the Spades” that gave the film’s writer/director Tayarisha Poe a bit of deja vu.

“It was so fascinating to watch because I had done a short video for ‘The Overture,’ [the original multimedia project that ‘Selah and the Spades’ is based on] with the same idea of girls in a spirit squad performing these movements and Selah speaking into the camera,” says Poe. “The speech was almost exactly the same — about people are constantly trying to tell teenage girls what to do with themselves and [how] we are not going to listen to them — but watching them one right after the other feels so incredibly different. It was a nice exercise in seeing how I could write something and shoot it and edit it and put it out there, and then a few years later do something similar with almost the same words and it still has that rebellious center, but you can see the growth in the words and in the actions and the style.”

It isn’t just personal growth that Poe achieved with “Selah and the Spades,” but a clever evolution of the high school genre, ready to take its place among contemporary classics such as “Clueless” and “Brick.” Tempting as it is to compare the writer/director with the ferocious lead character of her debut feature (played with preternatural aplomb by Lovie Simone), the leader of a clique who shrewdly learns the ropes of a system in order to transcend it — and Poe herself has to the degree that inspiration for the film came from imagining herself as a teen without any filter on what she’d say during her time attending a predominantly white boarding school as a young African-American woman — you know as soon as Selah can’t trust anyone enough to name as her successor as she prepares for graduation that she and Poe have little in common when the filmmaker goes so far as to decline a traditional directing credit on her tale of how it’s lonely at the top in favor of a more inclusive “A Film By Us” tag at the end.

Still, “Selah and the Spades” arrives as a bold announcement of a singular new artist, not only bursting with creativity from how she invites a group of collaborators to run wild with their imaginations, but to operate effortlessly within the confines of a narrative structure that it feels like she’s thrillingly breaking apart, building upon the breezy spirit of “The Overture,” her collection of vignettes that was true to a central character who only had a partial sense of self could only been seen in fleeting glimpses. Although Selah doesn’t let anyone close enough to get to know her out of self-protection — she considers making an exception for Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a new student at her school — Poe vividly lets audiences into her mind, able to cultivate admiration for the empire she’s built up while understanding the painful reasons she’s walled herself off. Following the film’s premiere at Sundance, “Selah and the Spades” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime and as it’s poised to explode on screens everywhere, Poe was gracious enough to talk about making such a strong first impression.

What sold you on Lovie to play Selah?

That was really easy for me. She can do so much with so little and she says so much with just an eyebrow or just one look and then she’ll bury that look underneath her steely Selah resolve. My only hesitation [about casting her] is she might be too young, and originally I’d seen her audition tape for Selah, I knew she needed to be a part of it, so I cast her as Paloma, which was not right because Lovie is so obviously Selah. [laughs] But then it all worked out in the end and she has this magnetic quality about her that, on screen, she looks and feels so much larger than life — she feels like she has all this weight about her — but in real life, she’s just this tiny little kid. I liked that and that’s so Selah for this teenager to have all of this gravitas.

The camera is so emotionally attuned to both her and Paloma as characters. What was it like figuring out the different modes of expression with your cinematographer Jomo Fray?

We spent a lot of time building a look and one of the things I like to do is to create a pile of images when we start working on a project. Every image on Instagram, on Tumblr, on Twitter, I just immediately put it into that folder. I don’t even ask myself what is it about this image or is it my idea of this character? I just put everything into one folder and then when I start collaborating with Jomo, with Valeria, our production designer, Jamie, our costume designer, I like sharing those images and then also playlists with them of the music I’ve been listening to to create this world, and we all come together with our own [folders of inspirations]. “These are the things that make me think about this world.”

It makes for an easy collaboration because we’re all speaking the same language and we even named it this time — we called it savage formalism, if you can imagine like savage as in the coolest girl in the room that you can’t help but allow to be mean to you and you don’t know why, and then formalism, as in brutalist architecture postwar, just thinking about how countries and people change their visual relationship to the world after catastrophe and how we attempt to go back to normal, visually speaking, and what that normal looks like to us. So the visual look was inspired by a lot of things and I like to tell people it’s just Rhianna, who inspires us, which is true, very, very true, but she is this person who has this untouchable [quality], but she also has admitted to being incredibly shy, so you have this public persona that you feel is so different from who you are when you’re alone or with your closest people, and that’s also what I think Selah is about.

You can feel that mix in her bedroom where it’s clearly meant to impress visitors, but also has telling personal artifacts. What was it like working with the production designer on that?

Finding that room itself with that giant [oval] window was what informed how the room looked. We just saw this huge window that looks out onto the world and it was just like, “Yes, this is Selah’s bedroom” and then it was this idea of how would this girl who is still a girl but presenting herself as an adult dress it? Because she’s a senior, she’s basically an adult within this school, so there’s this unrelenting sophistication in the room [laughs], but punctuated by such youthfulness. I love Valeria [our production designer]. She’s brilliant and the [crew] did just such a great job of bringing this world together.

So much of the production design looks handmade. Did it take an extensive amount of time to create?

Extensive in that we couldn’t afford what is really required, but we made do. [laughs] That’s a part of the genius of Valeria and her whole art department is they were able to do so much with so little money — and I don’t know how. An example I like to use is the scene where Selah and Paloma are on a stage and the play that they’re doing is “Macbeth” and there are all those red strings coming down from the ceiling. When I had written that scene, it didn’t have any of that. It was just a ghost light on the stage and some leftover props laying around. Then Valeria came to me and she was like, “Do we need these elements?” And I’m like, “No, those are just words on a page. Come up with something brilliant, just show me later.” And so she did. [laughs] She took the fact that the school is doing “Macbeth” as a play that semester and the mood [of the scene] and created this vision of basically blood pouring down from the ceiling. It absolutely blew my mind. I remember walking onto set that day and just gasping because it felt like, “Holy shit, did I come up with this? And it’s like, “No Tayarisha, you alone did not come up with this.” [laughs] But this is what’s so brilliant about filmmaking is we get to get together and create this world and we all get to see pieces of ourselves in that world.

That’s particularly interesting to me in what moved me about the story was this idea of Selah letting other people in. Was it interesting as an artist, who likely has spent much of your time working in isolation, to be experiencing that through your first feature production?

I think [the film] is about letting other people in and writing is such an isolating task. Then you’re asking people to come, not just play in that world with you, but create other parts of that world with you and it requires putting your ego aside and being able to recognize that everybody who you’re collaborating with is there in service of the story. As a person, I’m very much not Selah and I love that – I love collaborating and I love letting people in and sharing my thoughts and life with other people. I don’t need to be the one to come up with the best idea. If you are all coming to the table with that good faith [of] whatever’s best for the story, then other people’s suggestions that aren’t your suggestions become great suggestions. It’s not about you having all the right ideas. As a director, it’s about how can we have the same goal and collaborate on the best way to get there, not telling people what to do. So that was pretty easy for me. And it helps my collaborators are great. They’re brilliant and it’s just exciting to be around them and see what they do and talk to them about ideas, [which] helps me, but I also just like to talk a lot too. [laughs]

This started life as a multimedia project and you’ve said the ideas for it came to you in separate scenes. Was it interesting imposing the traditional structure of a feature film on it while keeping it loose?

When I was writing the feature, I tried a lot harder to keep the literary quality of the shorter form project “The Overture” that it’s based on, having things like chapters or little interludes, but then through many, many drafts of the feature, that fell away in service of what the story was telling me it wanted to be, which was something a little more direct. Then when I got into the edit, I had a desire to bring back some of the more patchwork, quilted story quality, which I think is present in “The Overture” and I think it worked really well, so it went through many variations of being more like that and then less like that and then more, which worked well for what I needed to do or for me at least.

There’s a wonderful fragmentary quality to the score as well. What was it like to work with ASKA on the music?

That was really fun because I’m not really a person who thinks in score so much. In fact, when I was writing this movie, I was writing it with the idea that there would be no score at all, but as we were creating it, it felt like there should be and what was really important to me was that the types of score that I do understand is made up of the musicality of life [where] you hear a lot of things [in your every day] and those things inform how you feel. Those things aren’t necessarily music, and it sounds like such a nonsense phrase, but it’s true [they create a rhythm], like somebody’s sneakers walking down the floor. [That idea] is something ASKA is really passionate about too and one of my favorite tidbits about the score is during that spirit squad sequence in the gym, a lot of the score is made up of the sounds of their skirts moving when [the spirit squad] dances or their sneakers squeaking on the ground, so she really is using the world and creating music from there, which I think is one of the best things a composer can do. Working with her was really great because I don’t think of myself as a musical person and I don’t understand really how music gets made, so it was so much fun to watch her take these sound files from the film and craft this whole tonal world out of it.

“Selah and the Spades” will start streaming on Amazon Prime on April 17th.

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