Tayarisha Poe on Sharing the Wisdom of an Old Soul in “The Young Wife”

It’s been a joy to watch Tayarisha Poe grow through her films, which isn’t to suggest she hadn’t already offered the complete package with her feature debut “Selah and the Spades,” an unusually consummate vision from a first-time director of a boarding school where the titular queen bee (Lovie Simone) suddenly looks a bit vulnerable to being stung amidst the arrival of a new student (Celeste O’Connor) and warring factions who sense blood in the water. Imagining the teen cliques as mafia families and the frayed nerves of all involved hanging in the air with the jangly sounds of eclectic percussion, Poe seemed to have found a new language to speak to a time old feeling of isolation as the lonely Selah found herself treading the same line that every teen does when worrying how much she could show of her true self to hold onto what popularity she has.

If “Selah and the Spades” used the full breadth of a wide frame to show how Selah could be diminished within it lest she let any ownership over her presentation go, it is skillfully deployed in Poe’s follow-up “The Young Wife” to overwhelm as the writer/director graduates to another rite of passage with the occasion of a wedding and a bride (Kiersey Clemons) uncertain about what the event means, even when she has no qualms about the union she’s entering into with her partner (Leon Bridges). Consulting throughout the day with Meditation Mary (Simone), a guru who appears on the TV that flickers throughout the chaotic day ahead, Clemons’ Celestina is subject to a number of other voices — perhaps invited to her home as guests, but less so when taking up space in her mind as they debate the commitment she’s making, whether it’s her own mother (Sheryl Lee Ralph) or her grandmother-in-law (Judith Light), various friends (including Kelly Marie Tran and Aya Cash), or least welcome, her co-worker Dave (Jon Rudnitsky) from a job she quit in a huff just 48 hours earlier. Gifts pile up, which Celestina didn’t ask for, either, and as an accumulation of all the extraneous considerations of the nuptials mount for the bride-to-be, Poe delivers a truly sensational look at the thoughts swirling around inside her head as she attempts to make peace with a decision that will impact the rest of her life.

However, what may nearly engulf Celestina plays out exuberantly for an audience when Poe and cinematographer Jomo Fray mirror all the thoughts racing through her head with a similarly relentless camerawork, infusing a drama that has the bones of a Ingmar Bergman or Eric Rohmer classic with a sense of delirium that feels entirely modern. It isn’t only Poe observing Celestina ponder the leap she’s about to take that you get to witness in “The Young Wife,” but the writer/director asking all her collaborators take one with her in making such a bold film and following the film’s premiere last year at SXSW, it is now available on digital platforms such as Apple, Amazon and Google Play. Recently, Poe spoke about her sensational sophomore effort, handling the movement of such a big ensemble piece, and the relief of letting it make its own way in the world.

How did this come about?

Originally, it was just about wives and relationships, but during the pandemic as I was writing, I just realized that the problem was that we thought [a wedding] was the pinnacle of love in our lives, and the solution that I came to terms with over the course of the pandemic has been community. The point is other people and not just one other person, but all your other people. They all matter and you matter to them. And those people hold equal weight and that’s acceptable. That’s okay, they’re allowed to, if you want them to, so that definitely influenced what the story became about.

It’s a sprawling ensemble and you understand the complexity of each character almost immediately just based on what they wear. Are you creating extensive backstories just to be able to get to that point?

There are definitely different levels of backstory, some people more than others, but it’s very much the way that I like to think of the ensembles that I write and the ensembles that I build is that everybody’s in their own movie and this is where all of these various movies are crossing over, so I’m not trying to like fit a bunch of oddball characters into this one genre of film or to make them all fit into Celestina’s world. I very much feel like they are all crossing through Celestina’s story and that makes them feel a lot fuller. It also gives the actor so much permission to really fully embody them and make something that feels like it contains universes inside.

In a literal sense, there’s a frenzied feel to the film when all these important people in Celestina’s life are pulling her in one direction or another, which is echoed by this swirling camerawork. What was it like to actually stage and block?

It was crazy. It was definitely scene dependent and sometimes it was just the camera was moving, but a lot of the times it was the camera and the actors and we had these movement rules that we built with the choreographer, my brother Jumatatu. One of those rules was that only Celestina is allowed to turn both ways, like clockwise and counterclockwise when moving throughout the house, but everybody else in the film was only allowed to turn counterclockwise, so everybody had to always turn over their left shoulder. So when you see all of this – sometimes you’ll even see in the middle of a movement somebody in the background is about to turn this way, but then they remember and then they turn the correct way – it creates this feeling of constantly swirling. Then we had a lot of steadicam throughout the film, which gives you this constant feeling of swirling in its own way, so we had those two swirling forces moving in tandem with each other and against each other. It was a lot of fun to do, and also really annoying at times because you would have to reshoot something because people were turning all the wrong direction. It’s something that people may never realize is happening, but you can feel it.

Because there were things going on in the room and the soundscape is so rich, were things happening that may not necessarily have been on camera, but you were capturing in the moment?

No, a lot of that – all these throwaway lines, some of which is funny, some of which is tragic – is ADR, but then some of it we stole from other scenes. People were constantly chattering, and I knew that [mix] was part of what we were going to end up doing just based on the realities of filming, the time we had and the location we were filming in.

It’s an amazing location. How did you find it?

We did prep in Savannah and I had never been down there before. It’s gorgeous and the house is actually a 40-minute drive south in Darien, Georgia, and as soon as we saw it, it was like, “Oh, well, yeah, this is exactly what it’s supposed to be like.” Then we saw the land around the house and it has this super long dock that heads out to a little gazebo and it just feels like you’re the last house in the universe, which really fit into the feeling of the story and the themes that we were playing with. It felt very much like a house that was one with the world around it, which just fit into the story well.

When everyone was coming out of the isolation of the pandemic to make this, did it actually have the party vibe you feel from the film?

We shot it [when there was still] all the COVID rules for production, so it was still very much masks and zones, but everybody was vaccinated and things were more relaxed and I feel like people were so eager to be a part of a film community again. Everybody was so sick of being shut down, and I think you can feel the almost summer camp vibes that existed on set. There were a lot of people who worked on this project who worked on my first film, so there was just a lot of [feeling of] community. I think we like to work together, and a lot of people who I didn’t work with on the first one, they’ll end up on the third one and when you have that collaborative environment, it just feels fun and that fun, you can feel it on camera.

I got chills when I heard the little bell sound or the clang because you use percussion in such a great way in your films and I thought the director of “Selah and the Spades” is back. I wonder if the sound sort of comes to you early on in the process.

Sound comes to me early on. In “Selah,” we had this like recurring metronome tone that we would use and in [“The Young Wife”], we have that Meditation Mary gong. I work together often with my older brother, who is a dancer and actually choreographed “Selah and the Spades” and “The Young Wife.” In a lot of his work when I was younger, I just remember being so influenced by this recurring metronome theme that he would use in a lot of his pieces. And I think it just stuck in my brain and that’s why I do it. It’s just in my head, and you’re naturally attuned to it because it’s in tune with your body language.

I wonder whether your brother joined forces with Terence Nance, who was the composer, at a certain point, given the connection between the movement and the music here?

I don’t even think they’ve ever talked to each other. [laughs] And what’s so funny is they look a lot alike, their birthdays are the same day, they’re the same age and they’re like so, they’re so similar. But Terence I worked with a little bit on my first film – we used the song of his for a pivotal moment between the two lead characters – and I knew I wanted to work with him in a greater context on this project. And I knew I wanted my brother to be the choreographer, but they still to this day have never met. Terence is very much in like the music and film world and Jumatatu, my brother, is very much in the dance world, but it’s fascinating to see how alike but different people can be. So they never met, they didn’t really talk. I think I’m just like the sister between them both.

Leon Bridges is a really inspired choice for the groom, and I know he’s acted a little bit, but wondered how you even knew he might be available for something like this?

I just asked. I mean, you never know until you ask. [laughs] And I didn’t even know he acted before I asked. But a lot of people are eager to do something different from what they do and excited at the chance, so that was a really easy ask. And he was reluctant at first, like a little nervous about it, but honestly, and I told him this, I think that it’s all storytelling — being a musician, being an actor, being a director, we’re all trying to tell stories and we’re all trying to tell stories in the ways that come most naturally to us or that we are gravitating most towards, so it’s just about using those storytelling skills that he clearly embodies as a musician and allowing them to flow through him in this different way. So it was really cool to have those conversations.

What was it like to have Kiersey Clemons as an anchor?

Such a joy, just a real privilege and a pleasure. She’s a brilliant actor, but equally as importantly, a brilliant ensemble member, capable of both shining and also melting into the background in just a really beautiful way. When you have a large cast and a large crew [like we did] and you have a tight schedule, who leads the cast is important. It makes a really big difference, that energy that is number one on the call sheet, and oh my goodness, having a number one who is a true leader in every sense of the word, I don’t know how we would have done it without her.

When the end result feels like this exhaling, what’s it like to get out into the world?

It feels amazing, and exhaling is truly the right word. It’s felt like holding my breath, and I think a lot of the cast and crew feel this way too. We talk about this sometimes, like we know what we did and we just want to share it with people and that’s it. We just want people to see it, to be able to go through whatever portal we’re going through by making this movie together. We want people to go on that journey with us, so it does feel like a great Meditation Mary exhale kind of moment.

“The Young Wife” is now available on digital.

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