It wasn’t probably the way Tayler Montague had envisioned the premiere of her directorial debut “In Sudden Darkness,” but watching the film with her family in the comfort of home when it was publicly unveiled at the Blackstar Film Festival couldn’t have been any more appropriate.
“That was such an exciting moment and I’m so grateful to Maori [Karmael Holmes] and Nehad [Khader] and the whole team [at Blackstar] to see something in this film and giving us a platform to premiere it,” says Montague of the unexpectedly private public screening that kicked off a festival run that continues on to the Toronto and New York Film Festivals. “It was more than I could ask for.”
You know what she means when watching “In Sudden Darkness” as the overwhelming sensation of love radiates off the screen and you see that you’ve got all that you need if your family’s around. Everything in Montague’s short feels just right, except of course for the fact that the power’s gone out in New York late in the summer of 2003, leaving Erica (Raven Goodwin) and Jerome Moore (Marcus Callendar) and their daughter Tati (Sienna Rivers) and baby son Miles (Jaye C. Matthews) to entertain themselves without knowing when the electricity will come back. Tempers may be a little high, but no more so for the family than they usually are when playful barbs have become a part of showing their affection for one another, and having endured so much already just to keep a roof over their head in the Bronx, lighting some candles and the extravagance of some takeout actually seems pretty special as neighbors stop by to make sure they’re taken care of.
Light breaks through “In Sudden Darkness” in any number of ways, with Montague summoning an infectious warmth from her actors and cinematographer Mia Cioffi Henry’s sharp and considerate framing often transforming what limited luminosity there is to underline the connections that the family has to one another that can’t be unbroken. Almost magically, the writer/director gets to have it both ways, able to gently touch on the everyday hardships that make a blackout no different than any other obstacle that the family has to deal with on daily basis while offering a beautiful bit of escapism by capturing the grace of coming together to withstand whatever life throws their way with good spirit. It’s a truly joyful 13 minutes that unlike the real-life blackout that inspired it, you wish could stretch out longer, and shortly before it’s available to audiences anywhere in America virtually as part of the New York Stories shorts collection starting this week at the New York Film Festival, Montague spoke about how she came to direct her first film and the indirect influences on it from her family to Spike Lee that led to create a distinctive slice of life you don’t often get to see.
How did this come about?
I had just graduated college last year and was trying to figure out the things that I wanted to do. I always had a desire to direct, especially being a writer, thinking how can I use the visual elements to communicate a story, so I started conceptualizing [a film] and thinking back to formative experiences. It was really one of those things where I had just been building the story in my head before I sat down to write it, and it just became a perfect storm in some ways. I started writing the screenplay and I found a producer, Eliza Soros, and we started working on it.
You’ve got a really strong cast to play this family. How did you find them?
I love actors and I spend a lot of time at the theater, so I had just encountered Marcus Callendar at a Lynn Nottage play entitled “Fabulation,” and he was just phenomenal and so versatile, so I mentally stored him as a potential actor to work with if I ever had the opportunity to direct and when it came time to cast this project, I immediately thought of Marcus. Then with Raven Goodwin, I immediately thought she’s a face I saw on television growing up on “Just Jordan” and she’s a legend to me. I love Raven and I love her work, so it was a no brainer she played Erica, Tati’s mom, especially because she had been on a show called “Being Mary Jane” in which she played a mother [where] she really lent a lot of nuance to the experience of motherhood.
When it came time to find a child actress for Tati, I actually ended up looking at different children’s agencies on Instagram and ended up coming across Sienna [Rivers’] picture and reached out to her and her family and asking her to come in and audition. As soon as she came in, unanimously, I looked to the left and to the right of me and it’s like, “That’s Tati. That’s who she is.”
What were the rehearsals like?
It was one of those beautiful moments where we were all really on the same page about who these people were and how we wanted to represent them, and it was wonderful to write something and hear it come out of somebody’s mouth and see the way they make it their own. You really got to see the chemistry come together, and it was very much all hands on deck where I trusted my actors completely to execute when it came to line readings and saying the things they needed to say. I was so excited by the possibilities of shooting because I got to see some semblance of it in rehearsal.
Is it true you gave your actors playlists for inspiration?
Yes, I did actually make playlists for Marcus and Raven to listen to, even though they were alive [for] the early 2000s [because] they were significantly younger than the characters would be now, but also so they could have a better understanding of [how] these are two people that have been together for a very long time. These are high school sweethearts, so [this is] the music that those characters would’ve been listening to.
One of the great era-appropriate touches is that Jerome wears as Jesus Shuttlesworth jersey. How did that make it in?
Basically, I wanted the father to wear a throwback jersey, which were really big in the early 2000s, and [this is] a boring reason, but for copyright purposes, I couldn’t really have an NBA team, so I thought, “You know what? This is a perfect moment to fold in an homage, and a little tip of the hat and wink at Spike Lee.” Not necessarily because “He Got Game” is an influence on the film, but I talked a lot about “Crooklyn” opening the door for this movie to exist in a way, being a film I watched a lot as a child and having an influence on me as a filmmaker and the kind of stories I want to tell. I felt such a connection to Troy, the young girl in “Crooklyn,” and getting the opportunity to step behind the camera and make a coming-of-age film [about] a young Black girl — there’s no “In Sudden Darkness” without “Crooklyn” — so [I thought] let’s just put my little hello to Spike Lee. [laughs]
Like that film, the cinematography is extraordinary. What was your collaboration was like with Mia Cioffi Henry?
Mia is that girl. I love working with Mia and it was a wonderful collaboration because I feel like in a lot of ways I was able to really learn so much from her. I had never directed anything before, and she and I had lengthy conversations about what the look of this film is like and building shotlists together over the phone, just going over different references. Even just her being like, “Look, we can get on set and the shotlist might go out the window, but let’s have this game plan” was really important, guiding me towards making sure that the film we wanted ended up in the can. So much of our relationship on set and prior to it was game planning together and having conversations with her about what the film could look like and I feel like I really saw my vision come to life.
Given that you’re replicating a blackout, were you able to use a lot of ambient and natural light?
Yeah, any scene that was outside is natural lighting. We shot in the day time. And inside the apartment, the scenes in which there are no electricity were shot at six o’clock in the morning or so, and we accomplished the feeling that it’s completely dark by putting up duvetyne. I want to shout out my gaffers Inés Gowland and my key grip Rory Padgett, who both did really, really hard work to make sure it felt completely dark. We added the candles and things like that to make sure you could make out the characters and see them, but it was a combination of natural lighting and staging.
I understand this was your great-grandmother’s apartment, so you must’ve known this location well.
Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of my life there and it’s very much a space integral to my upbringing, going to Christmas parties and things like that. And [the community there] is an extension of my own community because I go to my great-grandmother’s house and in some ways, they watched me grow up — not quite literally, but I have a familiar face — so they were completely supportive, her neighbors and everyone else that lives in the building. Everyone who lives on the floor were so sweet, even more than I could ask for because I know in a lot of ways we were probably disrupting their Saturday with our craft tables and our equipment coming in and out of the apartment, but they were like, “Don’t even worry about it. We’re rooting for you and we can’t wait to see the end result. It was an amazing experience and I’m really happy we got to shoot it there.
And your parents got to see you in action too, from what I hear.
Yeah, it’s like your parents coming to see your play or your baseball games, they were always just like, “You got this, Tayler.” They have been a great, great influence on me and so supportive of this project and part of the reason they were on set is because they were dropping off props or they’re just there to be emotional or moral support. From beginning to till the very end, from having rough cuts to having fine cuts, they are my everything and I’m so happy they got to see me in action because I think you can talk about making a film, but when people see you making a film, it’s like, “Oh okay, this is happening.”