Director Jordana Spiro of Netflix’s Ozark talks about her directorial debut filmed in the city.
There were a lot of signs that told Jordana Spiro to film her feature directorial debut in Philadelphia.
When she started penning the script for Night Comes On, which scored her a NEXT Innovator Award at Sundance Film Festival, she came to the city to scout out potential filming locations. A new mother, the director and star of Netflix’s Ozark needed something close to home, but that would also tell her film’s story.
Night Comes On follows the story of a 17-year-old girl (played by Dominique Fishback) who is released from juvenile detention days before she turns 18. She embarks on a journey with her 10-year-old sister (Tatum Marilyn Hall) to find purpose that could change both of their lives forever.
Spiro talked about her experience in Philadelphia, the first time in the director’s seat and putting so much faith to tell a heavy story into the hands of two young actresses.
The movie has a lot of locations easily recognizable to Philadelphians. Where did you film?
We filmed a lot in West Philly and some of North Philly and Strawberry Mansion. The idea to film here came to [co-writer Angelica Nwandu] and I during the script writing process when we took a trip to the city. Some of the locations, like when Angel [played by Fishback] is walking down the street and standing outside the club with neon lights, was from Google imaging and trying to find cool night locations. We saw a picture of an art installation by Jwlz Ono, somewhere on, I want to say Percy Street. One of the reasons Angelica and I went on a Philly exploration was because our friend suggested exploring the city. It turned out our friend is the son of the artist who made that mural.
You’re based in New York — why did you decide to film in Philly?
When production kicked into high gear and moved into principal photography, I had a newborn and wanted to shoot near home base for practicality. We were thinking of New York, but it sort of became the story of a person in a city that’s swallowed her, size wise. We wanted her to stand out and have her be in the foreground of her own story, and liked that Philly has big city/small city feel to it. At the same time, there’s beauty in all the details of the city. A movie’s aesthetic comes from textures and colors of details around you, and I was very inspired by how Philly looks. There’s so much drama and poetry and beauty to all the different sides of Philadelphia. The second we arrived there, intuition told us this was the right place.
Let’s talk about the story. The script follows how difficult life is for a black youth who’s not even an adult yet, with not many adults willing to give her a chance. Why is that?
I think one of the biggest gifts that film has is the ability to allow us to feel empathy for characters we might not either come into contact with or think too much about. I wanted to make a story about a person who is cast aside and really get inside that perspective and understand what is going on for that person. I think it speaks to deep problems in our society. Institutionalized racism takes place on so many levels, and the stigmatization of fostering with the lack of support that they have.
What made you start writing the movie?
I wanted to make a story about somebody who was overlooked, cast aside, has a lot of negative adjectives placed on them, and get inside what is going on for them. That came after volunteering for many years within the fostering community, and several years with Peace for Kids. There I learned what it means to age out of foster care and how incredibly difficult that journey is, especially with a million societal forces acting against you. You’re an 18-year-old kid out in the world with no support system. As I started to develop the story, I felt I didn’t have firsthand understanding and didn’t feel responsible writing it by myself. I wanted to include a partner who could speak to that experience. Peace for Kids introduced me to Angelica, and we started writing together.
You put a lot of faith in your two young female leads, Dominque Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall. How old was Tatum when you filmed this?
Nine. She’s so gifted, it’s ridiculous.
Nine years old? Wow.
I had an immediate instinct she was Abby. She has such an incredible natural swagger, confidence, charisma, way with words, and at the same time is able to be vulnerable and emotional. Dominique was an adult, so of course she is a professional actor working already, and has her own method of being able to jump in and out of difficult scenes. It was a matter of shaping the scene and sharing what we felt were right stakes between director and actor. Tatum, honestly, I anticipated needing to do more than I had to do. She also had her own method in certain emotional moments and would just kind of work through some little games to help get her to a certain place. She worked really hard and thought a lot about her character.
This is your first time directing a feature length movie. You’re usually on the other side of the camera, like in Ozark and Blindspot. How did your acting experience inform your directing?
I think I have a sense of when an actor is feeling like the scene isn’t working. Because of that, we were able to jump in and diagnose what wasn’t working. If it was something in the dialogue or the way it was structured, or if the actor needed to shift their angle of getting into a certain emotion. Having had moments as an actor on set where you’re just not getting the scene and knowing how frustrating that is, I’m able to help through moments like that.
What was your favorite part of filming in Philadelphia?
Philadelphia was so great to us. When we were shooting around location of Abby’s house, we happened to meet a woman named Joy Williams and asked her some questions about the neighborhood. She became a real friend to the film. I’m especially grateful to her for allowing the production to feel invited. Coincidentally, we told her we were interested in finding local artists to do music, and her cousin is an artist who did several songs for the film. Through her, we found music. ••
Night Comes On will play at the Roxy Theater, 2023 Sansom St., starting Aug. 3.