There’s something especially wounding about the smallness of Little Woods, starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James, given the immense conflict packed inside the contemporary western. The stars play estranged sisters who reunite in a deserted rural town. Deb (James) is pregnant, and living in a place where aborting a fetus is nearly as expensive as carrying it to term. Ollie (Thompson) is days away from the end of her probation period, and hanging onto to the prospect of leaving everything she has for something better — or at least something different. They both need cash quickly and desperately, so Ollie returns to selling oxy. Palpable at every turn is their shared sense of anxiety about being women in this town, where men outnumber women two to one, where there aren’t a lot of opportunities, where everyone is trying to score.
When she started writing Little Woods, writer-director Nia DaCosta had yet to visit the kind of desolate fracking boomtown that makes it to screen. As a child, she watched westerns with her uncle, not knowing she’d make her directorial debut with one, or that it would score her the Nora Ephron Award from the Tribeca Film Festival last year. “As I got older, I just really fell in love with the idea that it was a time period where you just create whatever world you wanted,” she told Vulture. “When you actually look at the history of the frontier, it’s a lot more diverse than any of those movies make you think. Three quarters of all cowboys were actually men of color, most of them black and Mexican. Black women were able to create lives for themselves because they were kind of lawless. It’s a very fascinating time, so I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the frontier.” In a conversation ahead of the movie’s release, DaCosta talked to Vulture about the making of Little Woods, her love for Annette Bening, the yee-haw agenda, and the Candyman “spiritual sequel” she’s directing for Jordan Peele.
I’m very interested in you being a native New Yorker, and making this movie about sisters in North Dakota. How did you become interested in that part of the country?
I initially wanted to tell the story about women who live in a world according to men. I grew up in Brooklyn, and I was struck by how different our lives were and how different they could be, in terms of either the politics in places we lived, the resources for what we have, et cetera. But we’re all just in one country, which the same sort of inalienable rights, et cetera. I found this boom town in Northwest North Dakota, Williston, by accident. Just by trying to find the best place for this story in relation to the topics that it was about. Everything about the place and the fact that it was a boom town added a whole other layer to the story, and it kind of came together that way. I just went and decided to tell the story about these types of women.
At what point did you actually travel there? Did you go first and write the script, or write the script and then go there to flesh it out?
Technically I was unemployed when I wrote the first part of the script, and then I was PA-ing and scripting for TV. I had no money to do traveling to research the script. For me, filmmaking was so prohibitively expensive, and I feel really lucky that I got to feel the hard work, but then also be recognized by the Sundance Institute, doing the screenwriters’ lab, then the directors’ lab. Getting a little grant from them is really what allowed me to be able to go to the North Dakota and finish doing research after I’d already written multiple drafts of the script.
It was at one of the Sundance labs that you met Tessa, right?
Yeah, at the directors’ lab. In these labs, you workshop for scenes from the movie, and you get to hire actors from anywhere. They wish to donate their time to be here for that. She came out there, and [Luke] Kirby came up there and that’s how we met.
What attracted you to her as an actress?
We had this list of potential actresses, and then the casting director said, “You should think about Tessa Thompson.” At that point, I wasn’t really familiar with her work. I got on YouTube and I looked up interviews, because what I really wanted was someone who was open, and seemed empathetic and just had a certain energy. I remember watching this interview of her talking with Craig Ferguson about sandwiches, and it was such a silly conversation, but I was like, I feel like she could get down. And obviously she’s an amazing actress, so my instincts were right. She really was the best collaborator — so open, so giving, so generous.
This is the first time I’ve watched a movie that’s made me sort of ache because I don’t have a sister. Ollie and Deb are very dissimilar, but there’s something very moving about their relationship.
In the very, very, very first iteration of it, before it was a script, it was so far from what it is now. Ollie and Deb weren’t sisters, they were just friends who met in high school. But there’s something about being sisters, and them being so different. I’m so different from my sister. It’s like: if one or the other is struggling, you can’t really help them in a way that works for you, because you’re so different. There’s so much frustration in that, where if you try to help, it’s not met with kindness, and if you don’t help it’s like, “Why are you abandoning me?” It’s such a complicated relationship, but it’s so full of love. I find it so fascinating and also so relatable. That was a big thing for me. I thought it was just important to tell this bigger tale through this really intimate story.
In Little Woods, you really say something about what it’s like to live in poverty, specifically as a woman. In other interviews you’ve called it the gendered experience of poverty. Can you tell me more about how you considered this issue?
That was the big reason why I was so happy that I found both North Dakota and that history, because it pulled in all of this. It made everything more heightened. I know that there’s so much in the film: there’s the opioid crisis, reproductive health and women’s health in particular, health insurance. It’s just because that world is rich and full of those problems. When I did research and realized … Women have a whole completely different way of operating in that space, where they don’t really go out at night or they’re at home all the time waiting for their husbands to get back from their eighteen-hour shift. It’s a very different existence. I just feel a great privilege to be able to tell a story about that.
How did you imagine the lives of Ollie and Deb before we meet them in the film?
I have a whole complex about how everyone in this movie is so attractive. It’s so silly! But with Deb in particular, she was someone who was the prettiest girl in school and Ian (James Badge Dale, playing the father of Deb’s child) was the hottest guy in school, and they totally have lived in that dynamic of having peaked in high school. Or that’s when people would have said they peaked, but they have no way of dealing with the real world in a substantive way. I think Deb and Ollie would’ve dropped out of school but for different reasons. Deb, like, ran off with the first guy to take care of her, and as soon as her mother got sick she kind of disappeared, because it was too much for her. Ollie has always been the one taking care of everyone. In a way, because she was adopted, she’s always trying to show her worth, and that was through caring for people, and so that’s why she has a complex about that.
That’s so fascinating. I love these women. Now I want to see all of that stuff, too.
They’re so much work. I love them, too. Honestly this could be a TV show, I don’t know.
It helps that Tessa and Lily have such a natural chemistry as sisters. Can you tell me about directing that?
I knew what I was doing with Tessa because we’d worked together for a year and a half before we shot, and also became good friends in the intervening months. With Lily, we talked during prep. It was like, “I don’t know if she’s Cinderella Cinderella. Is she gonna be a pain in my ass?” [Laughs] But she was totally down and amazing, and I love her. I couldn’t have known that the dynamic between them was gonna be so great. They really were able to fall into that dynamic of older sister, younger sister in a really beautiful way that I think really showed on screen at the same time.
What was the trickiest scene for you to shoot? There were lots of scenes in that cramped RV that seemed so suffocating. The physicality there was so great.
That fucking RV. Honestly, it was the best because it was exactly what I wanted. But, unfortunately, exactly what I wanted. It was so small and my DP and I were like, “Okay, so we have two shots, pointing this way and then pointing that way.” That bar fight was tricky too, the one where Tessa punches the guy. That bar was also the diner, and we weren’t allowed to shut it down, so we just had to shoot around it being open all the time.
I have to ask you about the yee-haw agenda, and —
Did you just say the yee-haw agenda? Is that Lil Nas X?
Yes, but just generally there’s so much discourse right now around a resurgence of a country aesthetic. Through “Old Town Road,” and Solange’s new music, Mitski’s new music, and also to some extent A Star Is Born, I think. Even though Bradley Cooper is just wearing a lot of bronzer. A black woman specifically coined this term “yee-haw agenda” to really speak to black people reclaiming our place in this western iconography, which has, as you said, been seen as really white. I think Little Woods is arriving at the perfect time, and I’m wondering how you’re thinking about this revival.
I think it’s fucking awesome. The thing about the west that I love is that it’s about the way America was made, and so much of what happened then and in that space. It’s a big piece of our mythology, pursuit of happiness, life, liberty, land, etc. Everyone who wasn’t a white dude is completely extirpated from that, just completely extirpated from the idea that we built America, even though if you were black, you literally did. I am super excited by that in a contemporary sense, shining a light on the culture that exists now. In a historical sense, I very badly want to do a western about black women finding gold and shit, ‘cause it happened. Also it’s fun. Westerns are fucking fun! I like the idea of having historical films about black women who are just having fun.
A very random question: You told me on Twitter a while ago that Annette Bening was your “gateway drug into film” when you were 11 years old. I absolutely must hear this story, if you don’t mind.
Okay, so I’m obsessed with Annette Bening, so I appreciate your feed for that very reason. She’s an amazing actress, first of all. A lot of my film education when I was younger was basically whatever VHS tapes were in my house, and also the fact that I had premium cable and could watch American Beauty at nine years old, which was super inappropriate. I watched American Beauty over and over and over again when I was 10 or 11, and because I was 10 or 11, I really didn’t get what the fuck was happening. But I was so drawn to Annette Bening. I thought, “What about her, what’s happening to me, watching her?” Then I realized: “Oh, she’s an amazing actress, that’s why I’m watching. I’m watching acting and she’s really fucking great at it.” She was really my gateway drug into appreciating actors, period. I mean, she’s continued to do amazing work. 20th Century Women is — I can’t.
That movie is God-level.
I’m so upset that didn’t make more money, that it wasn’t a bigger part of the conversation. It’s so good.
I have to ask you something about Candyman. What was your experience with the original?
I always loved horror when I was younger, I just loved all creepy films. Candyman was one of those movies that scared the shit out of me. I remember it aligning so well with me being in middle school, although it came out a few years before I was in middle school. In the bathroom, people would either say “Bloody Mary” or “Candyman.” Today, I understand that it’s special because it has a black antagonist in a very white space, which is problematic, but at the time I was like, “Oh cool, we have black dudes, it’s terrifying. Virginia Madsen, and what, bees? Honey? What’s happening?” It was very much of that.