From writer/director Nia DaCosta, the indie Little Woods is a modern Western that follows Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and her sister Deb (Lily James), two young women stuck in a struggling North Dakota town. After having authorities catch on about her illegal activity in helping local residents access Canadian health care and medication, Ollie has decided to focus on making an honest living, until her trouble-prone sister makes a desperate plea for help that drags Ollie back to a place she’d rather escape.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, filmmaker Nia DaCosta and actress Tessa Thompson spoke to Collider for this interview about developing Little Woods through the Sundance Directors Lab, how the project evolved, the collaborative environment surrounding the film, the importance of this sister dynamic, what Lily James brought to her role, and not doubting your instincts and intuition. DaCosta also talked about her take on Candyman and the qualities of Clive Barker’s work that she’s hoping to bring to the film, while Thompson talked about Valkyrie’s status since we last saw her in the MCU, and what it was like to work with Emma Thompson on Men in Black: International.
NIA DaCOSTA: Thank you so much.
Nia, you wrote and directed this, and it’s your first full-length feature, but it’s not easy subject matter. Was this one of those projects that has to be a labor of love, or was it easier to get into production than you expected?
DaCOSTA: It was definitely a labor of love, in part because we didn’t have a lot of money to make it, so everyone who came into the process had to really believe in what we were doing, and the story we were telling, and we had to love each other to get through it. I had a great time shooting it, editing it, and all of that stuff. Getting to making your first feature, especially for me, not having done TV or shorts before, was difficult, for sure. Finding people who believed in the story and who wanted to do a drama about women, was tough subject matter. I guess it’s a little bit dark, but it’s also political. People were like, “Oh, we don’t wanna do something that’s in the political space.” But the whole point of this movie, for me, is to not politicize human beings, but to show who they are. So, it was tricky, but I was really supported by the Sundance Institute. That’s actually how Tessa [Thompson] and I met, through the Sundance Directors Lab. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have met Tessa, which would have been a travesty. If I hadn’t had their support, I wouldn’t have found half of my confidence to do the movie. They were really instrumental in getting me to shoot, day one.
Tessa, when you first read this script, was it what it is now? Was it very similar, or has it evolve a lot?
TESSA THOMPSON: It was a different script, in the sense that you have to kill some of your darlings. There were characters and fat that was trimmed, and in trimming it, what it got leaned down to is what is more central to the story, which is this relationship between the two sisters. Even from what we shot to what’s on screen, it’s also different. You used to see mom die, and you used to see this caretaker. And then, it became clear to us, in different cuts, that we didn’t need that. That it was better to start post that event, and get into the meat of the story. What’s cool about that is that all that stuff lives inside of the DNA of the project. The thing that gets to live and really sing and be most central is the relationship between these sisters. Apart from getting the chance to work with Nia, who struck me as such a brilliant director, even though I hadn’t seen anything that she had done, but I just knew that she would be, in terms of her sensitivity, her work ethic, and her authenticity, it was getting to make a story about these two sisters that have to learn how to choose each other again that resonated with me so deeply. Obviously, it’s a film about two women, but I feel like she wrote Ollie, especially, as a character without gender. Maybe that’s because, structurally, she thought of it as a modern Western. It didn’t actually feel genderized. It just felt like a person that has a lot of things to do.
Especially because we don’t get to know her or learn about her through her relationship to a man.
THOMPSON: Which you used to. That was one of the darlings that got killed. The cool thing is that he just ended up playing another part, and he’s brilliant in it. We kept the actor, we just gave him something else to do.
DaCOSTA: He was like, “I’m just happy that I’m still in the movie.”
THOMPSON: He was with us at the Sundance Lab. So, we went from smooching each other on a couch to threatening each other in the bathroom. That’s just a testament to Nia because she knows how to choose them. She’s just like, “You’re good. I believe you can do this. And you can also do this.” Particularly, just being a young woman of color, we don’t get to occupy these spaces a lot. There are a lot of movies about the experience of being in rural America, but nobody looks like me in those stories, or like Nia.
The fact that these two specific women are sisters is also something we’re not used to seeing.
THOMPSON: Which is also my experience. My half sister, who I grew up and who has my heart, is white, and I’m me. We grew up in an experience where people were like, “You’re what?! How do you relate to each other?” To see that on screen and normalized was huge for me. If I had seen depictions like that when I was little, it would have probably helped me navigate all of the confusion that I felt around being at public schools and being one of the only brown people in that space, and looking across at my sister and feeling alienated because we didn’t look alike. There were just so many things about this project that meant a lot to me.
Nia, was it hard for you to cut things out or change things around, or did you find that easier than you thought it might be?
DaCOSTA: It depends. If I’m like, “Okay, we’re gonna get criticism, so let’s be open and receptive and take it all in,” then I’m fine. But if it comes by surprise, which it does, every day on set, I’m like, “Hell no! Oh, my god! What are we gonna do now?” I always remember this very specific day that we were shooting and Tessa was like, “This line doesn’t actually track with this scene.” I was like, “Oh, my god, I have to rewrite this scene.” And then, she said, “I just need to say this.” And I was like, “Yes!” Having the lead in your film be an excellent writer, and also be able to see the bigger picture and be your ally and say, “We can work this out and do this together,” and not feeling like I had to do every little thing, which is not the way you really direct a film, was so useful. Because I surrounded myself with such a brilliant people, and with Tessa being at the helm of the cast, it didn’t make it easy, but it was manageable to decide, “Okay, we got to get rid of this. We have to do this.” Some things are harder than others, like when we had to cut the mom from the film, even though they were great scenes.
THOMPSON: Yeah, she gave such a fantastic performance, and so did Lily [James].
DaCOSTA: Lily and Tessa did great work, so that’s when it’s hard. When you see people living inside their own experience and putting it into their character, it’s hard. We shot the scene where the mom dies, and we talked about the experience of being present for someone dying, and I had never had that experience, and it was really tough to get rid of that scene because I felt a responsibility to the emotions that were brought into that room to service something that I’d written. That’s the most tough.
THOMPSON: We haven’t talked about this since it happened. That’s a little death, in and of itself. We healed from that, and haven’t spoken about it since.
What was it like to add Lily James and figure out what that dynamic with her would be like?
THOMPSON: We had very little money, and the movie was ambitious. Someone that fits the role is one thing, and then it’s about who’s gonna come and play ball, who’s gonna be up for moments of relative chaos, and who’s gonna be up for long days. It was so fantastic because Lily was so game and so hungry for that type of experience that was just different. For her, getting to make a film with a young woman who’s a writer/director, and for the most part, all of our producers were women, and there were so many women to get to work with, who were contemporaries, was exciting. And then, getting to work on something that’s so different than what she had done previously was just a joy. It felt perfect. It became pretty clear, early on, ‘cause she went straight into these really intense rehearsals on a couch, really excavating and going into these scenes. She was just so open and lovely, and then could also come to the bar and we could drink a bunch of beer. That was the experience I had, meeting Nia at the Sundance Labs. There were intensive days of working all day, shooting the thing, and being critiqued by giants. People were not just critiquing Nia, but they were critiquing me. It was like all day of really like going through boot camp, and then being in a bar at night, drinking and talking. So, it was lovely to find Lily, and have her be down for all of that. For me, all of that makes it into the DNA of a project.
Nia, did you ever for a moment, on set, when you were like, “Okay, I’m a director and I get this”?
DaCOSTA: That’s a really interesting question. I went to film school, and I directed some theater when I was in London and started a theater collective, so that I could work with actors and have that experience. But in terms of film and doing a feature, it’s really about stamina and holding so much in your head at once, and diligence. It’s also about knowing what I’m looking at and what I want to be looking at, and how to explain how to get from what I see to what I want to see. That’s talking to everyone. That’s talking to your production designer, your costume designer, your actors, your DP, and everyone. About half-way through the shoot is when I realized that I know how to do that. And it’s not just about doing it, but about not doubting your instincts and intuition. In the beginning, I was like, “Okay, I’ve hired all of these people who are amazing and great, and that’s why it’s gonna work out,” but then I realized that I don’t need to defer to anyone else because I know specifically what I want.