Ollie: “Your choices are only as good as your options are.”
The Western is one of my favorite genres in movies. I like the classic period of it, representing the spirit of a new undomesticated American frontier with its open landscape mountain ranges, weathered lands and immense plains. Westerns stressed the harshness of the environment, presenting it almost mythically – the horizon, the sky and the mountains having intrinsic weight on the settlers — and oftentimes portrayed the subordination of the wilderness as civilization was introduced. Of course, this was done by seizing the land from its original dwellers – Native Americans. The Western usually depicted a newly formed society with codes of honor and personal justice. There was often some form of revenge taking place or retribution. The wild wild west.
The first thing we see in “Little Woods” (2018) is a landscape that is reminiscent of a John Ford western – a magnificent mountain range – a formation unlike Monument Valley – a butte with a divide in the middle. Soon there’s a young African American woman – Ollie – digging a hole on the ground and burying a bag of opioids – and running away from a police car. In an auspicious debut, Nia DaCosta – working from her original screenplay – subverts the expected tropes to create an engaging tale.
It takes place in the present in the fictional town of Little Woods somewhere near the border between North Dakota and Canada. It is a fracking boomtown, and the economy has hit it hard. There are only a lucky few men working the oil fields, and most of them seemed to be barely making ends meet – unable to afford healthcare and hooked on painkillers and alcohol to soldier through the hardship.
Ollie was convicted for peddling prescription drugs to them, and served time. Now, she’s a week a way from finishing her parole and does odd jobs including delivering coffee and sandwiches to the workforce. Her adoptive mother – whom she looked after – recently died, leaving behind a home about to be foreclosed upon. Her sister Deb is a single mom of young Johnny and has recently found she’s pregnant. She is a waitress and lives in a trailer illegally parked on a lot. They have a week to raise the funds or they lose the homestead. That three thousand dollars is a fortune for them.
These two women live in a world in which everything functions above the law. Ollie is striving to straighten out her life and seeking a way out of this unhealthy environment by getting a job in Spokane. Deb knows that a second child will cause even more hardships. “Johnny has always been more than enough for me,” she admits. Going through with her pregnancy will cost her $8,000, so she has to decide whether to get an abortion. All of these circumstances force Ollie to do one last perilous job. The two sisters journey together to the border.
Their dilemmas highlight the injustices of the system, but the narrative never pauses to become preachy. It moves at a very taut pace. DaCosta permeates the action with a sense of trepidation from the first scene to the last frame. With cinematographer Matt Mitchell, she contrasts the outside landscapes with the claustrophobic interiors that are asphyxiating their inhabitants. Her cast is led by a transfixing Tessa Thompson as Ollie and always fascinating Lillie James as Deb. The film fits neatly in the company of Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River” – female directors spinning gripping thrillers tackling realities in America.
DaCosta is one major talent to watch. Last August she was chosen to helm the sequel to “Captain Marvel” – making her the first African American woman to direct a Marvel film.
Deb: “What went wrong last time, when you got caught?”
Ollie: “I forgot to be scared, ’cause I liked it too much.”
Available to stream on Hulu and Kanopy and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Apple TV, YouTube, Redbox, DIRECTV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written and Directed by Nia DaCosta
Starring Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale and Lance Reddick
Writer and Director Nia DaCosta on Bringing “Little Woods” to the Screen
When New Yorker Nia DaCosta first visited Williston, North Dakota, the real-life setting on which her auspicious feature debut “Little Woods” is based, she found what she called the modern Wild West. The filmmaker was shocked by the stark inequalities she discovered in the fracking boomtown, especially when it came to healthcare and the reproductive rights for women. She found a place that felt lawless. She also found inspiration. “Something we are taught in film school is to write what you know, and I used to take that literally,” DaCosta said. “But I soon realized that what it meant to me was to write what I knew emotionally, because that’s how you connect with people who are completely unlike you and have different lived experiences.” And so she set her sight on a story about lives that were foreign to her, but that resonated in a universal sense, driven by a desire to present the lives of women on screen that are rarely seen. When she began conceiving ideas for “Little Woods” in 2014, she was inspired by raging debate over how women’s health care issues were covered by the Affordable Care Act. “I was really struck by what felt like a total lack of any real connection being made to people’s actual lives,” she said. “And so I wanted to tell a story about that, but from the perspective of women who lived in rural America, particularly those who are living in poverty.”
She was further inspired by the realization of how relatively privileged she was to grow up and live in a metropolitan city like New York, which afforded her certain standard amenities that would be considered luxuries in more pastoral areas of the country. “Even though my family wasn’t necessarily super well off, I realized that, because I was in a place with a relatively great infrastructure where I could walk to a hospital, or take the train to a Planned Parenthood or whatever, I was in a much better situation than a lot of women who live in the rural parts of America,” she said. To understand that experience, DaCosta went about doing research around the setting of the film. She stumbled upon Williston, North Dakota while studying a map to identify areas that might present the toughest of challenges for women searching for abortion clinics. “I realized that was the perfect place to tell this story, because at the time, as I found out, there were about twice as many men as women living there, and it was completely overrun with oil and construction,” DaCosta said. “Little Woods” would eventually become the story of Ollie — the film’s reluctant hero, played by Tessa Thompson — who does whatever it takes get what she needs, including breaking the law. It’s a confident first feature about sisters pushed to extremes. For DaCosta, the film was an opportunity for this slice of Americana to be seen, and for the people who live in it to be heard. It’s a notion that she said will continue to guide the stories she chooses to tell. (indiewire.com)
DaCosta on Redefining The Western
“Initially I wasn’t calling it a Western, I was like “Okay, I’m inspired by Westerns.” One part of that was the story itself: I love the concept of a frontier, I think the frontier is a really interesting space, and it’s where America was made as well as it’s where a lot of mythology about ourselves was strengthened or created. But I think the people who you see making the frontier are always predominately white men, and so I was interested in seeing a different kind of frontiersman, a frontierswoman. And also in terms of Ollie’s character being this lone gunslinger who puts down her gun and then picks it back up [over the course of the film], there’s that trope as well that I was drawn to. And then visually, something that struck me so much when I visited North Dakota was how beautiful it was, so I really wanted to juxtapose the beauty of the American West with the [characters’] very internal, kitchen-sink trouble.
For me, when I was looking at the film, I wasn’t trying to necessarily make a Western but I definitely wanted to make something that was influenced by it. So the things that really worked from the genre were the tension, the beginning of a characterization. But there were things that absolutely don’t work, like if you have a Western that centers women in a town like this, in an oil-rich town or oil-fracking boom town, women’s lives are very internal, they’re inside a lot. I remember being in North Dakota and meeting women who stayed in bed and watched Law & Order: SVU all day, waiting for their boyfriends or husbands to get back from their shifts, or who couldn’t go out at night because they felt like it was dangerous for them. So that is a completely different situation: Westerns are about liberty and freedom, but what does it look like when you’re a woman and you’re limited because the people who have it impede your freedom? That was fascinating to get my brain around. (hollywoodreporter.com)
DaCosta on Casting “Little Woods”
“Tessa was first. I did the Sundance Director’s Lab in 2015, and she’s one of the actors that graciously lent her time to come out and workshop some scenes in the movie with me. And it was pretty apparent early on that, one, she was sort of like my actor soul mate, and two, that she absolutely had to have this role. So when I asked, I was very, very grateful that she said yes. And so she was on the movie for about a year and a half before we shot. And then Lily came on when we were in prep, actually. She was someone who I had seen onstage years ago when I was in London, and I thought she was just really magnetic and wonderful. I thought she could do something in this movie we hadn’t quite seen her do yet on film and I was excited by that opportunity, and I think she was as well, so that’s how that happened.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Tessa Thompson on Joining the Cast of “Little Woods”
“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. (collider.com)
About Writer and Director Nia DaCosta
A New Yorker since birth — born in Brooklyn, raised mostly in Harlem — the 29-year-old DaCosta knew very early that she wanted to be a writer of some sort. She dreamed of a career as a poet, but she soon realized that in order to earn a living, she needed a new plan. Her introduction to filmmaking as a viable profession came at 16, when she read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” for an A.P. English Class. “After we read the book, we watched ‘Apocalypse Now,’ because it’s an adaptation, and I fell in love with the movie, as well as the harrowing story about its making,” she said. “And I fell in love with Coppola’s audacity.” She would also fall in love with the decade of the film’s release. “I went through the 1970s in film, and I was so inspired by what I saw and by filmmakers like Scorsese, Lumet, Spielberg and Coppola,” said DaCosta. “They made me think I could do anything I wanted with film. So I would say that ’70s filmmaking in general was really impactful for me because I thought, these men were crazy, in a good way of course, because of the kind of films they were able to make. And so that’s kind of where it started for me.” She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in part because Martin Scorsese was an alumnus. Later, she worked as a TV production assistant, which would place her on sets with Scorsese, as well as other major filmmakers such as Steve McQueen and Steven Soderbergh. She soaked up as much as she could from each experience. “None of these opportunities probably would’ve happened if I wasn’t living in New York, because it’s really like an education to grow up in such a great city that offers so much,” she said. Her script for “Little Woods” was one of the 12 projects chosen for the 2015 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs. Shot in 2017, the feature had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018, where it was met with near-unanimous critical acclaim, and was acquired by Neon shortly thereafter.
Hollywood took note: DaCosta was soon tapped by Jordan Peele and his Monkeypaw Productions to direct a new take on the horror film classic “Candyman,” which is scheduled for a 2020 release. Additionally, she’s reimagining “Sleeping With the Enemy” for Fox Searchlight, developing a sci-fi thriller titled “Canary,” and a retelling of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” set in the underground jazz clubs of 1920s Soho, London with BBC Films. Considering the recent attention to her work, DaCosta said she had her eyes on the future. “I’m not nervous at all, actually, but I will say that I’m excited about all the opportunities coming my way, and I plan to make the most of them,” she said. The filmmaker added that she wanted her films to stimulate conversations about inclusion and diversity. “I just want to tell good stories in ways that will shine light on lives rarely seen on screen, because stories can push humanity forward,” she said. “And so I think a diversity of stories is really important in raising awareness and creating empathy. It’s through this medium of film that many of us learn about and communicate with one another, especially with people we don’t know.” (indiewire.com) …Deadline reported that the indie filmmaker, whose buzzy horror movie Candyman is set to debut this year, has been tapped to direct Captain Marvel 2. The film is a sequel to the historic comic book movie starring Brie Larson, which, in 2019, became the first major release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring a female superhero. (vanityfair.com)