This is the latest installment of “Breaking Black,” a weekly column focused on emerging black talent.
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.
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 shingle 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.”
“Little Woods” opens in limited release on Friday, April 19.