Nikyatu Jusu was just happy to have a movie at Sundance. Now, she’s its biggest winner: “Nanny,” Jusu’s first feature, won the Grand Jury Prize at the virtual 2022 edition and instantly brought a spotlight to the director’s singular vision. She is only the second Black woman director to win the prize, and the first horror director to do so. The outcome automatically makes her a talent to watch, and she has a lot to say about it.
Jusu has been traveling festivals with short films for almost 15 years, teaching film at George Mason University, and trying to get a feature off the ground for most of that time. Ultimately, that was “Nanny,” the riveting tale of a Senegalese immigrant (Anna Diop) tasked with caring for a white family in New York while coping with strange supernatural forces that hark back to her homeland. The slow-burn story is both artful and unnerving as it digs inside the psychology of a woman at odds with the attempts to recenter her life in foreign terrain. The project landed on the 2020 Black List and received support from Sundance and IFP labs ahead of its completion last year; so far, it has yet to secure U.S. distribution, but Jusu seems poised to fill the breakthrough slot that tends to anoint a Sundance winner each year.
She wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the experience when we spoke a few days before the festival, but expressed relief about the potential of finally entering the new stage of her career. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: You’ve been making short films in the same amount of time that many filmmakers crank out multiple features. How do you explain the 14 year trip to your debut?
Nikyatu Jusu: It’s been a really serpentine journey for me with a lot of stops and starts. It wasn’t until I stumbled across my producing partner, Nikkia Moulterie, who I met at a BBQ. Another filmmaker friend introduced us. I’d been kicking around some ideas. I was kicking around the script for a movie called “Free the Town” to shoot in Sierra Leone. We garnered some lab money in Europe but it never went anywhere. At one point, I wanted to turn my short “Suicide By Sunlight” into a series. But series are expensive and nobody knew who I was. Getting the short into Sundance helped, though.
In the meantime, “Nanny” was a project I was kicking around for eight or nine years, and it was Nikkia’s favorite of the ideas I had. She just always held my feet to the fire to revisit it. We started getting into all the labs simultaneously over the past couple of years and then it gained all this traction. It’s a testament to the hurry-up-and wait aspect of this industry. You’re constantly sprinting to these deadlines but the industry pays attention on its own time.
What was the most frustrating aspect of this whole prolonged process for you?
You start to get into your own head. You see other people’s successes and wonder, “Is this mainstream enough?” I’m not going to name names. I went to NYU grad film. I am a filmmaker whose roots are in New York, and I was running in a circle of super-talented Black filmmakers. You see your peers’ trajectories and you’re like, “Oh my god, what am I doing with my life? I went to film school. I made some award winning shorts. I’m supposed to be where this other person is!”
I don’t know if you can share your budget, but “Nanny” certainly doesn’t look like a cheap movie. You’ve got creature features and some special effects-laden dream sequences. Was it hard to get the level of resources you wanted for “Nanny”?
I will say we got a decent budget for our first feature, especially in the pandemic. It’s 30 percent more during COVID due to PPE, everyone testing negative, and so on. A lot of the money went to COVID, but some of it went to VFX. The people we attract. A lot of it came through LinLay Productions and Topic Studios, but the Sundance Catalyst program helped as well.
What sort of learning curve did you face once “Nanny” finally went into production?
How many people who aspire to be directors underestimate the skill set of communicating what you can see in your brain to your collaborators? That is one of the most important skill sets as a filmmaker. I could see this stuff so clearly early on. So I chose everyone I worked with so specifically.
“Nanny” portrays such a specific immigrant experience and the root of the supernatural forces that hover around the plot. How much of a passion project was it?
“Nanny” was such a labor of love for so long. It’s so specific to my culture and my mother’s story. I knew that I didn’t want to tell a straightforward genre story. I wanted to remix this story of a domestic experience with genre. A lot of the films I love do that. I wanted to remix the American immigrant experience with genre. A lot of people have a way into that — whether you were raised by a nanny or your mother was one. There were so many entry points for people.
How has your relationship to the commercial potential of your work evolved?
Luckily, as I developed this, there were questions arising about where the Black women in horror were hiding. So all of a sudden it seemed like there was an appetite for non-white male points of view in the horror realm. It was very serendipitous. In my case, I wanted to introduce African folklore to the American horror paradigm. I happen to straddle this line as an American kid raised by African parents.
The movie reminded me to some extent of Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl” with a horror twist…
I have so much reverence for Sembene. I remember seeing “Black Girl” in film school and thinking, “Whoa, wait a minute. There’s a whole history of Black films I don’t know about.”
How important is it to you to make films with entertainment value?
I never wanted to create a film as meditation. I had peers at NYU celebrated for creating meditations. I’m from a family of movie lovers. We would all congregate in the basement. My mother would literally fast-forward through the second act and watch the end of a film. I don’t want anyone to fast-forward through my second act. I want to make things that keep people’s attention and force them to think differently about the world, but not in a way that’s preachy or pedantic.
What was it like to pitch this idea to potential financiers?
The pitching process can be so debilitating, so dehumanizing. We did so many labs with “Nanny” and other projects. Once I started getting a foot in the industry with representation, the pitches took on a different form that was even more dehumanizing. People were like, “Oh, this is ‘Get Out’ meets ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ Uh, maybe if those are the only two films you’ve ever seen. You learn to whittle down your language so people could get excited about it.
How did you end up doing that?
People really latched on to “Rosemary’s Baby.” I never brought it up. You start to notice what something like that makes people think about. Once you understand it’s a means to an end, they can see your film is not actually like those things. So I started to lean into some of these comparisons, but I’d add my own flourishes. The remix is that we’re introducing creature creations. I love Guillermo del Toro, his approach to fantasy and filmmaking in general. I started to get confident in bringing him up and the way he thinks about monsters.
Now you’re represented by CAA and management company M88. How are they helping you assess your next chapter?
Yeah, so the vast majority of people don’t realize how this really works. These conversations start so early in the game that by the time you finish your feature you kind of know what your next two projects are. My next feature is — well, I don’t want to say it’s lined up, but it looks like it’s going to be a feature rendition of my vampire short film, “Suicide By Sunlight.” That was always the goal. Sometimes you have to make something that’s the slightly smaller thing you want to make. Knock on wood, there should be an announcement coming up soon. I’m also co-writing this with another screenwriter. Sundance is my introduction to the industry so we’re going to see where this goes. I want to stay in the fantasy and thriller-horror genres and create within that space.
What do you make of those commercial opportunities you noticed your peers and others taking on?
I’ve been trying to pay attention to what’s been happening with that. A lot of amazing first-timers are going from indie darling to Marvel with nothing in between that feels like they have more creative control. I think once it gets to the Marvel stage, it really is so many cooks in the kitchen — like, is it even your voice at the end of the process? But I do want to bring Storm [the character from the X-Men] to the screen. I want to direct the “Storm” movie. And I want to work with those bigger tools and budgets. But ideally my first two projects really should feel aligned with my voice before it becomes this machine. My team is prepping me for that now.
How do you feel about TV opportunities?
I want an original series. I’ve been gunning for it since I dipped my toe into the industry. Since I got management and agents I was like, “Yo, so the plan is, I want an original series based on my vampire short.” I think I’m getting closer to the goal of having an original series. Episodic seems to be where it’s at right now for retaining your power as a creator. Cinema is great and gorgeous, but this new landscape feels very serialized. I was watching “Squid Game” and thinking, “yes, this is the kind of stuff I wanna make.”
Say that loud enough and Netflix will call you.
Netflix is calling! They just need to understand that I’m not a work-for-hire director. Yet.