Executive Producer Tessa Thompson on the Female Energized Set of DaCosta’s Little Woods
Little Woods, the first feature from writer/director Nia DaCosta began at the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab. Starring Tessa Thompson (who also produced the film) and Lily James, the film centers on the impact of the opioid crisis for dealers, users, and those dependent on the pharmaceutical drug to live better lives. As Thompson and DaCosta workshopped the script, DaCosta knew she wanted the actress to be in the final film. She agreed, and the film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Set in an oil town near the Canadian border in North Dakota, Ollie (Thompson) would run between two countries to get cheaper medicine for her dying mother. Eventually, she began selling the extra pills to pay for housing expenses. Then, she fell in love with the game. Her sister, Deb (James) lives in a trailer she found in a superstore parking lot. Deb struggles to raise her adolescent son by herself when she learns she’s pregnant. Together, the sisters work to patch up their past and fight for a better future in this picturesque western. We Live Entertainment say down with DaCosta and Thompson to learn what it was like for the women to work together, screening the film for rural audiences, and sisterhood.
Monique: Talk to me about what it was like working with one another at the lab and bringing this film to theaters around the country.
DaCosta: I think for me the development process was so much about focusing on the core of the story and stripping away everything else. The center of the story is the sisterhood and their estrangement. At the (Sundance) lab is where we really began to excavate that relationship.
Thompson: Yeah, it meant that some characters got axed. (Laughs)
DaCosta: I remember there was this one character we had. I mentioned to Tessa one day that I missed him. She said, “I don’t.” (Laughs)
Thompson: It was about streamlining. What was remarkable to me is that Nia asked me to do the film on our third day at the labs. I feel like we developed a shorthand, the ability to offer critique and have it be met with openness. I felt like we both had that in spade with each other. I could say, “Hey, this isn’t really working for me.” And you could say, “Hey, when you do that…you know, don’t.” (Laughs) It was just a familiarity that we had early on that I think is a gift and makes for real honest collaboration that stretches you so you can both grow.
Monique: Tessa, you not only acted in the film you also executive produced. What led you to that decision?
Thompson: Just in terms of my career, it’s so easy to feel, as an actor, like a cog in something moving. For me, it’s always paramount to tell stories on a macro level. I’m probably a thorn in people’s side on set. Everything that’s there is important to me. So I’m always asking, “What’s this doing here? That seems weird.” I’m a meddler. It’s hard for me to be insular about story-telling. I’ve realized that about myself, and it probably means I want to be a producer. I want to have a hand in building something from the ground up. My whole career I’ve been fortunate to work with first-time directors that are brilliant and auteurs and go on to do incredible things.
For me, it’s a gift to get to be there early on. I sensed that with Nia immediately upon meeting her at the labs. I was attracted to the project, first and foremost, because of her. Then, I think, like Nia was saying earlier, the sisterhood really brought me into the piece. I have three sisters. I understand the complexity of those relationships and how important they are. Young people having to deal with diversity inside a family dynamic and their sisterhood is anchoring, that really resonated with me. Also, talking about poverty with nuance. You understand the choices that people are willing to make because of their circumstances. Getting to humanize those stories really resonated with me.
Monique: When we tell stories of the heartland, people of color are often not mentioned. We’re only now starting to see narrative stories on the opioid crisis. Why did you want to bring these two narratives together, Nia?
DaCosta: My initial kernel was to tell stories about rural women living in poverty. I grew up poor. Part of my reckoning was to realize the relative privilege I had growing up in New York City. I still had resources. I could walk to the hospital, or take a train to Planned Parenthood, or do many things relative to living in a progressive city. Then, because I’m a woman of color, I’m Black, I wanted my lead to be Black. Then, because of the place that I expected to tell the story, in North Dakota, I had to deal with the oil boom. So, there was no way I could just make this a story about health care, or just make this a movie about oil, or race. It was less about me drawing these issues in, and more about me having to share an honest representation of what I saw.
Monique: Have you had an opportunity to screen this in rural America? What have been some of the reactions?
DaCosta: Thanks to Indiana University Cinema Program, which is awesome, we were able to screen it in Bloomington. Which, isn’t necessarily rural, but they were able to take the film to three communities in Indiana that were currently dealing with the opioid crisis. I wasn’t able to go to those screenings, but we also had some film festival screening at small regional festivals and screenings around the United States. The feedback we’ve been getting back on Twitter and social media is really encouraging. Even my friend, who’s Canadian, commented, “I thought you really captured the vibe of border trash.” It’s been really great, but also heartbreaking because (what’s depicted in the film) is such a hard life. To see people feel themselves be reflected in that is gratifying (because we got their story right), but the fact that it exists is…you know.
Monique: There are so many incredible women involved in the creation of this film, both on screen and behind the camera. Can you talk a little bit about the difference in working on female energized set as opposed to a masculine dominated set?
Thompson: It was so exciting to work with Lily. She was just coming off of Darkest Hour. I don’t want to speak for her, but I feel like she’s said this before in the press…
DaCosta: She has. Yeah.
Thompson: It was really empowering to get to work with so many young women, and to get to work on something current, not something that’s period. Obviously, she has such an illustrious career and has been able to do a lot. But, to get to work with your contemporaries felt really powerful. For me, it can be really easy to be otherized. So often, I have been the only woman inside of an experience or one of a handful of women. But on this set, to look around and see all the producers, to see a crew with lots of women, to have a woman at the helm, and to do all of the scenes and frequently be across from another woman and it just felt normalized.
It wasn’t noteworthy. It’s only when we’re talking about the film that it becomes noteworthy. That experience felt like sighing. Obviously, we’re having so many conversations, not just around gross abusive power, but also the power imbalance inside of the industry. Though we filmed this before most of the accusations came out, it allowed me to unpack the way that I move through space. I felt such a tremendous amount of agency, which was due, in huge part, to Nia and the way she works.
On that set, it wasn’t hard to be able to speak my mind and give my opinion. I knew I was always going to be respected. Living through that experience, I realized how many of my prior experiences working were gendered. I didn’t feel agency. I would have to command that. Doing so can be challenging and taxing. Inside of this experience, we were dealing with subject matters that were so hard, but the experience of making the film felt easier.
DaCosta: The thing about that, too, is I definitely didn’t want that to be a struggle. We’re already doing an independent film. We’re truly on our own. We didn’t have any help from a studio. The last thing I wanted to do to my actors, my crew or my self was to create ego driven nonsense. But also I have had the experience of walking (onto sets) that aren’t my own and hearing, “This woman is difficult to work with.” Then, I work with her, and it’s wonderful. At the end of the day, she’ll tell me, “This is one of the greatest days I’ve had shooting.” It clicked with me. Like, oh! You guys weren’t treating her like a person. It’s so weird to contextualize it in that way because there are men and directors I love working with who will say things like that. They just haven’t interfaced in a meaningful way. I value giving agency to my actors and crew in a valuable way.