For Document Fall/Winter 2020, the directors discuss the complexities of the ‘Candyman’ legend and confronting the ghosts of our past to push culture forward
In February 2020, the official trailer for Nia DaCosta’s Candyman arrived, backed by a deeply disturbing remix of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name.” Beyoncé’s disembodied a cappellas are slowed to dreadful wails and spliced with fragments of Philip Glass’s original 1992 score, before everything inevitably intensifies to a cathartic slasher crescendo. (As a few astute YouTube commenters noted, Candyman’s infamous refrain—“I am… the writing on the wall”—doubles as a wink to Destiny’s Child’s second album, on which “Say My Name” appears.) But a second trailer, which DaCosta shared on her personal Twitter account months later—after cinemas had closed for the foreseeable future and historic anti-racism uprisings had calls to say their names ringing out across the country—is a heartbreaking, exquisite piece of cinema in its own right. Using only rudimentary shadow puppets and a sparse instrumental, it shows a Black artist painting the portraits of four Black people killed by white vigilantes.
The deaths are also depicted in a series of vignettes: two recounting the dual origin stories of Candyman (né Daniel Robitaille), two recalling the stories of James Byrd, Jr. and George Stinney, Jr. (The Stinney vignette is harrowing enough without a shadow puppet silhouette of the Bible the 14-year-old had to sit on because he was too tiny for the electric chair.) Then there’s the story of the painter. What is the artist’s role in recording the injustices of a world where fact and fiction coalesce, horror is everyday, and history seems to skip and repeat like a warped record?
As director Karyn Kusama says in the following conversation, DaCosta grapples with “the inescapable reality of history,” twisting the bounds of genre film to expose the false choices and inexorable forces that shape our lives in today’s world. DaCosta was born in East New York and raised in Harlem before moving to Fort Greene, a neighborhood rivaling the grounds of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project as a symbol of gentrification’s relentless sprawl. In two years, she’s gone from funding a short on Kickstarter to navigating budget talks with Marvel Studios, well aware that stepping into an existing cinematic universe isn’t a recipe for limitless creative freedom. It’s hardly a surprise that her Candyman sequel is the story of Anthony, an upwardly mobile Black artist (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) figuring out how to navigate a creative world where an unseen white elite class pulls the strings. DaCosta wields genre to explode the complexities of societal forces that are often beyond our control: police violence, gentrification, the boom-and-bust mining economy, the “industry” of art, the lack of access to safe abortion. (That Kickstarter short, Little Woods, was eventually developed into an acclaimed feature-length neo-Western about the horrors of America’s broken healthcare system.) But her focus is always the real people impacted by these inevitable, nonsensical things. “It’s not really about who does it,” she says. “It’s about the victims.”
Kusama might know better than anyone that sometimes the world really is out to get you. She was just 31 when her debut feature, Girlfight, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2000. That early success was only due to Kusama’s unremitting commitment to her project—and, despite executive demands that a white girl play the lead, to a young Michelle Rodriguez, an electric yet erratic newcomer who would only show up to set on time if she literally slept there. In the immediate aftermath, Kusama was crowned cinema’s next auteur by a rapturous Hollywood press. Over the next 15 years, she was repeatedly knocked down by the industry machine’s faceless gatekeepers, crushed by impossible budget projections and even “removed” from a film (2005’s Aeon Flux) after completing it, despite a series of logistical obstacles straight out of a psychological Spartan Death Race. Eventually, in 2016, Kusama released The Invitation—a mind-bending thriller about an awkward dinner party, where anxieties around social decorum creep into the realm of paranoia, and ghosts of the past constantly threaten to crash through the front door. In The Invitation, Kusama looks to California’s vast countercultural mythology to dissect a universal truth about the ways we attempt to process everyday horror through spiritual searching—and, yes, by joining apocalyptic New Age cults. It’s a theme she explores unflinchingly in 2019’s Destroyer, a neo-noir crime drama about a psychologically tortured LAPD detective desperately sorting through the wreckage of her past. What Kusama comes back to is the notion that past trauma isn’t something that can be escaped. Rather, as DaCosta says, it’s something “you can process and live with.”
Over Zoom, DaCosta and Kusama discuss the incredible similarities between their lives and careers, society’s obsession with creating monsters, and why personal stories can still be so transgressive today.
Karyn Kusama: I have such positive and vivid memories of the original Candyman. It’s such a singular and strange film in terms of where it falls in the horror canon, who it speaks to, and how hugely popular it was. In 2001, I taught a workshop at Brooklyn College with Tony Todd. It was the first time I had met him, and we took the train back from Flatbush—I lived in Fort Greene, and he was continuing on to Manhattan. That subway ride was so incredible. We couldn’t have a conversation because so many people kept coming up and saying, ‘Candyman!’ It was so interesting to see how much he spoke to the community, how much power that story had. For you to take the original film and create something completely new, but still refer back to that legend—really beautifully done.
Nia DaCosta: Thank you. That means so much coming from you. I’m such a huge fan of your work. I remember watching Girlfight and thinking, You can make movies like this, too!
Karyn: You went to NYU, correct?
Nia: Yeah, I went to film school at NYU for undergrad.
Karyn: Me, too.
Nia: Oh! Amazing. Are you still in New York?
Karyn: I live in LA now. I’m actually in my LA office on a deserted film lot, so I’m enjoying being somewhere that’s completely quiet. There’s literally no one on my floor right now, which is great. Do you live in New York?
Nia: I’m in Fort Greene, actually.
Karyn: Oh! Really?
Nia: Yeah. [Laughs] And I’m in my work-home office.
Karyn: What’s your street? I’m just curious.
Nia: I’m on Carlton.
Karyn: I lived on Saint Felix.
Nia: I looked at an apartment over there the other day! That’s so funny.
Karyn: Oh yeah? It’s changed so much. I moved there in ’91 or ’92, and now it’s all high-rises. It’s interesting to be talking about Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn in particular as it relates to Candyman. I was totally fascinated by the intentional or atmospheric attention you paid to the notion of gentrification as a force in culture—or as a decimating force in culture, I’m not sure exactly where you come down on it. How much of that was informing your adaptation? Because so much of the original was about Cabrini-Green.
“I wanted to talk about gentrification, because I experienced it as someone who was born in East New York but now lives in Fort Greene—as a gentrifier, kind of, you know? That’s something I always wanted to talk about—Black gentrifiers, and the complexities of it.” —Nia DaCosta
Nia: It was a huge part of the adaptation. We were like, okay, we’re making the sequel—or spiritual sequel, I can’t remember what the party line is—and we absolutely want to do this in Chicago. We want to go back to Cabrini-Green and shoot, but there’s no Cabrini-Green left. It really is an amazing space. I walked around the old row homes, which are no longer inhabited, and I looked inside, and some people’s belongings are still there. I remember seeing this red ceiling with, like, a leopard-print fan. A person was there, and now their life is somewhere else completely. It was sort of haunting, almost like being in a graveyard.
Karyn: Like seeing ghosts.
Nia: Exactly. And there’s this one strip where people still live, but it’s heavily policed. And around the Cabrini area, there are empty fields where the high-rises used to be. Then you have Target and an ArcLight down the block, so there’s all this development around it. The place itself is almost like hallowed ground. It’s like this empty, low scar. So I wanted to talk about gentrification, because I experienced it as someone who was born in East New York but now lives in Fort Greene—as a gentrifier, kind of, you know? That’s something I always wanted to talk about—Black gentrifiers, and the complexities of it.
I was watching this play called Yerma [Federico Garcîa Lorca], and there’s a joke that was like, ‘Gentrification starts with the lesbians.’ It’s, like, who can you indict first? The critic is like, ‘It’s artists’ fault.’ Then some people say, ‘It’s all the people moving in, it’s rich people, it’s this, it’s that.’ And I wanted to show that it’s sort of an inevitable force. It’s not really about who does it; it’s about the victims.
Karyn: It’s interesting that you bring up the complexity of gentrification as it relates to class. Something I found so refreshing about the movie was this notion of an underseen art community. The gallerists, the artists themselves, the culture-creators—they were upwardly mobile Black people. I don’t feel we see that very often in movies. And yet I also felt the film wasn’t entirely comfortable with saying that to be upwardly mobile means you’re on the other side of something. What I felt the film was talking about, at its core, was the inescapable reality of history.
“I think filmmakers are always asked to explain themselves if they’re looking to do something that has expressive power. It means exposing something of yourself and having to be more personal than one might want to be in a professional environment.”—Karyn Kusama
Nia: In giving Robitaille, who was an artist, and Anthony, who was an artist, parallel stories…. Well they’re not really parallel; their lives are very different. Robitaille was born free. White wealthy families love him because they love the art that he gives them. But they don’t love him. And that’s very clear when he makes the fatal mistake of falling in love with a white woman. I think that’s still the same now. We have this amazing opportunity in the film industry. So many more filmmakers of color, women of color, are making work. But at the same time, I am aware that the kind of work I am expected to make traffics in Black pain and trauma. So you’re still sort of in a box. Yes, you can be upwardly mobile. Yes, you can make money. But certain things won’t necessarily change for you because of what you do. It’s about what the rest of the world’s doing. I think that’s why stories are so important, because it’s like, Don’t forget what’s under the surface. That’s what I wanted to show.
Karyn: It’s interesting that you bring up this idea of Black trauma as something you’re expected to give special attention to. Candyman and Little Woods both felt, to me, to be about generational trauma and an abandonment of your personhood that has terrible and lasting consequences. Both films are attempting to address this idea that you cannot build communities and then just say, ‘Sorry, we’re not here for you anymore,’ on a civic level. It’s really interesting that your first feature depicts a largely white world but with a Black protagonist.
Nia: Well, Little Woods takes place [in a fictional mining town based on Williston, ND,] because I was looking for the place in America that was the most difficult, if you live there, to go and get an abortion. It happened to be Williston at the time. By the time I got to eighth grade, I was in mostly majority-white, wealthy spaces. I went to boarding school for five years, so navigating that was always really fascinating to me. I came from New York City, from a super-diverse public school. I had been in and out of private school in New York City, too, but nothing prepares you for Connecticut boarding school.
With Little Woods, I just wanted to have a Black protagonist, because I was Black and we should have more of us in movies. But I also wanted to talk about that abandonment of personhood in the context of being a Black person in an all-white space. In regards to [Tessa Thompson’s character] being someone who does so much for other people: She’s a caretaker, and caring for her mother overtook her identity, and that shifted to caring for her sister in a certain way. Throughout the movie, you see her abandon her own goals, except for getting a job. And then with Anthony in Candyman…—I mean, you give so much of your art, and I felt this as a filmmaker. Even in Candyman, all my execs were white except for Jordan [Peele], who was also writing it. So that’s also tricky when you have to explain certain things that you should not have to explain. And it usually comes down to explaining your humanity, your right for existing.
Karyn: It’s painful for me to even imagine how frequently you must have to explain yourself, and what a burden that puts on you. I see so much expressive power in your work. I think filmmakers are always asked to explain themselves if they’re looking to do something that has expressive power. It means exposing something of yourself and having to be more personal than one might want to be in a professional environment.
Nia: Have you felt like you have to be more personal than perhaps you’d like to be in your work?
Karyn: Absolutely. I had to talk about the notion of souls and how that might resonate for me when I was pitching myself for Aeon Flux, which was a movie I didn’t expect to get. Or the idea of toxic friendships between women in a patriarchy, when I was pitching myself for Jennifer’s Body. I also wasn’t expecting to get that job. With every film—with The Invitation and with Destroyer—I had to talk about why I had to tell it, and so frequently that had to do with my relationship to grief or my relationship to rage, and it meant I had to put myself out there in this way. But I think you must face a unique challenge as a Black woman. It’s sort of this extra burden to assert the need for the story. And I’m sure that gets really fucking tiresome sometimes.
“So many more filmmakers of color, women of color, are making work. But at the same time, I am aware that the kind of work I am expected to make traffics in Black pain and trauma. So you’re still sort of in a box.”—Nia DaCosta
Nia: Yeah. It was kind of an exhausting experience, in ways. In other ways, it was—you know, I had support from Jordan [Peele], but also, I was 29 for most of the making of the film—
Karyn: Goddamn you.
Nia: [Laughing] Honestly, I don’t know how this all happened. But being a young woman, being Black, people talk to you in crazy ways. It’s truly an outrage. [When we shot] the end of the film, that day on set, I was actually in a rage, which for me is just calmly looking like I’m on fire. I felt so invested in the safety not just of my characters, and the expression of them, but also of my people, you know? I was a little surprised at how traumatic making this movie was.
Karyn: It’s like you can’t escape the pain. It’s the imagery that becomes almost pornographic the more we see it.
Nia: Exactly, and that’s something that I don’t want to lean into, frankly.
Karyn: Something I thought was so effective [about Candyman] was the use of mirrors to keep the audience paying attention. As a horror gesture, it was incredibly effective and, in the best way, scary, playful, and visually exciting.
But I also thought it had a real power in that we’re watching characters interrogated by the mirror, or threatened by it. It seemed like it had something to do with this idea of escaping one’s history and past into fame, into celebrity, and not quite being able to do it.
Nia: There’s something with having to confront the self that I find very evocative with mirrors. The mirror also represents this unending continuation that you can’t escape, but you can process and live with. But not in this movie, because no one was in therapy in this movie, and that would have been helpful. [Laughs]
“Conflict is necessary in some respects to defining the vision, but what ends up being at stake every time is the notion of like, Who dreams the dream? So much of what we do is creating fantasy realms on a screen for this audience in the dark, and there are moments where you have to say, ‘This is my dream, so let me dream it.’”—Karyn Kusama
Karyn: I’m curious to hear from you in terms of your cinematic history and influences. I love meeting other women who just right out of the gate are making genre films because, in some ways, I think those are the most culturally relevant films. Was that something you had set out to do? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition? Are you rejecting a tradition?
Nia: Absolutely purposefully. After Little Woods, I was like, ‘I need to do a genre film,’ because my worst nightmare was being at Sundance and there’s a female director and they’re like, ‘Eight years ago, she made her first film and now she’s finally back!’ I don’t know what I’d be doing in those eight years that’s not making a movie. Also, I think being young and naive, I was like, ‘I just need to make a movie all the time,’ you know? But I also knew I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed into being a drama director.
Karyn: I see Little Woods as a genre film, personally.
Nia: Right, that was purposeful too, wanting to have these thriller elements and lean into the Western. Those are the movies that I’m really a fan of—the ones that are dramatic, strong, and have amazing character work and performances, but are also exciting to watch. Dog Day Afternoon was hugely impactful for me when I was in high school because it talks about our world. The form’s so amazing, the characters, and also I was like, Are they going to get out of there? [Laughs] And that’s important. I think that’s why those movies are probably the most culturally relevant, because people watch them, one, but also they really wrap you in an experience and they make you think on a multidimensional level, without maybe noticing. I feel that way about Jennifer’s Body, actually. I love that movie so much, and I love that recently it has this little renaissance happening. I’m always on Twitter, and I’m seeing everyone being like, ‘Can we talk about Jennifer’s Body?
Karyn: As a filmmaker, I feel like if I’m not mildly terrified by something about what I’m working on, then what am I doing it for? You need to have that sense of jumping into the void. What kind of work feels like that for you?
Nia: I’m working on a musical right now. Actually, that was crazy but really fun. I think I worry that I’m not funny as a writer. So an actual comedy feels insane. Like, that feels completely ridiculous. I think it’s hard because, with drama, or thrillers, I rely on being honest, in a way. Whereas in comedy, it’s hard for me to figure out. I think that’s a genre I probably will not step into.
Karyn: As someone who has, already, clearly a strong cinematic voice, how do you navigate the collective voices that help get films made?
Nia: I think this movie was unique in that I had another filmmaker, another director, kind of a celebrity genius. Honestly, one of the first days I was there, someone offhandedly was like, ‘Yeah, Jordan’s kind of a genius.’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to be honest. I don’t really like that word because it’s really difficult to navigate.’ I think I had to get over my inability to trust my voice over another voice.
“Sometimes you just need to be heard, and you have to be the loudest voice in the room. Being reasonable is not gonna do it…growing up in very white environments, as a Black woman, it’s like, I need to be reasonable all the time. It definitely affected the way I interact especially in a very white industry.”—Nia DaCosta
Karyn: But what an incredible moment for you to instinctively advocate for yourself and say, ‘If you’re gonna get me to do my job, I can’t keep being put in the room with a crushing genius.’ How incredible that you had the stealth strength just coming out of your mouth. I love that. But that’s why they hired you. To speak for yourself, you know? I’ve had so many dustups with executives and actors. It’s an inevitable part of the process. Conflict is necessary in some respects to defining the vision, but what ends up being at stake every time is this notion of like, Who dreams the dream? So much of what we do is creating fantasy realms on a screen for this audience in the dark, and there are moments where you have to say, ‘This is my dream, so let me dream it.’ It’s really hard for people who are invested in the dream with you to let go. In my more merciful moments, I look at it like we’re just arguing about how the dream progresses. But it’s still highly charged and incredibly personal.
Nia: I actually was thinking one day, Wow, I understand directors who scream. Sometimes you just need to be heard, and you have to be the loudest voice in the room. Being reasonable is not gonna do it. I think also growing up in very white environments, as a Black woman, it’s like, I need to be reasonable all the time. It definitely affected the way I interact, especially in a very white industry.
Karyn: It’s funny because it kind of comes back to Candyman. You reimagined that film and imagined that rage has a place in our discussion about the progression of culture. We’re so afraid of it. We’re particularly afraid of it from women and Black people. I felt like your film was saying, ‘We need to make room for this. We can’t keep encouraging reasonableness. Look where it’s gotten us.’