"Filmmaking and 'The Young Wife'" SwatTalk
with Tayarisha Poe '12
Recorded on Thursday, April 28, 2022
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Good evening, everyone. Welcome to SwatTalk. My name is Brandy Monk-Payton. I am class of 2007, and a member of the Alumni Council. We are thrilled to have with us today, Tayarisha Poe, class of 2012, who will be discussing her new feature film entitled "The Young Wife". For those who aren't familiar with SwatTalk, it's an awesome initiative brought to you by the Swarthmore Alumni Council that engages the broader Swarthmore community in seminars featuring a variety of folks across industries who excel in their field and are willing to share their knowledge and experience. This session will be recorded, and you will be able to find it on the SwatTalks' recordings webpage, along with previous events within two to three weeks. For tonight, we will hear from Tayarisha about her work for the first half, and then have the second half of our time together for a Q and A. You can submit your questions using the chat feature. Please share your name and class year if applicable. So with that said, let me introduce our guest speaker, Tayarisha Poe. She is a storyteller from west Philly who believes that all stories are inherently multi-sensory and multi-dimensional, and thus, should be told that way. She was chosen as one of the 25 New Faces by Filmmaker Magazine in 2015. And in 2016, she received the Sundance Institute's Knight Foundation Fellowship. In 2017, she was selected for the January Sundance Screenwriters Lab, as well as the June Sundance Directors Lab. She was also a 2017 Pew Fellow. Notably, she is the writer and director of "Selah and the Spades", which was released on Amazon Prime in April 2020. So without further ado, here is Tayarisha.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Hello. Thank you, Brandy. What a great introduction. I haven't heard my bio read out loud in a little while, or that particular bio. And I feel like I wrote that when I was, I guess I probably wrote it in, like, 2018, maybe 2019. And it feels like so many years have passed since then. It's so thrilling to be on this digital space, this digital stage. I have to confess that when they asked me to do a SwatTalk, I didn't really understand that that meant that you were gonna talk for, like, half an hour. And in true, that's not the first time that I've been thrown off by something that Swarthmore was asking me to do, nor is it the first or the last time that I will be unprepared for what Swarthmore asks me to do. So I'm used to it. It's good. Years of Swarthmore prepared me for this moment. I thought that I could just talk about kind of where my head is at right now. I'm in a very weird space. I'm in a very weird frame of mind. And I say weird even though that's vague. I just want to make this my primary view. How do I make myself the view? So I'm in a very weird space right now. I just finished production on my second feature film, "The Young Wife", which is a story about a young woman named Celestina who's in her late twenties, and it's the day of her wedding, and she just quit her job. So that's basically the story. And it unfolds in this over the course of this one day, a Saturday in December where it's weirdly warm, and there's a large thunderstorm moving in, and the world is collapsing, and capitalism is destroying her future, and all of these sorts of things are on her mind. So we just wrapped production for that at the end of March, the beginning of April, end of March. And I took a week off. And then after that, I basically jumped right into the edit. I'm editing here in New York and Manhattan. When you make a film, when you make a feature film, at least in my experience, I have found that who you are when you're, especially if you're writing it and directing it, who you are when you're writing it versus who you are when you're directing it versus who you are when you're editing it versus who you are when you're promoting it, it's all a very different self. And so, right now, I feel like after I wrapped, I had to readjust to being a civilian. Because also, when you're making a film, you exist in this weird bubble of space, and time, and communication where you're half a soldier and half in a cult, essentially. So first, I had to, it's the process of trying to adjust to being a civilian again, and not being a director, but just being a person in a life with relationships with lots of people, and living in reality, as opposed to this fictional landscape. And then after that, I had to transition over into editing self so I could be fully present in this post-production landscape. And what I mean when I say that they're different selves is that when you're writing, everything is possible, everything is possible. Everything that you write on the page could potentially come to be an actuality when you actually make this movie. And also, everything that you're writing is really a, at least this is how I write. Obviously I can only really speak to my experience as a writer and a director, but when I'm writing, everything that goes on to the page is sort of a product of you, and a product of your own head, and a product of whatever you're going through at that time in your life. No matter what the story is about, it is very much a product of you, from my point of view. And then when you enter into this stage of directing, it's like you're inviting all of these people to take this thing away from you. And you're inviting all of these people to agree to come on board, essentially, as co-storytellers for this story that, until this point, has just been you, and yourself, and your head, and your ideas, and your thoughts, and your emotions. And so, directing is really more about being a collaborator. It's more about being a part of a team. It's about leading a team. It's about taking something that is just potential and trying to make it actual with people. And so, I really believe that when you write something that you're going to go on to direct, it's so important to take a moment to try to separate yourself from the work, separate yourself from the words on a page so that you can treat them just like they're words on a page. And when you're in the midst of a scene that's not working anymore, you can throw those words out and come up with something new. I think that that separation of self from the work created is definitely something that's really important for being a good director. Because it's not that you're asking people to come and make this hard, difficult, arduous thing with you because of you. You're not asking them to do it because of your ego or yourself, but you're asking them believe in this idea. You're asking them to believe in this story. And that's why I say that it's kind of like being a part of a cult because you sort of have to create this sense of allegiance for something that doesn't exist, except for it's just a figment of your imagination, literally. So the fun part of directing is that it stops being a figment of your imagination. And through this act of collaboration, it becomes something real, something tangible. But even then, that's just one stage of a film. That's one stage of a thing. Because after that, when you leave production and you leave this bubble of art making, and collaboration, and people, you kind of just most likely go into a room with one other person for 10 weeks and edit. So you can't really, at least for me, I can't be in the same state of mind that's constantly juggling 60 people's egos on a day-to-day basis in order to make sure that the whole ship is kind of running smoothly. And not just smoothly, but that the whole ship is running in such a way where exciting accidents can happen. So it's not just enough for me as a director to make sure that we're getting everything that's on the page. I feel like that's not even the bare minimum of being what I think of as a good director. I feel like that's being bad at your job. I feel like being a good director, at least the sort of director that I want to be and that I always strive to be, means being able to take what's on the page as just like, again, something potentially that could happen. And I think that being a good director, in part, is about making what's on the page a lot better. And that's, again, why it's important to separate the ego from the artwork so that you can understand that you, the writer, has, sure, great ideas, but also ideas that will never be shot or should never actually be shot, and can just be thrown out before you get to the point of producing them. Anyway, so then, now that I'm in edit brain, and it's just me and Kate, my friend and editor, in this room with two windows, we used to have no windows in our room, but we switched offices recently. When you're editing, again, this is the way I like to do it. When I'm editing a project, I kind of like to pretend that the script doesn't exist and that the footage that we're collaging together to create this final film, it is its own thing. And I try to divorce myself from the script even more. And I also try to divorce myself from the feeling of making the thing, because there are so many scenes, so many setups that you spent half of a production day on and, like, tens of thousands of dollars, and in the moment in the edit, you're watching the scene back and you realize we don't really need this moment. We don't really need this scene. We don't need this sequence and we have to cut it for the benefit of the story at large. And it hurts to do that, but it's necessary. And I think that it just makes the story better. So now that I'm in that editing state of mind and divorcing myself from those other selves, I'm just thinking about what's coming next, kind of. I find that when I'm at this stage on any project, when I'm in the post-production stage, I can't help but just kind of obsess over what's going to be the next thing, which involves a lot of writing. Which makes sense, because I think that editing a film is akin to writing something else in a way that I don't think that I would really work on two writing projects at the same time, but I don't know. Maybe I would. Who knows? So right now, I'm a little bit, I'm just a little bit, honestly, I'm thinking a lot about luck these days. I think that making a film, an independent film, particularly in this day and age with every single studio getting merged into another studio, and every distribution house getting merged with another one, and there being, like, three agencies, it's really difficult to get a film made. And so, I do feel very lucky to not only make the first one, but to be in a position to, or to quickly get into a position to make my second one, and to now be in the edit on my second. But I do find that the process of creating my second film, being in production on my second film, I found that because I was working with a lot of the same collaborators from my first film, "Selah and the Spades", I found that the experimentation came quicker, and we were much more eager to try things that we kind of thought would fail. I think it was more interesting for my collaborators and I to attempt to do things that seemed impossible than to just do things that we knew would look good, and feel good, and would make an okay movie. I think that it's more interesting to just try things. I think that because filmmaking and because the industry can feel, the industry of Hollywood feels very driven by capital and by commerce, as opposed to driven by art, it can be really easy to forget to experiment 'cause there's a lot of oversight and there's a lot of people with watchful eyes giving you X millions of dollars, and they have a lot of thoughts and opinions about what you're doing. And because of that, I do find that it's been really useful to be surrounded by collaborators who just are as excited to try weird things and as excited to just look at things sideways, as excited as I am to do those things. Because I think that what you really need is a team committed to experimentation in the process of filmmaking, especially narrative filmmaking, especially narrative feature filmmaking, especially narrative feature, commercial filmmaking. You need a team around you that's willing to and excited to experiment in order to create something that doesn't just feel boring. And again, this is because I'm in the edit. Lately, I feel as though every movie that I watch, almost every movie that I watch, every show that I watch, they all unfold like the pages of a book. Everything is just flipping, page one, page two, page three. Everything's going A, B, C, D, E, F, G. And it feels like there's gotta be a different way for us to imagine films unfolding. I mean, obviously, there are obviously people have tried many things, but it does feel like, lately in the edit, I've been asking myself what a movie would look like if movies hadn't really been a thing for the past 125 years, and we just sort of started making them today. How would we make movies then? How would we make films without the expectations of film and the expectations of cinema? Yeah, those are the things on my mind. What is going to happen to film in the future? Honestly, I've got a lot of things in my mind. I know a bunch of people who were fired from Netflix today in their marketing department. There's a lot of interesting things happening on the business side of the film industry right now that are going to have unknown, but large effects on the creative side of the industry. That's why so many independent filmmakers go on to make Marvel movies. Not that there's anything wrong with Marvel. Actually, I think there might be something a little bit wrong with the way that Marvel, well, whatever. But that's why so many people go on to big Marvel movies now. It's because that's how you can pay your bills. And so many people have debt, student loan debt, medical debt, whatever, all this kind of debt that they have to take care of. And I do think that, I read recently some quote, I don't remember if it was Jim Jarmusch or something like that, who said that "Rent is killing art." And I think that that can just be applied to debt at large, as kind of killing art. So these are things that are on my mind as I edit my second feature film and begin to write my third one. I feel like maybe we can start discussing some things.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you so much for really being vulnerable with us. That you're in this kind of weird head space and it's been a whirlwind experience. I've never made a film, but I can only imagine as you've sort of been describing these different selves that come out at different parts of the process, From being on set and directing and collaborating, to being in a more isolated experience with the editing, and then you'll move on to these other spaces where you will have to then promote and put up a different kind of image.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Totally different vibe.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Nice to sort of hear you talk about that, and then all of the issues that you raised about the industry now, I think are really salient, and I would love to get into a conversation about that too. But given your rich presentation, I do want to let the audience know that you can certainly put questions in the chat feature, or I think there's also a Q and A feature that you can start developing your questions right now as we start this conversation. Please, questions. So I guess I'll start though. I guess I kind of want to go back to this process and the way in which you transition from an idea in your head to the idea on the page. And so, which is also to say, can you tell us a little bit more about your inspiration for "The Young Wife", and then just in general, your process of thinking and imagining, and then how that gets written down?
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Honestly, most of the stories that I write come from one kernel. It's very interesting to trace that thread back to its beginning. 'Cause it's almost always, like, somebody says a sentence, or I see an image and I can't get rid of that image, or I can't get that sentence out of my head, and it plays over and over, or I have to write it down or take a picture, and that starts the journey. For "The Young Wife", there's just so many people getting married around me. I'm married and I love being married. I love my husband, rather, more accurately. I think that marriage, especially like heterosexual marriage, especially in America, there is this weird, and this is the thing that I started to notice, when people find out that you're a wife, there's like this light that goes out in their eyes. But when people find out that George, my husband, is a husband, there's like this light that turns on. And so, it's just that experience and seeing that happen not just to me, but to so many other women who I'd known as individuals. And as full people with full ideas and full selves before they got married, the way that I saw that happen to them as well, that sort of spurned this, or started this movie, "The Young Wife". And then for my first film, which is called "Selah and the Spades", And it's about this girl at this boarding school, and she runs. It's like a mob movie, but set at a boarding school, basically. And that started because I was working a job after college, and I just don't like working jobs. I just don't like jobs. I'm just not good at them. I'm really not. I can't show up anywhere on time. And I don't really like the rules of offices. I didn't really understand office culture that much. I was walking down the street in Swarthmore, actually, and there's this, I don't remember what the street is called, but there's like, it's across the street from the train station, but also across the street now from the Swarthmore hotel, or inn, or whatever. There used to be this little hardware store. And there was this girl leaning against the hardware store one day, just watching something far away, and I couldn't see what she was watching. And this image of this girl in the middle of the day just chilling against the hardware store not really minding anybody's business but her own, I just started to get this idea of like, what if there was this girl who did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted and never suffered any consequences? So it's like little bits and things that inspire me to tell a story. But I feel like, honestly, life is about, this is gonna sound so cliche, I can't even believe I started this sentence by saying "life is about", but I feel like life is about just staying present and being aware of the things that are going on around you. And not just being aware of them, but being interested in the things that are going on around you, and the people who are around you, and the activity around you. And I feel like there's always so many things just happening. And there's always so much to just trigger something in your head that makes you go, "Oh, that would be such a good story." And that's usually how I start, just by paying attention.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Awesome. I love that kind of observational sort of standpoint. We have a couple of questions. So I'll go first to the chat feature. Dina, class of '13, says, "How much did COVID impact your production process?" And then, "What were some of the biggest lessons you learned and carry with you after the process of directing and writing 'Selah and the Spades'?"
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Good questions. Obviously COVID was annoying for us all. COVID has changed, for years, has changed the way the arts and entertainment industry has operated. And so, like every other industry, like every other person in the world, except for the ones, rest in peace, who lost their lives, I feel like, basically, everything got pushed back two years. And so, we were to go on this film last fall, but because of COVID stuff, we ended up pushing. And then the holidays, yada, yada. So it wasn't that bad because, for the most part, I was writing, luckily, but it did push our production a couple of times, actually, COVID stuff. And then the production itself, you get tested every single day. And then some days, we took two tests every single day of production. So that ate, like, a million dollars out of our budget. So there's all of these things that impacted.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Hard on your nose too, hard on your nose.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Yeah, it is more importantly, hard on your nose. And then what are things that I took? What did I take from? I mean, so much. That was my first film. I'm gonna carry the lessons from that onto everything. I've carried the lessons from that onto everything that I do. I think the biggest thing that I realized, which I didn't understand before I directed my feature, my first one is that, honestly, a director's job is just to keep the vibes pretty good, and also to just say they don't know when they don't know something. I think that a lot of directors would save a lot of people a lot of time if, and I feel like I can say this because I also worked as a stills photographer on other director sets. So I've seen a lot of directors work, and I've seen things that I've loved, that I've learned from, and things that I'm like, "I would never do it that way." But it's not my set, and whatever. Directors would save a lot of people a lot of time if rather than leading from a place of ego and feeling like you need to know everything and you need to be the ultimate authority, if we all just admitted when we don't know, and when we're just ready to solicit ideas from our brilliant collaborators and brainstorm things together, it also just makes the environment more exciting. So I think that might be the biggest lesson that I learned.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Great. So we have a question from the amazing Rodney Evans, who says, "Congrats on the second film, Tayarisha. Is your editor working as you were shooting and then presenting you with an editor's cut first?" And then he also says, "I'm also interested in the idea that you'd be writing a new film while editing 'The Young Wife', since I as a filmmaker, I'm always thinking about the different vantage points of what can happen in the story I'm editing."
Tayarisha Poe ’12 That's interesting. Hi, Rodney. So good to hear from you, hello. What a great, great professor, but that's aside the point. Yeah, she was kind of working and assembling. And we worked together on some shows as well. So she's assembled as I've been directing, and had a cut to go by the time I'm finished, basically, or by the time I get to start my director's cut. But for this one, she half had an assembly together because the movie, it's really expressionistic. It's very, for lack of a better word, fucking poetic, I guess. I don't know. So there's very many ways, and we always knew this, me and my other department heads, we always knew from the very beginning that everything would end up being collaged together, but that it's written just in a regular script, A, B, C, D format. So because of that, she only pieced together the things that were sort of just normal, I guess. And then the other things we've really been building it together. But there are so many times that I just like, I'll leave the edit for, like, three hours and I'm like, "This is my idea. I don't know if it's gonna work. You're brilliant, try something, I don't know." And she loves that because she's an editor and that's what she does, and she's so amazing at it. I like using my director's cut time to still be working with Kate's edit because we think so much alike and we worked together before, so it feels really natural to work that way. I think it's because in the first drafts of what I write, I tend to not write them as scripts. I almost always write them as just like prose, short stories, almost like novellas, basically. And so, because of that, I feel like it helps me to separate at the new thing from the thing that I'm working on in the edit. Because in edit, at that point, or by the time I'm in post, it's all visual and sound. It's all this other dimension. It's not just words on a page. So it feels so different, different vibes. Also, whatever I'm working on next is never tonally or plot wise related to what I'm working on now. So that helps too.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you. We have another question from the chat. Kaylin asks, "Thank you for your authenticity, it's inspiring. Is there a book that you think should never be made into a movie? That is, it can't be done better as a movie. And if so, what book and why?
Tayarisha Poe ’12 That's a good question. Ugh. So there's this book, actually, that I was going to adapt called "Oreo" by Fran Ross. I love it so much. I think I first read it, oh, I did, I first read it at Swarthmore. My friend and boyfriend at the time gave me a copy of it. He's brilliant, but whatever. But the book, it's really good. It's one of my favorites. I always said when I was in school, if I ever become a filmmaker, I'm gonna make this into a movie. And then I got the opportunity to try. And that was like, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, I actually think that some things don't need to be movies. Some things are just better in the written format. And that was a very eye opening experience for me because it felt so clearly like it would work perfectly as a visual. I worked on this other book, turning this other book into a series, and that book was more poetic and there's barely any dialogue in it. But that, I found to be really easy to translate into a visual. But "Oreo", there's something about the tone of the language on the page and the way that the text on the page, the way the text is even laid out that feels so important to the way you interpret the story, that it felt cheap to try to visualize that. I think that there are some things that the best visualization you have is your brain. And I sound like my mom when I say that, but it's true. Sometimes your brain is better than whatever actually could possibly exist in front of you.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah, that's so interesting. I bet you could adapt it. I thought that way about Nella Larsen's "Passing".
Tayarisha Poe ’12 That was pretty good.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 And it's a really kind of interesting way to adapt something, that in my mind, was never able to sort of do that kind of visual work. I have a question about the resonances, if any, in terms of style or narrative there are between your first feature and your upcoming second. Do you have motifs? Are there things, narrative choices, styles of filmmaking that you sort of see now as like a pattern, something that you're kind of invested in putting your, I don't want to use the word auteur, but putting your stamp on something?
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Yeah, thank you. That's a good question. Definitely. And the more I edit, the more I'm like, "Oh my God, this is just like 'Selah'." And it's like, when that happens in my writing and in the visual thing itself, at first, when I noticed that happening, I felt this feeling of like, oh, well then I have to change it. I have to make it different. I have to not copy myself. And then I realized that that's just what people will do. You're supposed to copy. That's how a style develops, is by copying yourself and taking the things that you liked and making them better in the next draft or whatever you do. So realizing that was really useful for me. And from "Selah" to this one, there's definitely the repetition of several motifs. I think though, that in "Selah", we were very restrained in how we told the story. We developed this style, this visual style that we thought of as savage formalism, because we wanted to approach this beautiful world, and these beautiful people, and these beautiful clothes, this beautiful, lush landscape through the eyes of somebody who was very over the beauty and very just uninterested in the beauty itself, and wanted to see what that world would look like through her point of view. And so, the way we shot it was very reserved. Lots of still tableaus, and then a piece of action moving in, moving through it. And I think that there was also a power to doing that because it was a story about teenage girls. And I think that people tend to not take teenage girls seriously, or rather, tend to expect frivolity from stories about them. But I remember when I was a teenage girl, I didn't really feel frivolous about anything. It felt very serious to me. And it felt serious for the right reasons. It felt serious because it was this intense, emotional situation that I was experiencing for the first time, whatever it was. You're experiencing so many things for the first time as a teenager. So because of all those reasons, we were so much more reserved with how we shot it and more reserved with the music used in it. And it just felt so appropriate, again, because ultimately, it's a mob movie, and that's what it was calling to. That's what I was inspired by. But for this one, it's like the opposite. When I write adults, I feel like I must think that adults, they're not put together. They don't know what they're doing. Whereas kids, it's like because you don't understand all the ways the world will screw you over, you do feel more put together in many ways than adults. Your brain feels like, like 17 years, there's only so much that you could have done in those 17 years 'cause it's only 17 years. But by the time you're 36, it's like, "Fuck, I've had my 17 years kind of upended over itself without meaning to, and I don't know how I got here. What am I doing with my life?" And that's at 36. So I feel like when I write stories about adults, they're much more erratic. That's why the story for "The Young Wife", it feels so much more expressionistic. And that's why we keep using the language of collage, and poetry, which is interesting because in the edit, I keep feeling like I'm returning to the things that I liked about making movies or making media when I was in school, because it feels more experimental and it feels more like playing.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah. Dina asks, "Do you have a favorite character in 'The Young Wife?' Why, and how do you approach the development of a character in your films?"
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Yeah, I do have a favorite character. His name is Dave. I don't want to say anything more than that, but that's my favorite character. He's so funny. That's the other thing, this movie's kind of funny. "Selah and the Spades" was funny, but it was funny in a way where it's like, "Ha ha, oh, people might die." I don't know. It was like a different kind of funny, but this movie is, there's a ton of comedians cast in it, so it's just a funnier film from frame to frame. Dave's one of my favorite characters. How do I approach?
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 The development of a character.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 I definitely steal details from people who I've known in my whole entire life, but I think that that's normal. That's like in your dreams of what do you expect a dream about, except stuff and people that you might know? So I definitely do that, steal stuff from my own life. But I also just, again, pay attention to the world around you. There's so much going on around you at all times. There are so many people having living their own wild lives all around you. So many main characters walking around. And I do love that. I like just going to the park, basically, on the weekend and seeing all the different groups that gather there, and all the group dynamics. I love observing group dynamics of people that I don't know, and trying to guess their relationship with each other. I just take from the real world.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Great. And I guess, how did your time at Swarthmore help shape your artistic voice?
Tayarisha Poe ’12 I was thinking about this earlier. Why was I thinking about this? I was thinking about Fernando. I don't know why I was thinking about Fernando. I should call him. But I was thinking about a friend from Swarthmore earlier today, which made me think about, "Oh, I wonder how Swat," because, oh, that's what it was, that's what it was. I'm reading this book, "Sculpting in Time" by Tarkovsky. And as I'm reading it, I'm like, "This feels so familiar to me. I feel like I must have read this at some point." And then I realized I almost definitely had to have read it at Swarthmore. There's no way that I didn't have to read at least part of this book to graduate with a film degree.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 That's so funny.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Then I made me think like, "Oh wow, there's all these books and movies, and just ideas lately that now that I'm in my thirties working on my second film, that I've been gravitating towards and learning from." And it's all this stuff that I definitely had to have been exposed to at school, but I just was not paying attention. I just wasn't paying attention at all. People go to college too young, that's what I think. But I wasn't paying attention, but it feels like I learned it through osmosis and just having really fantastic professors and really amazing classmates around me, because that stuff, it's like infused into me. And it's like in the way that I tell stories, and in the way that I think about filmmaking, and in the way that I approach jobs, any job that I take, it's all those people are a part of me, those things that we learned there. But I do, I honestly think that the most important thing I learned at Swarthmore was just social intelligence. Being able to just live with your friends. I went to boarding school for high school. And so, it felt like an extension of that world, but with fewer rules and, honestly, less responsibilities. We were stacked in high school. Not that Swarthmore was easy, but it wasn't. It definitely influenced me, but I don't think that it influenced me immediately. I think some things, you just gotta know about them, and then they have to stew for a while for them to matter to you at all.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 That totally makes sense. And also, I think with Swarthmore, your commitment to taking risks, and experimentation, and that's all sort of exploratory Swarthmore as well.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Oh yeah, definitely. Because I did film, and I think it was before they were a department yet, so they're still like a program, I remember I made a special major in film and English or something, in photography. And so, I was able to do everything that I was interested in and kind of get away with just doing the things that I was interested in, which was really beneficial. I mean, I left school and I was like, "Oh yeah, I could probably freelance." That's not normal. That's not a normal thought. So definitely, I was encouraged by, even the professors who were like, "This is crazy," I was still encouraged to try new things at every turn. And I feel like that attitude, that's invaluable.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Elena has a question. "Speaking to observation in the real world in your work, you mentioned NYC and Philly, two excellent places for people watching. I'm curious about how your sense of place or present location affect the stories you tell."
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Mm, totally, yeah. It's like really hard to write stories in New York, I find. It's really hard. I don't like living in New York that much. I miss Philadelphia. But everybody that I love, all my friends, a lot of them are in New York. And there's so much work here, and it's just hard to leave that. I think that Philly allowed for more creativity by virtue of being, well, I'm from Philly, first of all. And so, obviously, when it's your hometown and you like it, you're going to feel more free and creative there. But I also just think that there are, for me, too many people in New York. There's just too many people. There's just too many people, that's it. I need a little bit of just quiet and no people around me outside, or something every now and then in order to feel really good. When we did "The Young Wife", we shot in Darien, Georgia, which is just this nothing tiny town, and it was blissful. It was really nice. But that said, I honestly, if I put headphones in, I can go wherever I want, it feels. So I'm really good at creating. I'm from a large family. And so, I'm very good at creating a bubble around me and just existing inside of my bubble. But I do like the subway in New York because it's just, you can go so far.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 It's true. The subway is a feat of magic. But yeah, I guess speaking to that issue of space and place, I mean, I've been really intrigued. I think some of the best storytelling is happening with these very explicit connections to geographies in building their worlds. I think about "Atlanta", or "Insecure", or "South Side". There are these spaces where creatives of color, in particular, are really thinking more about the local in ways that I think are really generative. So I don't know if you wanted to speak more to that, but my broader question is around the kind of landscape for young, Black filmmakers and creatives of color. In this moment, where do you see the opportunities in the industry?
Tayarisha Poe ’12 That's a good question. Love all those shows. "South Side" is so funny, oh my God. I think South Side's one of the greatest things I've ever seen. There's also this show called "Detroiters". Did you ever?
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 I haven't seen "Detroiters".
Tayarisha Poe ’12 It's really weird.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 I love weird.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 But it's funny. It reminds me of "South Side" in some ways. But talk about place specific things, I love place specific stuff. The next thing that I'm working on is about Philly, and it's about west Philly, specifically, 'cause that's where I'm from, and it feels like this weird place that is hard to describe to people who aren't from there. But where are the opportunities? I don't know, I don't know. I truly don't know. It feels very random, the things that. Actually, I do think that what I've always thought to be true and what we're definitely seeing now is that the more specific we are, the more universal things feel, which I feel like Barry Jenkins said that a while ago. I love Barry Jenkins though, he's very smart, and I think that he said it for a good reason. I think it's true. I think it's when we try to be all encompassing and to tell every story that we tend to fall flat. I also think that the projects that you mentioned, the brilliance of them is the specificity of their perspective. So it's not that we're trying to help White people from Boston understand what it's like to be Black and live in Atlanta and be from Atlanta. We're not trying to do that. We're not even trying to make, quite honestly, Black people from New York understand what it's like to be Black in LA. It feels like a very specific thing. And again, the specific is universal. That is something that I've always tried to do, in what I'm creating, is just be specific. It definitely helped when I was doing, or shopping around "Selah and the Spades", trying to get that financed, that I'm telling this story about not just Black teenagers in high school, but it's in boarding school. And also, they sell drugs. It's just a very specific thing that people want to understand because of the specificity, but also don't want to be a part of screwing up the storytelling of. And so, they give you more power, in a way. The more specific you are, the more authority you can speak with. And the more authority you can speak with, the more people you're convincing to believe in this figment of your imagination. So I love that. I'm always looking for more of that. There's this great show, also, called "Flatbush Misdemeanors". I love all these place specific shows. I think they will keep happening because people are from places.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 People are from places. People have positionalities and rootedness. That's really interesting. We have a little bit more time for more questions, so please feel free to use the chat function or the Q and A. We're just gonna keep talking. You're a filmmaker who's also done some work directing television. I mean, I see this with my students as well, the kind of bounds between how audiences see film and television are continually collapsing to streaming and whatnot. So I wonder, do you see them as distinct mediums? What are the different kinds of values of either medium? And then, would you want to do more for the increasingly small television screen?
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Yeah, definitely. I really do think that they're different. I hate when people say stuff, and I feel like I used to say this stuff back when I was young and naive.m I hate when people say that they want a TV series to feel like a 10 hour movie, 'cause it's like, that's not. I love movies. Movies are amazing, but movies are a specific thing. And I feel like TV is this other thing that doesn't have to be A plot, B plot, C plot for an hour, or 27 minutes with room for commercials or whatever. It doesn't have to be those things. But I still think that there's something so brilliant and self-contained about the serial format. I just love it. I love it. I think that it's very interesting. I don't know how I want to fully fit into it yet, which is why I'm still just directing other people's TV. And I love doing that 'cause being a TV director is very different from being a film director, in that, when you do TV it's more like it's more like being a member of a team, and that's it, as opposed to leading the team. Or a rather, it's being a member of a team, yeah, as opposed to leading a team. You lead from a different vantage point. And I like that vantage point because there's just not a shit ton of pressure and it's really fun. And you get to hang out with a cool crew for a week, and then you're like, "Peace, I'm out," and that's it. Whereas a movie, it's like here are three to four years of my entire life. TV doesn't have to be like that. But yeah, I love like anthologies, especially because there's just something. It's like reading a short story. I think that good TV can give you the feeling of reading one those really good short story collections that also has a novella in it. And sometimes, characters from the short stories show up in other stories, stuff like that. I feel like TV's really good at giving you that feeling. And then, film is so great for the uninterrupted. I mean, unless you're watching Bollywood and they always have the more than three hour films and the intermission built in halfway, but typically, it's this uninterrupted experience that's kind of a spectacle, or it can be a spectacle. And there's something more intimate about TV that I like and that I'm interested in. So yeah, I definitely want to do more TV. I really like TV.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Awesome. Dina says, "Are there certain issues or topics you find most challenging to tackle in your work? Is there an issue or topic you have always wanted to tackle, but hope to one day?"
Tayarisha Poe ’12 I think kids are really interesting. I think that when I was growing up, I felt like I watched more movies for kids or for young people that weren't necessarily talking down to them. Even something like "Labyrinth", that David Bowie movie, is kind of terrifying. And I think that there was a terrifying feeling to, or not terrifying, but there was like a, I don't know, maybe it was realism, or maybe it was just, even PBS in the eighties was different. I was born in the nineties, so I'm talking like I know. But I've got a lot of older siblings, and the way that they are makes me go, "PBS is definitely different." But yeah, I'm interested in kids. I'm interested in middle school aged children, and I'd really like to do a movie about that age group, but it's kind of like a sci-fi thing. But it's not like sci-fi like Disney Marvel, so it's odd and low fi sci-fi. It's not that I'm saying I think it's gonna be difficult to get made. It's just that whenever you're approaching, A, when you're working with kid actors, you're working with their parents because they have guardians on set. So you're not just hiring the kid, you're hiring the parents too, which comes with its own up and down depending on the parent. And then, also, you're working with very different hours because of child labor laws, of course. And also, 'cause kids just don't have the stamina, they're children. They need breaks, they need time off. And so, when you're going out with an idea about children, you very much are looking for people who are interested in art and not necessarily money. Not because it won't make money, but because there's not a line of action figures that will come from it, that money can be made off of. So I would say younger people, stories about kids, stories about people who aren't famous, or starring people who aren't famous, all of those things. But in terms of issues, no, I feel like anything. I think I'm pretty good, and from what I've done so far, It seems like I'm pretty good at convincing people to just. I honestly think that being a director is more than anything when you're not on set, which again, when you're on set, it's just about the vibes. But being a director, in my experience, has been just convincing people to care about your imagination, that's it. It's convincing people to buy into this figment of your imagination. And so, I do think that I'm good at rallying the troops for something that doesn't fully exist yet. I'm really good at that. So I haven't yet run into an idea or a topic that I can't, or I feel like is verboten, I don't even know how to say that word, is forbidden for me, whichever. But kids, movies about kids that aren't "kid movies". I'm still trying to figure out how to approach that subject with people.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 That's really interesting. I love what you said about film production being like a cult. You have to believe in the story. And I think that there's a way in which, particularly with a lot of discourse around contemporary Black filmmaking, it has to be a social problem film. Have to sort of tackle this thing, and it has to sort of completely politicize everyone. What I love about your work is that you're doing more nuanced and detailed slice of life quotidian stories. But I also think that even with "The Young Wife", you mentioned the milieu that the main character is in. Celestina quit her job. It's about late capitalism and precariousness, and younger millennial existential crises, which are its own kind of political condition. But you're setting it in this space where we're at a wedding. It could lead to rom com. And so, you're playing with genre too. So that's really interesting.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 I just want to feel like when I'm watching something, I want to feel as though I'm watching people, and I'm just learning about people, whatever kind of people they are, whatever kind of people they happen to be. It's really important to me to feel like I'm watching something about people as opposed to something about an issue. Because as soon as it's something about an issue, and this is gonna sound awful, but when it's something about an issue, I'm just like, "Ugh, I know. Everything is awful, I know." It's like, "I know!" People that I love make these movies, and I know. And I watch them and I love those movies for various reasons. They're beautiful, they're artistic, I learn so much about storytelling, but I mean in terms of what I'm capable of writing, it's so hard for me to write things that are not just about a very specific type of person. And it's also, it's that thing again about perspective. I'm not trying to convince anybody that Black women or Black girls are worthy of anything. I'm very specifically making this for Black women and for Black girls, that's my target audience. So everything else that has to be explained about that, I'm speaking very much to the in crowd with everything that I do, and I don't really see that changing. That's just my perspective of the world. That's my perspective. My perspective is the Black woman perspective. That's cool. So literally, when I make stories, I did this show called "Dave" that was about some White Jewish guy from outside of Philly who's a comedian and a rapper in LA. I directed that from my perspective, and that changed the way that episode unfolded. Because that's all that I can do, is center my perspective. And I think that for people who tell stories for you to center your own perspective, and not center it as in put it high on a pedestal, but center it as in examine it, and question it, and wonder about it, and shift and change your perspective. Not trying to necessarily worry about other people's perspectives of you, but just to consider your own perspective of the rest of the world. I think that makes for the most compelling storytelling.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah, definitely. So as we end our time, I also want to give you a space to also talk about people, Black women who have inspired you, or their creative work, whether it be other filmmakers, other visual artists, just so some folks can check them out.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Oh my God, that's such a great question that anytime anybody ask me anything like that, I'm like, "I don't know any people at all." I don't know. Let me think for a second. Nikyatu Jusu, I think is her last name, Jusu, J, U, S, U, Nikyatu is her first name, she won at Sundance this year, I think the grand prize, the jury prize, for her film, her first feature, "Nanny", which is horror film. Oh my God, it's gonna be so good. It's gonna be so good. I think it comes out in May, it might, but it comes out sometime this year on Amazon or something. But it's gonna be amazing. So I'm really excited for that. That's honestly the biggest thing on my list right now. "Random Acts of Flyness" is a show on HBO that's just finished, or shooting its second season. So that'll be coming back soon. I'm very happy for them. Those are my friends. They're really good people. And then, who else? I'm trying to think of, oh, who was that? I don't know.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 This is great. And we should all watch "Selah and the Spades", obviously, on Amazon prime. And then, also, we're really looking forward to seeing "The Young Wife" come to fruition.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 I'm very excited.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Thank you. This was fun.
Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah. So I think we're almost at time. But I want to thank all of our attendees, I want to thank Tayarisha, Lisa, Dina, everyone with Alumni Council, and have a good night.
Tayarisha Poe ’12 Thank you. Goodnight. Bye.