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Exclusive Interview: Writer/director Nikyatu Jusu on the real-life basis and folkloric beings of “NANNY”

Monday, November 21, 2022 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

There is scary and sometimes surreal imagery scattered throughout NANNY, but the movie’s key tensions simply have to do with its protagonist Aisha (Anna Diop) getting through her work day. It’s a study of the nightmarish side of pursuing the American dream, and filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu speaks below with RUE MORGUE about it.

Jusu makes her feature debut as writer and director of Amazon Studios/Blumhouse’s NANNY (opening in theaters on Wednesday, November 23 and then playing globally on Prime Video beginning December 16) after several acclaimed short films. (It was just announced that an expansion of one of them, the vampire-themed SUICIDE BY SUNLIGHT, will be her next full-length film.) NANNY, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, follows Aisha as she takes a job with an upscale Manhattan couple, Amy and Adam (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector), caring for their little daughter Rose (Rose Decker). All goes well at first, but then Amy begins subjecting her to microaggressions and worse, and the tensions in Aisha’s work life become exacerbated by visions that include figures from African folklore. The film is a confident and extremely well-crafted first feature from a new talent who clearly has a lot to say through the genre lens.

What were the inspirations behind NANNY?

The inspirations are multifaceted, but mostly, it stems from my mother’s story. I’m first-generation American, I come from a Sierra Leonean family, and in between pursuing her own dreams, my mom did a couple of domestic jobs. I was always curious about how people were treating her in these homes, because I’m fiercely protective of my mother. I just figured it was such ripe territory for horror, because of the nuances of domestic work and the ways that we live in a society that devalues those workers, in spite of them overseeing some of the most intimate aspects of our lives.

NANNY struck me as less a horror film than a dramatic story with horrific elements–or do you consider what Aisha goes through in the household to be the true horror of the movie, as opposed to the supernatural element?

Right, I agree with you. At this point, the film belongs to the audience, and I’ve heard it called literally five different genres over the course of just [doing interviews] today. So I’m honestly at a point where I don’t really mind whatever the audience member perceives it as; I just hope that expectations don’t get in the way of you allowing yourself to be immersed in the world.

How did you approach meshing the very realistic travails Aisha goes through with the hallucinatory and supernatural sides of the film?

It was a delicate balancing act, but over the course of workshopping the project in the Sundance Lab, workshopping the project with our financiers and having an extensive collaboration in the editing room, we were able to find that balance of the supernatural or “surrealistic” elements being more tethered to Aisha’s internal trajectory.

I loved the cinematography as well, so can you talk about that collaboration, and creating NANNY’s imagery?

Yeah–Rina Yang, our DP, is a genius, and she’s a cinematographer I would like to work with for the rest of my career. Also, for production design we had Jonathan Guggenheim, for wardrobe we had Charlese Antoinette Jones, for special effects makeup we had Risha Rox–we had so many amazing department heads who really informed each frame of this film: the color palette, the lighting, the framing, the composition. It was a perfect combination of brilliant collaborators, and we shared a lot of reference imagery at every step of the process. Rina and I would text each other images, very informally, that weren’t just from other films, but mostly from other media. Things like photography and paintings that spoke to the aesthetic we were trying to execute.

It also feels like a very New York-specific story. To your mind, could NANNY have been set in any other city?

Technically, it could be set almost anywhere. Domestic work is global, and there are films I really love [on the subject], like a Sebastián Silva movie called LA NANA [THE MAID], from Chile. Brazilian cinema also deals a lot with domestic workers. But in the context of the United States, Manhattan is such a visual manifestation of how prevalent domestic work is, because you literally can go to certain parts of the city and see a plethora of nannies and the children they’re caring for just outside, visible. So New York is unique in the sense that everything is right on the surface.

What were the challenges of shooting on location in New York City, and were there any particular scenes that were especially difficult or memorable there?

They were all challenging. New York is a special place in so many regards, but it’s also very challenging to navigate, because of the density of the population. There’s no reverence, really, for production, because it’s just so par for the course when you live in the city. So people don’t care about walking through the shots [laughs], so it’s really just about having a team who can harness the energy of New York in a way that benefits the film.

Locations are expensive in New York; they’re really hard to secure. Amy and Adam’s condo was the hardest thing to lock in; that was very challenging. We did a lot of location scouting; my producing partner Nikkia Moulterie was born and raised in New York, and is my right hand and has tapped into some amazing location scouts who were also born and raised in New York and know the city inside and out. So we had options, but everyone thinks that because you’re shooting a film, you have endless money, and we were a tiny production. Sometimes the quotes were ridiculous, but we were able to finally find our condo.

Can you talk about the use of folklore and folkloric characters in the film? How did you settle on Anansi the spider/trickster and the mermaid character Mami Wata to express the anxieties Aisha is going through?

Those are two of the more visible figures in terms of West African folklore, so anyone who is even superficially aware of those figures will be familiar with them. They also represent different forms of resistance for diasporic people.

You also touch on the way those characters can be, not exactly co-opted, but reinterpreted into children’s stories, when Aisha reads the ANANSI THE SPIDER storybook to Rose. This figure that Aisha finds threatening is now something that’s comforting to the little girl.

Well, I just want to be sure that it’s clear that although Aisha is perceiving these figures as a threat, they don’t necessarily ultimately translate that way. Children kind of see and feel elements of our existence that we grow out of in adulthood, and so I believe they are a great vehicle for the fantastical.

Can you also talk about the use of water imagery throughout NANNY?

Yes, water is a very prevalent motif in my work. Water is powerful; it can destroy us, but it’s also poetic, and it’s riddled with history and mystery. So water is very prevalent in Black diasporic folklore and mythos and mythology, and it just felt perfect for this.

What went into creating Mami Wata, which is a very impressive creation, and the other special makeup?

That was an ongoing process. Mami Wata is hard to translate; depending on which culture you speak to, she looks different, so we had to take certain liberties in engineering what she would look like, in collaboration with our effects teams. It was a very long process. And also, you always wish you had more money and more resources, especially with effects.

How much of Mami Wata was prosthetic, and how much was digital?

That’s a good question. Mostly, depending on the shot, we tried to lean heavily into practical prosthetics and using a stuntwoman, and then sometimes in the wide shots, we leaned more heavily on using our stuntwoman as a springboard for some of the CGI.

How did you find the right cast for NANNY? Everyone has really good chemistry, whether it’s positive or negative.

Casting is a science, and you can’t just cast individually; you have to bring your choices together and bounce them off each other and see if they have chemistry with each other. Chemistry is really important to me, and I’m not just talking sexual chemistry, I’m talking familial chemistry, friendship chemistry, nurturing chemistry. So it was a long process, but thankfully, we had an amazing casting director named Kim Coleman, and our producing partners, Daniela Taplin Lundberg at Stay Gold Features and Maria [Zuckerman] and Ryan [Heller] at Topic Studios, were integral in getting us someone like Michelle Monaghan. So it was an all-hands-in process.

And I’m curious: Is there any meaning to the fact that the three lead characters’ names all start with A?

[Laughs] You know what? No, that’s a coincidence. I didn’t even realize that until you just said it.

How did Blumhouse become involved with NANNY, and at what point in the process?

We were one of the handful of films that went into Sundance without distribution. They championed us after the premiere and after we won the Grand Jury Prize, and our producing partners at Topic and Stay Gold just linked arms and reached out to their peers, and the film really resonated with Jason Blum.

How involved have you been with the promotion of the film and how it’s sold?

Luckily, I’ve had a lot of say in the process, and I know that’s not often the case. Like with our poster art and our trailer, I had a strong hand in that. I’m very thankful for that, and Amazon has been super-collaborative at every step of the process.

And it’s great that NANNY will play theaters before it goes to streaming, because it cries out to be seen on a big screen.

Thank you. That was the intention, but we are in a different landscape, and I do understand the value of streaming. So I hope that people come out when it starts showing in theaters.

What kind of experience do you hope people have with NANNY? Do you hope they’re scared, or moved in a different way?

I can’t control what the individual viewer interprets. The film belongs to the audience at this point. My hope, though, is always that you learn to see the world through someone else’s gaze. That’s always the hope.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.