Director Nia Dacosta Wants to Subvert the Western With Tessa Thompson-Starrer 'Little Woods'

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival; Inset: Rachel Murray/Getty Images
'Little Woods' (Inset: Nia Dacosta)

The first-time feature director was inspired by the mythic American frontier (and how films about it often center on white men) for the North Dakota oil boomtown story: "Westerns are about liberty and freedom, but what does it look like when you're a woman and you're limited because the people who have it impede your freedom?"

Tessa Thompson is one of those actresses who tends to send the internet into a pitching fever dream merely by existing in the world. In the last month alone, based on new photos of the star, Instagram stories and her essay about Brie Larson, Twitter has suggested she star in remakes of Bonnie & Clyde and The Proposal, an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, a haberdashery drama and an ensemble movie with Zendaya, Brie Larson and Laura Harrier. "Tessa Thompson Knows People Can't Stop Thinking About Her," skillfully observed a profile headline in The Cut in August. "tessa thompson could step on me and i'd thank her," said Twitter's karel, somewhat more crassly, this month.

Nia Dacosta became the rare stan to actually realize one of her dream projects starring Thompson in 2015. The pair met at the Sundance Director's Lab, where Dacosta, a lab participant, had enlisted Thompson to help her workshop her script for her drug-running drama Little Woods, in theaters now, alongside actors Emmy Rossum and Luke Kirby. Though she was in the room with two other acting heavyweights, "It was pretty apparent early on that, one, [Thompson] was sort of like my actor soul mate, and two, that she absolutely had to have this role," Dacosta tells The Hollywood Reporter. Dacosta asked the star over drinks to commit to the film — Dacosta's feature-length debut — and she said yes. (Kirby also ended up in the finished film.)

Little Woods places Thompson in an unconventional role as Ollie, a former drug peddler to an oil boom town in northern North Dakota, where the opioid crisis is raging, workers can't take much time off work to go to the hospital and healthcare costs are high. After being caught running drugs to Canada, Ollie is on her last few days of probation when a confluence of circumstances require her to raise money, fast, for her sister Deb (Lily James). Ollie reluctantly returns to the game, slipping pills to workers on the oil fields along with breakfast sandwiches and coffee.

That premise follows the rough outline of a traditional Western, featuring a gunslinger reluctantly returning to violence in order to right a wrong, but with a twist: "I think the people who you see making the frontier are always predominately white men, and so I was interested in seeing a different kind of frontiersman, a frontierswoman," Dacosta says. A few days before the release of her film, THR spoke with her about subverting the genre, the state of American healthcare and being tapped to helm Candyman for producer Jordan Peele.

How did Little Woods get started for you?

It started as me wanting to tell a story about women in America, but in particular in the rural parts of America because I was born and raised in New York City and I was struck by my relative privilege of being in a place that has access to so much and that really helps when you don't have a lot of money. So that was my first impetus, and then I researched and stumbled upon this [oil] town in northwest North Dakota and that informed the rural story and I went from there.

It's rare for a first feature to have actresses of the caliber of Tessa Thompson and Lily James. How did they end up coming on board?

Tessa was first. I did the Sundance Director's Lab in 2015, and she's one of the actors that graciously lent her time to come out and workshop some scenes in the movie with me. And it was pretty apparent early on that, one, she was sort of like my actor soul mate, and two, that she absolutely had to have this role. So when I asked, I was very, very grateful that she said yes. And so she was on the movie for about a year and a half before we shot.

And then Lily came on when we were in prep, actually. She was someone who I had seen onstage years ago when I was in London, and I thought she was just really magnetic and wonderful. I thought she could do something in this movie we hadn't quite seen her do yet on film and I was excited by that opportunity, and I think she was as well, so that's how that happened.

What inspired you to write a suspenseful film about, of all things, healthcare? 

When I wrote the script initially, the Affordable Care Act was rolling out and it was also when the "war on women," what people were calling what's happening to access to woman-specific healthcare, including abortion, [was happening]. It was really awful discourse and it was so alienated from any actual lived experience — it didn't really talk about real women's lives, that was something that really struck me. That was something I knew I wanted to talk about. But I didn't realize how easy it would be would be to fiddle with this into a movie because, at the end of the day, what I was really talking about was poverty in this part of America and how it affects women in particular and when you're in a town like this, all those other issues come to the fore, not just healthcare and women's reproductive rights and access. It's also [things] like the opioid crisis and how the oil boom is affecting towns like those and the industrialization and all those things that you can't separate from each other.

This film subverts a lot of expectations about a traditional Western, starting with it centering on two sisters rather than, say, a lone man. Were you consciously seeking to take a fresh approach to a Western?

I was. Initially I wasn't calling it a Western, I was like "Okay, I'm inspired by Westerns." One part of that was the story itself: I love the concept of a frontier, I think the frontier is a really interesting space, and it's where America was made as well as it's where a lot of mythology about ourselves was strengthened or created. But I think the people who you see making the frontier are always predominately white men, and so I was interested in seeing a different kind of frontiersman, a frontierswoman. And also in terms of Ollie's character being this lone gunslinger who puts down her gun and then picks it back up [over the course of the film], there's that trope as well that I was drawn to. And then visually, something that struck me so much when I visited North Dakota was how beautiful it was, so I really wanted to juxtapose the beauty of the American West with the [characters'] very internal, kitchen-sink trouble.

Are there certain Western tropes that you found didn't apply to your characters?

Oh, absolutely. For me, when I was looking at the film, I wasn't trying to necessarily make a Western but I definitely wanted to make something that was influenced by it. So the things that really worked from the genre were the tension, the beginning of a characterization. But there were things that absolutely don't work, like if you have a Western that centers women in a town like this, in an oil-rich town or oil-fracking boom town, women's lives are very internal, they're inside a lot. I remember being in North Dakota and meeting women who stayed in bed and watched Law & Order: SVU all day, waiting for their boyfriends or husbands to get back from their shifts, or who couldn't go out at night because they felt like it was dangerous for them. So that is a completely different situation: Westerns are about liberty and freedom, but what does it look like when you're a woman and you're limited because the people who have it impede your freedom? That was fascinating to get my brain around.

Like many Westerns, Little Woods has a really firm sense of place. What kind of research did you do to understand the oil fields of North Dakota?

This is one of the biggest reasons I'm a writer: I love creating worlds but also discovering worlds and getting into the lives to people who aren't myself; that's really rewarding to me. And in doing that, creating empathy, hopefully, for people who watch. So a lot of my research is about that, is about, one, learning the facts and what this part of the country is like but also what kind of people live there and understanding their situation. So I did a lot of reading, really great journalism from The New York Times, actually, and from so many sources, and then I watched a lot of documentaries: The Overnighters is a really fascinating one, in particular how [the place] affects people on a familial and community level, which I found really fascinating, and it's a really interesting character study. And then the third part of that was that obviously I had to get out to North Dakota and I had to meet people there, and it was one of the best experiences ever because it was really rewarding to go and to say, "Hey, this is the story I'm trying to tell and I'd love to hear yours and here's my version of the story" and to get feedback on that was really, really great.

The film takes an ambivalent approach to the character Ollie's drug-running past. Why make her choice so complicated, rather than convey a more moralistic message?

Yeah, I really just wanted to get stuck into the middle of it. Something that struck me when I went to North Dakota was that everyone I talked to either knew [people who had] or themselves had experience with opioid addiction or were dealing with the criminal element of it. It was part of the fabric of life. And so I didn't think it was right to be moralistic about it; I also had no intention of being moralistic about anything in the film because, again, it was really just about presenting it. You may disagree or agree, and I certainly have opinions on [similar issues], but at the same time my goal was to just tell a really human story and what I wanted the audience to want at the end of it was, despite everything else that happened, for the sisters to be a family again.

Little Woods is being released at a time when the White House is again making a push to change American healthcare. What do you hope this film can say to audiences in this current context?

I really hope that we start taking care of each other — that's really what the human perspective is. I was really aware of the environment when I was making it. However, to be fair, when I first wrote the script, Barack Obama was president and we all thought that Hillary Clinton would be the next one, so it was a different context, and it's quite shocking to be in this context as the film's opening up. For me, it's all about the human stories and also, on a personal level, not even connected to this film, understanding that the legislation that is created has effects that can really help or hurt people and we need to start helping people. So I hope people can have a thought like that when they view issues in the film.

You're set to direct the remake of Candyman. How did that end up becoming your next project?

It was a very wonderful combination of just my agent being awesome and [producers] Jordan [Peele] and Win Rosenfeld seeing [Little Woods] and responding very positively to it. Eventually when Candyman became a possibility, I pitched on it and got the job, so it was really wonderfully straightforward and so, so exciting.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.