In Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature film NANNY, Aisha (Anna Diop), a woman who recently emigrated from Senegal, is hired to care for the daughter of an affluent couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) living in New York City. Haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind, Aisha hopes her new job will afford her the chance to bring him to the U.S. but becomes increasingly unsettled by the family’s volatile home life. As his arrival approaches, a violent presence begins to invade both her dreams and her reality, threatening the American dream she is painstakingly piecing together.
For the upcoming release of NANNY, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with writer/director Nikyatu Jusu as well as actor Anna Diop. During their chat, they discussed everything from the genesis behind the story of the NANNY, working with those beautiful water elements you see onscreen, and the symbolism behind the water.
Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with me today. To start things off, what was the genesis behind this story?
Nikyatu Jusu: There are pieces of my mother’s story in this. I’m a first-generation American. My family’s from Sierra Leone and my mom is highly educated, brilliant, self-published two novels, and had aspirations of her own. But I watched her do a lot of jobs that she had to for survival, for her survival, for our survival, that I always felt were beneath her and stunted her potential. And so, that was the springboard.
I got to New York for NYU grad film and I literally saw the visual manifestation of what I had been thinking about cause my mom did domestic work in Atlanta here and there. I saw all of these Black and Brown nannies pushing mostly white children around in that Broadway area in the city. So it felt like a sign from the Universe that I needed to start putting pen to paper. But I knew I didn’t want to tell a straightforward drama and so I started to weave in folklore, West African folklore, African diasporic folklore, and landed on two figures that exist in so many different cultures and they’re called different names but they’re both chaos of agents in their own way and I’m really intrigued by chaos’ agents.
For you Anna, what was it like stepping into the shoes of Aisha?
Anna Diop: Aisha is a character that has so many similarities to my own mother. My mother immigrated from Senegal to the States for the same reason Aisha does, which was to build a better life for me and for herself. There were so many parallels between Aisha and my mom and parallels within myself too. I’m an immigrant as well. I know what it is like to navigate a foreign space, to have to assimilate to a foreign space, to navigate microaggressions, to navigate all of these things that we see Aisha go through. It was just deeply personal and brought up a lot of memories of my mother’s time when she first came, and I brought all of that into Aisha.
The visuals are astounding on so many different levels, and I loved how water was incorporated throughout the film both literally and metaphorically as there seemed to be a lot of emotions tied to those moments. For you Nikyatu, on a technical level how difficult was it to craft these scenes? And for you, Anna, did you also experience an emotional pull during these scenes?
Anna Diop: Water in itself is a beautiful thing and it can both give us life and take life. And I think that’s kind of what you’re feeling when you’re seeing Aisha contend with water in this film the way she does. In the water scenes, the water was freezing. And so, I struggled immensely with that cause I hate cold weather. I hate being in cold water. So for me personally, that was the biggest challenge.
Nikyatu Jusu: I knew I needed the physicality that Anna has. I knew I needed someone who was not afraid of getting in the water. These were our hardest elements, excused the pun, to execute and it’s partly because of our budget. We shot in a YMCA in Brooklyn and we went through the different budgetary options, shooting in a tank, shooting on a stage in LA, and we landed on utilizing an actual pool, a very deep pool. I think the deepest end was like 14-15 feet.
So, we had an underwater camera unit led by Ian Takahashi, who was brilliant. So Ian and Rina Yang, my main cinematographer, were working in tandem. It was challenging because she had to walkie with him as he was underwater leading his team with gaffers underwater, lighting equipment underwater. Ian works a lot in the Philippines and Hawaii, and he shot pieces of Beyonce’s “Lemonade” so we had such an amazing team. Thank you for commenting on the water.
And water, as you alluded to, is rife with symbolism. It’s birth. It’s rebirth. It’s destructive. It’s resonant with history, a fractured history, and a history of renewals. So it’s a force to be contended with.
Overall, what do you hope people end up taking away from this film?
Nikyatu Jusu: They’re gonna take what they take regardless. It’s no longer mine. It now belongs to the audience. But my hope is that outside of noticing the craft, and thank you for commenting on the beauty because that’s important to me and my collaborators, they see the world even for 90 minutes through a lens that is made invisible in the mainstream and noticing the human beings around you who create this system, this underbelly of upholding society that is taken for granted. I hope that people see the world through a unique lens and have a little more empathy for the people around them.
NANNY opens in theaters on November 23 and globally on Prime Video starting December 16. For more on the film, check out our review.
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