“The Spectacle Can Never Be Trauma”: Nia DaCosta and Taika Waititi on Exorcism Through Art
Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman… Candyman. Nia DaCosta wouldn’t dare utter that word in front of a mirror, not that many times, but she’s more than happy to train her camera on the unfortunate soul who does. The 30-year-old director was just a child when the 1992 horror classic Candyman introduced audiences to its titular terrifier, a dead descendant of slaves who, after being accidentally summoned by a skeptical grad student investigating his legend, stalks Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects with his bloody hook. Based on a short story by Clive Barker, the movie was not a financial hit upon release, but has staked its claim in the years since as a milestone in the genre—a mainstream slasher flick as social commentary.
In 2018, DaCosta was hired by Jordan Peele to bring Candyman back to life. Her version (which has been delayed until August 27, 2021), a “spiritual sequel” to the original (two actual sequels came and went), follows a couple (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris) who move into a condo where Cabrini-Green once stood, providing the Brooklyn-born filmmaker an opportunity to add gentrification’s effect on Black communities to the franchise’s mythology. Next up, DaCosta, whose first film was the quiet yet searing indie Little Woods, will direct Captain Marvel 2, becoming the first Black woman to helm an entry in Hollywood’s most successful franchise. But before that, she caught up with her Marvel cohort, the Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Taika Waititi, to discuss the exorcism of art, but mostly their shared obsession with money.
NIA DACOSTA: Do you remember when we met?
TAIKA WAITITI: I do.
DACOSTA: I just had a flashback. I think I pretended like I didn’t know how to pronounce your name. Is that weird?
WAITITI: It’s a weird thing to do.
DACOSTA: I didn’t want to make you self-conscious. I like to let people introduce themselves.
WAITITI: Should we talk about the fact that a bunch of us, people who will remain unnamed, ended up getting a tattoo gun? I’m looking at the tattoo right now, on my ankle, that says “NWAF,” which means Never Waste a Friday. I got that tattooed at 2am on a Sunday morning.
DACOSTA: I didn’t get one, but I remember it being shockingly hygienic.
WAITITI: She was a professional tattoo artist, and I trusted that her gear was clean. But you were the sensible one for not doing that. Let this be a cautionary tale: Don’t hang out with me.
DACOSTA: No judgment.
WAITITI: So, I feel a bit shitty about this, but I was so busy that I didn’t even realize they sent me a link to the film. I was like, “I should be seeing Nia’s movie before this chat,” and my assistant was like, “You dummy, I sent you a fucking link.” So we can try and talk through this, and if it’s terrible, then I’ll just watch it and call you again.
DACOSTA: I’m really excited you agreed to do this, regardless of how it goes.
WAITITI: Okay, no pressure then. When did you first meet Jordan Peele?
DACOSTA: The day I pitched to him in October of 2018. I got the script from Win Rosenfeld, who’s one of the co-writers, while I was in London shooting a TV series. I pitched it a few times, and by the time I finished shooting the show, it was time for me to go meet the big man. We were just smiling at each other the whole meeting. I was like, “I feel like this is a good sign.”
WAITITI: I really admire all the things he’s been doing with genre, so I was particularly excited when I heard this was happening.
DACOSTA: Did you see the original Candyman?
WAITITI: I remember being so disturbed. I thought it was a real thing at the time.
DACOSTA: So did I.
WAITITI: Growing up in New Zealand, we’ve got this thing called the Goatman. If you’re driving at night and you see the Goatman three times on the side of the road, you’d better beat him to your house, because if he beats you, then he’ll steal your soul.
DACOSTA: [Laughs] When I was in elementary school, I thought the Candyman was a real thing that was happening to everyone, especially because it took place in the projects, which I lived across the street from. So I never have— and never will—say his name five times in the mirror. It’s not in my nature. It just feels reckless and futile.
WAITITI: I want to know a little more about why you wanted to do the movie. Was it just floating around and you were like, “This is mine”?
DACOSTA: I knew I wanted to do a genre film next, and I’m such a huge fan of Jordan’s. I read the script and even though it’s very different now, the core of it is still the same—the story of an unwilling martyr, a person’s descent into madness, and race and violence in America. So I was like, “I think I can handle this.” It felt like exorcising my own trauma of growing up in such a racist country, and doing it in my chosen language.
WAITITI: It’s interesting that you shot it in 2019. When I wrote Jojo Rabbit in 2011, I couldn’t have predicted that there would be similarities to Nazi Germany in America when the film came out seven or eight years later. As weird as it is, I felt more satisfied that it was coming out at a time when it meant more. If I’d brought it out in 2013, it would have had a relevance and a resonance, but nowhere near as much as it does right now, when there are actual Nazis patrolling the streets. Can you talk a bit about your movie coming out in this particular year?
DACOSTA: It can all feel a bit overwhelming, especially now, when just last night another Black man was shot seven times in the back in front of his children. It’s the story of America, and it’s the story of my childhood. Learning that this happens to people who look like me is very alarming, and having to internalize that and make it a part of my being is crazy. But I think, with this movie, that was part of the exorcism. Throughout the entire process, I was so careful about how we were depicting our main characters, how we were depicting violence against Black people, because it is horror, so there’s an expectation of spectacle. But the spectacle can never be trauma.
WAITITI: With Jojo, I was worried about being perceived as cashing in on a tragedy, or using that to my film’s advantage, or to further my career. Because there was a lot of humor in it, there was a lot of nervousness from people who were saying, “Is it too soon?” And I was like, “No, it’s not soon enough.” We need to make fun of these people, and we need to find more accessible ways of having these conversations, because if it’s just depressing films, or if it’s just films that are very forward about the subject matter, then there becomes only one type of conversation. If you can deliver these messages and have these conversations under the guise of comedy or horror, it’s way more effective. Even with the story of the murder of a Black man, it’s historical pain manifesting itself. I believe that this happens generationally in people. And from my experience in New Zealand, there’s a lot of anger and resentment from people who’ve learned about their past or who’ve learned about what’s happened to the Maori. I really love the idea that real-life hurt can manifest in the form of some very dark, vengeful fiction. That’s really fascinating and it’s super exciting for me.
DACOSTA: Part of the reason why I think I cried during the whole last act of Jojo Rabbit is because I was laughing for the whole first two acts, feeling close to these characters and feeling the warmth of that world, and also the horror of it. I think having these different ways into these difficult conversations, whether it’s comedy or horror, or even straight drama, is super fucking useful.
WAITITI: That’s what was great about Get Out. I was laughing, then I was scared, and then I was laughing again. More and more, filmmakers have got to keep trying to subvert what’s expected.
DACOSTA: It makes it so fucking hard.
WAITITI: I’ve never attempted to do proper horror. My fear is that I won’t be able to scare people, and that the scary moments will be stupid and everyone’s going to laugh, and then I’m going to feel really dumb.
DACOSTA: I feel that hardcore. As someone who loves horror, I can break down why a specific moment is scary in The Conjuring or Rosemary’s Baby, and so much of it for me will always come down to characters. But then there’s stuff, like when you’re making a slasher movie, which Candyman low-key is, where it’s just like, “Okay, when does this guy get her neck, and how much of it do you see, and how much blood is there, and how far should it go? Should it splatter on the wall or should it drip elegantly?” It’s pure trial and error. We did a test screening, and it was reassuring because all of the things I wanted to change and adjust were very much confirmed. Do you test a lot?
WAITITI: I test all my films, usually in New Zealand, where you start running out of people pretty fast. With What We Do in the Shadows, we tested so many times that by the last screening we had just one person left, and it was a friend of ours, and he was in the movie. So it was just me, Jemaine [Clement], and this guy Ben [Fransham] who plays Petyr, and we were in my lounge room just looking at him while he watched the movie. It wasn’t until we got to Sundance and had a proper audience of a few hundred people that we realized, “Oh shit, we still want to change stuff.” From then on, I realized just how important test screenings are. What horror movies did you watch to prepare for this film?
DACOSTA: Rosemary’s Baby and The Fly were the two that I pretty much wanted everyone to watch. And then, funnily enough, when I wanted to not be stressed out, I’d watch What We Do in the Shadows, the TV show, which I’m obsessed with.
WAITITI: To this day, it always makes me happy when people say, “I saw your thing,” because for years I remember coming to Hollywood and saying, “I’m in this film,” and nobody bothered to see anything I’d done.
DACOSTA: I watched the movie What We Do in the Shadows in a packed theater when it first came out.
WAITITI: That would have been the first week. Let’s see, what else? How obsessed are you with money?
DACOSTA: Oh my gosh, so obsessed.
WAITITI: You know what question I hate? “What do you want audiences to take away from this?” I’m like, “Ticket stubs, what do you think!” [Laughter] What is the plan for the release? I’ve got a film that I’m finishing and I don’t know if everyone else is even going to be able to see it.
DACOSTA: Honestly, I don’t know what we’re going to do. I haven’t the foggiest idea, and I don’t think anyone knows anything because the world is on fire. With Universal and Jordan’s company Monkeypaw Productions, it’s just so much bigger than me. I’m just like, “Take your movie and go.”
WAITITI: “Get it out of my face.”
Makeup: Janice Kinjo using Dior Beauty at The Wall Group.
Photography Assistant: Fela Raymond