A world of inspiration: An interview with filmmaker Tayarisha Poe

Art Director Tina Tona chats with filmmaker Tayarisha Poe about her debut feature, "Selah and the Spades," her many inspirations, and the world she created.

Art and Story by Tina Tona

Even though some may not instantly recognize Philly filmmaker, Tayarisha Poe’s name, they’d probably recognize her widely successful, critically-acclaimed debut film—and that’s absolutely okay—actually, she prefers it that way. This April, while we were all still getting accustomed to our new quarantine routines, Amazon Studios dropped their newest original film “Selah and the Spades.” The story is centered around Selah Summers, played effortlessly by Lovie Simone. She is, as Poe describes, a cool, beautiful, hip, smart, otherworldly Black girl. She also happens to share one too many qualities with your favorite movie mob boss. 

The film pulls you into the strange world of Haldwell, an unconventional boarding school where student-led factions have more power than the president himself. It explores Black girlhood, the grey areas of morality, and the intoxicating nature of power, all while gracefully blending several genres to create a unique story that leaves audiences wanting more from the universe she constructed. 

I had the privilege of speaking to Poe over Zoom (everyone’s favourite social-distancing platform) last week. We discussed the wide range of music, books, and artists that helped her construct the story, the characters, and the world. From her hometown of Philly, to Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Watch the Throne,” to our beloved and dearly missed Rookie Magazine—we truly covered it all.

Tina Tona: I saw a tweet the other day where you said, “if you’re a filmmaker from Philly please always immediately let me know so I can give you preferential treatment.” Even though you might’ve said it jokingly, I was wondering if your upbringing there has informed your work in any way. 

Tayarisha Poe: Yeah, I should probably delete that tweet [laughs]. People from Philly have been reaching out to me. There [are] so many filmmakers that I didn’t even realize were from Philly, and now we’re talking, so it was definitely a joke, but I also meant it. When I was growing up, the only filmmaker I knew from Philly was M. Night Shyamalan. I love him, but he’s not doing me any favors. I just always loved all those stories about Philly musicians meeting each other, and working with each other, and building careers together, and I feel like there’s a lot of those. I just want more of the same for Philly filmmakers, specifically those who do fiction narrative work, because I do think there’s a lot of folks from Philly who are documentarians and already have that network, but it’s not the same for fiction folks right now. But it will be one day! 

I’m from West Philly. It’s a very eclectic neighborhood with a lot of different kinds of people. There’s a huge Muslim population, and there’s a joke that, “if you’re Black and from Philly, you’re a little bit Muslim,” because you just grow up around so many Muslim people, and Muslim culture, it becomes engrained in you. At the same time, it’s also a huge anarchist neighborhood, there’s a lot of social justice work, which does create a lot of pandemonium. But it’s just a very culturally diverse neighborhood, and one where the cultures often feed into each other in a very loving way. So that definitely has a stamp on my identity, I miss it every day and really want to go back.

TT: What else I saw represented was your experience in boarding school. Did the idea of “Selah” kind of exist while you were there, or did that come later and more of the world-building stemmed from your time there?

TP: “Selah” definitely did not exist while I was in high school, I started writing that character right after college. I went to boarding school from 10th grade to 12th grade. I really loved it. It was also insane. I had some of the worst times of life there, but also some of the best times. It was a very dramatic experience. It felt dramatic while it was happening, and it feels dramatic in retrospect. I think part of it is the fact that you have all of these teenagers living together, and it was a co-ed boarding school. I remember my first year there all these kids were rushing to tell me about what happened the year before because I was a transfer student, including an orgy in a dorm lounge that apparently happened there in 8th grade. Apparently a teacher walked in and discovered it, and that was why they had to replace all the carpet in the dorm [laughs]. And there was just so much stuff like that, like telling me places where to get the best drugs? I was just like “I don’t do drugs! I’m not doing drugs yet!” It was just this fun, but also dramatic, and very surreal world. As soon as I arrived, people were so ready to tell me “Everything is weird here.” I soon enough learned, everything was very odd there, and I loved it. 

TT: Paloma, the protagonist of “Selah and the Spades,” was also a transfer student entering a very strange world. Did you borrow a lot from your own experience as one to write that character?

TP: I would say that Paloma’s experience of having this cool, beautiful, hip, smart, otherworldly Black girl take her under wing was very much what I wanted. I was very much Paloma. I had a camera, I always liked how having a camera between me and another person took away so much of my shyness. It helped me talk to anybody. Popular people like having their photos taken. It became a natural symbiotic relationship between someone who was destined to be in front of a camera, and someone who was destined to take pictures. I also kind of feel like both girls at the same time. Selah and Paloma are both me, just at different stages of my life. That’s why I think they get along so well, and why their relationship exists.

TT: Something I found interesting about Selah was how reserved she was, and how important she found it to maintain a certain appearance, both physical and emotional. I was curious about whether this was a purposeful commentary on how Black women in power are expected to conduct themselves, and also how our knowledge of this culture might’ve helped Selah be a more sympathetic antagonist.

TP: That’s exactly how I hoped people would feel. Kind of like, “I don’t think I should like what she’s doing right now, but I do understand it, so I have this empathy for her.” I think there are people that watch it, and that empathy for her scares them, because we have this weird way of teaching morality, particularly in America. We’re taught that there are good people and bad people. That’s it. There’s not really like there are people that do good things and bad things and neutral things and live their lives. You’re either a good person or a bad person. So when we find ourselves empathizing with who we’ve been taught are bad people, it makes us think that we could do what they do, or that if we understand it then we’re capable of the same thing. Of course we are, we’re all humans. We’re capable of all of these things, that’s the point, that’s the beauty of it. 

I think this idea of Selah’s presentation of self is definitely about growing up and being a Black girl and just no matter what I did it was never right and it never felt like it was okay. There always felt like there was some critique that was brought about regarding my person or what I was wearing or how I was dressed or how I was carrying myself or how loud I would laugh or how I sounded. Not just being a Black girl, but being a girl. It was all of it all the time growing up. It’s exhausting. Eventually I realized that when you are a black woman in this world, you’re never going to satisfy them. You’re never going to be good enough. So you can either constantly try to make them accept you, or you can just do what you want to do. I feel like Selah is going through that kind of moment with herself, and I think for a lot of the time she just does what she wants to do. But not even she can escape this need to appear perfect. That’s what’s so beautiful about Paloma. She’s this girl who sort of wears the same clothes all the time, and looks like she just rolls out of bed and does her thing, and that’s exactly what she does. I love that Selah sees that as good enough.

TT: I felt that Selah’s character kind of carried the unsettling, off-kilter feeling of the film from the jump. Even though there were moments that seemed so peaceful and serene, there was always this strong feeling of tension. 

TP: What I’m trying to do, in writing and directing, is always challenge us to present the emotional reality of what’s happening, which I don’t think always matches up with reality. If you’re telling the story from Selah’s perspective, and you’re always trying to stay true to her emotional perspective, then this beautiful, fun, poetic, campus with all these beautiful young people isn’t just beauty, it’s boredom. It’s not just power, it’s also threats to your power. There’s tension in this space for Selah. You can’t help but feel that tension in every single frame, because the thing about Selah is I think she does enjoy the feeling of “someone is going to take your power.” It’s like that Jay-Z and Kanye West album, “Watch the Throne.” Anybody that makes an album called “Watch the Throne” really gets something out of there being a struggle for the throne and people are watching. That’s Selah. It’s a struggle to have this tension, this power struggle, these factions, and people trying to take your power, but power hungry people get off on people trying to take their power, that’s why they’re power hungry people. I don’t think that makes her a bad person, I just think it makes her someone who is power hungry. I understand her reasons for being power hungry, I mean I’m probably a little bit power hungry. Again, growing up as a black girl you’re so used to people trying to take your fucking power away from you, and trying to tell you how to live your life and exist. Of course you’re going to try to hold onto it. 

TT: Where did you look for inspiration in regards to the stylistic choices that helped really establish the uneasy tone of the film? It reminded me a little bit of Southern Gothic films, like “Eve’s Bayou,” and I also read that you were a fan of “Random Acts of Flyness,” which also shares the same kind of uneasiness. 

TP: Jomo [Fray] was actually one of the [Directors of Photography] for “Random Acts of Flyness” and he was the DP for us, and we’re both friends with Terrence Nance and all those people at “Random Acts.” Also, “Eve’s Bayou” was a huge inspiration for me. I don’t even think I would be making movies if I hadn’t seen “Eve’s Bayou” when I was a kid. We definitely talked a lot about Southern Gothic, and obviously Beyonce’s “Lemonade” was a huge reference for us. It literally came out right before we started production. 

The style itself though, I think you’re spot on. It’s this mix of tones. Sometimes you’re feeling like it’s a carefree coming-of-age film, and in the next shot it feels like it switched into the tone of a neo-noir film, or a dark, sinister, gangster film. We call that style ‘savage formalism.’ It was influenced by Rihanna. Especially her album “ANTI.” We wanted to take that line from “Needed Me”, “Didn’t I tell you that I was a savage?” That line stops my heart. It’s the fable of the scorpion and the frog. If somebody tells you who they are, and they treat you the way that kind of person would treat you, can you get upset with them? That’s where that savagery comes from. Do people have the right to keep getting upset with Selah when she keeps doing the same thing, and they keep hanging out with her [laughs]. The formalism part of it is mostly influenced by brutalist architecture, which Jomo is really into. I like brutalist architecture as it relates to “Selah and the Spades” because it’s the idea of material of the building being very strong and unbreakable, and the style of the building also being unbreakable. It’s about building and creating these things that may look ugly, but at least they look strong and fortified. That to me is also Selah. That’s a big reason why those tones mesh. 

Also, personally, when I write stuff, it doesn’t make sense to me in my writing to only have one tone. It doesn’t feel true to life. When we start our day, it could be a romantic comedy, and halfway through the day I could be in a murder mystery because I don’t know what’s going on and don’t know how I got there, and then at the end of the day it’s like a stoner comedy. It’s not one movie throughout the day. I’m a person that has moods and I change and shift in how I’m feeling, and the genre that I’m in changes and shifts. I try to apply that to my fictional characters as well. 

TT: I’ve noticed that black filmmakers tend to bounce from genre to genre and tend to blend different tones together. In the last few years we’ve seen filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Mati Diop’s “Atlantiques” that have kind of shown the multifaceted nature of blackness by showing all of these genres within one piece. 

TP: I think you’re onto something. I’ve been wondering if it has something to do with code switching, or kind of in response to code switching. By seeing a lot of Black filmmakers do this, part of me wonders if maybe we’re saying “We’re not fucking switching codes anymore.” 

TT: You talked about the influence of “ANTI,” were there any other songs, musicians, albums or really anything else within pop culture that you found yourself going back to in the process of completing the film?

TP: Serpentwithfeet is an artist who has one of the most haunting voices in the world, so I listened to them a lot when I was writing and making [“Selah and the Spades”]. The Decemberists were also another big band for me, the “picaresque” album was a big one. A lot of books and poems. Gwendolyn Brooks poetry. “A Litany for Survival, Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress Towards.” Audre Lorde was another big one. Fran Ross, her book “Oreo” was a huge influence for [the character] Selah. Just this character of a Black girl that did whatever she wanted. I reread that a lot as I was writing. The short story “The Destructors” by Graham Green, that was one that I shared with the actors before we started production, I wanted it to be on their minds.

When I start writing, I tend to make playlists. As I’m listening to music I’ll just add whatever song makes me think of some little bit of a character, or some little portion of the story, or the atmosphere of the world. I shared that playlist with everybody on the cast and crew, and we’d just be listening to it on set so we could all be in the same aural landscape. But that playlist is like 8 hours long. It’s a lot of music, but it’s a very efficient way to create an atmosphere for yourself. 

TT: Did any artists pop up more often than others on that playlist? 

TP: Rihanna. There’s a lot of Solange. Caroline Shaw. She does a lot of this super creepy, vocal, tonal, stuff. The music is made of voices, but it’s not singing. The Blow. The Killers. Prince. There’s so much Prince. “When Doves Cry” is literally Selah. She is a very dramatic human being. Moses Sumney. Kamasi Washington. He was actually a huge influence for Jomo. Often when we were shot listing, we would be listening to Kamasi Washington, it kind of got ingrained in us as we shot. 

I listened to a lot of Wes Anderson scores. Particularly the ones for “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” In building the score with Aska Matsumiya, the composer, I just asked her “What would that music sound like if it was cooler and blacker and younger and hipper.”

TT: How did you feel about the film’s reception?  

TP: It felt really cool, but it still feels overwhelming to think about people thinking about you and your work. I’m not really used to that feeling, but I’m incredibly grateful for it. It’s a little bit like when you walk into a room and feel like everybody’s looking at me, but I can’t be certain because maybe everybody isn’t looking at me, but I think people are looking at me and I don’t know why. It kind of feels like that. Except I do know why, it’s because I put out this movie. A lot of people I follow talk about it. Every now and then, something appears on my timeline about the movie, and I think to myself, “I don’t think they know that I made this movie.” It happens sometimes on Instagram where people that I follow, and have followed for ages, will post about “Selah and the Spades” and I’ll DM them and say, “I’m so glad you watched this and liked it,” and they’ll react like, “Wait, YOU made this movie?” That was the weirdest part, but also the coolest. That’s how I prefer it. I like that it can exist and be its own thing that people can discuss, and hate, and love, whatever. But me? I’m separate. 

TT: In regards to the film’s reception, it’s definitely gained popularity with black teens due to its devotion to portraying the nuance of black girlhood. Also, being that I’m speaking to you as art director of Crybaby, and Crybaby was influenced by Rookie, I found it interesting how you said, in [a New York Times] interview, [Rookie] captured what it meant to be a young woman on the internet,” How did it inspire the film, or even your perception of girlhood in general? 

TP: It directly inspired me. I was on Tumblr all the time. Almost all of my teenagehood was spent on Tumblr. Rookie was very influential to me. I was a little bit older than the prime audience, which was cool because I felt like I could still partake in what was happening, but I also had the hindsight of my own teenage years. I had my own distance from it and could observe what was happening. It was just so beautiful to watch this space grow online. It felt like this comforting pocket of the internet. They used to have this series, “Scenes from Imaginary Movies.” I loved that. I used it for all of my lookbooks for “Selah and the Spades.” I used to do that for Selah. I would just take pictures and make these imaginary scenes because it just stimulates your brain. Rookie introduced me to Petra Collins’ work, which was another big influence for me. It was just really special. That’s why it makes me so happy to see you guys doing Crybaby, because it’s like this really special pocket of the internet can exist, and flourish, and introduce people to so many new ideas, and new art, and collages. I just also really love collages. I really like making them, so any time I see a new collage I’m just like “Oh my God!” 

TT: Did you have any difficulty pitching “Selah and the Spades”?

TP: Definitely. This is my first feature film, I didn’t have a bunch of shorts to back me up. I did have this project “Selah and the Spades: an overture.” It was this multimedia series of photos, short stories that I’d written, and short films that I had made about Selah and her world. It was still fucking hard, because I’m a Black woman. I also recognize that there were bits of luck that made it a lot easier. When I put out the overture, I shared it with Terrence Nance, who’s one of our [Executive Producers]. He loved it, tweeted about it, shared it with all of his friends, and Scott Macaulay at Filmmaker Mag happened to follow Terrence, and saw it on Twitter and loved it. He wanted to profile it for the magazine, and introduced me to Michelle Satter, who’s the head of the Sundance Institute. She loved the script. There was just a little bit of luck at every turn. It was also good timing. Then of course, I still had to be prepared for whatever that luck would bring mewhich I was. 

I do want us to be honest about luck, chance, and timing in life. There’s so many talented, amazing people who haven’t yet had that lucky moment. I feel like if we just say it’s talent and hard work, then we’re lying. Do you know how many untalented, un-hardworking people I know who still get work as directors? There’s plenty! Too many. The one thing they have in common is that they tend to be white men, so. With that said, I was lucky to have so many collaborators around me who believed in me, and believed in the story, and fought for me at every turn, and just made the process so much easier than it could have been. What happened in the life of this film was everything that was meant to happen because look at where we are. It is what it is.

TT: How receptive were you to continue the story, or do you prefer leaving it open-ended?

TP: I really don’t like it when a series comes out after a movie and they just stretch it out to be a show. That’s just not my jam, it’s not what I want to do with my work. If I write something to be a feature, it’s because it was meant to be a feature. If I write something to be a short story, it’s because that was meant to be a short story. Stories often tell us what format they’re supposed to be in. When they approached me about potentially doing a series and asked if I had any ideas, it was basically my only requirement that they don’t make me take the movie and stretch it out. They accepted that. I do have a lot of ideas about the world, the factions, what it would look like, and all these stories from Haldwell that can’t fit into a two hour movie. If all is well, it’s gonna come out fucking amazing. There’s just so much more you can do in a series, and you have so much more time. 

TT: How has life changed since we started quarantine?

TP: Quarantine is weird! It sucks, I hate not being a person in the world. 

TT: Is there anything that you’re working on right now in quarantine? 

TP: I’m writing for the show, writing my next movie, and working on another project that’s just fiction. I’m just doing a lot of writing. It’s a good time to be a writer. It’s also a terrible time to be a writer. 

TT: It’s a weird time to be a creator. You feel like you have all this time and should be creating every minute of it, but at the same time like? Girl, there’s a pandemic…

TP: There are so many days where I have so much to do and I just can’t do any of it. Luckily all of my producers are very understanding because we’re all under the stress of the pandemic.