Podcast - EP 51: Nikyatu Jusu is elevating the horror genre

A Black woman looks at the camera. She has long braided hair, a strapless white dress, and a tatoo on her left shoulder.
Nikyatu Jusu

Nikyatu Jusu, an assistant professor of directing and screenwriting in George Mason University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, talks to Mason President Gregory Washington about her movie “Nanny,” which won the grand prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and why the horror genre is not all “jump scares.”

Just as often, she says, the monster is a commentary on human nature and the way we treat each other and ourselves. A fascinating conversation with this gritty, street filmmaker who went from studying biomedical engineering to putting non-traditional protagonists into fantastical worlds. 

      And there is a genre called elevated horror. There are many other euphemisms for elevated horror, but you're not getting those paint by the numbers. Jump scares in elevated horror. It's always about something besides the monster, like the monster is usually something that is commentary on human nature and the ways that we treat each other and the ways that we treat ourselves.

Nikyatu Jusu

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Transcript: Episode 51: Nikyatu Jusu is elevating the horror genre

Narrator (00:04):

Trailblazers in research, innovators in technology, and those who simply have a good story. All make up the fabric that is George Mason University, where taking on the grand challenges that face our students, graduates, and higher education is our mission and our passion. Hosted by Mason President Gregory Washington. This is the Access to Excellence podcast.

Gregory Washington (00:27):

We like to talk here at George Mason University about how grit and audacity are two of our core principles. My guest today is the true epitome of that. Nikyatu Josu is an assistant professor of directing and screenwriting in Mason's College of Visual and Performing Arts and is one of the industry's most up-and-coming filmmakers. Her debut film Nanny, which you can see on Amazon Prime, is about a Senegalese woman working in New York trying to raise money to bring her son to America. It was the first horror film and only the second film directed by a Black woman to win the grand prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. She wants to establish herself as a filmmaker who is centering non-traditional protagonists in these fantastical worlds because she believes in creating things that we haven't seen live in action. Nikyatu Jusu, welcome to the show.

Nikyatu Jusu (01:27):

Oh, what an intro. Dr. Washington <laugh>. That was amazing. Thank you for having me.

Gregory Washington (01:33):

There's a lot to talk about. First of all, I've seen the film Good. <laugh>, everybody out there who hasn't seen it. You should. It is an excellent film. It really is, thank you. That's a non-traditional film, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it has a flow of this whole genre of these African movies. Mm. Come because of Netflix and the like. They've brought lots of Nigerian films here. Yeah. But you can tell it has an American touch to it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, then it connects the spiritual aspect, almost like Beloved.

Nikyatu Jusu (02:03):

Oh, ooh.

Gregory Washington (02:04):

I don't know if that's negative or positive.

Nikyatu Jusu (02:06):

No, that's very positive. Tony Morrison Obsessed. We need a remake of that film. If anybody has to do it, I would love to be the one to do it. There you go. So that's such a compliment. Thank you.

Gregory Washington (02:17):

This release date was January 2022. So that means you shot during Covid, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So what was that like and how did that complicate the process?

Nikyatu Jusu (02:24):

Yeah. We shot Nanny on one of my sabbaticals. I'm almost, I'm running out of sabbaticals at the peak of Covid all over New York. So we shot in Brooklyn, we shot in Harlem, we shot in the city in Manhattan around the Tribeca area. And it was so challenging because we still didn't have a grasp on Covid. And so everything was changing in real-time. There were big gazillion-dollar productions that were getting shut down next to me, you know? And we were a micro-budget independent film, just gritty shooting in the street. And we made it to the other side, which is such a blessing. We used to say that once you finish shooting the film's last day of production, you can celebrate. But these days you can finish a film and it still gets buried in the industry. And so I knew I wasn't in the clear yet. So we went right into editing. I took maybe three days off from a 28-day averaging, 14-hour day shoots in the city at the peak of the summer peak of Covid, directing under a mask all day. And just sprinted into the editing process, post-production process, sprinted into submitting our film to some of the top festivals as we were still cutting the film and got into Sundance. And it's been history since

Gregory Washington (03:39):

It is classified as a horror film, right? Yes. But look, I didn't see it that way. To me, it had a lot to do with immigration. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the cultural differences between immigrants and how they're treated. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, not too long after I saw that movie, I was actually in New York City and I was in an Uber headed to the airport and it stopped right at a park. It was in the middle of the day. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and inside the park there, all of these young children playing and all of them. I mean, it had to be at least 25 kids in this park. Right. Um, all had nannies.

Nikyatu Jusu (04:15):

Yeah, yeah.

Gregory Washington (04:16):

And I looked at it and I immediately thought about the food. Right. That's good. So, so you have that immigration piece mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And it was this deep spiritual piece in the end, the entity that was supposed to be scary. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> actually was more spiritual.

Nikyatu Jusu (04:35):

Yes. Yes. Dr. Washington.

Gregory Washington (04:37):

And there was a benefit to the

Nikyatu Jusu (04:39):

Protagonist, Aisha protagonist

Gregory Washington (04:41):

In the movie. Right. Yeah. And, and it was a love story. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we had those pieces connected to it. The one thing I did not get from that film was horror.

Nikyatu Jusu (04:50):

Was horror. First of all, thank you for seeing all the things that you saw. I mean, everything you said in terms of spirituality and some of the themes, this is a cross-genre film, meaning there are many genres kind of crammed into one film. And most of the films that I have reverence for are non-American films. Even though you said that, I have a lot of, I think compared to seeing African films, it feels very American. But if you watch a lot of South Korean films or German films or Eastern European films, they get a lot more leeway to make films that are hard to pigeonhole into one genre. And there is a genre called Elevated Horror. There are many other euphemisms for elevated horror, but you're not getting those paint by the numbers. Jump scares in elevated horror. It's always about something besides the monster.

Nikyatu Jusu (05:41):

Like the monster is usually something that is a commentary on human nature and the ways that we treat each other and the ways that we treat ourselves. So I think about filmmakers like Aria Aster who made Hereditary. I think about Rosemary's Baby, I think about Jordan Peele's Get Out, and we don't have those jump scares. Like you're not waiting to jump, but you do feel a sense of dread, a sense of tension that kind of gradually rises. And those are the types of films that I really love. The Wailing is a South Korean film that is considered elevated horror, and Train to Busan is a zombie film. South Korean film is a brilliant commentary on humanity and who is actually the monster. And so when I made Nanny, I knew I was going to get pushback, especially because we haven't seen a protagonist like Aisha in Elevated Horror.

Nikyatu Jusu (06:35):

You know, we've seen The Witch, which was a really subdued, grounded, contained American elevated horror film. And so there's a whole canon of work that I think about when I think about the way that I approached Nanny. And so all of these influences inform my approach. So when Blumhouse was the one who purchased Nanny, 'cause we were one of the few films who premiered at Sundance with no marketing, no distribution, super small, gritty indie film. We were waiting, even though we were in competition, we were waiting to get purchased by a studio because we didn't have it at the moment. So when Blumhouse was brave enough to take our film on, I was like, oh God, this is gonna attract all these like film bros who are expecting paint-by-the-numbers horror, which this film is not,

Gregory Washington (07:22):

Is not.

Nikyatu Jusu (07:24):

All my press run. I was dealing with having to spend a lot of time talking through how this is still within the horror canon but fits into a more experimental, grounded iteration of horror. I just learned to have references up my sleeve because it see the pushback on, and this is not from you, Dr. Washington, but there was a lot of racial tension around our film 'cause most of the reviewers who you're exposed to when you reach a certain quote-unquote pedigree of filmmaking, most film reviewers are White men still overwhelmingly. And so engaging my film, they were forced to engage it. One, because we screened in competition at Sundance, and two, we won the grand jury prize and we were the first horror film to win it. And so when you're the first horror film to win it, you're going to be under a microscope in terms of are you truly a horror filmmaker. Is your film truly a horror film? What is a horror film? It's a good dialogue to have.

Gregory Washington (08:22):

For those of you out there who don't know, I think we should talk a little bit about your personal story. Okay. <laugh>, it kind of borders his mind a little bit. You took a different path. So you grew up in Atlanta. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Nikyatu Jusu (08:33):

Born and raised in Atlanta,

Gregory Washington (08:35):

Daughter of Sierra Leone and immigrants. Yep. In a household, you've described as one of voracious reading. That being said, you went to Duke University to study biomedical engineering. Yes. Yes. <laugh>. When I saw that, I was like, yes. That's what I'm talking about. Right. <laugh>. I hate to see the field lose.

Nikyatu Jusu (08:54):

Oh listen, I have so much reverence for engineers.

Gregory Washington (08:57):

But as a humanist, yeah. Recognize your calling. A lot of people don't realize that in my own personal life, English was one of my first loves. I came. Yeah. I love poetry. And the old Canterbury Tales, <laugh>, Edgar Allen Poe,

Nikyatu Jusu (09:12):

He was onto something, wasn't he? Edgar Allen Poe that he was, all his stuff is horror, but it's existential and it's psychological. And he's a good reference actually.

Gregory Washington (09:22):

<laugh>, I hear you. <laugh>. So at some point in time in your life, you made the switch from biomedical engineering. How did you get into film?

Nikyatu Jusu (09:30):

I've had a very winding trajectory. So I pivoted my sophomore year of college. It didn't take me long. I got to do engineering. And I think when you excel in high school in every subject, it's hard to identify what your actual passion is. This isn't a humble brag. I'm here for a reason. I excelled across the board in high school, and in school in general. And so I was just kind of going through the motions. At some point I was like, okay, I'm good at all these things, but what do I actually get excited about? And when you have immigrant parents, as you mentioned, whether you're an Indian parent, an African parent, or an Asian parent, I don't think that immigrants of Black and Brown cultures compare notes enough. Because education is key, right? Education is always top of the totem pole priority. And you better be getting a degree in something where you're gonna make money on the other side of this degree.

Nikyatu Jusu (10:24):

African parents don't wanna hear about the arts, they don't wanna hear about creative writing. Good job. You got an ‘A’ in creative writing. But how's that physics course doing? How was the intro to biology 101? So I was pushed really hard by my immigrant parents. And I appreciate that because I know it stems from love, but it also stems from fear. It stems from a fear of not knowing how their child's life is gonna turn out. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I never took it as something that was a slight on my humanity, although at the time there was a lot of pressure on me. So sophomore year of Duke, I stumbled into a screenwriting class and it fulfilled an English requisite. I mean, you mentioned English, even in engineering, you had to fulfill the English requisite.

Gregory Washington (11:08):

That’s right. You had to get your right general education grade.

Nikyatu Jusu (11:11):

And thank God, because I would've been

Nikyatu Jusu (11:13):

<laugh> And because I would've been sitting in these engineering courses, like, oh my God, I was already going through it. So I stumbled into this screenwriting class and really superficially, I was like, oh, this is one class where I get to be around people who are athletes, who might be cool, who are not as intense as the engineering students or the science students. And so it was one part vanity, but another part, I love reading and I love writing. And I fell in love, Dr. Washington. It destabilized me so much that I had to go back to my parents and say, and mind you, this is after I had done my research, 'cause if you're gonna come to your parents and say that you're pivoting from biomedical engineering,

Gregory Washington (11:52):

Not just biomedical engineering, but biomedical engineering at Duke. At Duke. At Duke, which was court of their Pinnacle programs.

Gregory Washington (11:58):

Listen, don't remind me, please. <laugh>. Okay. Although it still worked out. But I knew I had to plead my case. So I had done research on what a comparable degree would be within film literature and film is a Tide major. 'cause Duke didn't have a film major at that time. Went to, my parents, and said, this is what I wanna do. I'm really in love with this. They supported me. They asked a lot of questions, and I know my parents. So I already had all the receipts for what my pathway could look like. And my dad was like, if you're serious about pivoting your sophomore year of undergrad, we need to sit down and think about graduate school and what your terminal degree looks like in filmmaking. And again, this goes back to me being lucky and having, you had brilliant parents,

Gregory Washington (12:43):

You had good parents.

Nikyatu Jusu (12:45):

I know. Believe me.

Gregory Washington (12:47):

Before we go any further than you started off for the show, started here talking about the actor and writer strikes that are going on and <laugh>. Yeah. And so you're a member of the Writer's Guild if I'm not mistaken.

Nikyatu Jus (12:58):

I am. You must have seen my tenure portfolio.

Gregory Washington (13:01):

Hadn't seen your portfolio yet. <laugh> Not what's coming.

Nikyatu Jusu (13:06):

That's the only guild. Oddly enough, people are like, why are you not in the Director's Guild? Because Right. That's a whole other beast. So, but I'm in the Writer's Guild. Yeah.

Gregory Washington (13:15):

That means you are technically on strike right now. Is that accurate?

Nikyatu Jusu (13:19):

Absolutely. Yeah. Pens down, <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (13:22):

<laugh>, pens down, fist up, pens down. <laugh>. I see you. I see, I see you. Good <laugh>. So help us understand what's the real issue with Strike.

Nikyatu Jusu (13:37):

Oh, you know what? As soon as I finished the Nanny tour, the strike started, you know, so I'm educating myself because educating, I just got my Writer's Guild status after Nanny. Unions have been a mystery to me. I'm in the Writer's Guild, try to get into the Director's Guild. They're so protected for a reason. Like the hoops to get into the DGA are astronomical. But I'm educating myself because I'm very much in academia and I'm an indie filmmaker in my brain. Even though after Nanny, I've got studio projects on my slate. I'm still very much indie, gritty, street filmmaker. And so I'm still educating myself. But based on my circle, I know so many people who moved to LA after NYU grad film and just started their TV writing career ages ago. Everybody wants a fair wage. There's a lot of free labor that writers do.

Nikyatu Jusu (14:35):

Dr. Washington, take this meeting, put together this presentation. Here's a novel, here's a short story, here's a water painting. How would you adapt this to a script? And so screenwriters are constantly having to have meetings, break story, put together presentations based on their idea, a breaking story. Then we receive notes. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so how much of this are you getting paid for? How much of this is quantified? How much of this is labor that you have enough protection around you to make sure that you're getting paid for your labor? So the strike is really essentially about being paid a fair wage in an industry that thrives based on writer's work. I mean, the springboard is the screenplay, is the pilot. Whatever you have on the page is the blueprint

Gregory Washington (15:24):

Is the writer, because they're not on the screen? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they're not seen as much by the public.

Nikyatu Jusu (15:32):

It's not sexy, it's not visible. If I had to put up a camera on my daily life when I'm writing mm-hmm. <affirmative>, nobody would wanna watch it. I'm literally, it's, it's

Gregory Washington (15:44):

It's writing <laugh>. You're in a room if you're lucky, it's a safe space. And you're processing notes and you're interpreting what people just sent you in terms of fixing problems. But it's such a process of intellectual labor. And a lot of it happens alone in isolation. And so you turn over a draft and people just kind of cut it apart, chop it up. So I think a lot of people just don't understand what the process of writing is. So I'm excited that the strike is garnering attention to how much of this process is in the writer's hands before we start getting the sexy technology. And we're on set with the A-list actors. Something has to be on the page. Mm-hmm.

Gregory Washington (16:26):

<affirmative>, speaking of which, what I heard was that there's also this concern about artificial intelligence.

Nikyatu Jusu (16:33):

Mm, yes.

Gregory Washington (16:34):

That presents to writers. So I've worked in this space. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I can tell you a lot about it. I've published papers in this space.

Nikyatu Jusu (16:42):

I would like to see those.

Gregory Washington (16:44):

<laugh>. They're real technical now. But the thing is, I understand artificial intelligence reasonably well. Right. Do you see it as a real danger?

Nikyatu Jusu (16:52):

So I don't know if you're familiar with Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican filmmaker. He makes fantasy, but it has horror elements. He's one of my mentors in my head and gave a really glowing review of Nanny just informally on his Twitter. But he was part of this group of writer-directors that I got to pop in and hear working filmmakers, discuss the strike and discuss fears around ai. And so I'm still educating myself on what that means, just like I am educating myself about the strike and exactly what people have been navigating. Guillermo stated something that I agree with. And as a filmmaker who's been in the industry for a while, he's older than me, he's wiser than me. He's one of the people who, when he speaks, I listen. He feels like for motion picture in terms of directors directing live action and movement, imagery that moves and imagery that you hear and feel.

Nikyatu Jusu (17:49):

There's a little ways off for AI to be a significant danger. Those of us navigating the written word and static images, photographers, graphic designers, the immediacy of the threat is more significant. And what does it mean for it to be a danger? What does it mean for AI to be a threat? Because we have different iterations of AI. Now, when you search for something on Google, AI is already pulling from the algorithm of your previous history. We already are being watched and surveilled. So me as an individual filmmaker, but also as an educator, as a professor of filmmaking, I'm curious about the ways that we harness these tools to our benefit. How do I maximize my ability as a writer, director in the realm of AI? How do I make myself even more competitive? And I think that tinkering with chatGPT individually and doing a little research, I think there are ways to harness it to maximize your working capability. Whether it's brainstorming or research. There are ways to put in prompts that really respond to you in a meaningful way that saves time when you're writing a script.

Gregory Washington (19:00):

That’s probably a good approach to take in terms of understanding how the tools are gonna be used. I don't know the field that well, but I know the, what's happening in the AI space. And I don't think you have 10 years and before you start. Right.

Nikyatu Jusu (19:13):

That makes sense.

Gregory Washington (19:14):

But you're going to start to see people utilizing tools, not just chatGPT, they're a whole host of tools now. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> that are out and available. You're gonna see people using tools to help you. You know, you get to a sticking point in writing.

Nikyatu Jusu (19:29):

Right. And that's where I am.

Gregory Washington (19:31):

Ideas. Right. Or you

Nikyatu Jusu (19:32):

Like, how can we harness these tools to make us more efficient?

Gregory Washington (19:36):

Right. You can write something and then feed it to the AI and have it tell you what it thinks of what you've written.

Nikyatu Jusu (19:42):

Right. And Dr. Washington, I've had a lot of intense deadlines at the peak of the strike. 'cause everybody was trying to get work in, and the execs wanted your work in ASAP. And so I had time crunches and I was like, how can I use this technology to make my process more efficient? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And there was a moment where I needed prompts and it sent me a series of responses. And one response, my instinct told me this was incorrect. So I Googled it. I did research. It was a completely wrong answer. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Like referencing a whole different artist, a whole different person gave the quote, like, you would've embarrassed yourself if you were on a panel and you just regurgitated this information. And so I responded to AI in ChatGPT, and I said, this was wrong. This is actually, who said this. Immediately I got a prompt that was like, you're right. This was incorrect. Apologies for misdirecting you. And I'm like, how many people are going to follow up on responses they get and make sure and confirm that they're truthful? A lot of people aren't. And when you hold the system accountable, and I think this is my biomedical engineering background, because computers give you what humans put into them.

Gregory Washington (20:53):

They do. But that is where the real change is happening. In the early days of AI, you had all of this data mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that you put into the computer and it would then give you the data back that you trained it on. Right. And that was great because the more data you had, the more knowledge the algorithm had. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Now the real big jump in benefit, the real change that's happened with generative AI is that you can train the algorithm on all this data, but then ask it to extrapolate. And it does it reasonably well. Uh,

Nikyatu Jusu (21:31):

And reasonably is the word. Because

Gregory Washington (21:33):

If you went back and asked now,

Nikyatu Jusu (21:35):

I bet it has the right answer.

Gregory Washington (21:37):

Has the right answer. And that's the thing. And not only does that Yeah. But every computer in the world,

Nikyatu Jusu (21:43):

And this is why people are fighting because we need to quantify and monetize how we're educating these systems to be stronger and better to replace us essentially.

Gregory Washington (21:54):

I get it. And it's not just talk about chatGPT. You can generate images now with Dolly. Yeah. The big issue was in extras. That's what you know.

Nikyatu Jusu (22:02):

MmHmm<affirmative> getting people's likeness and duplicating it.

Gregory Washington (22:05):

You could put it on top of bodies anywhere.

Nikyatu Jusu (22:08):

It's intriguing. Dr. Washington, I love this stuff. I'm obsessed with this stuff.

Gregory Washington (22:13):

Don’t forget your engineering background. You may have to.

Nikyatu Jusu (22:15):

No, but that's what I'm saying. Like I still have that engineering scientific background that grounds me in fiction. I'm still really interested in this stuff.

Gregory Washington (22:24):

I want to talk a little bit about Nanny <laugh>. It's, it has such depth to it and so many layers and levels. Right?

Nikyatu Jusu (22:31):

Thank you.

Gregory Washington (22:31):

What were you going through mentally? What were you thinking about? How did you come up with this story, to layer it like you did, how you developed Aisha's character? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Nikyaatu Jusu (22:42):

Yeah. The audience does not want to know what I was going through, but definitely, I pulled from the women in my family's story. So born and raised in Atlanta, Sierra Leonian family. Domestic work is a big entry point for Black women immigrants, Brown women, immigrants, but also Black American women. It's one of the jobs that is one of the oldest occupations that have been made accessible to Black and Brown women from the inception of this country. Good and bad. It's something that is old and ancient but is undervalued because Black and Brown women's labor is undervalued. And how many of us really wanna think deeply about the woman in our home who's cooking our food and cleaning our mess, and essentially raising our children. I don't have a nanny, but I can imagine the fear of having if you're being honest with yourself, like how are you treating this person who has so much power in your domestic space?

Nikyatu Jusu (23:42):

So it was on and off for eight-ish years that I pursued this idea. And whenever I tell my students at George Mason in the FAVS program, I'm like, it wasn't eight consecutive years. It was me taking a break on this project, visiting another project that I felt like maybe would get made sooner. So stacking, stacking ideas. Not being someone who's censoring yourself. Like if there's something that draws your attention as an artist, create a folder in Google Drive, throw some articles in there and take a break from it. But constantly nurture and pour water and fertilizer into the ideas that get you excited about being an artist. Because more and more as we pursue this trajectory in an ever-increasingly destabilized, capitalistic system, you have to really care about your ideas. It's not enough to just feel like I wanna be a part of the industry.

Nikyatu Jusu (24:36):

Is this an idea that you can see through for five years? Is it an idea that you can continuously speak about in an exciting way for three consecutive years, regardless of how the industry goes? So it took a while. I started and stopped. And now that I got this entry point with Nanny, I have other ideas that I abandoned and came back to and poured into enough that are now exploding in different ways. Like I did interviews where people were like, breakout star breakout filmmaker. I'm like, breakout only if you didn't know me already. Because everyone who knows me knows that I would chip away at different ideas simultaneously to make sure that I had something that was ready to go.

Gregory Washington (25:18):

And you were working on this thing <laugh> for a while, huh?

Nikyatu Jusu (25:21):

Long story short,

Gregory Washington (25:22):

You were able to get some really good people. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Nikyatu Jusu (25:26):

Amazing cast and crew.

Gregory Washington (25:30):

I'm familiar with Sinqua Wall's work.

Nikyatu Jusu (25:32):

Oh, he's gonna love to hear that. Dr. Washington. He's amazing.

Gregory Washington (25:37):

So he was on Power. I liked that. He was on the Don Cornelius whole Soul Train thing. I thought he did well.

Nikyatu Jusu (25:42):

And even though it was a short stint, you saw it. He garnered an audience. You know, I think what people don't understand is that every job matters. You garner a new audience when you take on a job like that.

Gregory Washington (25:54):

Oh, that was so cool. And Anna Diop, she played that part extraordinarily well. The quality of the individuals, the actors in the film.

Nikyatu jusu (26:04):

Thank you, Dr. Washington.

Gregory Washington (26:05):

What made you add the spiritual part to it?

Nikyaatu Jusu (26:09):

I love that you keep bringing up the spiritual. I'm very spiritual and I find that people either get it or they don't in terms of spirituality. I come from a family of people who are very immersed in Christianity, organized religion, go to church every few days. And I grew up in that and rejected Christianity. Uh, for me, I was tapped into the universe. I was tapped into how I feel, my gut, my instincts, and just receiving messages from the universe. So my father transitioned from cancer at the peak of my pre-production process. He was going through it. I was writing, we were in the process of securing financing and I was navigating grief. So this is part of what I poured into Nanny once we were greenlit. I think that sometimes if you're really tapped into the universe and spirituality, you receive these signs that keep you going even when you think that you don't have anything left.

Gregory Washington (27:10):

So I hear you now, you could tell me if this is wrong, but I'm hearing <laugh>, you're gonna do MGMs Night of the Living Dead Sequel. Is that,

Nikyatu Jusu (27:17):

That’s what they say. <laugh> <laugh>. So again, going back to stacking projects, that's one of the projects that I'm not writing as a writer-director. It's one of the few, most of the projects that I have on my slate, I'm writing and directing. And there's a whole other screenwriter, Latoya Morgan who wrote for the Walking Dead series is writing that. So everyone is respecting each other. I'm not checking on her. She's not checking on me. I don't know if she's writing. I'm sure she's not. 'cause she's in the WGA.

Gregory Washington (27:50):

She's in the Writer's Guild too.

Nikyatu Jusu (27:51):

Oh, Latoya is very much, she's more in it than I am. I slid in, 'cause I'm a filmmaker, but she's been in rooms like writer's rooms for series. So she's paid her dues.

Gregory Washington (28:03):

So this one is kind of on the back burner until the strikes are resolved. Is that?

Nikyatu Jusu (28:10):

Everything is until the strikes are resolved, everything is on the back burner. If you're in solidarity with the workers, which I am, you know, it's easy for me, but I, I'm also not someone who has a film that needs marketing right now. So there are a lot of small, independent filmmakers, marginalized filmmakers, who can't promote the work that they worked hard on right now, 'cause the rules are not just writing the rules are like promotion. You can't promote your project, you can't do press, you can't, there are a lot of parameters that a lot of the public doesn't know. So had I been on this side of things after killing myself to make my first feature, I don't know how I would feel. So I have a lot of compassion for filmmakers who I know who toughed it out and can't promote the work that they made in the past two years because of the strike. So now if you have this amazing series on Amazon and you can't promote it, who's gonna see it? You know? And so these companies can still go back and say, we're not making diverse work. It doesn't turn over money. It is tricky.

Gregory Washington (29:16):

I understand. In Nanny, one of the most powerful moments in the film is when the lead character Aisha is asked is Rage your Superpower. Mm-hmm. Now that came from somewhere, you wrote that. So tell me about that question. Is that a question you've asked yourself?

Nikyatu Jusu (29:32):

I want to ask you, Dr. Washington, 'cause you're one of the few people who's asking me this question who I can return the question. Like, what was it about that moment that made you feel like it resonated or made you feel curious about it? Because the fact that you identified it is a big deal for me.

Gregory Washington (29:51):

The whole dynamic in the film. Okay. You have this young woman with this power that she doesn't quite realize she has. Right. She, she's clearly more intelligent than the family that she is supporting. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that was clear to me, even the young child that she was caretaking Rose.

Kinyatu Jusu (30:11):


Gregory Washington (30:12):

That Rose was tearing that African food up. <laugh>, you know? You know, she

Nikyatu Jusu (30:18):

Loved it.

Gregory Washington (30:18):

Oh, she did. Right. And there was a power that Aisha had that like I said, I don't know if she really realized it.

Nikyatu Jusu (30:26):

You’re right, everything you've said is accurate.

Gregory Washington (30:28):

I took it that she had a right to be angry at her circumstance, was clearly a victim of the Zip Code lottery. If you Right. For lack of a better way.

Nikyaatu Jusu (30:38):

I like that Zip Code lottery

Gregory Washington (30:39):

And, she was struggling with how she was going to use the way she was feeling. And so that wasn't her only superpower. Right. The thing that amazed me is why would rage be the one thing that was intelligence. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, she was clearly attractive.

Nikyatu Jusu (30:55):

Yeah. Anna is gorgeous. When I saw her reel, I was like, I mean I'm a Libra, and Libras love beauty and as a filmmaker who's a Libra, I'm always gonna cast some people I think are gorgeous.

Gregory Washington (31:09):

Why that superpower? Because she had all, I thought she had this way of communicating. Right? Right. She could engage with this young child in ways that the child's mother could not.

Nikyatu Jusu (31:20):

Yeah, I love that. Dr. Washington. Like you gave me a lot of backstory and the moments you've identified, you are my target audience. I just navigated a lot over the course of Nanny. I navigated people who were like, oh, this sucked. It was boring, it was weird. I didn't get it. And I'm like, that's fine. You're not my target audience. Rage is something that we all have to harness good and bad. Especially if you are navigating a society where you see very clearly all the inequities and you get frustrated for everyone. I'm one of those people who even as a kid would just hone in on weird moments and spaces that I was in and wanted to root for the underdog, you know? And wanted to just always think about how we can make a more equitable society. I pull from Toni Morrison, you mentioned Beloved.

Nikyatu Jusu (32:12):

I pull from Saidiya Hartman, I pull from Ousmane Sembene. I pull from so many people, so many artists, thinkers, writers, filmmakers, painters, James Baldwin. All of them navigated rage at having seen and understood the inequities that we're navigating. But having to just fall in line and read from this script in academia. We talked about my trajectory. I went to Duke undergrad. I went straight to NYU grad film, which is a whole story in itself. Like I didn't take a break. I haven't taken a break from academia. I graduated from NYU, I made films and now I'm teaching. You know, I've been teaching while I've been a student for a long time. And so I've never had a clinical distance from academia. I've always been immersed in it in every facet. And so I'm able to use the language I need to use to articulate the inequities that I see so clearly all the time.

Gregory Washington (33:10):

Last question, what is it like to be associated with an iconic film <laugh> forever? Right. You look, you won the big prize.

Nikyatu Jusu (33:18):

I did, didn't I

Gregory Washington (33:19):

You did. So what is that like? Do you walk in places?

Nikyatu Jusu (33:23):

Oh, please, <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (33:24):

No, no, no. I I'm not talking about, I'm not talking about everyday fans. Right? I'm talking about people who are in the space. Mm. Know movies and the like.

Nikyatu Jusu (33:34):

Like other filmmakers,

Gregory Washington (33:36):

They come up to you and there are people who are making millions in this business

Nikyatu Jusu (33:41):

Quietly. The smart ones are quiet about it.

Gregory Washington (33:44):

They don't have that award.

Nikyatu Jusu (33:45):

Oh yeah.

Gregory Washington (33:46):

They don't have that banner.

Nikyatu Jusu (33:47):

Listen, I did an interview with the Spirit Awards, uh, film Independent. I won someone to watch. It was a big award that I won in March of this year in LA at an event where I saw a lister. Like people, you only see on the screen. I'm in the room. My table's next to anyone you can think of in this space and didn't think I was gonna win. It was me and two other really brilliant filmmakers. And I won. And I did an interview backstage afterward and they were like, how has it been? Da da da da. And I mentioned how lonely this trajectory is. It's actually immensely lonely for the reasons that you just listed. People are not coming up to you. You would think you'll be at the Oscars, right? Or the Governor's Ball or whatever. The Spirit Awards. And you're in this room of people who get it, who get what you're navigating career-wise

Nikyatu Jusu (34:39):

'cause they're actors and they're DPs and they're editors, but everyone is so in their own bubble. Especially if you're a minoritized person in these spaces. I don't think it's the most organic space where people are finding community. Most of my community that lingers are not my film school people because it becomes hyper-competitive. It's kind of like law in the sense of only a few of you graduate and will go to the top law firms. Right? Only a few of you who graduate from film school at a top-tier film school will continue to make films. Some of you will have to figure out a living that is sustainable and filmmaking is not always sustainable. So it's actually really isolating.

Gregory Washington (35:21):

That's really interesting. I never thought that.

Nikyatu Jusu (35:23):

Yeah, it's really alienating and everything hinges on financing. Like you need money to make a film <laugh>. You have to really be hyper-cautious about the way that you present in public.

Gregory Washington (35:35):

No, I hear you. Well, this is a fascinating conversation. I can't wait to see what's next for you. Have my eyes <laugh>. I'd like to thank my guest, Nikyatu Jusu, the professor of directing and screenwriting, and George Mason University's College of Visual and Performing Arts and director of Nanny, which you can all see right now on Amazon Prime. I am Mason President Gregory Washington saying, until next time, stay safe. Mason Nation.

Narrator (36:09):

If you like what you heard on this podcast, go to podcast.gmu.edu for more of Gregory Washington's conversations with the thought leaders, experts, and educators who take on the grand challenges facing our students, graduates, and higher education. That's podcast.gmu.edu.