‘Selah and the Spades’ writer/director Tayarisha Poe.
©2019 Sundance Institute | Photo by Myles Pettingill
While Philadelphia-born filmmaker Tayarisha Poe did in fact attend boarding school when she was growing up, she’s quick to note that there aren’t a whole lot of similarities between herself and her Selah and the Spades protagonist, Selah Summers. “I tend to write fictional characters doing the things that I wish I could do, or that I don’t have the guts to do.”
As a graduating senior who’s the leader of The Spades—one of the elite Haldwell School’s five feuding factions—Selah (Lovie Maxwell) is on the lookout for a successor, and she sees untapped potential in a new student, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor). There’s a Shakespearean feel to the proceedings as Poe treats the complicated politics of the high school popularity hierarchy with the seriousness Selah and her classmates do.
Selah and the Spades premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section, and since then, Poe—a 2016 Knight Fellow who brought the project through Sundance Institute’s 2017 Screenwriters and Directors Labs—has been busy adapting the film into a TV series. We caught up with her last week to chat about what inspired her to become a filmmaker, what it was like shooting the project, and which teen films were in constant rotation for her when she was growing up.
Read our interview below; then head to Prime Video to stream the film. [Ed. note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.]
Lovie Maxwell as Selah Summers in ‘Selah and the Spades.’
How long ago did you decide to turn the web series into a film? I know it’s a project you’ve been working on in some form or another since 2014, right?
I actually knew I wanted to make it into a film before I even started writing the web series, and the reason I started that was because I didn’t know how to write a film. I was like, well, I know how to write shorter things, and I know how to take photographs and stuff, so I’m going to figure out what this film is about by making a whole other project. [Laughs.] In retrospect, it was a lot of work just to figure out how to write something, but that’s how my brain works. Sometimes you gotta do more work to figure anything out.
When did the feature start coming together?
After I came out with [the web series] The Overture in 2014, Lauren McBride DM’ed me on LinkedIn and was like, “I saw The Overture; I’m so fascinated. I want to help you do whatever you want to do next.” And I was like, “Great, I want to make a feature film.” So we sort of figured out that process together, and then we were supported by Sundance and Cinereach and the guys at Secret Engine. It was definitely a learning experience, and it started in 2014.
One of the first things that you see onscreen in the film is the Ozma of Oz quote, and the film itself has a bit of a storybook feel to it—magical but a little frightening. Can you talk a bit about the quote?
Yeah, I love that quote. … I didn’t see The Wizard of Oz as a little kid. I grew up watching The Wiz. I didn’t understand what The Wizard of Oz was, but The Wiz—I got that. I read the book The Wizard of Oz before I really even understood there was a movie. I loved it, and after I read the first book, I read Ozma of Oz, and I remember feeling so … I was really young, maybe eight years old, and I remember feeling so traumatized because of how casually violent those books are. [Laughs.] Have you read those books?
Yes! I remember finding them to be so terrifying when I was a kid. They’re so disturbing.
The movie, too, is really disturbing. I started to pay a lot more attention to casual non-child feelings that were appearing in the children’s books that I was reading. Casual violence, thinking about death and money—things that I didn’t really think about when I was a kid, and that I understood were adult ideas. And I think I started to think, “Well, adults are humans, and I’m a human; they must be important ideas!” As an adult now, that’s my favorite feeling: watching a movie and feeling like I’m entering the story. It’s like turning a page in a new storybook—I love that.
It feels like there are a lot of literary references in Selah and the Spades. Sometimes it feels a bit Shakespearean, and sometimes it feels like you’re immersed in this hard-boiled detective novel—which makes sense to me, because when you’re a teenager everything feels like peak drama. Is that what drew you to writing about high schoolers?
Yeah, I mean, I love drama. That’s probably part of it. I make these jokes with my little brother all the time—that I think the reason I write and I’m a storyteller is that I’m so bad at fighting in real life. In order to get all of the drama that I want in life, I have to write it. [Laughs.] I love drama. I wrote scenes for high school [because] I went to a boarding school for high school in New Jersey called Peddie.
I think watching stories that take place in high school—like most of them do—at day schools and public schools felt like such a drastically different experience from my own high school experience, and I was just like, “Wow, these kids really go home at the end of every school day, and they have to deal with their parents EVERY DAY!”
I feel like that high school experience is so specific and so particular, and you have a whole other vocabulary of hiding things from your parents than you would if you lived with them in high school.
‘Selah and the Spades’ is now streaming on Prime Video. | Amazon Studios
Yeah, definitely. That different parent/teenager dynamic really struck me as I watched the film. I like the way you show Selah as this unapologetically strong character, and then we see a glimpse through phone calls and later in person of what her relationship is like with her mother. Can you talk a bit about that?
I mean, yeah, you touch on it. What is driving Selah? How does somebody like Selah come into being? It’s typically from somewhere. These things don’t just pop up at random; we’re all raised by someone—or not raised by someone. I felt like a character like Selah has to have her own Selah. Her Selah is her mom. That person for her has always been her mother, and I think that that’s true for a lot of teenage girls. You can’t help but rebel! [Laughs.]
Literally everything your body is telling you is that this person has your worst interests in mind, and this person is telling you, “I have only your best interests in mind.” I think that’s the constant struggle for teenage girls and their moms. But it was really important to me that that portrayal of her mom doesn’t capture the reality necessarily of their relationship but rather the feeling of being this queen bee at school and going home and being her mom’s daughter, you know? Where you don’t really have the power here.
You think that you do, but you really don’t. And that for Selah is like, “Shit, this person wants to take my power away.” Even from the perspective of her mom, she’s like, “Dude, I just want you to go to the best school.” For me, that section of the story is like probably the only thing that comes from my own life directly. My mom wanted me to go to this one school, Swarthmore, for college, and I definitely did not want to go to that school.
I fought so hard against it, and I ended up going there and it was great—I loved it! I loved all my friends, and it was totally fine, but at that moment, it felt like, “Holy crap, my mother doesn’t even trust me enough as a human being to make a decision for myself.” It wasn’t that big of a deal, but it felt like the hugest deal.
There’s that really powerful scene where Selah talks about the way 17-year-old girls are constantly having to fight for control over their decisions and their bodies, and how the Spirit Squad is the place they can go where they’re in control. Were you a cheerleader in high school, or did you have another outlet that served a similar purpose for you?
I was a cheerleader for a very brief time before high school and at my second high school, but for such a brief time that I really don’t lean into it. I think for me in high school, the place that gave me that feeling of control over myself was just when I started doing film and photography. For me, it was writing in high school—that power of being a creator where, like, you are a god. [Laughs.]
That idea of being the creator of a story helped me, kind of like what I was saying earlier about how there’s not enough drama in my real life. But it’s true: it really does help me. I tend to write fictional characters doing the things that I wish I could do, or that I don’t have the guts to do. Even if those things are bad or things that I morally wouldn’t do, they’re things that I wish that I had had the power to do. So I think that’s what influences me.
I really love the music in the film—how did that come together?
We worked with a great music supervisor from the very beginning. And from the very beginning, when I write, I make playlists for the projects I’m working on. As I moved through the story and as I’m explaining the story, there were very specific songs that I wanted to use that I couldn’t afford. The process of tracking down something that doesn’t necessarily sound like that song but that captures the feeling of that song—that was a fun process, actually, making the song choices affordable.
It worked really well, and my favorite song is the one that was used when Paloma puts her headphones on Selah and they’re listening to that song together, and then it shows up again in the end credits. It’s by Terence Nance, and he’s one of our executive producers and a dear friend, and I just love that song. I want everybody to listen to the whole credits song so you can see everybody who took part in the film, but I also feel like you could just listen and hear what that song is saying. I feel like it was in the perfect tune to help you think about all of the feelings that this movie makes you feel.
And then the score is one of my favorite aspects of the film. With the Spirit Squad sequence, a lot of it is built from sound from the gym; I just love what ASKA does. I’m not really a music person, so I don’t know the exact terminology, but she’ll take non-instruments and then just make music out of it. So there’s the sound of a pedal pushing down and she’ll make music out of that; the sound of your sneakers on the gym floor—she’ll make music out of that. The sound of the Spirit Squad’s skirts swishing in the air … she just makes music out of life.
‘Selah and the Spades’ is now streaming on Prime Video. | Amazon Studios
What was the hardest scene to film from a technical perspective?
The hardest thing to film without a doubt was, UGH, that scene—I’m still traumatized by it—where the characters are in the woods during prom with all the teenagers dancing around them. It was an overnight [shoot], and I find overnights to be particularly challenging on our minds and bodies. You’re in the middle of the woods in the middle of summer, and there were so many mosquitos and everybody was getting bitten. Nothing was going right!
Some equipment broke in the middle of this important scene, and so we had to quickly figure out how to record what we needed to record. As we were getting to the end, we were still trying to catch up on the time we lost because the equipment broke, and the sun was starting to rise! We were all there, and everybody could see that it was pre-dawn, basically; the sky was light and the sun was behind us and we were pretending it was still nighttime. We kept telling ourselves, “It’s gonna be fine, it’s gonna be fine, it’s gonna work,” and we were standing there keeping it all together and cheering everybody on.
And after I said bye to everybody and I got to the car and could let my professional director “everything is chill”–ness fall down, I was like, “IT’S ALL AWFUL! THE SUN IS COMING UP! WE CAN’T USE ANY OF IT! And then I actually saw the dailies and I was like, “It looks amazing!” [Laughs.] That was the hardest night for sure, but it just worked out so well. It just worked! It’s nice to have those moments! I think we all have those moments.
How did your cast come together?
We worked with Jessica Daniels for casting, and she’s brilliant. She’s worked on a lot of really diverse films, and she’s not going to try to whitewash your project. She’s brilliant, she’s there, she’s down to dig in and find the right people no matter where they are.
I remember she sent me the video of Lovie, and Lovie is very young. I think she just turned 20 in December, and when I saw her tape, I think she was probably 17, maybe 18? And she looked younger; she looks like a little kid. And I remember I saw her tape, and I was like, “I love her, but she’s way too young, and if we cast her as Selah, everybody else around her has to be younger.” We were already dealing with all of these age things.
I originally cast her as Paloma because I just knew I wanted her to be a part of it, but a few days later, everything reshuffled. Lovie became Selah and Celeste became Paloma, and Jharrel [Jerome] was Maxie, and I was looking at it and I was like, “Yes, this is the only way that it could possibly be!”
What are some of your favorite teen movies?
Oh, Clueless! It’s my favorite. Clueless is, like, oh my god! [Laughs.] Clueless is one of the greatest movies. It’s just so good. I rewatched it recently—maybe two weeks ago—and it was kind of shocking to me, because I used to feel like I’m my own person, and then I watch that movie and I’m like, no, I’m literally the Clueless movie. It influenced me so much when I first saw it as a seven-year-old that it’s like a part of my DNA. Clueless is definitely a big one.
Romeo + Juliet, the Baz Luhrmann film—I think of that as a teen movie. So entertaining, an intense teen drama—I love that one. Oh, and then also Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson is a big one, as another not-a-teen movie; it’s kind of a movie for everyone, and I love that movie. It’s just very sweet. Those are usually the ones that come to my mind and the ones that I think about when I think about coming-of-age stories or teenage films, in terms of not sacrificing the stylization for the plot. They’re all very stylized!
I understand you’re turning Selah and the Spades into a series for Amazon—could you tell us more about that?
Well, it’s still super early on, but what I will say is that it’s not just taking the movie and stretching it out into a series. It’s the same world and the same school, but it’s another story within that world.