Tanya Hamilton thinks the ordinary is fascinating. Based on her film, I totally agree. In her critically-lauded debut film Night Catches Us, which was much buzzed-about at Sundance, she focuses on ordinary people in a working class Philadelphia neighborhood in 1976. The film connects us to black families as they try to make a living, sort through life, find a sense of community and rise above past mistakes. With incredible acting by Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) and Kerry Washington (Ray), along with original music by The Roots, every scene felt authentic and drew me in.
A Jamaican-American, Tanya says the African-American experience has a romantic allure for her. Night Catches Us is set a few years after the height of the Black Panther movement, which was both an empowering and controversial time in history. As the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis points out, Night Catches Us “wonderfully weds the political to the personal.”
In the film she wrote, directed and produced, Tanya shows us a universal goal we all strive for: to belong and to make a difference…and the delicate thread that separates choosing the right vs wrong way to achieve that.
I had a chance to talk with Tanya, mother to a 4 year old, after a screening of Night Catches Us at the Twin Cities Film Festival. She’s a smart, thoughtful, candid filmmaker who will undoubtedly keep rolling out compelling features for years to come. For now, look for Night Catches Us at a film fest or independent theater – or put it in your Netflix queue.
You were a painter before you were a writer and director. How does being a painter influence your filmmaking?
It effects how I see everything. I see the world with color and composition. My cinematographer, David Tumblety, and I drew out storyboards for everything. We spent a lot of time figuring out visuals: how the actors should be framed on the porch and in doorways.
I’m a collector of old photographs and there’s a great patina when they fade. My background in painting makes me really aware of these tones and details.
Although Night Catches Us is a personal story that is character-driven, you seem to make something of a political statement. Can you talk about this?
I love small stories – the “kitchen sink stuff” – but I like to tell these small, personal stories in a larger context that gives it social relevance. I want to make films that have a social impact and make people see the world differently.
In this film you do everything from write to direct to produce. Do you hope to wear all these hats moving forward with future projects?
I think that’s just the nature of independent filmmaking – you do it all. It’s actually really helpful because you get to make all the decisions – what gets cut, how to edit, etc.
How long did it take to make Night Catches Us?
It took 10 years. I started writing it a decade ago and kept working on it. Getting financing was challenging and at times I felt I would not be able to get the film made. Over the course of the 10 years various actors were attached to the project,
but it wasn’t until we got funding that we could start to truly secure the pieces in place. We shot the film in just 18 days.
Did the story change as you matured over the 10 years you spent writing and making it?
Yes it did. The story became about growth. When I started writing Night Catches Us, I was 31 and very interested in kids and their perspective. I think it stemmed from my love of To Kill A Mockingbird which is seen through an 8 year old’s eyes. Initially, Night Catches Us was mostly about Iris (the 10 year old daughter), a little bit about Marcus (the ex-Black Panther who comes back to his old neighborhood) and hardly at all about Iris’s mother Patricia. But after I came out of my “kid perspective” phase, the story evolved and became a more serious story about the characters’ growth and an emphasis on the adults, Patricia and Marcus.
There’s a great soundtrack in the film, including original music by The Roots. How did your music come together?
Early in the making of the film, I found some great R&B songs about Vietnam and I thought the idea of soldiers coming home from Vietnam and the film’s character Marcus coming back to his old neighborhood had some parallels. I loved the music, but did not have the money for the rights.
Eventually it all came together with the help of a good friend who is the kind of person whose entire living room is shelves and shelves of records. We selected music that fell into one of three categories:
1) Music of the time that was steeped in politics.
2) Music inspired by the 70s but with a contemporary sound.
3) The Roots, who scored the most emotional moments in the film.
We were so fortunate to have The Roots involved. We connected with their manager, Rich Nichols, and he was instrumental in making it happen.
You have a 4 year old daughter – how did this affect your film?
After she was born, I took two years off to just be with her and I basically put the film aside. For me, being mom and working on the film at the same time did not work well. When she was 2, the time came that I had to complete and shoot the film. I hadn’t been separated from my daughter and it was really hard to be only half present to her when I was in the thick of shooting. When I was filming, I had to “divorce” from my family and be fully into the creative process. I wanted to be wholeheartedly working on the film, wrap it up, and then be fully into my family again.