Night Catches Us is a remarkably assured first feature for director and writer Tanya Hamilton. The story of men and women coming to grips with the aftermath of the Black Panther Party’s disintegration in ‘70s Philadelphia, the film is refreshingly contemplative and never feels less than true to its characters or setting. We recently had the chance to spend some time with Ms. Hamilton, who described her decision-making process and how she channeled her background as a painter into her first film.
I was impressed with how you managed to make a film set in the ‘70s while avoiding all of the clichés associated with the period (costume design, hair, soundtrack, etc.). What were some of the challenges?
I think money, really, to be crass. There are things I wanted to do that I couldn’t because I just didn’t have enough. Like shooting at night, or having a bunch of cops on the street. We had to be creative about these things, which I think worked. I have a great dislike for the garishness of the ‘70s. I love the aesthetic in a way but I think it’s so over-the-top. I knew that I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. I think I treasure subtlety pretty much in every way, sometimes too much.
I was curious how the film came to be set in Philadelphia. Is this a story you could have adapted to Black Panther history in another U.S. city?
Sure, there’s no doubt I could have adapted it in many ways to anywhere. I think I try to write what I know … cuz I’m not good at writing what I don’t know. Some people are good at making it up. I’m not one of those people. So I knew Philly by the time I wrote it in ’99. It was always set here just because it felt like the South. I was so heavily influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird, and by that idea of the neighborhood. I was so influenced by the South that New York made no sense and Philly was the only other place I knew besides D.C.
You've talked about bringing concepts like deconstruction and reconstruction to your filmmaking. A couple of scenes that really stuck with me were the sequences composed in extreme long shot. Did you shoot lots of coverage and then in the editing room decide, “All the scene needs is this.” Or did you know on location?
Again, that’s where I got into some trouble. Marcus under the bridge for instance, the scene was written to kind of show his isolation. I knew that I needed a visual transition to take me from that scene into the house and I knew that I ultimately needed to speak in subtext to what I wanted, which was that [isolation]. And similarly with Jimmy, I knew that the further I got away from his family, the more the landscape had to change and become more apocalyptic and also the shots had to be wider. So yeah, you want to see that building. Not only was it falling down and decaying, but when you look through those windows it looks like the seaside. It doesn’t look like there’s anything beyond it. That metaphor was important to me. He progressively moves so far away from his family and therefore so far away from reason and sanity and everything keeping him grounded, and that building spoke to us.
Knowing your background as a painter, I thought about the scene towards the end of the film where the police are going through the woods looking for the suspect. I started to think about that in terms of light and perspective, the fireflies--
Yeah, that was an accident -- the fireflies.
That’s a Philly thing in the summertime.
It’s really great. What can I say? It was a stressful day. I was like, “The light is fading! The light is fading!” I think that there’s a visual collaboration between myself, the D.P. and the editor and I think we all spoke the same language, were all interested in how do you tell the story visually, how do you tell it slowly? And not slow just to be slow but a respect for the period this comes from which is the ‘70s. I think people took their time a little more. We also wanted to find ways to give breaths throughout the film and to tell it as much in metaphor as we could. Part of that is frankly because of money. It’s the language I spoke no matter how much I tried to run away from it. We wanted to have that shot of the policeman’s feet. In part, we just couldn’t afford more policemen so the question was how do we recycle these guys without sort of tipping our hand? But also there was a real desire to abstract them. It’s not about police who kill people, it’s about this guy and so we thought a lot about it.
I thought about the fact that the film is 88 minutes but you still take your time with things. Did you cut out large chunks of exposition and narrative?
There was a ton of exposition. Really, as a writer, I don’t focus a lot on the ‘math’ stuff. It’s really something I struggle with. I’m just more interested in people and how they relate to one another and how they’re dealing with their stuff and so consequently, I think I’m not necessarily the best person at setup. So those first 20 minutes we struggled until the last breath before we had to let it go for Sundance and it was hard. There were fundamental things that I look back on that I purposefully said, “I don’t want that,” but you need them because you have to tell the story in this very specific way for people to find their way in. I still think there are some things we couldn’t do because we didn’t have the footage but I think we made the absolute best that we could.
And you can make yourself crazy trying to chase down what everyone wants.
It’s true. I let go which was nice. That panic that sets in of “I’m not telling the story in a way that people can understand” – and then sort of looking through all your footage and realizing you have to throw a ton of stuff out because creatively it doesn’t make sense. And then, in throwing it out, it brings up new problems. I needed to place Jimmy in the world of this family and I hadn’t shot it and I was like,”How did I miss this important thread?” And Jimmy is my favorite character and his arc was the one that I just spent so much time thinking about, but I think you can get into your head and sort of leave a little of the math behind.
I’m wondering how much time and effort you are going to spend for the 10 percent of the audience that might question how the policemen find Jimmy.
Yeah, none. As an audience member, I’m happy to be led. I’m happy to make the leaps I need to make. That’s quite different than how I establish my characters in the world that they’re going to live in versus a piece of math – “I need A, B and C.” – I’m cool with just going from A to C because my mind can say “They found him. It doesn’t matter how.”
At the beginning, when I mentioned some of the tropes of ‘70s movies, I said that your soundtrack didn’t fall into those usual traps. How did The Roots come to be involved? At what point in the process?
There were on pretty early. I knew their agent and she thought they’d be really great and I was like “Yeah” because I love them and they’re amazing and they are Philly and they’re very blackety-black which I love and it just sort of made sense. We looked to the Roots to be our bridge between the past and this present.
What have the past 11 months been like for you?
It’s been a great experience, actually. I’m not a fan of the growing exponential world that film is: I’d rather spend time with my child and my husband. But the part I really love is showing the film to audiences and then having this conversation with them. The biggest surprise is how many people can connect to the film. It’s so unlike what I thought. I’m very interested in the working class and the working poor and how do you ultimately speak to those audiences. How do you tell people’s stories with dignity? Frankly, I don’t think I ever thought (about) if I had achieved it and now I go around and all different kinds of people connect to it and that I find extremely lovely.
The film struck me as incredibly truthful regardless of whether or not I was ever in those circumstances or people that I know were.
Yeah, that’s really flattering. I think that there are these elements, these themes, that connect to all these different people which I think is great. That’s why I think it’s a film that can reach a lot of different audiences.