Brooke Davis, online arts editor at Columbia Journal, spoke with director and filmmaker Tayo Amos about her short films On The Clock and A Blossom in the Night and creation during the pandemic.
Tayo Amos, a first-generation Nigerian-American, received her B.A. from Stanford University and her M.F.A. from USC, where she also received the James Bridges Directing Scholarship. This rising talent was selected as a 2019 Blackhouse Sundance Fellow, a 2014 Team Oscar member, and a guest speaker at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2015. Her thesis film, On The Clock, completed its festival run and is now available on Amazon Prime. Amos’s next short, A Blossom in the Night (starring Junior Nyong’o and Brittany Giles), had its world premiere at Urbanworld 2020 and is part of the SHOOT Online New Directors Showcase. She also directed the short film, Magnolia Bloom, with Lex Scott Davis (Superfly, The First Purge), scheduling its festival run in 2021.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Columbia Journal: How has your work or creative process shifted during the pandemic?
Tayo Amos: It’s been weirdly cool. When COVID first hit, I was very lucky that all the projects I was working on had shot already. I’d just wrapped another short film, a period drama loosely inspired by Josephine Baker and her story standing up against racism as a jazz singer. We shot pickups literally in February. Everything had to be remote in terms of post-production, so that was a challenge. We had a colorist in India, our DP was in Japan, and my producers and I were in L.A. A process that would normally take two weeks took two months. Then another project came my way. A friend of mine, a producer, brought me into this anthology film project where filmmakers make short films all around the country to make a larger anthology film. This was right after George Floyd and the protests started, and I remember just feeling really torn up about what was happening. I was actually inspired by a song on Stanford Talisman’s album. I picked one of the songs, a medley of African American spirituals, and there was one specifically that repeated the phrase “Hold on.” I was crying in my room, it was so emotional. I used this short film to process everything, basically a fictional rendering of what I was feeling and what I am feeling about COVID, Black Lives Matter, and protesting and how we are in this weird space where we are dealing with these two pandemics at once. I wrote a script, and my housemate (a USC classmate) and I shot this short film in our house. It felt like we were back in film school. It was literally just the two of us, and the actors would Zoom in or FaceTime, kind of like what we’re doing right now. This is an interesting time of creating within restrictions.
CJ: You got a constraint and you worked with it.
TA: I literally had to direct actors through Zoom which was so weird. But fun.
CJ: Your work spans short films, feature films, commercial work, and music videos. How does working across platforms influence your craft?
TA: Music videos are a great way to try things. I did really crappy music videos in college and high school and they’re all pretty bad, but they give you this flexibility of okay, here’s a story, you can have snippets of scenes, try different things, and go crazy with it. Music videos were a great place to start. Then I knew I wanted a bigger canvas. I think of these formats as different sizes of canvas. They’re all storytelling, just using different elements of size and scope. As I went into film school, I made short films. You can shoot in your home, you can shoot in limited locations, you can have a short film that costs two dollars to make, and a short film that costs fifty thousand dollars to make. I’m developing a couple of feature films now, and a feature takes so much more time and resources to do it right. Of course, there are people who do the micro-budget feature film, but even then, you know, you still need twenty thousand dollars and it’s still money and time. With short films, I can play around with an idea or a concept and show people what I can do, show my artistic vision. I think there’s a natural maturation process in changing canvases. Not to say that music videos are easier than short films, but I think music videos graduate to short films, which graduate to feature films, all along, you’re building your expertise and confidence.
CJ: Let’s dive into one of your short films, On The Clock. Watching it, I felt a balance of dread and warmth, mostly attributed to the relationship between Sofia and her brother, Lucas. I know that sibling relationships come up again in your work. What interests you about those relationships?
TA: I’m so glad you liked it! That was my thesis film at USC. I didn’t write the script, but I was attracted to the story because of this relationship. I have five siblings. I have experiences where I’m the oldest, the middle, and the youngest, depending. I think sibling relationships are really interesting in a story because they bring out the foils of each character. I was attracted to this story because this brother is taking care of his sister and he wants to make sure he is doing everything right, and then he is presented with this situation where he doesn’t know anything about periods. He’s out of his depth, and she’s out of her depth. There aren’t parents in the picture. They have to really rely on each other. Thinking of my own childhood, growing up with not as many resources—we didn’t grow up as low income as the siblings in this story but, you know, we had to be resourceful—we thought, this is normal. Then you realize, oh, my parents or my siblings had to do a lot to make me feel comfortable and make me feel like this was normal. So, I gravitated towards that idea of this sibling—a father figure character—doing everything he can to make his sibling feel normal in an abnormal situation. It’s really interesting to see a character interact with a family member they’ve known from birth, and to see what kind of conflict that creates.
CJ: I’m into this line in the film where Lucas says to Sofia, “You’re not a kid anymore.” Though Lucas says that to Sofia, it feels like Lucas is repeating something he heard himself. Can you talk about how you explore relationships between young people in your work, and how you explore the boundary between childhood and adulthood?
TA: We actually had to reshoot that scene a little bit because I got feedback that in the original way we shot the script, it seemed like Lucas was being too harsh. I remember giving Victor Muñoz, our lead actor who plays Lucas, the direction, “You’re talking to yourself here.” I was fascinated by the dual coming of age journeys of both characters. We have Sofia who has her period and grows into herself as a woman, but Lucas’s character arc is the driving force as well. He has to come to terms with his morals, his values, and what he’ll do to really step into that father figure role. I am always attracted to situations in which characters have to go above and beyond themselves to do something that they normally wouldn’t do to fill a role they’ve been thrust into. Those conflicts tend to be from their environment, like social disparities or inconveniences that you can’t control, but have to deal with anyway. What a young person must do in order to overcome conflicts in their environment is really fascinating to me because you think, as a young person, that you have it all figured out. Then you’re presented with information that goes against that, and you have to do something that’s out of your comfort zone to achieve what you want.
CJ: Your film, A Blossom in the Night, features another sibling relationship, but this time, in a dystopian world, which I think is a really interesting choice given our world today. What led you to go dystopian and how does that shift help you heighten or explore very real truths?
TA: We were finishing up On The Clock and I had one more directing class while at USC, so I thought, okay, we got one more shot before we leave this school to do something cool. I was reading this book, Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi), a fantastic, afro-futuristic story. I thought it was so cool to have a Black girl in a fantastical world. After my experience with On The Clock, I knew I wanted to do something higher octave in terms of action scenes, more intense. I decided a dystopian movie would be one way to try that out. This story didn’t come from a book or anything specific. I wrote this story of a future in which society has imploded in on itself, and has created this system that is tiered based on income. Resources are becoming more scarce, and the government decides to essentially enslave the lower tier people, mostly Black and brown people, into indentured servitude, slavery. Science fiction is hard because you’re creating a world and you don’t have that big of a budget. I remember talking to a mentor and he told me I could take these ideas, inequality and action, and put them into a more contemporary setting. But I just felt like, why not try? I think what helped a lot with the decision was putting my producing cap on, deciding I could shoot in a forest, and it would be cheaper than filming indoors or in a city. I was really lucky that I found a co-writer to help me build the story and a producer who helped me put it all together. Now that it’s coming out, I’m super fascinated by what people will think of it because it hits a little different now. I wrote it and we shot it way before COVID. We were thinking general climate change like oh, the world’s burning, but now that it’s been a year since we shot it, yeah, it’s crazy. I’m kind of scared to see what people will think. Are people even in the mood to see something like this right now? It’s kind of intense.
CJ: What do you hope your audience gets out of this project?
TA: I hope audiences will take away this idea of centering the Black experience in the future because I feel like for dystopian movies specifically, they’re always about the case of the white person, and then there are people of color around them. Let’s just try and center the Black perspective here, and see how that goes. So, I hope people see that that’s something that we haven’t really seen before, and that we want to see more of. And then selfishly, I just wanted to do something really cool, entertaining, and fun that wasn’t trying to be too serious. The film deals with serious things, but I just wanted to make something cool that people would like, that I liked.
CJ: In interviews you’ve done, what question don’t you get asked that you want to answer?
TA: I’ll say this, I was asked this question and I answered it, not wrong, but I wish I had answered it in a different way. I was asked about what makes a good director and I liked my answer, but it’s such a multi-layered question. When I first answered the question, I was thinking more about the emotional connection you have to the story and I think that’s obviously very important. I think every story I’ve worked on I make sure to find the emotional resonance with these projects and why I connect with them on a deep level. But I do think there’s also that technical side. A good question is, is the camera in the right place? There are infinite places a camera can be placed in a scene. Great directors know where the camera should go, where it feels like it belongs.