After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny finally arrives on Prime Video on Dec. 16. The film— which includes Jason Blum as an executive producer under his Blumhouse Television banner— follows Aisha (Anna Diop), a woman who recently emigrated from Senegal and is hired to care for the young daughter of an affluent New York City couple on the rocks. As Aisha becomes unsettled by the family’s behavior, she also grows haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind. Aisha works toward bringing him to the U.S., but as his arrival approaches, a violent presence starts to take over her dreams and reality.
Ahead of the film’s Prime Video release, Jusu spoke with LA Confidential about why Nanny may be the most pure film she’ll ever make, what it was like to shoot underwater and her artistic intention.
When did you first conceptualize the idea for Nanny?
The idea gestated for a while. You have these themes, I think, that we all pay attention to in the universe and our lives. There are these themes that continue to resurface over and over again in different ways. And my mom did some domestic work as I was growing up as they put me in these privileged schools. I watched my mom and both my parents do work that was below them. So it was something I was thinking about in terms of classism, what it means to be a Black immigrant, what it means to be someone who has to take jobs below your aspirations to make a living. But once I got to NYU and what I love about New York is that you can't look away from the inequity, the classism, everything is on the surface. And so once I got to New York and saw all these nannies in the city around Tisch at an intersection that is really prevalent with nannies, it was like a sign from the universe saying, “This thing is real. It has legs, so start putting pen to paper.”
Did you know how this story would end from the beginning?
I thought I did. But the beauty of creating is that if you're a smart artist, and you're a self-aware artist, you're open to the possibility of change and what you originally intended. You bring in collaborators, and bringing in the capriciousness of human beings, you can't dictate what these human beings will bring to the project. So staying open to that allowed me to discover a new ending. But I think it's important to pay attention to the signs that you get about what the new ending would be. The edit is where you really carve out the film in a beautiful way. I really have a lot of reverence for the post-production process. I learned a lot at NYU about editing because they forced us to be editors, writers, directors, we have to do everything in the program. So you learn to respect the process, and in the edit, we found a new ending.
Why was this the story you wanted to tell for your debut feature?
I'm very happy with this because I think that this may be the purest film I make in my career. A lot of us are getting shuffled into big-budget movies that become this monolith of something that is unrecognizable the more money you get: more voices giving you notes, more hands in the pot, the stakes get higher as the budget gets higher. So I'm really happy that no matter how my career goes, this is the film that establishes who I am and what my style is and the kinds of themes that I'm interested in navigating because it’s accurate. I feel really proud of what we were able to do with Nanny.
Why was Anna Diop your ideal Aisha?
She is gorgeous. That's a given. She's fun to watch. She emotes so much with her eyes. She's humble. She's smart. She's hard working. She was just down for every part of the process. She's one of those rare actors who's truly about the craft, and not about getting to the parties and the gowns and the glitzy part of this process, which a lot of people in this industry enjoy. She's really down to get her hands dirty to make the most authentic thing that we can make. And so working with her, I know that she's one of the people who I want to work with for the rest of my career as a filmmaker.
What was it like to film the underwater scenes?
Rina Yang is our DP and we had an underwater DP we flew in. His name is Ian Takahashi. He shot stuff with Beyoncé, like her Lemonade visual album. He's done a lot of underwater work. And it was hard because at our budget level, we didn't have as many resources as we would have liked. And we shot in New York at the peak of COVID. So it was really hard to direct the underwater stuff. We shot at a YMCA in Brooklyn that had a pool with a deep end, I think, was 23 feet. But we had a whole team. We had underwater wranglers, we had underwater gaffers, Ian Takahashi led the team beneath the water and Rina Yang was communicating with them from above water, but I still had to direct above water behind a mask because of COVID in an echo-y, humid, damp YMCA pool for a 12-hour day for three days. So it was one of the most challenging aspects of this. We had a stunt woman play Mami Wata, who I chose because in her reel of stunts, she was able to show how well she works underwater. So all of those things really spoke to our process beneath the water, but it wasn't easy. But I love challenges like that because I have a lot of reverence for water.
After premiering at Sundance all the way back in January, Nanny finally hit theaters in November and will then be on Prime Video Dec. 16. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
They’re going to take away what they take away regardless of my intention. At this stage of the process, the film belongs to the individual whether they hate the film or love the film. None of my business that I made the film. But also, the intention and my goal regardless of what audiences take away from the film is always to expand people's purview of humanity because we're not conditioned to believe that we're individuals, but we are all relying on each other as a community, as a human race. And I think nothing showed that more clearly than this pandemic, these multiple pandemics we're navigating. This life is a group project. So capitalism, classism, all the isms, racism, sexism— it impacts everyone whether you're at the top of the hierarchy or you're at the bottom. I just hope people's idea of who matters is expanded. And for those who have been made visible by the mainstream, I hope that they see themselves reflected back in an accurate way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Courtesy of Amazon Studios