Everything We Learned From 'Candyman' Director Nia DaCosta's Fireside Chat At The Nightstream Film Festival

A spiritual sequel to the Bernard Rose's 1992 horror movie of the same name, Nia DaCosta's Candyman returns to the now gentrified neighborhood of Cabrini-Green in Chicago, Illinois, back where the legend began. Now, nearly 30 years later, DaCosta is hoping not only to frighten audiences with her vision, but to make them question what exactly it is that makes them so afraid."Maybe you're watching horror and you're scared because of the very literal ghost that's in the room," muses DaCosta. "But I think, in a horror like this, we want you to also understand why the character's scared. Not just about the ghost, but what the ghost represents. I find that really fun."Clever, poignant and creative, it's easy to understand what Jordan Peele saw in the Little Woods director. A lover of 1970s cinema and a determined writer since the very first time she watched Apocalypse Now at the tender age of 16, DaCosta is an exciting up-and-comer with a vast ocean of ideas, including how to breathe new life into the old bones of Candyman.In response to the many challenges impacting the film community amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the concerns of safety and security that presently come with physical exhibition and festivals, a collective online initiative was launched by the organizers of a number of American genre festivals for the fall season to offer a singular experience for U.S. audiences. Together the Boston Underground Film Festival, Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, North Bend Film Festival, The Overlook Film Festival, and Popcorn Frights Film Festival joined forces under the banner of "Nightstream" to present a dynamic and accessible virtual festival in October 2020./Film was lucky enough to attend Nia DaCosta's 'Virtual Fireside Chat' at Nightstream, hosted by Vulture's Hunter Harris and broadcast across the globe. We learned more than a few things during the filmmaker's chat with Harris, and we're thrilled to share what we learned from this very exciting talk about all things Candyman.

Nia DaCosta Still Won’t Say Candyman in the Mirror

"I don't deal with that tom foolery, and demons, gargoyles, superstitions and things like that."Listen, the fact that DaCosta won't mention the name of the man who has a reputation for murdering anyone who acknowledges his presence just means that she's smarter than the rest of us:

"When I was in elementary school, I think that was the first time I heard someone say, oh, we should say Candyman in the mirror. I was like, you know, I heard about Bloody Mary, that's not really my thing. Like, I won't be saying anybody's names or summoning any demons. But I remember hearing about it, always got dared to do it, I still haven't, and then eventually I saw the movie and I was like, 'Oh, that's Candyman, this is what everyone's talking about'. Because for me, I grew up in Harlem, across the street from the projects, my school was next to another project complex and so for us, we were like, oh yeah, he's over there, like he lives there. He haunts that building. And so, it was still a part of my childhood in that way." 

When Harris points out later in the interview that DaCosta claims she's not easily frightened, but still won't say his name in the mirror, DaCosta jokingly replies that she doesn't have time to deal with demons:

"I'm not really superstitious either, but yeah I guess that's my base trauma as a child, being forced to say things in a mirror that I don't want to say. I also don't fuck with Ouija boards."

The First Movie DaCosta Saw Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in was Baywatch

Watchmen. Black Mirror. Us. The Handmaid's Tale. The Greatest Showman. The Get Down. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has graced the set of many productions, and proved himself a fascinating actor to follow through multiple noteworthy projects. The first time DaCosta remembers seeing him? Hilariously enough, it was Baywatch:

"Yahya, he's such a...I don't want to call him a chameleon, that word gets thrown around a lot, but he can so easily inhabit so many characters, he fits into pretty much any world that you want to put him in. I didn't realize this, and he'll hate me for saying this probably, but I think the first thing I actually saw him in was Baywatch. Which I think was like a hangover watch one day, didn't even remember him really from that, but like while watching, I was like oh yeah, that guy's cool, he's funny. But I had seen him in so many things, and then Jordan mentioned him to me, he was like hey, I worked with him on Us, he's really great, and I was like oh yeah! He's in this, he's in this, he's in this. He's in all these things, and especially I think about his performance in Us where he's just held back for a lot of it, but the amount of character and that humanity that he put into that work, and knowing that there wasn't a lot on the page and he really was given the freedom by Jordan to create a person, I was like oh, that's what I need."

In DaCosta’s adaptation, Candyman doesn’t appear fully formed at first – there is a slow psychological descent into madness, marked by body horror

The first time we get a glimpse of Tony Todd's iconic Candyman character, it's through a dreamy, rose-tinted lens, as he appears to Helen from the dark corner of parking lot in all of his fully formed glory. A luxurious wool coat encasing a bloody, hollow chest filled with hungry bees and blinding Helen on sight. DaCosta's take on the source material will be more of a slow burn, a creeping transformation, a possession in plain sight:

"In the original, he's already a fully formed...I guess monster, we'll say, because that's definitely how he's positioned in the original film, as a monster. And so, it's really like a reveal of like, 'Here's my chest. I'm fully formed, I'm fully grotesque' and in this one, we really wanted it to be a slow progression, and for me, I really wanted to trigger the response of like, you know when all of us have had a rash or something, and we're like, hmm, what's that? Maybe it's a heat rash, and then maybe it doesn't go away for a while and you're like, hm, interesting. Should I go to the doctor? No, it's probably fine. And then for a vast majority of people, it goes away. In this movie, of course, it doesn't go away, it gets worse, and so I wanted to have that effect. If someone goes home after watching this movie and looks at their own rash, or bump, or mosquito bite and is a little more freaked out, then I've done my job. And that's really what I wanted to do, it's about getting inside the head of the audience and really viscerally disturbing them and tracking it psychologically with the sense of the main character."

Both Daniel from Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) and Anthony McCoy from Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021) Are Artists

Although DaCosta sought to make her own vision, the director still recognizes and appreciates certain aspects of Rose's film, and sees the virtue in maintaining a sense of connectivity to the early '90s horror classic:

"Part of it being based in the art world was we really wanted to talk about Daniel Robitaille, he was an artist and that's how he met the woman who he fell in love with and would eventually lead to his demise. Again, it was like okay, it's a story about identity and artists, especially a fine artist, who's really the only point of contact between himself and the art and the audience — you know as a director, I consider myself as an artist, but hundreds of people make a movie, but for a fine artist like Anthony, it's him. And so, it's really about self-expression, like who you are, and this movie is so much about who he is, and his self-actualization, sort of coming-of-age. I think him being an artist in that way as well was useful because it's such a direct medium. Also, working in the art world is a very white space and it's about self-expression, but it's also about the self-expression that people want, or that they want to buy, that they want to engage with in a monetary sense, which is basically all art, you know?"

DaCosta also sees the literal ways in which setting her movie in the art world can benefit her horror story:

"It was important because it's so much about identity and about what violence can look like. It's not just this very graphic lynch mob, it can also be the force of gentrification, or the micro aggressions inside of trying to negotiate what your next art piece is going to be. It has many forms, so that's part of what we wanted to talk about in this film as well. And that's a big reason why he fits in the art world, because he can really show that in an interesting way."

Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele worked Hard to Make the Character of Candyman a Physical Representation of his Chicago Setting

Born in Brooklyn, raised mostly in Harlem, DaCosta has been a New Yorker since birth, and she deeply understands the way a city can come to define a part of your soul. When it came time to reimagine Chicago, the director understood just how important it was to feel that geography deep in the marrow of the movie:

"The film is so...it's about things that are really personal to Black people and should be to all Americans, but it's really about so much trauma and pain and how we grieve and how we engage with it. I'm from New York City, my parents are Jamaican, my dad's from England, Yahya,'s from New Orleans, grew up in the Bay. We have very different experiences as Black people. He's a man, I'm a woman. So, it's so useful in that sense to come from our own perspectives, but talk about our own collective, what brings us together, which, in this, unfortunately, is pain. I think from that, when you're trying to figure out what's the point of view of my character, what this journey means or how do we make this journey feel real. What does this journey look like? And then bring our own experiences, but obviously, leaning on Yahya to fill in anything that wasn't on the page, is how we built the character together. Which feels really general and generic, but I think for me, it was about looking at how we see the world together and then trying to pinpoint it inside of the character, this artist. This Chicago-an, this man who grew up in the projects, and is now moving into a high rise with his rich girlfriend. So just really step by step, going from the macro, okay the world, everything that we're talking about, to the micro, like you are a boogeyman now." 

David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Are Huge Influences for DaCosta

When asked about her cinematic influences, DaCosta was quick to gush over a few of her favorite horror movies. "The two that I told basically everyone to watch were The Fly because it has body horror and that film is amazing," swoons DaCosta. "I'm a huge Cronenberg fan, and the central relationship between the two characters, the fact that it's also sort of a love story, I really love. That was really important. And then Rosemary's Baby, another film that I've loved for a long time, I think the psychological terror in that film is really great." DaCosta again stresses the importance of setting and its undeniable impact on the authenticity of a film:

"The psychological descent of that character, but also the production design and the way Polanski photographs New York I think is really amazing, and wonderful and creepy, but very recognizable New York, and that's something I wanted to do for Chicago. So, those were two horror movies for this movie in particular that I wanted everyone to watch."

Horror is a Double-Edged Sword that Helps and Hurts Black Filmmakers

The horror genre has become the default vehicle for discussing difficult issues in films, especially when it comes to talking about race, racism and racial violence. Although DaCosta is aware of the advantages that this popular mode of storytelling has afforded her as of late, she is still hesitant to fully sing its praises:

 "I kind of see it two-fold, right? Like, one is like it's really great that we have this tool, I think genre is really important, especially horror. Well, not especially horror. Let's say for now, in particular, horror, for getting more people just to come see what the movie is, because people watch horror films. Then, too, really getting inside of an experience and inside of a place where they feel what the characters are feeling, at least enough to really empathize with them and to really receive the message, which I think is really important, especially when it comes to racial violence and racial trauma. The other side of it is also like, those are the movies that they're letting us make. You know? Like, especially after Get Out. Like, even then, the risk with Get Out was five million dollars for Blumhouse? Which is not a huge budget for any movie, and that made 200 million dollars. And so now, people are starting to invest a little more because this very specific type of film seems to be what people want to see. What people want to see is something new, which is what Get Out gave us, and very successfully did. So I think on the one hand, it's very exciting and it is very useful, it's a great tool. This is my first studio film and it gave me an opportunity to make a movie, but I also think we need to get some different types of ways to talk about really important things like racial terror."

Bernard Rose’s Candyman was of its time in 1992, and DaCosta’s Candyman will be very much of its own time 

"So this film, I mean we shot it in the summer of 2019 and I think the very first drafts were in in summer of 2018," recalls DaCosta. "Rewrites were happening all of last year, and even this year, we did some more shooting which was really great. The conversation which the film is apart of is much bigger than just the film. I think all films, even though they're complex and they can contain a lot, and can show lots of points of view, they're all static, they all are just a flash in the pan in the grand scheme of things. That's basically what I mean, it's of 2020, it's Candyman, it's gendered, when a lot of women and non-binary individuals are also victims of the kind of violence that we talk about in the film."

She continues:

"It's also like, George Floyd was murdered a week before the film was originally supposed to come out and you know... the unfortunate thing was, every decision I made in making this film, in the balance between the trauma at the core of it, and like the horror and the entertainment was always because I — you know, the country we live in, I knew there was always going to be another person, or persons, who was gonna die in this awful way. The unfortunate reality of this year in particular and just the way I think things are hitting, the film's also a part of that. This space in time, this collective trauma. You know, I was reading that this summer has been the largest Civil Rights movement in modern history, and I think a lot of that is not just because we're tired, we're sick and tired of it, it's also because of all of the other issues that we're dealing with affect racial violence. Climate change affects racial violence. The pandemic, Jesus, four times as many black people are dying from the disease, and it's not because we have bad immune systems. It's systemic. So I think that's part of it, too. Our points of view are so about the multilayered ways that violence can take form and can kill in America, and that's where the film will be."