The magical evolution of ‘Selah and the Spades’

Lovie Simone as Selah in 'Selah and the Spades.'
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

When films come out, audiences sometimes are unaware of just how much went into creating the final cut of a story or about the evolution the plot underwent before taking final shape. That certainly rings true for writer/director Tayarisha Poe’s first feature film, ‘Selah and the Spades.’ Poe, who grew up in West Philadelphia first showcased her beginning ideas for ‘Selah’ in 2014 with a multi-media project shot around Philly featuring different formats of mixed media before penning her feature. What audiences now get with the final cut of the film is a story about power, high school, adolescent politics and how you can be the hero in your own flawed but beautiful story.

‘Selah and the Spades’ follows Selah (Lovie Simone), a leader in one of her boarding school’s factions (each student belongs to their own evocative crew) who seems to have all of the power, which of course comes with its own set of responsibilities. When Selah takes Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) under her wing in the Spring semester of her senior year however, that power seems to begin to slip, and past actions (which are brought up abstractly in a few different dialogues) begin to come back up to the surface.

Poe sat down with Metro to talk about about the evolution of ‘Selah and the Spades,’ dive into how the world around her provides immense inspiration and ultimately discuss what went into making her first feature film.

How did the story of ‘Selah’ evolve to become this feature film?

I always knew that I wanted to make this a feature film, but I started with that multi-media series because I didn’t know how to write a feature. I sort of made this project for myself using the story-telling tools that I knew how to do in order to figure out what the story was about, who these characters were, what the world was like and what it felt like. I treated it like a creative exercise more than anything. Then after that, I started to write the feature. I always knew I was going to direct it, but the story definitely evolved over the years that I had been working on the web series and the feature. For instance, ‘Selah and the Spades: an overture,’ that was written during a time when the whole story took place at a public high school, that was a very different scenario from what it landed on. I went to a boarding school in New Jersey for high school, and I just wanted to capture that experience instead.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Can you tell me more about your directing style, did you take inspiration from anyone or anything specifically?

Tons. This sounds a little bit corny, but I feel like being alive, I’m constantly taking inspiration from the whole world. That’s the hardest thing about this period of isolation that we’re going through right now, I just love spending time around people. I love seeing how people speak and how various people carry their bodies and how we wear our clothes and just how different types of people exist in the world—so I’m really missing that. But [also] movies by Rian Johnson have always been a huge inspiration for me, and the book written by Fran Ross called ‘Oreo’ was a huge thing for me just in building this character and in my creative life at large. Also, Rihanna the musician is a huge one too. I thought a lot about Rihanna and her public persona in writing the character of Selah and just this idea of how somebody can seem just so effortlessly cool and beautiful and savage but also can be so deliberately unapproachable—and the unapproachableness as a form of self-care. So I’m really fascinated with that and with Rihanna, she’s a big influence for me.

The casting was perfect, what was that process like?

It wasn’t a tough process because I was really fortunate that we worked with this amazing casting director Jessica Daniels who not only is brilliant at her job, but just is so fun to talk to—it’s never a laborious process for me [with her]. Also, the cool thing about if you love watching people or learning people’s mannerisms, those casting videos gives you an opportunity to do just that. For me, it was really fun and I really enjoy the casting process a lot. I love just talking to various actors about how they do what they do. But finding Lovie—I didn’t see Lovie in person, but I saw a self-take of her. There’s just something about the way she plays Selah, she has this way of having a slight smile on her face, it’s almost as if she always knows more than you or is always a few steps ahead of you. The way Lovie carries herself as Selah where she just takes over the screen, you can’t help but just watch her. There’s so much charisma that she brings to her, and the character wouldn’t work if you didn’t feel that. So it felt really immediate for me seeing Lovie and feeling like, ‘Ah, yes this is exactly what I’m talking about,’ which is great, because Lovie as a person is so not a Selah. She’s so emotional and so in touch with her emotions, way more than I was at that age. She was just so able to discuss emotions and discuss emotional logic, it was just so shocking to me. It  shows in the way she plays Selah. She never played her like the villain and I think that’s why people can feel empathy for her, because Lovie brought so much empathy to her.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Are there any scenes that stand out to you as memorable from the filming process? 

Definitely the scene where they’re doing the senior prank. The brilliant thing about film-making is that sometimes you’re working and collaborating with other department heads and other people who can take your good idea and add their own good ideas on top of it and then you’re just hit with a ton of really good ideas. So [that scene] transformed what we knew was a good idea into something that you couldn’t even imagine—I never could have imagined that it would look so magical and so beautiful. Even when we talked about it in prep, we all had a sense of what was going to happen and what it was going to look like and what we wanted to capture and what it would feel like, but just being there in that space altogether with all of the faction heads, everybody there on set at the same time and all of the kids working together to do this—there was something very magical about that feeling. We ended up shooting way too much footage, way more than we would ever need because we were all just so enchanted about what was happening and it just felt like yes, this is the spirit of the film. Underneath everything, underneath all of the discussions of power, underneath all of the drugs, the money, the hype and all of that—it’s just this moment of these kids coming together to make a little bit of magic.

I read some news about ‘Selah and the Spades’ being turned into a series, is that true? If so, what can you tell us about that? 

We’re in the development and writing stage, so it’s all very hush-hush right now. It’s definitely not going to be taking the feature film and stretching it out into a series—but it is definitely going to be fun.

Lovie Simone and Jharrel Jerome. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

How does it feel for you to finally see this all come to fruition?

It feels really freaking good. When you’re making something or writing something, it’s the only time you get to be alone with something—at least for me, because I write alone. After that, there are more and more voices, more and more thoughts and more and more collaborators, which is great. But what we’re entering into is my favorite part of creating something, which is when it’s no longer yours. You hand it over to the rest of the world, and now audiences decide what the movie is about and they decide what things mean—no matter how many interviews I give, it’s out of my hands. I really like that feeling because that’s why I make stuff, to hand it over and not own it myself and not always be the one who decides what it means.

‘Selah and the Spades’ drops exclusively on Amazon Prime April 17. 

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