Nigerian director Andrew Dosunmu wants us to look closer at the people around us. His latest feature, the Michelle Pfeiffer drama Where is Kyra? is a haunting exploration of a broken woman audiences might commonly ignore on the street. Dosunmu sat down with The Young Folks to talk about the film which is now in theaters.
What was the impetus for you to make this movie, especially in comparison to your previous works?
The story [is] the idea of diminishing human values in our society. How women of a certain age are seen as dispensable, no longer desirable. I really wanted to talk about that; the idea of being invisible and how one becomes invisible, especially in a city like New York; how the elderly become invisible because people aren’t patient with them. They don’t want to be behind them at the queue in the bank or behind them at the bus stop. I wanted to know what was genesis of it. I wanted us to question, because I do ask that question when I see a homeless person or an elderly person alone; I wonder what their story is. Or even a drug addict, someone who could just easily label them without questioning them or asking ourselves why. What could their situation be? What got them there? That was really the overall genesis of wanting to tell the story.
What makes Kyra so interesting is that, unlike other movies where the death of a parent is a source of liberation or independence, this movie focuses on the aimlessness of it. How did you attempt to convey that story?
With Kyra it was very important because they, both [her and her mother], needed each other. This woman, her mother, needed a daughter to take care of her. Without her Kyra would have probably been homeless, she doesn’t have money. And without Kyra, her mother would have probably died in her apartment alone, which is something we’re scared about and in New York it happens all the time with the elderly. They’ll pass away for 2-3 days, sometimes weeks, and people don’t even notice because they don’t go in; there’s no connection with them. We don’t often knock on their door and say, “I haven’t seen you for two days. What’s going on?” And for her, that last connection with her mother, especially in that moment where they hold each other and Kyra says, “I love you, mom.” I really wanted to show that strength that they both give each other, that support; these women both need each other. They’re so invisible to the world, in a way. One is elderly, one is “undesirable.” I wanted to talk about this burden that we as a society demand and put on women.
Many people are excited to see Michelle Pfeiffer in her first leading role in 16 years. Can you talk about what she was like to work with?
We all know Michelle is such a great beauty and a very talented actress. I wanted to work with her because I often feel people cast her for her beauty. She’s such a brilliant actress that I wanted to explore the character with her. She’s more than [her looks]. She’s a very versatile, brilliant actress. I wanted the audience to know that part of her. I wanted to do something gritty and the fact that she’s such a household name was really good for the character because you’re more sympathetic. We all grew up watching her; she’s the woman next door or your auntie, someone you’re familiar with. That helps the audience travel easily into the character and experience the devastation of this character, of what might happen. It’s close to us. We can relate to it, to her.
How did you work with her to shape the character?
It was definitely collaborative between Michelle, Darci [Picoult], the writer, and I. She’s seen my work and wanted to do something along the lines of what I’d done before. She wanted to do something artistically and that pushes her. She’s never done an independent film before, always studio films, so that itself was a challenge. And her going into this character, she wanted to get into the ugliness and grittiness of Kyra, which meant stripping a lot of things. Stripping her beauty, the elegance, being vulnerable was part of the conversation constantly.
I think we met a year before I made this film, sitting down and talking about the character and what she thinks, what would she do. It was really a collaborative process. She was very intrigued. She knew she’d have to strip [herself], which we’ve never seen from her. It’s a challenging step for her to let go. We did have a conversation and run through the script. We went through the process of what are we going to do, how are we going to change her from how she declines, how she becomes the character. It was a collaborated effort of constant discourse and, for me personally, making her comfortable in this transformation, because it is a transformation, especially for someone who has always been portrayed in a certain way.
Was there a specific atmosphere on the set, especially considering how intimate the film is?
Not really. This is a very low-budget film, shot in 18 days. We didn’t have that much time. We shot on the outskirts of New York, in Brooklyn and Queens. These aren’t often places, when you think of New York film crew, they’re not often in these parts of New York. I wanted to put this character in this place. It was a small crew. I really wanted to make it intimate; I like making intimate films. I think the rest distracts too much. It was about her and I remember prior to making this film Michelle had just done a film with Robert De Niro [The Family] and it was all over the news. Paparazzi were camping in front of the hotel. It was 90 degrees away from that because we were in parts of Queens and Brooklyn that nobody even knew we were shooting. It was keeping it small and intimate to focus on characters and not worrying about paparazzi photographing her from across the street.
This is also a film whose characters aren’t reliant on modern technology. Kyra goes to apply for jobs in person. She doesn’t use a cell phone. There’s a timelessness to her life. Was that a conscious decision?
I was doing a lot of research prior to this film and you’d be surprised how many people don’t have those things when you’re really faced with struggle. I know someone who doesn’t have a cell phone. You’d be surprised and I think that’s the problem. We assume these things because, for one, you’re downtrodden and don’t have that much money. Kyra has a phone at home. She’s moved back home from Virginia to her mother’s. Her mother has been living there post-war for the last fifty years. That’s the building she grew up in, like a lot of these Brooklyn/Queens tenement buildings people have been there since the 1950s. Her mother probably moved in there; Kyra grew up there. She once had a phone but doesn’t have a cell phone because she has a phone at home. Kyra has to save her money and that’s what it’s really about. She only has what she needs in that moment. To have a cell phone minimum costs $100 a month.
For someone who doesn’t have a job and has been out of a job for a year, that’s important. That’s a lot, and I think that’s very difficult for us to imagine those things. That becomes a lot because in New York, you can’t eat for $5 a day and you’re thinking about $100 on a cell phone that she’s just using to get callbacks. She’s got a phone at home, an answering machine, and she can work with that till she gets a job. That’s often the reality in these situations, when you’re that downtrodden you face those things. We don’t often put ourselves in these positions. We see people homeless and quickly label them as “Oh, it’s their fault.” We aren’t actually understanding that “No, they may be a drug addict and have a sickness.” People don’t really want to be down-and-out and be on the street. Kyra is invisible. She can’t even get a job at her age in a bar because people think she’s not young and sexy enough to be a bartender, and she’s too old to serve pizza. It’s a problem that affects people at such an age, especially women of a certain age. When you can’t get a certain job because you’re “overqualified.”
And I think most directors of standard Hollywood films wouldn’t even think of how much common items like cell phones cost the average working class person.
I live in New York and you see people at the subway asking for swipes, for example, for subway rides. That’s $2 and it’s a lot for a lot of people. By the time you take $2 back and forth that’s $4 and that’s a lot of money, especially if you’re unemployed. That could buy you lunch. Imagine a cell phone, a whole month of a minimum [plan] that’s $100. It just piles up and we don’t tend to think about it. It was revealing the sickness of our lives and how the lightness of our lives is disappearing.
Some women’s worst fear is to become their mother, and without spoiling things there’s a lot of fusing of Kyra and her mother. Was there a desire to showcase that?
Yeah, definitely. For example, when her mother dies that’s the only family Kyra has. Without her mother she’d have been on the street a long time ago. Her mother became this comfort; her mother became her strength and support. And I think there’s something of that Kyra kept. She’s holding onto something, holding onto the possibility of things being brighter. Towards the end of the film, the last act, without mentioning it, it becomes a relief because she’s tired. This goes back to we as a society, the desire Kyra has for the American dream or a longing to evolve constantly. She wants to do that and at the point she’s at, she’s exhausted. By no means is the film a sociopolitical film by any means, but it’s a commentary on how we as a society show aging. For her, I always felt Kyra was one of those women who five years from then, from whatever happens to her at the end, would be a person we see on the street pushing a cart wondering, “How did she get there?” That’s my outlook on the film. Asking questions of ourselves, of the situation, if that answers your question.
Are you planning your next project already?
There’s so much beyond my forces when it comes to filmmaking. Obviously there’s a lot of things I have in my basket and hopefully one of them comes to fruition. At the moment I’m just enjoying this process and the work I’ve put into this over the last three years. It’s really nice to see how excited I am for it to be out, excited to see how the audience will receive it. I really want to enjoy the moment. We tend to get ahead of ourselves.
That anticipatory planning, how we often get so excited by planning we forget to live in the moment.
I want to be in the present, that’s my goal right now. My wife was telling me to enjoy the present.
Where is Kyra? is in theaters now