Nancy director Christina Choe talks the importance of equality on both sides of the camera

Christina Choe is the director and screenplay for the most recent must-see psychological thriller, Nancy. It stars Andrea Riseborough as the titular character, a woman who becomes convinced that her parents are a couple she sees on the news, whose daughter went missing thirty years ago.

Nancy being a sort of modern anti-hero, Choe felt that “there weren’t that many female anti-heroines, or female characters that were complicated, messy and morally ambiguous – of which there are just so many male characters in basically every TV show.”

Christina Choe at an event for Nancy class=
Photo by Tommaso Boddi – © 2018 Getty Images

“And it was five years ago that I started thinking about writing this, and I was also really obsessed with real life imposter stories, and very fascinated by these people who are definitely not doing it for financial gain, at least usually, and there’s a psychological reason that felt very mysterious.

Around the same time that Choe was thinking about her writing her first feature, “I found out that one of my favourite writing professors was basically a fraud. And he’s this person that everyone at school worshipped, like a sort of Dead Poet’s Society character. A ‘we would follow him off a cliff’ kind of person. He was a little like a cult leader, now that I think about it, about how obsessed you were with him.

“And he told us he was a ghost writer for this huge Hollywood franchise, and that he was a playwright from Ireland, all these things. And he was very charming… But basically, it came out that he was lying to the school, he was lying to his family, and obviously a lot of people felt really angry about it and betrayed. Meanwhile I was kinda like ‘Oh fascinating, my favourite topic!’” Choe laughs.

“But basically, after a while it came to this conclusion of, does it really matter if it was a lie, when what I got out of it was so authentic and genuine? And that theme really became the theme of Nancy, so it was an evolution of these things that ended up making the story. And on a deeper level I just think I’m very fascinated by what truth means.

“I started off as a documentary filmmaker, and then made a documentary secretly shooting in North Korea, where I was essentially navigating between what the government’s propaganda was and what was true… so I think that theme is endlessly fascinating to me.”

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

There is a tendency amongst critics or audiences to react negatively to a female anti-hero, and in a way which they wouldn’t were the character male. “It’s decades of being conditioned to see men being duplicitous or despicable, having a morally ambiguous relationship with the people in their lives, or just being confused, or lost, or sad, or whatever!” explains Choe.

“All these are adjectives where as soon as it’s applied to a woman, it takes on this negative connotation. When you see men do it, it’s like ‘that’s fascinating’, and it’s because they’ve inhabited this space for so long that we’ve accepted it, that that’s more acceptable or interesting. It’s the typical gender binary politics.

“It’s like watching the Kavanaugh hearing! If a woman acted that hysterical and ridiculous, clearly not being able to control their emotions and lying, she would be vilified, it would be done. She’d be painted as this hysterical, emotional, lying bitch. And it goes back to this idea of not having enough complicated female characters. And not just complicated, but ones that serve roles in the narrative outside of the wife, the friend, the love interest, where their actions are driving the narrative without some dude… that’s really rare.”

“My editor and I would talk a lot about how we hate when people would say, ‘Make her [Nancy’s character] more likeable!’. And we said it’s not about likability, it’s about accessibility to her emotional state. Why do women have to be likeable first, before they can do anything? So that was a big reason for me to do a film, just to add more to the canon of complicated female characters.”

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

The film might be viewed as providing some timely commentary on the mental health debate given Nancy’s protagonist. “There’s obviously a commentary on how we long for connection and create these curated personas online, which are to some degree a lie,” Choe states, “but the mental health aspect has come up more recently.

“I think there’s also a crisis of people feeling disconnected in the modern world, and social media is a part of that. People are trying to connect with other people but losing that ability. But I was looking more at truth and lies, like with the current President being a liar, and he’s questioned what truth is, so when the movie was coming out that was in the zeitgeist, so in some ways it felt like commentary on the slippery nature of truth.”

What requires a special mention is that Nancy’s crew was comprised of an incredible female majority. “It was definitely a mandate that we hire all women as all the department heads, and we ended up with 80% female crew and 50% PoC [people of colour]. And all our financiers are women, which is even more rare, you never see that.

“There’s a next level to equality beyond numbers, and that’s in quality,” she muses. “I know that the actors felt the difference. It was clear there was a special vibe on set, and I think that comes with it being intimate and having lots of women, and even Steve Buscemi was like ‘I’ve been on a lot of sets, but this vibe is very special’. And I’ve been on lots of sets dominated by white men and there’s this passive aggressive energy of hierarchical power, and I want actors to feel comfortable! For them to be vulnerable they have to feel safe, and I think that having a bunch of women on set is a totally different atmosphere. I totally think it affects what you get on the screen, and I think we just had more fun!”

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Having created this project prior to the seismic #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, I asked Choe whether she’d seen any changes in the industry as a result of this new emphasis on equality, beyond the public face of Hollywood. “I think people are working more, there are more doors opening for sure. I got my first TV-directing job after working for Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, because she has a mandate to only hire female directors. I think it would have taken much longer to break into TV were it not for Ava’s amazing incentive.

“I think in the last couple years, people are really pushing for gender parity, and I think that push is going to get stronger. And I think especially in the US, people are fucking pissed. We’re not going to take bullshit anymore. I don’t know how slow the tide is turning, and it could obviously be better, but I actually feel hopeful – despite being a very cynical person.”“And it’s not just about gender, it’s about race and representation, just things that a few years ago would never have gotten talked about in those circles of power and influence. I think it has to be doing something. I think I’m working more, I think people are seeking out more female filmmakers to hire.”

Nancy is out on DVD & Digital Download, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films. 

First published on The National Student

Laura Potier

Co-founder and editor of Outtake, feel free to drop me a line with any questions or article pitches at laura@outtakemag.co.uk