Expanding from her short film of the same name, Trinidadian filmmaker Maya Cozier’s She Paradise puts a uniquely Caribbean twist on the typical coming of age narrative. It tells the story of a young aspiring dancer named Sparkle, who dreams of success in the world of soca music. As she gets drawn into the fast life as part of an all-female dance crew, she learns hard truths about herself and the culture behind her country’s music industry. Following a festival run that included screenings at AFI Fest and Tribeca, She Paradise now brings its distinctive flair to theaters and VOD. In anticipation, Awards Radar caught up with Cozier to talk about the development of the story and its unexpected success.
Shane Slater: I’m so happy to see that you were able to get your short made into a feature, especially as a Caribbean filmmaker. What was that process like?
Maya Cozier: Yeah, I think the short was really instrumental in getting the feature made. Melina and I spent about a year writing the screenplay. And my first instinct was, the only way we can get anybody interested in this screenplay is to shoot a short. It is such a undocumented world and so, I think we needed to shoot a short to explain to people what this would look like and feel like because I don’t think that there’s a lot of film references to give anyone who might be interested in getting behind it.
So I remember I got a lot of help from students at the University of the West Indies. They formed almost most of the crew and then the DP, who I went to film school, flew into Trinidad. We just shot it and got it done. And so that was like, the first step for getting people excited and interested about the screenplay that we already wrote.
SS: There’s something very universal about this story, especially for people who choose non-traditional career paths. That line in the film where the grandfather says, “You call this a job?” felt like it could have just as easily been directed at you, as a filmmaker. How much of yourself did you put into this character?
MC: I would say that growing up, I was very similar to Sparkle. I always felt like I had to pretend to know what I was doing or to be confident to fit in, you know? I was always the shy one and I was picked on by a lot of the other women, because I spent my teenage years in an all-girl dance group. And we had a very similar dynamic with the leader who decided what costumes you were wearing, what choreography we were doing. She called all the shots. And I was always kind of shy, awkward one. And then, going into unfamiliar spaces that you know you obviously are not cool enough to be in. So I felt like a lot of those experiences and memories were put into this film and Sparkle’s character.
But to be completely honest, I was raised by artists. My dad’s a contemporary artist, my mom is a painter. And so they had that struggle. My dad’s parents, they actually migrated to Trinidad from Barbados and worked as civil servants. When my dad said he wanted to be an artist, they definitely did not understand. [Laughs]. And my mom too. So I think that struggle is one that my parents definitely went through. I think to this day, there’s this misunderstanding of those career paths.
But I would say I’m very fortunate and blessed that I was raised by artists. I never really had to prove to them what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. But I do know that is a very predominant narrative in the Caribbean.
SS: What was the casting process like?
MC: The casting was one of the most fun parts of putting the movie together. I worked really closely with Shari Petti, who is also another filmmaker from Trinidad. And Shari has a great eye and it was always fun to to have someone walk into the room and naturally embody the spirit of a character that you imagine on the page. That always felt really surreal. And we spent a really long time rehearsing the script and doing table reads. And that also was fulfilling, because while we were rehearsing or getting to know each other, it was just a process of getting them comfortable enough on camera and on set to just be themselves. They already held characteristics and personality traits that were so similar to the characters on page.
But I think playing yourself is also really hard, because when there’s lights and a camera and a crew looking at you, suddenly you go into performance mode. So it was really a process of making sure that what they had was already there, and just making sure that it could remain there and stay in that place when the camera started rolling.
SS: I noticed there’s a #MeToo element that was added for the feature film.Were you apprehensive at all about including that storyline? What was the thinking behind that?
MC: I returned home after being away for four years and the dance world was one that I hadn’t actively participated in a while. So when I got home, I started talking to dancers who were on the ground, doing this for a living for soca music videos. And it felt like, when we wrote the script, this felt natural to this story. But I actually think our first draft of the script that included some of that subject matter, would have been before the #MeToo movement.
So it wasn’t necessarily a reaction to the #MeToo movement. But it is kind of interesting that it naturally happened all at once. And I think, the question is one that needs to be raised in a different context, you know? Because it is a question of the entertainment industry, power and how that power is exploited. And women in the entertainment industry, how their dreams and aspirations are exploited by men in a position of power.
It was interesting to explore that in the Caribbean context. It wasn’t even our reaction to what was happening globally, it was just something that was just natural to this story that needed to be told from a woman’s perspective, coming of age in this industry. And I believe after a few rewrites, the #MeToo movement happened.
SS: It’s rare for Caribbean filmmakers to get a feature made and you’ve exceeded that target by playing major film festivals and you’ve gotten distribution. How has that experience been for you? And was it what you expected?
MC: No, not at all! [Laughs]. When I made this, I honestly don’t even think I really understood what distribution was. I just want to make a movie! I don’t think I had any aspirations for festivals. It was just mostly me wanting to just make a first feature, make mistakes and learn and tell the story. It felt like the story was just in me and haunting me, like an obsession. And I just had to get it out and tell it.
So it’s really been surprising to see how it’s taken on a life of its own after it was made. And I think as it continues to do more things, it always surprises me more and more. But it just goes to show that, there really is an issue with representation. So many people feel like their stories aren’t being told. So I think the excitement around the film is just a reflection of all the West Indian women and Black women who just feel like they haven’t seen their stories. That does feel rewarding.
SS: Do you have anything you’re working on now?
MC: I’m working with the co-writer of She Paradise, co-developing a story about Calypso Rose. It’s a 6-part mini-series on her life that starts in Tobago, where she was born, and then ends when she wins Calypso King and changes the name from Calypso King to the gender-neutral title of Calypso monarch. But Calypso Rose is also a queer feminist icon in the Caribbean. She’s such a trailblazer in so many ways. And I think she’s one of the oldest performers to ever perform at Coachella, at 80 years old. She had such an interesting life.
And it also was exciting to look at the world of Calypso music, which was very heavily male dominated. To look at that world from her perspective, entering that space, and changing the title. So it’s been really fun to to read her story and develop a screenplay about her life. And then I have a few other things that I’m also writing.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
She Paradise opens in select theaters and on-demand Friday, November 19.