On January 18, 2018, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal starred in Blindspotting, a hyphy-drenched, spoken-word feature navigating identity and socio-politica; issues in Oakland, California. Directed by Carlos López Estrada, the film received a positive ovation and eventually went from being a buzzy indie Sundance feature to a Independent Spirit and Gotham Award-nominated series on Starz — and Jess Wu Calder has been there on this journey with Diggs and Casal. Now, she goes from producer of the Blindspotting extended cinematic universe to director of two very different episodes for the series’ sophomore season.
Calder, along with her husband, Keith, serve as producers and writers for the Blindspotting series, but the pair also served as producers for Regina King’s feature directorial debut, One Night In Miami. Calder also served as a producer to genre-driven features such as You’re Next, The Guest, Anomalisa, and Little Monsters. Her wide range of taste and penchant for storytelling stemmed from her growing up in a household of diverse tastes. Her mother was obsessed with big epics like Cleopatra while her dad enjoyed westerns and tales about morality such as High Noon.
“I remember there was this one time at our birthday party in elementary school, everybody was asked to do an impression,” she tells DIASPORA. “Most people were doing Beavis and Butthead or something… I did an impression of Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront.”
Her parents raised her to love film and appreciate how it could change lives. She says her parents wouldn’t have a command of the English language without it because that is how they learned. “I think from an early age, without even knowing, I saw the power of TV and of film,” she explains.
Fast-forward to the era of Braveheart in theaters — long before Mel Gibson showed us his “sugar tits”. Calder said a bunch of her dude friends said she was too much of a girly girl to watch Braveheart because of how graphic it was. She told them she could handle it and they did not believe her. ” Much to their dismay, I was not grossed out,” she said. “I was completely moved.”
Calder said that it was the story of William Wallace fighting for his people and it really resonated with her emotionally. She wanted to move people the way films like Braveheart, On The Waterfront, Cleopatra, and High Noon moved her.
She initially wanted to be a writer and leaned into her love for writing dialogue and made it into NYU’s playwriting program. Calder admits that she wasn’t feelin’ the angsty and lonely world of being a writer so she veered to production which was more collaborative and allowed her to be around people which is more of her lane. Now she could add “director” to her resume.
The talks for her to direct actually started when the Blindspotting feature premiered at Sundance after a long 10-year journey. “It was a big moment for all of us and we were soak soaking it in,” she recollects. “At one of the afterparties, the editor of the film took a moment to pull me aside, and he said, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but I really feel like you are a director… and everything that we’ve done on this film together makes me feel like that you’ve been a director this entire time and you maybe just didn’t realize it’.”
“It kind of blew my mind in a way, because no one had ever told me that,” she continues. “I had always thought that since film school, that my path was to be the person who finds someone with a vision and support them and believe in them, and try to do whatever I can to bring out the best of them, the crew and the cast to make the best film possible — I thought that had always been my lane.”
Calder also confesses that she may have not thought she was good enough (dame imposter syndrome!) but to have someone look at her and think otherwise gave her that boost that would pay off when they were working on season one of the series.
While she was eating lunch with her husband and Casal during production, Clader, a self-proclaimed klutz, spilled her drink on the table. She got up from the table to get napkins to clean up and by the time she got back, Casal told her: “You’re directing.” Turns out that her husband knew that she had been a little shy about being a director so she advocated for her to Casal.
Calder told Casal that she wouldn’t direct unless it was okay with Diggs. “He texted Diggs right away and then put the phone up to me to make sure that I read Diggs’s reply: ‘Either she directs or I quit’,” she says. “It was just this beautiful moment of having all these people that known me for such a long time say with confidence that they thought that I could do it. I think that was just the confidence boost that I needed to just to start believing more in myself.”
Not only was she going to direct two episode, but she was going to direct one of the hardest episodes possible. Casal put the episode titled “N*ggaz and Jesus” which aired last week and followed Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and Sean (Atticus Woodward) as they get the opportunity to spend monitored face to face time with Miles (Casal) during their first family weekend with him.
While trying to navigate the non-stop prison guard check-ins, lack of sexy time, unexpressed emotional turmoil, and limited time together, Sean says the N-word. Ashley and Miles unpack the nuances of why it is wrong for him to use that word and why it is still being used by people. Nonetheless, that is just one part of the episode. There is another storyline throughout where Rainey questions God which leads to this incredible monologue performed effortlessly by Helen Hunt.
“I just like the power in that scene,” Calder points out. “You know those people from just that one scene and how they are, what they’re going through and how they’re dealing with it”.
In order to prep for the episode, Calder did tons of research when it came to these types of family visits in prisons. “I love homework and I love research like no other,” she admits. “Even though it’s not a world that I’m intimately familiar with, I researched and researched and researched and one of the things that I came across was an article by a journalist who had followed a couple the entire time that they spent one weekend at the San Quentin visitation suite. The article shared thousands of photos and we used a lot of those photos as references.”
One of the major things that shaped the episode was one line in the article that haunted her. There was this idea that both her and her partner didn’t want to fall asleep.”They took turns just staring at each other because they just didn’t want to waste a single second of what weekend,” she said. “They just wanted to soak in each other — and that stayed with me. That was kind of the emotion that I was trying to get across the entire time over the course of episode three… that really shook me to the core.”
She describes the visit as a “dream” or a “cocoon” because you’re rudely awakened every single time that you hear the “count” alarm. “Every single time that Ashley walks out on onto the step and realizes she’s one of very few women at that establishment and surrounded by barbed wire and guards and guns…” Calder explains, “All of that washes over her, and breaks the dream of this weekend that she had been having.”
From the episode, Calder became passionate about organizations that are aligned with topics regarding prison reform and groups that bolster women with incarcerated loved ones like Essie Justice Group, Reform Alliance, and The Last Prisoner Project.
In episode 4 (premiering tonight on Starz), which is titled “By Hook or by Crook” is a nice chaser to episode 3, going from the complex emotional journey one with a loved one in prison must go through to the lightheartedness and love of Filipino hospitality. On top of all that, the episode spotlightsan iconic figure in cinematic history: Rufio from the seminal Steven Spielberg fantasy adventure, Hook (hence the title of the episode).
The fourth episode of season 2 has Ashley, Trish (Jaylen Barron), Janelle (Candace Nicholas-Lippman), and Earl (Benjamin Earl Turner) head out to celebrate Halloween on Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk while finding some understanding with each other and themselves along the way.
Meanwhile, Jacque (April Absynth) introduces Cuddie (Lance Holloway) to her Filipino family at the annual costume party. After being tricked into dressing as a pirate for the party, Cuddie is challenged to a duel by Jacque’s father, the real-life Rufio, Dante Basco, who, for obvious reasons, hates pirates.
Calder also made it a point to have very song in the episode sourced from a Filipino artist. Bay Area-based Filipina rapper Ruby Ibarra also makes an appearance in the episode. The episode also ends with Jacque and her entire family singing the classic Filipino love song, “Dahil Sa Iyo (Because of You)” alongside the newly accepted Cuddie.
The episode sings with Filipino cultural nuances while centering the heart and emotional truth of the story. “If you can get these two things across in a way that feels authentic, people will always respond,” says Calder.
She wanted to do more with the character of Cuddie after season one and the Blindspotting team agreed that it would be hilarious if Jacque and Cuddie became a couple. For one, Cuddie towers over Jacque. It just so happened that Holloway had a Filipino girlfriend and he showed Calder a picture of them at prom where he was kneeling next to her and she was still shorter. “Off of that, we were like, ‘Oh my God, wouldn’t it be hilarious if she had to bring him home to her family. What would that look like?’,” she said. “I think that was our version of a fish out of water story.”
That’s where the idea of Basco as Jacque’s dad came in. “We didn’t know if he would do it,” admitted Calder. “So we wrote the whole episode just hoping, hoping, hoping, hoping that he would do it. Finally, once we had a pretty good sketch of it, [Casal] finally reached out and to our relief he said yes.”
Calder points out the universality of the Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner story and how the idea of brining a partner home for the first time to meet a family is always a big deal. “That’s something that everyone can lean into and understand the uncomfortableness around it,” she said “You want so badly for your family to accept them and for arbitrary reasons they might not.”
They thought the funniest, surrealist and best version of this story should stem from the movie Hook… and the rest was history, including a swashbuckling sword fight between Basco and Holloway.
The use of “Dahil Sa Iyo” came about after the Blindspotting team asked every Filipino they knew: What is the most important Filipino song?”
“When you think about what the words are, the words apply to everybody in the episode …it is a song about love,” Calder points out. “It is a song about yearning. It’s a song that says ‘because of you’.”
At the end of the day, Calder says the episode is framed around this idea of “If I have you, everything is going to be okay”. It applies to Ashley and Miles, Trish longing for Jacque and also Jacque and Cuddie. “When I chose that song, I was choosing a song that would really work for the comedy of the scene and for the moment of the scene within that storyline,” Calder explains. “But hopefully if you dig in, you realize that it’s actually commentary about the entire episode and where each character is. But also, I just want to say the first time we rehearsed that song with the pianist, who was also Filipino, all the extras were singing along… Dante was slow dancing with the actress who played his wife.”
Calder admitted that she and Diggs started tearing up while watching the beautiful moment. “I don’t think that a moment like this has ever existed on television… and so for us in that moment, it was like, ‘this is why we made the decision to tell this story because we needed to have this moment on screen’.”