INTERVIEW: ‘Jezebel’ Director Numa Perrier
Numa Perrier welcomes the alluring world of a fetish cam girl into a triumphant story of a young woman’s grief and self discovery in her feature directorial debut, “Jezebel.” The film is nothing short of a personal revelation for Perrier as she captures a period of her life that gave way to pure catharsis. Perrier’s unique coming-of-age film world premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival before it was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing for distribution.
“Jezebel” tells the story of a young woman (Tiffany Tenille) who comes into her own as she copes with the loss of her mother while taking on a budding profession as a cam girl, a line of work introduced by her older sister. Perrier plays the role of Sabrina, the older sister who makes decent income as a phone sex operator. They live in a cramped Las Vegas studio apartment with their brother, as well as Sabrina’s boyfriend and young child. With their mother’s declining health, Tiffany finds solace in Sabrina’s guidance and support, a theme of sisterhood as vitality Perrier does well by. As Tiffany is introduced to the soulful pleasures of finding out who she is, she discovers a buoyant agency that allows her to cope and move forward.
We spoke with Perrier on the personal ties to this script as something that felt right to debut, as well as her work on a micro budget, the support of Ava DuVernay, and what projects are on the horizon.
“Jezebel” is a very personal film for you. It tells a specific time in your life where you had to basically grow into your own amid a family trauma. You also beautifully tell a story about sisters and how they learn to lean on each other in tough times. What was your journey like in capturing this part of your story? Did you always plan this to be your feature directorial debut? Were there any changes to the script at any point?
I always planned for this to be my feature debut. I knew it was a story only I could tell because that’s my life! This gave me so much creative freedom. It was always important to me to stay focused on the relationship with the sisters because it was through my relationship to my sister that I experienced so much growth and had that contrast and mother figure when we lost our actual mother. Like many features, it was a long time in the making due to other projects I was focused on and ultimately feeling courageous enough to take the leap.
You also play Tiffany’s older sister in the film, who works as a phone sex operator. Was this role always in mind for you to take on from the start? Was there any catharsis in this and in revisiting the motel on set?
The entire experience was cathartic and taking on the role of my sister enriched our relationship in every way – we are closer than ever now because I have come to know her in a new way while playing her and embodying her experience. I didn’t know that I would play her from the very start, but it became clear to me as the years went by that she is a character I wanted to explore fully. So I asked her permission and she gave it readily.
Tiffany Tenille stars in her first feature film with “Jezebel.”. She’s an amazing presence as her character moves through the grief, joys and pleasures around her. How important was it to contrast her workplace experience and the feelings of new feminine discovery to the coping mechanism it came to be in the end?
The vision was always to show the dichotomy of those two worlds- the apartment family life where the grief and poverty live as one, and the chat rooms where the escape and fantasy take over. I told Tiffany it was important to see that shift occur and have her mask come off and on throughout, and she really nailed it and brought so much to that palette.
There’s a scene where Tiffany first meets with one of the cam site owners. She’s in his office and after given a job description is told to undress. You can tell she’s a little taken aback in that scene and maybe even uncomfortable, but the camera never actually lingers on her body. It does, however, pan over her in two other instances- when she’s excitedly trying on a blue bikini gifted from her sister, and when she is entertaining the camera in a private chat, dolled up and in euphoria. Was this a conscious choice you made? How did you welcome individuality and agency into Tiffany’s sexuality?
Every time we dealt with the gaze on her body there were very conscious choices. I’m interested in saying and showing less to create tension and fuel the essence of fantasy, which is a cornerstone of the film. Each scene was discussed in length about what we would show and how and why. There is no nudity in this film and that only heightens the eroticism. I love that.
For filmmakers, being able to locate the funds for their feature project is one of many moving parts. Earlier this year on the Karen Hunter Show, you said it took $115,000 to make “Jezebel.” Seeing as the film is set in limited locations, even in the very motel you lived in at this point in your life, how did you go about prioritizing your set and expenses to your budget?
The film’s budget was cobbled together very piecemeal! We had just enough money to shoot the first leg in Vegas. Then, the second leg we shot a month later in Los Angeles. My real life sister, our EP Livia Perrier, funded the majority of the on-set production costs. In post-production I did a crowdfunding campaign on Go Fund Me and received tremendous support. I also booked a Showtime series guest star on “SMILF,” and used those funds towards post costs. Once we were selected by SXSW, I raised the final third through several investors that gave larger chunks to pay for the coloring, final sound mix, and get my team housing at SXSW. Oh yeah, plus our publicist. There are so many costs!
The priorities starting off were to feed our crew well, make sure everyone was comfortable (as possible) in Las Vegas and get the thing in the can. After that, I knew I would have the footage and would find a way to see the rest through. That became the driving force; having two hard drives of my life that needed to be cared for and brought to the world.
You also shot this in ten days! Was this a time crunch in production at all?
Yes, of course. Ten days for a feature is a miracle, a feat! There were a couple of scenes I wrote that we ended up not filming, but I am very happy because those scenes are ones you commonly see in coming-of-age stories, and I feel my film is set apart now without those moments. There was a hospital scene with our Mom before she passed and a funeral scene where my brother gives a speech. Very beautiful, emotional scenes, but ultimately we found another way to show those moments sometimes without showing them at all, and this accented those emotions even more. Those voids became part of the texture of the film. This feels close to my roots in experimental filmmaking where the approach is non linear. So, yes it was a crunch, but we got it done and made choices that seemed tough but were actually the film speaking to me, I believe.
As some may or may not know, you also received incredible support and backing from Ava DuVernay and her distribution company, ARRAY Releasing. You also directed an episode of her “Queen Sugar” television drama. How was it recruiting the right resources and raising the funds through social means for your debut project? Did the financial stars always align or did you experience some hurdles at any point in production?
The hurdles were constant, but it was incredible to have Ava— who knows those hurdles all too well— recognize that I had taken the initiative to make my film on my own, quietly and determinedly. When she found out about this, she was extremely generous to share my crowdfunding campaign on her Twitter early on and then continue to include and invite me along as one of the emerging tribe of Black Women filmmakers. I directed “Queen Sugar” at her invitation after returning from SXSW and then her company, ARRAY, distributed Jezebel, ultimately. (Now on Netflix!) It’s immeasurable the wings that [she] gave us. I’m so appreciative of her and their entire team. There’s nothing like a distributor who knows and loves the projects they take on in an intimate way. It makes every difference. And this team worked so hard and gave us so much love and amplification.
How has your background in producing television and series work all these years informed your creative structure?
I directed and produced in the digital space for years, which is the same as TV, except it’s micro micro micro budget. So I was being called to do the same things but on a much larger scale, and it felt very exciting to step into that. I loved it so much. It was a challenge with higher stakes than I had before, but I work well under pressure so we got it done. I was also able to shadow the director who was on the episode before mine (Lacey Duke) while she was prepping her episode.
Prep in TV feels different than prep in the web series space, or even indie filmmaking space, so that was probably the biggest learning curve for me. There’s a pacing to it that’s more formulaic and you’re expected to know it and be able to run that well. There’s tons of meetings that, in the indie space, you just don’t even have time for. You have to be able to run those meetings and have answers for all the questions coming at you and it’s a constant collaboration with people who know the show way more than you ever will. So you want to enjoy and give in to that, while also bringing your vision in a way that aligns; it’s a dance. Everyone is watching you in prep and deciding if it’s going to go smoothly or not. I’m really proud of the episode and the entire season! So now I have that experience and I’m stronger for it, and more equipped to do more TV going forward.
We’re in an industry that is constantly creating opportunities, although some of its demographic hierarchy is a little tough to shake. Even making it a point to hire the right people and fund more original content can be a headache. Even underrepresented creators like women of color have had to fight for more shots than their white or male counterparts. How did you find or create your platform for women and what stories do you want to tell? Have you faced any pushback or have you found ways to make things happen on your own? What advice can you impart to those taking their chance with a feature debut?
My advice for a feature debut is very much in line with Gina Prince Bythewood, who says, “Your first film should announce to the world who you are, so write a story that is personal, write a story that only you can tell, and make sure it’s dope.” I really can’t say it any better than that! We are all underrepresented, so we don’t have to talk too much about it. Just change it and contribute by making your movie. Don’t let anyone stop you, especially yourself!
Congratulations on your deal with Macro Television Studios on the “Toxic” series. We hear you’re executive producing, as well as writing and directing the pilot. Are there any details you can share about it? What kind of voices will your House of Numa banner be inviting?
House of Numa is about provocative, personal, feminine art house projects across film, TV and the visual art space as well. That’s what you can expect when you come to House of Numa. “Toxic” is a series that takes a deep dive into a relationship that is hot in every way and eventually becomes combustible. Two people who love each other end up bringing their worst selves to the relationship. It’s an erotic thriller and it will explore both of those themes in an unadulterated way. A love story gone wrong.
Your next feature, “Blood Mother,” is a thriller about your adoption. Will you be dealing with more true-to-life themes of your own with this story? What from your experience in making “Jezebel” will you be taking onto your sophomore project?
“Blood Mother” is a companion piece to “Jezebel,” but not a sequel. It’s very much about my true story but more heightened as it deals with the psychological effects of matriarchal distrust. If you can’t trust your mother, who can you trust? Most adoptions are shrouded in secrecy and there’s just so much to mine there for storytelling.