New Directions
October 2023 Issue

Nia DaCosta, Barrier-Breaking Director of The Marvels, on Navigating the Blockbuster Machine

“The thing I’ve been most surprised by lately,” says the filmmaker, who broke through with the horror hit Candyman, “is how much respect I’ve been getting from these middle-aged white dudes.”
Nia DaCosta photographed in London wearing Bottega Veneta.
DIRECTOR’S CHAIR The filmmaker, photographed in London on July 15. Clothing by Bottega Veneta; earrings by Bulgari.Photograph by Tom Craig; Styled by Ronald Burton III.

Back In early 2020, when Marvel was on the hunt for a director for The Marvels, a young director came in to pitch her vision for the project to executives and select talent. Four minutes into the meeting, Brie Larson sent an all-caps text to their mutual friend, Tessa Thompson. All it said was “NIA DACOSTA.”

DaCosta, who was 30 at the time, got the job, becoming not only Marvel’s youngest director ever, but also the first Black woman to helm one of its films. “When I go into those rooms, I’m really just like, ‘This is what I want,’ ” says DaCosta. “I’m not trying to figure out what they want, so I don’t have those kinds of nerves.” Her friend Thompson, who knows her way around the Marvel universe, having played Valkyrie in the Thor films, doesn’t think DaCosta is giving herself quite enough credit: “She has this combination of real humility and also this idea of ‘Why 蝉丑辞耻濒诲苍’迟 I be able to do these things?’ That belief in self—you need that, especially if you’re in a position where people are inclined to underestimate you.”

When she signed on for The Marvels, DaCosta had released just one feature, an indie made for less than $1 million that was galaxies away from a superhero blockbuster. Now she would direct the sequel to Captain Marvel, which had made more than $1 billion globally, and her movie would have to be plotted and positioned carefully since it was tethered to the brand’s other IP, both past and future. “We were just very impressed with her indie cred—and her nerd cred,” says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.

Dress by Molly Goddard; jeans by Cotton Citizen; shoes by Manolo Blahnik; jewelry by Bulgari.Photograph by Tom Craig; Styled by Ronald Burton III.

Working with Marvel had been a long-held dream for DaCosta, but there would be risks. The studio has tapped some inspired directors over the years: Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, Chloé Zhao, to name a few. Still, the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t exactly an auteur-driven Eden: The movies and TV shows are so interconnected that Feige sometimes seems more like an army general than a movie executive. DaCosta finished another studio film before she took on The Marvels—the horror hit Candyman—but she’s a writer-director used to a certain level of autonomy. “That’s where most of the real pure stress as an artist came from,” she tells me from her East London flat, pausing to shush her five-year-old dog, Maude, who’s attempting to attack a pigeon outside her window. “People are like, ‘Oh, it’s a Marvel film. Cool, cool, cool,’ but I also have my name on it, so I want to be able to be proud of it too.”

As DaCosta entered the MCU, Coogler suggested that she just be herself. Straightforward advice, but DaCosta didn’t know what to make of it initially: “I said, ‘Ryan, what are you talking about?’ ” It seemed unlikely that being herself would be enough given the scope of the task at hand. But DaCosta had been raised to trust her instincts, and she returned to Coogler’s words regularly. “You can’t do anything but be yourself, so bring that to the table,” she says. “They can choose to take some and leave some, but that’s what your job is.”

DaCosta grew up in Harlem. She was raised by a single mother—a singer whose band’s claim to fame was writing the theme song for Cool Runnings and who exposed her to film, music, theater, and performance art from an early age. “That was really my upbringing—just full acceptance, full of art, and a mother who really was like, ‘The world is your oyster. Go explore it. Have fun,’ ” she says. DaCosta took her first film class at 16 while in boarding school and wrote a feature-length screenplay even though, technically, her teacher hadn’t asked her to. She graduated from New York University, then moved to London to attend the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Her first job in the industry was as a production assistant on reality shows like Kesha: My Crazy Beautiful Life, but she was miserable: “I was like, ‘This can’t be my life.’ ”

Her mother encouraged her to write, and DaCosta’s screenplay Little Woods was accepted by the Sundance Labs, which had launched Coogler, Waititi, Paul Thomas Anderson, Lulu Wang, Quentin Tarantino, and more. Little Woods came out in 2019, with Thompson and Lily James as cash-strapped sisters who turn to desperate measures to save their home from foreclosure. It was a tense, nuanced debut from a new voice. In short order, DaCosta was hired by producer Jordan Peele to cowrite and direct Candyman, a sharp horror sequel about a Chicago artist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who becomes obsessed with the urban legend. The fresh take on horror, told from a Black point of view, earned $77 million worldwide and made DaCosta the first Black woman with a film that opened at number one. “That one’s crazy,” she says. She had assumed that another director—maybe one with the last name DuVernay, Prince-Bythewood, or Matsoukas—had already done it. “I thought it was Ava or Gina or Melina. I was really shocked.”

Clothing by JW Anderson; earrings by Completed Works; bracelet by Bulgari.Photograph by Tom Craig; Styled by Ronald Burton III.

Making Candyman taught DaCosta how to reframe an existing franchise through her own POV, and Peele proved to be a godsend as a mentor. “One of the most important things I learned from him is how to be fearless and how to navigate studio stuff,” she says. “He’s not just critically successful, he’s incredibly commercially successful as well, and that has its own pressure, obviously. He was really good at holding both those things at once.” Marvel encouraged DaCosta to talk to some of their other directors before she went into production on The Marvels, so she bounced her most existential fears off people like Zhao, Waititi, and James Gunn. She also asked some friends who were in the universe, “Are they going to kill me and destroy my soul? Is Kevin Feige a bad man?” she jokes. “And they were like, ‘No, he’s just a good guy who was a nerd.’ ”

DaCosta was a nerd too, having watched X-Men cartoons and Sailor Moon on TV when she was young. In The Marvels, she focused on the tricky dynamic among the three main characters, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), whose light-based powers are enmeshed in surprising, challenging ways. DaCosta is pleased with the multiplicity of places she could put her stamp: not just strengthening the bond between the lead characters, but redesigning costumes, choosing locations, naming fictional planets, and so on. She loved production, she says, but admits there were days when she texted Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, things like “I’m overwhelmed” and “I’m so stressed.” As she puts it now, “Sometimes you’d be in a scene and you’d be like, ‘What the hell does any of this shit mean?’ Or an actor’s looking at some crazy thing happening in space, and they’re [actually] looking at a blue X. There were obviously hard days, and days where you’re like, ‘This just isn’t working.’ ”

Postproduction proved to be most challenging. The Marvels shares a bloodline with Captain Marvel and the Ms. Marvel TV show as well as future films. Feige says he prioritizes individual movies over the grander sweep of the studio’s storytelling: “The overarching narrative is secondary to the narrative of the individual film.” But DaCosta was fully cognizant that she’d been hired by a powerful entity to do a job. “It is a Kevin Feige production, it’s his movie,” she says. “So I think you live in that reality, but I tried to go in with the knowledge that some of you is going to take a back seat.”

Dress by Molly Goddard; jewelry by Bulgari.Photograph by Tom Craig; Styled by Ronald Burton III.

As she awaits the release of The Marvels in November, DaCosta has decamped from social media. Captain Marvel, which was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, may have been an enormous hit, but it was also one of the few female-fronted films in the studio’s universe—and, not coincidentally, the recipient of sexist vitriol from the darkest corners of the fandom. As for The Marvels, it centers on three women, including the first Muslim superhero in one of the studio’s movies. “I’m just girding myself for it,” DaCosta says. “I am a sensitive soul, and I think maybe more of us are than we want to admit.”

DaCosta is also still grappling with the breakthroughs she’s made, including the fact that The Marvels is the highest-budgeted film ever helmed by a Black woman. (DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time previously held that title with $100 million.) On sets, she’s noticed that the way she’s spoken to, or heard, is different than it would be for someone who doesn’t look like her. “Sometimes as a Black woman, you realize that [people think] you take up more space than you actually do, or your voice sounds louder to people than it actually is, or your tone is more stern than it actually is,” she says.

Despite having Peele’s full support on Candyman, DaCosta says that some “ridiculous” things happened on that set, with crew members saying “things that are super inappropriate, that you would just never say to anyone else because they were so specific to my gender, my race, my age.” She had a very different experience on The Marvels, fortunately, in part because she had the power to hire the people she wanted for her team. “I realized it wasn’t ever gonna be about how much power I amassed or how many great movies I made, or if I won awards, it was always just going to be the people that I surrounded myself with,” she says. “The thing that I’ve been most surprised by lately is how much respect I’m getting from these middle-aged white dudes that I work with.”

Having navigated the studio system for years now, Da?Costa has turned back to smaller universes. When we first spoke, she was just a week from starting production on Hedda, running from actor rehearsals in the morning to production meetings in the afternoon. The film is based on DaCosta’s own adaptation of Ibsen’s classic play Hedda Gabler, about a bored woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. She calls the script an “esoteric psychological thriller” and has cast Thompson in the lead role. A few days after our interview, however, the actors union joined the Writers Guild on strike, bringing most scripted productions like Hedda to an immediate halt.

Top by Burberry; earrings by Bulgari. Throughout: hair products by Mielle Organics; makeup products by Dior; nail enamel by Chanel Le Vernis.Photograph by Tom Craig; Styled by Ronald Burton III.

DaCosta is also attached to direct an adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s novel The Water Dancer, a surrealist story about an enslaved man who discovers a mysterious power after almost drowning in a river. But she insists that her plan after Hedda is to take a break, having worked constantly for eight years. DaCosta is single—“Know anybody?” she asks me with a laugh—and wouldn’t mind staying in London, which she’s begun to view as home after living there for back-to-back projects. But taking time off may be a challenge for someone who’s never at a loss for inspiration. “She works nonstop and is a fountain of ideas,” says Feige. “She would spend time in between setups pitching me other movies and other ideas and other stories, because that’s the way her mind works.”

Collaborating on a huge IP-driven movie like The Marvels has made DaCosta long to write original films again. She’s got sci-fi and fantasy stories she’s ready to tell, and now she has all the skills she needs. “It was really great to play in this world, and to be a part of building this big world,” she says, “but it made me just want to build my own world more.”