‘The Darkest Minds’ Movie Talk #6: Let’s Talk About Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Every Monday and Friday we’re bringing you The Darkest Minds content leading up to the film’s Aug. 3 release.

When it comes to books and movies, they’re two completely different mediums. Both tell stories. But they tell them in different ways. Much like the author guides the direction of a story, a director does the same with a movie.
The Darkest Minds boasts director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who is making her live action debut. She’s worked on projects like Kung Fu Panda 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3. But in a media world where white men are dominant — both on the acting and directing side — and diversity is more important than ever, Nelson is a female director of color leading a project where the lead, Amandla Stenberg, is a woman of color. Which makes this project incredibly important.

Stenberg, who plays Ruby in the film, has been blessed to work with three female directors in a row. She raved about Nelson’s grounded nature and a sense of control that knows no ego.
“I think what’s so powerful about her is that she doesn’t have to project a certain outer ego or certain temperament in order to show that she’s in control,” Stenberg said. “She has a very relaxed, chill vibe and everyone respects her because of that.”
While The Darkest Minds serves as Nelson’s first live-action film, Stenberg doesn’t really see that as a weakness. She praised her talent with animation and watching how that translated into live action.
“She herself is storyboarding and creating little animated sections of the movie to show us what the scenes are going to look like,” Stenberg said. “She has such a visual mind and knows exactly how to translate that and ensure our characters comes across as characters in the more traditional sense of animation, where characters have these strong traits that make these strong choices. And balancing that with also keeping it kind of gritty and keeping the characters nuanced has been really cool.”
Harris Dickinson, who plays Liam, knew Nelson was special from the moment he met her. Not only does she possess such a warm energy, but she’s a director that he could turn to for advice in a welcoming way.
When we first met, I just felt her energy — her creative, positive energy that flew out of her,” he gushed. “I really did feel that as soon as I met her. It’s been great. She’s awesome. You do feel lucky when you get a director that you can feed off of and you can go and ask questions to. They can give you advice without feeling like they’re stepping on your toes or vice versa. I really do feel blessed to be working with her.”
Miya Cech, who plays Zu in the film, also appreciated the little nuances Nelson had in giving advice and listening to her suggestions.
“We had a little meeting in her office before we started shooting,” Cech said. “She told me a few tips. I’m supposed to cry a lot in this movie, so I asked her if I could no more or no less than 60 seconds to get there because I can get there in 60 seconds. She told me, ‘Yeah, sure you’ll always have that 60 seconds. You always have the time to get there and start the scene.’”
The book to movie process can be a tumultuous one, but Darkest Minds author Alexandra Bracken found that Nelson was very interested in involving her in the process and maintaining the heart of her book.
“I personally felt very heard and respected,” Bracken said. “She has made it a point to push to include me as much as possible. I just really respected and admire her and I’m really grateful that she was willing to come on to this project and she understood it so well from the start and kept the heart of the story.
“You always hear these horror stories about directors who are aggressive and yell,” she continued, “and that’s the opposite of her style. It’s a stealthy kind of control over the situation. She has everything well in hand and is so calm.”
Stenberg praised Nelson’s ability to communicate and listen when it came to differing opinions on something.
“She has such a calming presence and energy and is such a diplomat and fantastic mediator and a really fantastic communicator,” Stenberg said. “So that was really helpful on set just being able to talk about perspective in terms of difference of opinion on something. We always had this fantastic, rich conversation around whatever we were talking about.”
“She really is such a soothing presence,” Bracken added. “She’s such a genuinely wonderful, kind, imaginative, kind person.”

The Darkest Minds hits theaters on Friday, Aug. 3.

Stay tuned to Fangirlish every Monday and Friday for more The Darkest Minds Movie Talk leading up to the film’s release.

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