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Raven Jackson on her film 'All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Raven Jackson's new film, you'll hear a lot - but not much talking. And what you see - lingering emotional scenes that jump back and forth in time tell the story of a pair of Black sisters growing up in the South - joy, fear, heartbreak, love, all set to a soundtrack of crickets, rainstorms, birdsong and the crunch of soil under feet. Raven Jackson wrote and directed "All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt," and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

RAVEN JACKSON: Thank you for having me - excited to be here.

RASCOE: First, can you introduce us to the two sisters that we follow in this film, Mackenzie and Josie? And we really see a lot of Mackenzie in the movie. She's the anchor.

JACKSON: Yeah. So these are two sisters that we see at various ages. They share a very close bond. And we see that bond evolve throughout the film.

RASCOE: And what made you want to focus on sisterhood?

JACKSON: It was very organic coming to this, wanting to focus on community, on love, on family and also change in our lives, the seasons of our lives. And how that could be reflected in these relationships evolved into really having this central relationship between these two sisters. So yeah, it was really an organic process getting here.

RASCOE: It's a beautifully shot film - and the aesthetics and the sounds. But at what point did you decide, I don't want a lot of dialogue?

JACKSON: I'm very interested in the ways we communicate without words - through gesture, through silence, through, you know, how we hold someone for how long. You know, I trust the body's ability to communicate, and I - that's explored in this film. And also, you know, I have a deep reverence for sound, for very experiential and evocative soundscapes, and I wanted to lean into that with this film. It's not a dialogue-heavy film, but there are a lot of sounds that are speaking, you know, that are telling the story and that are giving a lot of layers of context to what's happening in the film.

RASCOE: Setting this in Mississippi - what did that mean to you? And, like, why set the movie in Mississippi?

JACKSON: There came a day where I came across Bill Ferris's photographs of Rose Hill Church, and these are photographs of the church and the congregation in the late '60s, early '70s. And when I saw these photographs, I was, like, there's no way this church is still standing. But I still sent that cold email. And long story short, it was. And it's just such a special place. And my mother is from Mississippi. I used my grandma's photo albums a lot as references for production design, for costumes, and so it was really - beautiful conversation I was having with my own lineage as I was making the film.

RASCOE: Well, can I ask you about one scene in particular? - when Mackenzie is a toddler and she's taking a bath with her mom, Evelyn, and there's this thunderstorm happening. And, you know, when I was growing up, you were taking your life into your hands if you dared to touch any water during a thunderstorm. You know, my grandma, mama...

JACKSON: (Laughter).

RASCOE: You were supposed to unplug everything, sit in the living room in quiet, in the dark because the Lord was working. My Big Ma would've lost her mind. You in the water - get - if you don't get out of there...

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: No, you know, that's interesting. In the creation of it, it was, like, you know, it's thundering, but we don't see any lightning.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: OK, so no lightning. It was no lightning. OK, I don't know if that would've worked with my Big Ma. I don't know if that would have flown. But another thing that I noticed throughout the film is Mackenzie and Josie's hairstyles and, like, the way they change.

JACKSON: Yeah, no, I love that you noticed that. Yeah, so it was Pamela Shepard who was the costume designer and Ikeyia Powell who was the hair department head. We talked a lot about the differences of Mack and Josie and also, you know, how they compare and contrast. Josie - you know, she would dress up more. She would like to have her hair out more. You know, she would maybe wear more lipstick than Mack would. And Mack was more relaxed in a lot of ways, a little bit more tomboyish. And the plaits were something beautiful because it really - you see these plats when it's young Mack, when it's late-teens Mack. And then it evolves into twists at, like...

RASCOE: Yes, yes, the twists, yeah.

JACKSON: ...That you see her hair in. And then...

RASCOE: Yes.

JACKSON: ...When she's, like, in her early 30s, you see it more where it's twists, but they're styled.

RASCOE: Yeah. yeah.

JACKSON: And then the oldest version of Mack, who's played by Zainab Jah, we see it where it's just one braid. And so thinking through how to evolve her hairstyles as she ages - 'cause I wasn't interested in underlining, you know, as these characters change, like, OK, and...

RASCOE: You didn't want to say the years or this...

JACKSON: Right, right.

RASCOE: You didn't want to say it that way.

JACKSON: Or, like, and now I'm Josie older. You know what I mean?

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

JACKSON: It's like - it's how to give these little intentional clues to who these characters are as they age that tracks.

RASCOE: This is, like, a very artistic film in the way that, you know, few films at the movie theaters really are, like - but this is your debut feature. Was there any pause with you when you were, like, I'm going to make this movie, this piece of art, that isn't really commercial in the way that, you know, movies are today?

JACKSON: At its core, at its heart, it's a film about life - you know what I mean? - and about how relationships change, how our lives change. And even if, again, it is not a traditional - told in the traditional way, that folks allow it to wash over them and for it to be an experience, you know? And hopefully, there's space for them to see moments of their own lives, you know, within the specificity of the film.

RASCOE: That's writer and director Raven Jackson. "All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt" is in limited release now. Raven Jackson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JACKSON: Thank you, Ayesha. It was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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