Nana Ghana talks to Harmony Murphy about exploring the rituals of everyday life within the fabled glitz of Los Angeles in anticipation of her upcoming film, LA Woman Rising.
Harmony Murphy: I loved watching the footage, which feels not only like documentation, but also a homage to these woman and to LA. As this is your adopted home, I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about your background and what drew you to this place?
Nana Ghana: I'm from Ghana, born and raised in West Africa in a small coastal village. I emigrated with my mom and little brother when I was 13. We settled in New Jersey. I went to ninth grade and high school there, which was total culture shock. Everything, language, the way of doing things, was new and different. Our English was very broken. I remember once as a kid, in a parking lot, someone called me "cute," and my brother got so angry and started defending me. We had no idea what it meant. We knew "pretty" or "nice" or "beautiful," but we didn't know any slang. It took a long time to get adjusted.
HM: But you decided to uproot again?
NG: I started coming up to New York to model when I was 16. I did that for a while, but my mom didn't want me to be so into it. During high school I got into theater and wanted to act. I came to LA to do a program, actually, at the New York Film Academy. I couldn't believe just how much this place resonated with me and my childhood—the beach, the sunsets, the ocean. The Venice Beach Boardwalk is exactly like where I'm from, in the trippiest way, in the vibe and the feeling. I went back to New York after my workshop for two weeks to finish the off-Broadway play I was doing, packed my stuff, and came straight back to LA One-way ticket. This was nine years ago.
HM: So you've been here ever since?
NG: Yes, I feel like I became a woman here. At first, with LA Woman Rising, I was trying to fill the time between modeling, acting, and other things.
HM: In many ways, a typical LA problem! There seems to be certain things that are cliché for a reason about this town—the weird alchemy that makes this place so distinct.
NG: Yes! I was always thinking about the Doors song "LA Woman." I feel like it really painted this visual icon of what an LA woman is, and I saw myself in it. My group of women friends around me resembled this song. I've always been a voyeur and like to observe, and because for so long I've been an outsider from another country, following the habits of these woman who make up this icon of an LA woman appealed to me.
HM: What made you decide to start with them all waking up?
NG: Well, the common thing is that we all have to wake up in order to do anything. [Laughs]. These women come from all over the world but live in and around the same city. Following their basic habits reveals all these juxtapositions. These seemingly very different women come into one town for this dream, but in order to make this dream happen, they all need to get up in the morning. Each one has their own ritual, but in many ways, they are all the same, so the morning seemed like a natural point of departure.
HM: What was your process of documenting the ritual of getting up the morning?
NG: At first, I was just going through the women in my life who were inspiring to me. I'd call them in the night, we'd have coffee or tea or dinner or whatever, and I'd tell them the nature of the project, that it was an exercise, kind of an experiment. We'd make a plan, and I'd have them leave the key outside of the house for me or leave the door open. The next morning, I'd show up with my assistant at their house; then we would shoot them waking up. They would still be in that dream state, doing the purification of self—you know, from the night before, the too many drinks, the text message I shouldn't have sent. It's all non-verbal. Even though I impose a narrative on them by the way each segment is eventually made into an episode, what is very clear is that each woman is dealing with so much as they wake up. When you wake up, you don't know what is going to happen by the end of the day. They are going to class, to an audition to face rejection, waiting tables. The film reveals a synchronicity. For instance, the waitress just happened to serve another woman I was following. She works in advertising and happened to stop in for drinks. I also followed a Paramount executive, and in the evening she went to an art opening where I saw another one of the women in the film. It was so odd, the sense of synchronicity of the town, bringing people together even when they don't know it.
HM: But if they were all friends of yours, wouldn't you expect them to overlap somehow?
NG: No, it started with friends, then friends of friends, then more random people I met through my travels. It became very important to me to have a range. We followed all kinds of women: a porn star, a student, a stay-at-home mom, as many as we could.
HM: Did you find their rituals similar?
NG: I feel that each woman's regimen is really the belly of it all: the start to their day and how they live their lives. In that sense, yes, everyone is all the same. We did an episode focused on mothers, for example. You have these incredible overlaps of Alma, a woman originally from Guatemala who works as a maid, and Sophie, a very wealthy woman. Alma wakes up with her son in humble home, and Sophie wakes up in this enormous mansion with her son, but in the details there are more commonalities than differences. The film is meant to encourage embracing an "us" by showing that we are not so separate.
HM: It seems very different to live in a mansion in the hills than a one-bedroom in the flats, but you start with these women waking up in their beds, where we are essentially all neutral. Did the morning help highlight these commonalities?
NG: Yes, they are very much the same in the basic wants, at least in the morning: to have coffee, to water their plants, to bathe. A lot of rituals centered on cleansing. After that, it begins to vary. Some women stayed home to work. Sophie, for instance, drives her son to school, comes home, does her calls, then rides her bike all the way down to Hollywood. Alma, has breakfast with her son then goes to work. Some of the women I began to follow more throughout the day because I wanted to try to understand who they are. I felt like they were the women you run into in the elevator or pass by in the line at the bank. They seemed anonymous, but through the process of following them, I became interested in how similar they all are in their rituals and how much they overlap.
HM: Did that challenge or reinforce your ideal of this quintessential LA woman?
NG: Well, I feel like it starts with the rituals. In the morning, an LA woman goes to the gym, goes for a run, meditates. She just has this thing about her. It's the way she puts her sunglasses on while walking to work. I feel like it's very distinct from any other place I've been in. I knew that would come from this town. LA is a character in the film. She's like the center of the Pacific Rim, calling all these women to her. Watching the footage, there seemed to be so much darkness to many of the women. One of the women, Hannah, who's one of my best friends, two weeks before we shot her, we thought she was going to die. She had been on heroin. But LA is the light, how you can move through. I mean, no matter how you feel when you go to bed, you wake up and you see that sun. It affects you.
HM: Interesting you mention that, because in the footage, there is this distinct tone that feels very feminine to me and almost like a visualization of empathy. Do you think the light of the city helped achieve that?
NG: Absolutely. It can really be telling to see how people react to the light. Their bedrooms were the most interesting and defining. They had different light coming through. Some of the women wake up and leap out of bed, leaving whoever is in there behind. I thought it was also interesting to show whom you go to bed with and how it affects your rituals. Some couples do everything together in the morning, and some wake up with their cats or dogs and have to do whatever they need right away. We tried to show as much context for their rituals as we could. I wanted to make sure you see everyone the women intact with. It usually worked, except in the case of one woman, Sheena. She was nine months pregnant—literally about to give birth when we filmed her. She's a janitor from Compton; she's a great artist but doesn't have the tools to get out of where she is and is not happy with her situation. Her husband just got out of jail and wouldn't be on camera.
HM: In many ways, you are seeing people at their most vulnerable before they could even attempt to be "on." How did you help form a narrative about these women from just basic habits?
NG : Well, it was very important that we met them at their most vulnerable. One subject, a surfer, called me and said, "I'm ready for you. I just showered." We told her that we had to reschedule, and she needed to stay in bed! The story of the women is formed in their subtle rituals and the way they interact with the character of LA. There's no talking except for the follow-up interviews, which I want to use to tie up the daily narrative. It will have a voice-over by James Franco. He has a book of poems about LA that will be released soon, so we will collaborate on that. His voice will be the LA voice.
HM: How is the LA voice distinct?
NG: In some ways, its tone is universal, but in others so overwhelmingly distinct. I mean, sandals and fur—where else can (and do!) people wear that? This idea of what makes LA icons is lived out through all these women. But, I think more than anything, you lose yourself exploring these commonalities we all share.