Inside Directing ‘Queen Sugar’s Emotional ‘Stare at the Same Fires’ Episode
[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for Queen Sugar Season 4 Episode 9, “Stare at the Same Fires.” Read on at your own risk.]
We’re used to the OWN drama Queen Sugar regularly taking us on an emotional rollercoaster but the Wednesday, August 14 episode was one of those hours that satisfied so many big questions but also left us with many, many more.
To catch you up, Season 4 of the Ava Duvernay-created series has focused much on the fractured relationship between the Bordelon siblings — Nova (Rutina Wesley), Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) — as Nova’s published book revealed secrets and personal stories about the family. The book caused a ripple effect in shaking up those sibling relationships, which have already gone through their ups and downs over the years.
And by the end of this week’s episode, “Stare at the Same Fires,” the family has come together physically but why do I think there’s still much to work out emotionally between the trio?
To get an inside look into shaping this episode, TV Insider chatted with C. Fitz, who made her scripted drama series debut behind the camera as director. Fitz shared her challenges as well as the decisions made for some of the big emotional scenes involving sisters Charley and Nova and that huge scene where Ralph Angel’s ex Darla (Bianca Lawson) came thisclose to taking a drink. She also talked filming the episode’s final scene, in which the Bordelons came together for the first time in a long time.
How do you actually prep for directing this episode? Do you just start with the script or are there things happening before you even see the script?
C. Fitz: For me, it was really diving into the previous seasons knowing the characters, but then for Season 4, reviewing all the previous episodes and styles that were going to be new and fresh. And really learning, relearning the characters, because there’s definitely a lot that happens in Season 4 that’s new for Nova and the family. There’s a lot of big shifts. And then waiting for my script to come in. It was really exciting to be on set [with] the cast and crew and get to know them and learn how we are all as a group.
The actors all know their respective characters so well. Do you communicate with a lot with them during filming or just kind of stay out of their way?
There are a lot of conversations, especially for [Episode] 409… because [these characters] are entering different scenes that they haven’t done before. Micah (Nicholas Ashe) and Keke (Tanyell Waivers), for instance, had conversations about how their scenes are going to go. Dawn and I had a lot of scenes together and it was definitely forging a new style, a new Charley that people have not seen before. And there were a lot of conversations that we had to have to really talk through this new script and find out how we were going to develop that character together.
Speaking of Charley, we see her really in a bad place and Dawn plays her being drunk in a more quiet, emotionally fraught manner instead of being a loud sloppy drunk — which I’m sure she could’ve also acted the hell out of. Did you talk about that approach or was that her choice as the actor?
It was emotional figuring out how we’re going to tackle Charlie really diving lower than any of the audiences have ever seen her life. And so we did have a lot of conversations leading up to the shoot days but also on set. With the bedroom scene, it was extremely emotional. That was actually my first day of shooting and it was with Nova and Charlie and it’s a pivotal scene in the entire season. I wanted to check in with Dawn during these really emotional tapes because as a person and an actor, she’s going through a lot. It was such an experience as a director to be going through this with the actors and have it be such a beautiful collaboration of all of our talents to get these words out there onto the street.
Charley and Nova reuniting finally was so not what I expected. It was much quieter and simpler, even though there’s so much going on between them.
It was all there. It really challenges us as viewers to think about what this family really mean. And I think that’s what Ava and the Queen Sugar writers and what Lisa Morales wrote really challenges us to do. Like, ‘Wait a minute! We’ve been waiting for this blowout this whole season with this book and all that Nova did. How can they come back together?’ Family is bigger than anything and there’s stuff being there for you at your lowest moment and it’s one of the most beautiful things.
And that pajama scene is just, it’s why I shot it the way that I did because it’s a critical moment in the whole season. And you’re not expecting it. You’re not expecting it to be simple, beautiful and loving. You’re expecting a blowout and it’s a big twist.
I love the scenes with Ralph Angel and Blue (Ethan Hutchison). Can you just talk about shooting the scenes with Ethan and with Kofi? I am curious about the fact that they’re wearing the same overalls and the white tee shirt.
I love their scenes together. It’s an interesting scene too because Ralph Angel’s going through his own journey in this episode and in the entire season. And that seems very interesting because he’s leaning on Blue and asking Blue, “Why do you like your Kenya much?” And it’s a very simple answer and he’s learning maybe it doesn’t have to be so complicated. It’s also challenging him into where Ralph Angel’s heart is and it’s a father-son beautiful moment out by the farm and it was critical to really bring them together because it’s Rob Angel learning from Blue just as much as Blue learning from his dad.
And the overalls being the same?
The costume department is amazing and it was a creative choice to bring them together. Blue is dressing like Ralph Angel but it’s also a choice. Obviously, the father is so proud of his son and wants to teach his son about the farm and about his heritage. And it was a subtle way to bring that all together, wrap it together, that they would be dressed alike.
Talk to me about the scene where Darla, someone with a substance abuse problem, almost has a drink. But how did you approach it so it would feel fresh instead of just something we’ve seen before in TV or films?
Every scene I was really excited to shoot, of course, but that scene… I think we all know somebody that struggled with addiction and it was really important to me how I approached it and also how I treated that bottle. Darla brought it to her house almost as if it’s a character. That’s how I approached it and it’s how I thought about it from the very beginning. It might sound strange but it’s actually what addiction is about. That is a demon to them. That is something that is another character in the room that pulls them, pulls on their heartstrings, that often wins. And so I wanted it to be a battle between her and this other character being that bottle, being that addiction.
Those choices that Darla’s about to make and struggle with were so important to me that I tried to shoot it in such a way that the addiction was a character in the room. And Bianca was amazing. It was the first scene that I shot in all of my Queen Sugar scenes! That was my first scene and it was like 6 in the morning
How did you go about constructing the final scene in the episode where we finally see the three siblings together for the first time in a long time?
I knew it was going to be a big pivotal point in Season 4 to see them together and how we orchestrated that, where they’re staged, how they’re staged. At one point we had staged it differently and I had to re-stage it and it was a pivotal decision by me as a director to have the whole family up there. It is a critical, big scene but certainly a nice way to end the episode that it does look like that they’re going to mend their relationships and potentially move on. You see Charley go through so many emotions up on that stage. Does she really want to be there? Does she believe in them? Is this even possible that they’re all going to come back, they’re going to forgive Nova? Are they really going to forgive her? We’re really not sure but by the end of that scene, there’s a lot of hope.
Queen Sugar, Wednesdays, 9/8c, OWN