Tribeca 2015: Ava DuVernay on 'Selma' Studio Headaches and Why She's Exploring TV

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Ava Duvernay

When making a studio film, "you do have to work in a collaborative manner, and it's really interesting to work with people in a collaborative manner who might not be used to working in a collaborative manner."

Ava DuVernay explained why she's currently pursuing television after directing Selma.

"If you are living your dream, which I am, and if you're in the thick of it — the window's open, the doors are open and you're breathing in the whole thing, then why stop to make calculations about industry?" she told Q-Tip, of others' shocked reaction to her latest moves into television, at Wednesday's Tribeca Film Festival panel. "Instead of a two-hour film, they're making a 13-hour film that you just seeing weekly," said DuVernay.

In addition to her OWN series Queen Sugar, she is working on For Justice, the CBS drama pilot which centers on an FBI agent who works in the criminal section of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division who finds herself caught between the radical family she was born into and the professional family she has chosen.

"There's something in the piece that I want to be on television," she said excitedly. "It's about this elite group of freedom fighters that work for the DOJ, and they're a combination of lawyers and FBI agents. Every week they solve a different civil rights abuse. So every week, the country will be able to see a case solved about anti-Muslim sentiment, or something around Ferguson or a transgender murder. These elements, in the umbrella of a procedural, you're actually able to give some information about people on the outside, on the margins. I love that."

The indie director also said of her Selma experience, "Once you start making films for studios, which I just had a little brush with in Selma … it was interesting because I'm used to writing, directing, producing my own stuff, putting my own crew together, no one is telling me anything except answers to specific questions I have … Telling me your opinion when I haven't asked you is the studio way.

"I did have final cut so I always knew the final vision would be mine, which is really rare, but you do have to work in a collaborative manner, and it's really interesting to work with people in a collaborative manner who might not be used to working in a collaborative manner," she continued. "I think they know what they're talking about from their perspective, which is business; my perspective is from the creative side. Sometimes those two don't mix."

The Tribe Called Quest musician praised DuVernay's cinematography choices in Selma — "sometimes people don't know how to capture African-American or black on film," he said. In many of her projects, she noted, "We were playing with the idea of how black people look in dark rooms. When I go in my house at night, the light's not on — what does that look like? So often, folks are afraid to put in darker hues against backdrops because you'd only see teeth and eyes, you know what I mean? That's not necessarily the case, and sometimes it is the case, and it's beautiful," she explained. "We were always playing with the idea of the black body, and deconstructing that in all types of ways."

She recalled how jail-set Selma scene with David Oyelowo and Colman Domingo had the studio nervous about how the footage would appear. "No disrespect to them, but that image of two dark-skinned people sitting in a dark space was so startling and rare. ... [But] our reference was making it feel like the hull of a slave ship."

"My mission in all of my work, truly, is to magnify the magnificence of black people, which is basically a longer way of saying, 'black lives matter,'" she said. "If we don't do it, who's gonna do it? If a woman filmmaker doesn't take special care of a woman character, who's does it? It's not gonna be the man. … It's not gonna be the filmmaker that doesn't know it. There are some instances where special things shine through, but overall, it's no one else's responsibility to make the things that I want to see. If I want to see them, then I need to make them, if I'm able, and I am."

DuVernay noted the glass ceiling Hollywood has in place. "We know the things that sell — as far as being a black filmmaker, it's comedy, it's action, it's those elements. The quiet character drama is not what the studios are paying you for, and you're never gonna get rich on it. … The question as artists is, is it worth it? The time when you could say something and actually monetize it, have it be embraced by an audience big enough for you to live, was the time Tribe was at its height," she noted of A Tribe Called Quest's success.

When asked about directors who influence her, she commented, "To say your fan of black filmmakers, unfortunately, is to say you're a fan of maybe two or three people. We don’t have a Woody Allen or a Mike Nichols; our filmmakers are not making films into their old age, with all their wisdom and experience that they've garnered, and that's a truly sad thing. … because they cannot get the support and resources together, in this time of their life when there's so much for us to hear."

"I intend to be ancient and old. What a blessing it is do to whatever we want to do when we're old, in the time of life when you take it all in and present it in a way you can't now," she reassured the audience. "I intend to be calling 'action' and 'cut' with my cane."

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