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Director Ava DuVernay says she wishes she had responded differently to criticism of Selma, her 2014 movie about Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1965 voting rights marches, which was nominated for a best-picture Oscar but attacked for its depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson.
“I look back now — it’s a growing and maturing, but what happened during that time, … the choice I made [was] to defend myself, as opposed to really call out what was happening,” she said, speaking with THR‘s Stephen Galloway Feb. 21 at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, where she took part in interview series The Hollywood Masters.
What happened, she said, was “a very privileged, pedestrian argument that their way [those close to LBJ] was the only way that these events could be seen — that the LBJ Library was right and the black people on the ground in Selma were wrong in their memory.”
DuVernay recalled the vehemence of those attacks. “‘She is a liar,’ I was called. [I should have responded] ‘Well, this is our point of view, and other people experience it in a different way.’ I didn’t say that. I said things like, ‘History is open to interpretation from all people.’ And I said all of the sound bites at that time to preserve what I really wanted for David Oyelowo [who played King]: I wanted him to have that Oscar nomination.”
She added: “It was a great lesson, because I will never let it happen again. But I said enough to get through it. And yes, it was painful, not in what they were saying, because what they were saying was ridiculous. But in that I shackled myself and I didn’t speak my true line.”
DuVernay, the most prominent African-American female director in Hollywood, also spoke of the challenge of entering rooms dominated by Caucasian men, and how different it was when she was approached to direct A Wrinkle in Time, out March 9.
“I knew [Disney executive vp] Tendo Nagenda, from ‘blackness,'” she said, to laughter, referring to the small black community of filmmakers in Hollywood. “And I knew the head of production, Sean Bailey, because I sat on the board at Sundance with him. And I felt in that moment like most white men probably feel every day: very comfortable. Because they know you. They know, ‘Hey, oh, how are you? How is your wife? Blah blah blah.’ Usually when I am walking into rooms, I don’t know you. We don’t socialize in the same places. My father did not go to school with your father. … That is a privilege that I don’t usually enjoy.”
DuVernay also noted some of the advice she’s been given by her friend Oprah Winfrey. “I get aha moments every time I am on the phone with her,” she said. “But I think the biggest thing that she taught me, that really has become a part of my bloodstream and DNA; is that when challenging things happen, they’re not happening to you. They’re happening for you.”
A transcript of the interview follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s 2012, you are in Sundance with a $200,000 film, Middle of Nowhere, you win the director award. Where were you at that point in your life and what went through your mind?
AVA DUVERNAY: I was old. I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32. So I always feel like really joyous when I come on campus and can see people who are a lot younger than I am pursuing film, because I wish that I could’ve done that. I didn’t have any idea that I wanted to do it at that time or that you could, coming from where I came from. So anyway, it is good to see everybody here pursuing that. At the time, I was working. I was still working my full-time job when I went to Sundance. I had made three films, but I kept my full-time job.
GALLOWAY: Which was what?
DUVERNAY: I was a publicist.
GALLOWAY: With your own company.
DUVERNAY: I had opened a small shop. I was one of the few, I guess, like maybe two companies in Hollywood owned by black women that did marketing, publicity, promotions around films, particularly specializing in connecting films to black and brown communities and niche communities. So that was the work that I was doing, and I didn’t know if the filmmaking thing was going to pay off, so all the way till I got to Park City through three films, I was keeping my day job. So that is where I was mentally. And the day we won Sundance, I said, “Oh, well, maybe I should quit —
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
DUVERNAY: — and give it a real try,” you know. Winning Sundance doesn’t mean that you are going to have a career, but I thought, you know, this is my best time to try to commit to it first, full-time, and see if I can make it work.
GALLOWAY: But then you didn’t immediately. There wasn’t a reaction. Was that really frustrating?
DUVERNAY: It was. There was a reaction — I always have to admit it wasn’t the kind of a reaction that I had hoped, it wasn’t the kind of a reaction that my colleague Colin Trevorrow had. Colin Trevorrow, who was at the same film festival I was — and he is a really lovely guy — he has become the whipping boy of [men getting breaks rather than women].
GALLOWAY: It is not his fault.
DUVERNAY: You know, a really cool guy, it is not his fault that he is a white man, I am sorry. (Laughter.) He was born that way. He is a really cool guy, but we were at Sundance together and I think they won the screenwriting award and I won the directing award, and I remember we had traveled around to some of the film festivals after the international festivals. I remember being in Amsterdam with him, like, “We won Sundance, the world is ours! We are going to do great things!” By the time of the Independent Spirit Awards, a few months later, he said, “I have some big news to tell you.” And I was like, “I’ve got some big news to tell you.” I said “I got a movie,” and he is like, “I got a movie. You go first.” And I am like, “I am doing this film about Dr. King, it might happen, I am really excited, you know, the first film about Dr. King.” He is like “Oh my gosh, that is amazing.” I was like “What did you get?” He is like “Jurassic World.” (Laughter.) I said, “What?” And that is how it happened, you know?
GALLOWAY: Has the world changed since then?
DUVERNAY: No. No.
GALLOWAY: Really? But you are now at Disney doing a major tentpole film, working in the same building as Ryan Coogler. Is that not a sign of change?
DUVERNAY: No, that is an anomaly. And I think the challenge with the way that we kind of look at culture shifts is that we try to assign them to something that is a trend. I am not change, Ryan is not change, Black Panther is not change and Wrinkle is not change. It is change when there are 10 of us walking in the door, when there are more down the pipeline. (Applause.)
GALLOWAY: Yes, I agree.
DUVERNAY: And there are not. So you know, I feel like it is a pedestrian way of thinking if we are assigning success to this couple of films. It is like President Obama: It’s all changed. Yeah, wait up to eight years and let’s see what happens when it is reversed back.
GALLOWAY: I think your film was the first film to actually show —
DUVERNAY: It was.
GALLOWAY: — his inauguration.
DUVERNAY: I don’t know how we did that. It was a $50,000 film and somehow, because that is public domain —
GALLOWAY: You showed it. Were you aware that this was going to be an anomaly or did you have high hopes for Obama?
DUVERNAY: Well, Obama, I had high hopes that were met with Obama. But I did not have any thought that his ascendancy to the presidency was the change for America. I didn’t think that is what I was trying to say in 13th. You know, it is a 400-year-old, very ingrained, deeply systematic scourge in our society that cannot be undone with one person. It is in too many places. That was what the goal of 13th was, to say: Be hopeful but also be active and be vigorous and rigorous in our pursuit of it, and not to have these kind of dreams that there is one fix-it person or one fix-it moment.
GALLOWAY: You said when you grew up, you didn’t imagine being a filmmaker. Tell us about growing up. Who was the influence on you?
DUVERNAY: Oh, my Aunt Denise. My Aunt Denise really introduced me to film. She’s since passed on to a higher realm, but she was an artist in our family that no one really recognized as being an artist. She loved art. She was a black woman from Compton, born in 1950. She would listen to Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and people in the apartment complex would be like, “Turn that shit down” (Laughter.) And, I don’t know where she got it from, because there is no one in our family that, like, I can clearly say was her gate. She gave it to me, but she was a rare, beautiful bird. And so she really introduced me to all kinds of art, but specifically would take me to the movies all the time.
GALLOWAY: What did she take you to?
DUVERNAY: To whatever was playing at the mall. You know, we lived in Compton. There was no movie theater in Compton, so you had to take the bus, which we took to either Long Beach or Lakewood. We would go to the Lakewood Mall. Do you know about the Lakewood Mall?
DUVERNAY: Lakewood Mall, and take the bus down there. And I just remember thinking “This is the fancy part of the town, Lakewood Mall.” I drive there now, like “It’s Lakewood, Ava. Relax.” But going from Compton to Lakewood, I used to think it was so fancy. And we would go see movies, matinees after school or before school when I was really young, and yeah. Well, it was whatever it was, it was mall-fed movies, but I do remember some things. I have faint memories of some films like Prince of the City.
DUVERNAY: I remember that was the first R-rated film that I actually — she would sit in one theater and she would put me in another. Everybody knew it. So I would be in the kid movie and she’d be in the other movie. And I remember it was the first time I said, mine ended early, “I am just going to walk in there.” I walked in there and I was like “This is rated R!” I walked in, this is what R looks like. And I remember that movie so vividly. It was good.
GALLOWAY: Did your sisters go with you? You had two sisters, right?
DUVERNAY: No, they were younger than me, much younger than me. So no, they didn’t go in.
GALLOWAY: What was it like being the eldest of the three? And your mother had you when she was 18, right?
DUVERNAY: Oh, I loved it. Yes. I loved it. I think it prepared me to be a director. “Terry, get this, Gina, bring me this.” And they would do it. They still do. We were sitting around for Christmas and I said, “Oh, Terry, can you bring me …” and she went and did it! And she was halfway to go and do it and she is like, “I am a 38-year-old woman!”
GALLOWAY: What do they think of your success?
DUVERNAY: You know what? This is such a beautiful time right now because all three of us are really doing what we love to do. I think there was a time when, you know, they’re younger than me, so they were finding their way, but my sister Gina is an assistant professor at Alabama State University. She is a librarian with two master’s degrees. She runs the whole special collections library. My other sister is a head honcho at the Equal Justice Initiative, which is Brian Stevenson’s big institute looking at death row cases and their lynching memorial and she does all this social justice work. So the three of us together, we’re all living our dreams. So I am happy for them. I think they’re happy for me. They’ve gotten used to [it], because they used to get really upset with me, like, “You’re on TV and you didn’t tell us.” Like dude, I don’t know when I am on TV and I am not sitting there watching it to be on TV. And now they’re like, “Oh, she is on TV.”
GALLOWAY: Who do you turn to for advice?
DUVERNAY: Oh, my mom always, and I think Oprah. It feels weird saying that, but it is true, sorry. My mom and Oprah.
GALLOWAY: What’s the best piece of advice Oprah gave you?
DUVERNAY: Well, I’ll tell you the best piece of advice my mom gave me first because that is just as important.
DUVERNAY: My mom always said to treat others like you like to be treated. And that is something that I’ve taken with me throughout my whole career and on sets. It’s a simple thing and it is really hard to do. And if we practiced that more in our daily lives, you know. Like, getting out of the car to get here, I was irritated because like these shoes hurt and I am like, “Why did I wear this?” I am irritated. Then a really lovely student thing came up to me. And in that moment, I could just have been like “Hi.” But if I was her, I would want to be treated with … So I had to adjust, and we all had to adjust to that and so often we don’t. We are rough with each other, we’re not soft enough with each other, and everyone wants to be treated softly, you know, respected and treated in a loving way. So that is from my mom. And then Oprah, I get aha moments every time I am on the phone with her, but I think the biggest thing that she taught me that really has become a part of my, like, bloodstream and DNA, is that when challenging things happen, they’re not happening to you. They’re happening for you.
GALLOWAY: Oh, that is great. I’ve got to remember that.
DUVERNAY: Do you know what I mean? Like just any little thing, why is this thing happening? It can be the tight shoes or it can be a movie that a critic doesn’t like. You know, why is this happening? It is not happening to you in being the victim, it is happening for you in trying to receive and see the lesson in it. And she says so many things that are huge, but for me, that was the thing that really rang true once I heard it. I knew that it was true and I really internalized it.
GALLOWAY: After Selma, I think you were shooting Queen Sugar and you had a moment when you said —
DUVERNAY: I like the way he says that, “Queen Sugar.” I like that. It’s fancy.
GALLOWAY: Thank you. It is just English.
DUVERNAY: I know.
GALLOWAY: You’re fancy to me. The other is always fancy. America was very fancy when you grow up in a little village in England.
DUVERNAY: It wasn’t really. Our accents are so harsh.
GALLOWAY: No, no, no. They’ve become harsher.
DUVERNAY: I know, right? They’re so …
GALLOWAY: Seriously, you look at all the American films, and the way American is spoken, even in the time I’ve been here, has become harsher. Why? I don’t know. It’s becoming harsher.
DUVERNAY: Is it the harder pronunciation or the phrasing or is it just people are harder?
GALLOWAY: Well, people say fuck a lot more.
DUVERNAY: Yes. Yes.
GALLOWAY: Excluding me! But the sound has become harder. You look at Elizabeth Taylor when she spoke, it was different. So that says something about what is going on in society. English English has really changed.
DUVERNAY: And not become harsher?
GALLOWAY: There has been a flattening of the upper and lower classes of sounds, because in England, as in Pygmalion, which I hope you all know, and in My Fair Lady, you can tell education, place. There’s been a sort of democratization. You can see it beginning with Princess Di and now the kids, and if you listen how Prince Charles speaks and how they speak, it is completely different.
DUVERNAY: But do you think that is a good thing?
GALLOWAY: Yes. I don’t like that sound, but this is about you, not me, so we can talk later.
GALLOWAY: You are terribly influenced by what you grow up with, for good and bad. And some of the things we have to shed, right? Some of the beliefs we grew up with.
DUVERNAY: Oh sure.
GALLOWAY: What beliefs have you had to shed?
DUVERNAY: Gosh. Well, I didn’t grow up with, in my family, a lot of white people. I mean, there weren’t a lot of white people in my family, obviously. Until I was 13, the white people that I knew were only some nuns. I went to a Catholic school first to 12th grade. A few nuns and cops, you know? So I really didn’t have a relationship with white folks personally except the relationship I had as a viewer to everything I consumed on television and in film. Which was overwhelmingly white. So I didn’t really have a context for any kind of intimacy or personal relationship until I got to high school, where I went to a predominately white high school and I was awkward and unsure about how to quite maneuver in that space. It was a lovely school and I made friends there, but it still took four years to change your whole worldview or thought about the dominant culture. It didn’t quite feel like enough, and I struggled with that a lot through college, just trying to educate myself and become a conscious black woman and know my history. And I majored in African-American history. I didn’t know people that were not like me intimately. And when I say not like me, I had a ton of Filipino friends, a ton of Latino friends like me, of color. I didn’t know people from the dominant culture in that way. And so I think I can really understand when white folks feel the same way about people of color. They’re like “I just don’t know. I don’t know them.” I get that because I feel the same. And I think in a lot of my films, I am trying to bridge that gap for myself. And I mean, of course, now I know all kinds of folks, but just at an early age [I didn’t]. That was one of the things that really drew me to Wrinkle. We have to start having these conversations a lot earlier. But I think now in this generation, it just seems like a lot less; the kids I am around now, a lot less is dependent on race in terms of the conversations with each other. So hopefully each generation, it gets a little better.
GALLOWAY: When you were growing up, did you see much violence around you, much incarceration, drugs? Because you’ve treated that many times in your films, certainly in 13th and Middle of Nowhere.
DUVERNAY: I didn’t have anything like that in my family, but it was all over the neighborhood. So you certainly saw ghosts of men. You know, “Where is James?” Always locked up. “Where is so-and-so’s daddy?” “Oh, he is locked up.” I remember feeling like people would disappear in the community or then people would just pop up. “Where was he?” “Oh, he was locked up, but he is back.” “Oh OK.” And trying to figure out what that was, I remember that was a big deal for me growing up. I was obsessed with prison when I was growing up.
GALLOWAY: Oh, interesting.
DUVERNAY: And I was obsessed with homelessness when I was growing up, to the point that my mom really had to sit me down and have a conversation because we would drive around town and I would say, “If I am ever homeless, that little place right there is where I’ll tuck. Like you see why, because there is a roof, there is the thing and you can just tuck in there and you’d be safe all night.” My mom would be like, “What is wrong with you?” I don’t know why I was attracted to those things. I’ve not dealt with any homelessness in my work, but …
GALLOWAY: You’ve never explained where those things came from? Were you afraid of something?
DUVERNAY: I don’t know. I am sure if I just laid on someone’s couch, I could figure it out, but I don’t know.
GALLOWAY: You’ve never done that?
DUVERNAY: No, I haven’t.
GALLOWAY: Now is a good time to start!
DUVERNAY: There you go. No, no. I asked my mom, I was like, I just don’t know where that stuff popped up. It is just the curiosity of a child I guess.
GALLOWAY: When did the drive set in?
DUVERNAY: The what?
GALLOWAY: The drive, the ambition?
DUVERNAY: Oh gosh. I don’t know, it felt like I’ve always been like this. That is what my mom and family say. You know, the first time I can remember really taking charge was the Jog-A-Thon in the seventh grade. It just wasn’t done well. You know what I mean? (Laughter.) Like, there is another way we could be doing this, don’t you think? Can we be more organized? Don’t you think there is a way to market this more effectively so that more people are interested in the Jog-A-Thon? Do you understand that you take the laps around for every lap? I think there is a message disconnect. I remember really, like, wanting to communicate about that and I remember I organized the whole thing and it was really the first time I remember going home and being — it’s interesting and this is like a couch moment. It was the first time I can remember a feeling that is now very familiar to me, which is walking in the door physically exhausted down to your bones. I was in the seventh grade and I’ve given it everything. I remember I walked home and I lay in bed and I thought this sleep was going to be the best feeling I ever had. And now it is like every night. I walk in and I just fall on the bed. So, I love being passionate about something. I think that is the worst thing.
GALLOWAY: You were passionate about journalism at one point.
DUVERNAY: Of course.
GALLOWAY: And then you got this incredible break when you were at UCLA, studying English and African-American studies: You get an internship with, was it CBS News?
DUVERNAY: CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung.
GALLOWAY: And it went sour. Why?
DUVERNAY: Because it was the O.J. trial. And it was my first assignment, and this was a prestigious internship. And it was working in that trial that was very circus-like, and it was not kind of what I thought network news would be. I think it is really, as we study it, it was a real turning point in broadcast news, where it had to be this gossip-, tabloid-like nature unfortunately to compete, but I was at the very beginning of that as a young person who had wanted to pursue broadcast journalism and who imagined myself Christiane Amanpour. You know what I mean? And doing really beautiful work in that area. And I probably could have stuck with it, but I was young and I was like, “This is not for me.” And so after that internship, I completely turned away from broadcast journalism.
DUVERNAY: Yeah, yeah. I wanted to produce news, not be on camera. I just turned away from it. Now I look back and I am just like, “Kid, you should’ve stuck with it a little bit.”
GALLOWAY: You’d have been good.
DUVERNAY: Maybe, but I am happy with what I am doing now and stuff.
GALLOWAY: Did you like being a publicist?
DUVERNAY: I loved being a publicist because I got to be around movies. And I got to be on movie sets and I got to watch the craft of filmmaking, which I think is just so beautiful. You know, I wasn’t always treated well on set because people don’t really treat crew well, and as a publicist, you are kind of the bottom of the barrel. No one wants to see a unit publicist coming on a film set because it is time and then this person and she is coming and she is talking about stuff that doesn’t have to do with the moment. And so that was me, coming on up, “Hi, [somebody] wants to just talk to you.” “Argh. We are gonna to talk to him later,” you know? It’s changed now. Now people are so fascinated by the press.
GALLOWAY: Well, the whole marketing machine is so much more part of moviemaking now.
DUVERNAY: Yeah, it is a big part of it now. But at the time, nobody wanted to see me coming. But I loved it, I loved being able to — especially with the black filmmakers that are represented — being able to connect their films to audiences. And you know, one of my favorite campaigns was the campaign for Collateral, which is a film with Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett. And I thought, gosh. The film was pretty deep in my career as publicist.
GALLOWAY: And let us be blunt, Michael Mann is not the easiest director to work for, if you are the unit publicist. Are you going to say it on the record?
DUVERNAY: No, I am not going to say it. (Laughter.) It’s funny, because now I sit on the Academy directors’ branch committee with him to bring new directors into the branch. And so I see him about twice a year.
GALLOWAY: Does he remember you?
DUVERNAY: Oh no, he wouldn’t remember me. I mean, he wouldn’t remember me. I was one of many, hundreds.
GALLOWAY: Who most stamped you in that time? Who did you see working who really marked you?
DUVERNAY: Well, I worked on over 103 films and I only had one woman director. Gurinder Chadha from Bend It Like Beckham. And I didn’t work on her film on the set. I got her film as an acquisition from the U.K. But yeah, 103 films, one woman.
GALLOWAY: So of the 102 men, who most impacted you?
DUVERNAY: Impacted me? You know, the great thing about that time is that… [Looks up at the projection booth] I got to see a very lovely face up there. Hi. She’s just got a lovely smile, she is like watching over you.
GALLOWAY: They’re enjoying it.
DUVERNAY: Hey, you. You have a nice spirit. So sweet. You all have nice spirits. But what I saw on those sets that was really informative for me, and this informs the way that I work now — that I saw a lot of what I did not want to do.
DUVERNAY: And I think that is as important as seeing a role model who shows you what to do. To be able to be on sets and say, “I would never do that. I would never treat someone that way or I would never put the camera there. Why is he doing that? It doesn’t make any sense. Why does he have her wearing that?” or whatever. I would just sit there and just throw shade all day, in my own head, just like, “That is the wrong choice, but if that is what you want to do, fine.” In my own head. That is a lot of how I trained myself, in addition to DVD commentaries, which I read a lot.
GALLOWAY: You did?
DUVERNAY: I watched a lot because I was much older and couldn’t go to film school. I would sit there and watch directors direct, which was an incredible opportunity, before they’d get out and do their blocking, and I was supposed to be doing publicity and I would just be there and trying to watch a blocking rehearsal and I would read the pages, read the sides and say “OK, you go into a blank room, a room with nothing in it, just the furniture. Where did actors move, like, what are you having them do?” I would have her enter here and then pick this up and then the guy would walk in and usually do something completely different, which is fine, but I learned, oh, that is why he did this. Oh, the camera moves here, two cameras. So I was able to really teach myself by ear hustling, as we call it in Compton.
GALLOWAY: That is journalism, you ear hustle.
DUVERNAY: Look at that, a new definition!
GALLOWAY: At what point did you say “I am going to actually take action”? And what tipped you to do that?
DUVERNAY: I look back and I cannot figure out what the exact thing was. The closest thing I can get to was Collateral, that film. Because I remember being in East L.A., which is not far from where I used to hang out in South Central and like shooting on a street where I just like had a friend, lived around the corner, like this was my stomping grounds, I knew the area and it was, they were shooting with a Viper, which is a digital camera. It was the first time that I remember…
GALLOWAY: I remember reading that…
DUVERNAY: …seeing it being used and how quickly it moved. And how you could see through the night. I would look at the monitors and I would be like, “God, how are they getting all that clarity?” So I was fascinated by the camera and the image, but then also I was really moved by Jada and Jamie and there was another like unknown guy who I called every journalist I could to have talk to this guy because I thought someone on set, and I was like “He is incredible.” is name is Javier Bardem, I mean, you couldn’t even get…
GALLOWAY: Oh wow.
DUVERNAY: But he is in that movie. I couldn’t pay anyone to come out and talk to him. No one. I am like “He is here [speaks Spanish], don’t you want?” “No, we don’t know him.” I remember the black and brown people and being in that place and the story, which was a slight story, it was such a small story, but the way he was doing it. In that moment, I was…
GALLOWAY: I love that film.
DUVERNAY: …so moved by that film, it is a beautiful film. It’s got a look and a grit and a texture to it and I was just like, “If he can do that, and he doesn’t live here and he is not these people, you know, and the majority of the cast was of color, I think I can do it.” I remember that thought and then I think, about a year after, I was writing things and making things.
GALLOWAY: And when you were doing that, what was the hardest thing for you? Was it camera, was it narrative?
DUVERNAY: I think I struggled with the concept of organization, because the director is really the president of a small company. I was always so organized that it took me a minute to figure out the way that I wanted my sets and my crews to run. And once I figured that out and my place in that, I feel like I kind of cracked the code. Of course, craft-wise, there are constantly things that you are learning every day. But for me, it clicked in when I realized, “Oh, these departments [do such and such].” That is how my mind works: this will report here and this is the way I am going to oversee them and these are the way that I am going to manage this.” And it took me a few films, but I remember in the first film, I felt discombobulated because it was like just a bunch of people running around. I don’t like that. I need it to be the Jog-A-Thon. “This is how we’re doing it. You run the sign, the thing.” You know what I mean? Once that clicked for me and I knew how I wanted my sets to run, everything fell into line creatively. Because I can be comfortable. I am not comfortable in chaos. I am comfortable in more of an organized space.
GALLOWAY: Was it hard being a woman — and a black woman — and getting people to accept you as the director?
DUVERNAY: Well, luckily, I circumvented that by making my own films independently. I knew from working in the entertainment industry as a publicist that there was no one checking for the stories that I want to tell. So I made them independently and I distributed them independently. I created Array to distribute films for people like me and just started on my way. My first films I distributed myself. I never even asked anyone to distribute them. I know they wouldn’t be interested in them. I worked in the industry as a publicist for all those years and had never publicized anything like what I wanted to make. And the interesting thing was, right around the time that I was making my stuff, Dee Rees was making Pariah and Barry was making Medicine for Melancholy.
GALLOWAY: Barry Jenkins.
DUVERNAY: A bunch of people starting to make these things that had the texture and tone of what I wanted to do, and we were just harkening back to the beautiful work of Haile Gerima and Julie Dash and Charles Burnett, right? It was coming back around the time that we were all in Sundance, in a three-year cluster. But I hadn’t worked on anything like that as a publicist. I knew there wasn’t an easy path to have that distributed, and so, yeah, I just started working on my own stuff independently. So I didn’t really have to deal with a lot that sisters, women of color, deal with in the industry in terms of a lot of closed doors, because I was just going “I am just going to build my own door. I am not going to have that happen to me.” I was able to sidetrack it a little.
GALLOWAY: You made a really lovely film for I think $20,000, I Will Follow, which I love.
DUVERNAY: Oh yes. You do?
GALLOWAY: Yes. Enormously.
DUVERNAY: What? First of all, wait a minute! Enormously?
GALLOWAY: I really love it. Has anybody seen this?
DUVERNAY: (Applause.), Aww, thanks. Three people.
GALLOWAY: Hey, I mean, it is good. Yes. Well, now the rest will go and see it.
DUVERNAY: Yes. It is, gosh…
GALLOWAY: It is based on your aunt.
DUVERNAY: It is based on my aunt Denise.
GALLOWAY: And it is almost all filmed within one house.
DUVERNAY: Yeah, it is all within one house,. I had made a documentary called This Is the Life about the music scene out here that I was really close to, so that was my first film that I made for like $6,000. Then we…
GALLOWAY: You made that feature for $6,000?
DUVERNAY: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Wow. Gosh.
DUVERNAY: Well, it was a doc. And they were all my friends and I love that little movie. It is so handmade. I watch it now and I am just like…
GALLOWAY: You are in it, too.
DUVERNAY: I am in it too, oh yeah. And I just watch it and I am like, “Why did you do that, kid? Why didn’t you do this?” But it is fun to watch. I still get joy when I watch it. And then BET had called me and, whatever issues I have with BET, which are many, I thank them because they were the first people that saw something in me and gave me money to make something that wasn’t my own money. They asked me to make a doc called My Mic Sounds Nice about the history of women in hip-hop, which I loved. And so I was like “OK, I can continue on this and just do docs, but I really want to make something that is narrative.” I remember I had no money to make it. I decided that I was going to take the money that I had been saving for a house to make a movie.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow. That is brave.
DUVERNAY: And my mom wasn’t thrilled about it, because in the black community, you buy the house and then you are OK, like I guess it is in a lot of communities, but it was really a big deal in my family. And I decided that I was going to take this money for the house and make a movie instead, a narrative film. I remember sitting with her, telling her I was going to do this and I said, “So why don’t you help me? Think of something, because I’ve read that the cheapest way to make a film is to not move. Stay in one location. ” I said, “This is a list,” — of course I organized it — “this is a list of all the one-location movies. Let’s just figure out which ones we want to make black. We’ll just turn them black, it’ll just be easy.” 12 Angry Men —12 Angry Black Men, you know. Breakfast Club ¬— Gospel Brunch Club. Whatever, whatever.
DUVERNAY: “We’ll just change it and nobody will know.” And she said to me, after she listened to my whole [talk], she is like, “That’s horrible.” And she said, “Why don’t you think about a time that you’ve been stuck in one place and you couldn’t move for whatever reason? What was that time? And make a movie about that.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I could do it too.” And it was being the care-giver for my aunt in her last years when she had terminal breast cancer. It was the house that we were in. And so I wrote a screenplay about the day that I moved out of that house after she passed, and that is a very small film, but it all takes place in this house which — funny story, I found this house in Topanga Canyon, that I really love.
GALLOWAY: Oh, it was shot in Topanga?
DUVERNAY: It was done and shot in Topanga Canyon. I loved it because the house was cool and it had trees and all the things that I wrote the script for. The house backed into the script and it had a big huge garage where we did all our prep and our production and our wardrobe and stuff was in and it was a super small crew and a beautiful cast and no one was paid and we made it and I made every mistake. And the only person that liked it — I sent it around to everyone, not to distribute, but to critics. No one would even watch it because I was distributing it myself except Roger Ebert.
GALLOWAY: And he wrote a very good review.
DUVERNAY: And Kerry Ricky from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Those were the two people that watched that. And they wrote beautiful reviews and he was a national presence. He put it on his radio show, he put it on his syndicated show, he wrote two reviews and he tweeted about it 19 times. He was really passionate about that movie.
DUVERNAY: I love Roger. And so he really gave me the confidence. You know, if I can trace back any person, it would be my aunt and niece who made me feel and get emotional. I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but, you know, he called me. I used to pitch him: “Roger, you can watch this movie, can you watch this?” So he knew when the email came through, he knew me, but he watched that film and he gave it a beautiful review and he really gave me the confidence to continue.
GALLOWAY: You went from that to making Middle of Nowhere, which put you on the map of Sundance. Here is a clip from Middle of Nowhere.
DUVERNAY: Haven’t seen this in a long time.
GALLOWAY: Did you like what you saw, are you critical of your own?
DUVERNAY: Oh, I like it.
GALLOWAY: Good. I like it a lot.
DUVERNAY: I am critical of my own [work].
GALLOWAY: You are?
DUVERNAY: You could’ve picked another scene from the film, and I would’ve been like “Dang it.” But I like that one. [To audience:] He wouldn’t tell me what he was showing so I have no idea. He is having a game here.
GALLOWAY: I like to see the reaction, you know? So the young woman there is the heroine of the film. She has had to fight to get this lawyer to show up in court. And there is been a big scene where she’s forced herself on the lawyer. And now here they are in the courtroom and she is going to discover that her husband, that she has been so loyal to, has cheated on her. This is an incredibly difficult scene to direct for many reasons. First of all, you’ve got that dramatic arc, but secondly, nobody moves in the whole film. And yet there is a drama going on between the lawyer and the parole officer, the who is sitting there, reacting, and the wife who is watching. Walk us through how you wrote that scene and how you prepared it, and I would imagine editing it was a nightmare.
DUVERNAY: Oh gosh. That is a tough one to remember. It is the big scene in the film and it is so slight what happens, the moment that she realizes. The whole first half of the film is just leading up to that moment. She is trying to get the money for the lawyer, the lawyer doesn’t want to take her, she has to go in to the lawyer, fight for that lawyer, it was the top lawyer. She wants that lawyer because that lawyer knows that parole guy and that they had a relationship and she had done her research that she thinks he is going to be more in favor of anything that she puts forth. She got that wrong because you can tell when he comes in and he [the parole officer] is like “You, OK, I am going to get you,” right? And all that kind of ballet going on in the film where everyone is just sitting in chairs. The only action in the scene was when Sharon Lawrence stands up from a seated position, the lawyer, and so you have a bunch of singles and you have a bunch of static positions and that’s when you exploit the terrain of the face. That’s why Emayatzy [Corinealdi], her whole face takes up the frame, right? And you have these “backies” — Bradford Young, my cinematographer and I, call [some shots] backies, which I didn’t realize no one else used.
GALLOWAY: What does that mean?
DUVERNAY: Backies is just shooting the back, like, “Give me a backie, two cameras on backie, blah, blah, blah.” I said it to my cinematographer on Wrinkle In Time, Tobias [Schliessler]: “I’ll take a backie here and then a three-quarter in low one.” I said what I wanted and I walked away and he was like “What’s a backie? She wants a backie.” So I go “Backie! Shoot from the back.” (Laughter.) Anyway, I like to shoot people from behind. We don’t see the face, but the body language and the context.
GALLOWAY: And you can imagine…
DUVERNAY: And you know what it is and you can’t see it.
GALLOWAY: You can project your own feelings.
DUVERNAY: Yes, exactly, so I love those. And I remember on the Wrinkle in Time — I have one, is it still in there? Yeah, I have a big backie in A Wrinkle in Time, but I remember Disney was like “What’s that?” I was like “It’s just, you can feel what is going on, you know?” They were like, “Ohhh, OK. You sure you need that backie in there?”
GALLOWAY: Did you rehearse it a lot, did you storyboard Middle of Nowhere?
DUVERNAY: No, no storyboard. I mean, we made this for $200,000 so there was no storyboarding or anything along those lines. I remember that room; we wound up in another room in this facility. The last minute ,we got that room, so Bradford and I decided it’s not about the room, it is about the faces, the terrain of the face, and really just making sure that we had every single little piece of nuance, the emotion that was being felt ,and being confident that the actors were doing such muscular work in that moment that you have to trust that it is there in the edit. But it was really one where there was not a lot to cover, you just shoot the scene straight. And I remember thinking about the scene, “Oh, maybe I should do dolly track and be circling around.” I was trying to be fancy with it, like, OK, overheads and all of that. It was to spice up a scene, that is just single, single, single.
GALLOWAY: It was great that you didn’t, and you don’t bring music in until the very end.
DUVERNAY: Sometimes you have to restrain yourself.
GALLOWAY: What guidance did you give the actors and especially to Sharon Lawrence?
DUVERNAY: Sharon was fantastic. I remember, it is so funny, Sharon was the first white actor I ever had [directed], which was a big thing to me at that time because I was like, “What is this going to be like?” Black cinematographer, black woman director — I mean, that crew was very African -American.
GALLOWAY: Diverse. I know you don’t like that word.
DUVERNAY: Yes, and a lot of black and brown people. And she was coming on and it was like, “Is she really going to be in our vibe, in our flow?” She was terrific and I we had talked about the arc, but it is the end of her arc. It was a lot of really detailed work about her feelings, but it was a class thing as well, because that lawyer is a higher-class lawyer dealing with a lower-class problem. So we talked a lot about the interiority of the character as we got into it. It was a beautiful three-scene arc that she had. And it was so long ago, I am trying to remember. But we had lovely conversations about it and she was really great. I remember, she went to Sundance with us when we were presenting the film and we were all taking a picture. David Oyelowo was in the film, and Omari Hardwick, and Emayatzy Corinealdi, and Edwina Finley, the whole cast, the black cast. And Sharon Lawrence was off to the side, watching us. Respectfully. Like saying, “This is a black woman’s picture. This is the black cast. I had a small role in it.” She was there celebrating the film with us, but we were taking a big picture for The Hollywood Reporter or Variety. Probably The Hollywood Reporter. I am sure it was the Reporter.
DUVERNAY: And we had to say, “Come on in. Be a part of it.” She was really lovely. I don’t remember what I told her, but whatever it was, I think it turned out OK.
GALLOWAY: Sometimes luck is on your side. Sometimes it is against you. You had an amazing stroke of luck with landing the right actor, David Oyelowo.
DUVERNAY: Right. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Tell everybody how you got him.
DUVERNAY: Oh gosh, that is such a good story. I don’t know if I could tell it well. But my friend up there is smiling at me, so maybe I will tell it for you and do my best. (Laughter.) I had been on CNN talking about I Will Follow, which was the film that I had made before this, and the distribution collective that I put together to distribute that film. So CNN had heard about groups of black people that were going to the theaters to see this movie that no one had heard of. And David saw that CNN piece. He thought it was interesting. He filed it away. Cut to six months later, he is on a plane from Los Angeles to Toronto to do some looping for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which he was the bad guy in. And there was a man sitting next to him reading a script, who says, “Hey, are you the actor, David Oyelowo?” And David is like, “Yeah, you know, that is me.” And David, knowing David, strikes up a conversation with this guy. I was like, “Did you just start talking to a random stranger?” He is like, “Yes, that is what I do. I talk to strangers. I am British.”
DUVERNAY: So anyway, they start to have this conversation over cheap wine in the airplane, and the guy eventually says, “I have been given this script by a producer,” at the time, Howard Parish. “I have been given this script for this independent film. Do you think it is wise to invest in independent films?” David is like, “Well, it depends on what it is. What is it?” And he says, “It is by this woman,” and he shows David the script. And he recognized the name from the CNN thing. And he said, “I know her. You should invest in that, and can I read it?” And so the guy gave him the script. He read it. And on his way back from Toronto — it was just my name and my number on the front of the script — David Oyelowo calls me. At the time, he is a really respected character actor who had never been in all-black stuff. He is always like the black guy in other big movies, Lincoln or Planet of the Apes, or what have you. So I knew who he was, but certainly didn’t think that he would ever want to be in this picture. But he called me and said, “This is the best script I have read in years. If there is anything that I can play in it, please consider me.” I was like, [MAKES SOUND] And I remember thinking, because I was a publicist, I have always been really comfortable talking to actors. So I said to him something that was so horrible to say, but I said, “Thank you so much, brother. It is really incredible. I just want to thank you for calling today out of this place in your heart that was attracted to the script.” I said, “I am almost 100 percent sure that by the time your agents hear that you want to do a script by a random woman whose script you read on the plane, it is probably not going to be something that you do.” Because he was at CAA, or something fancy. I said, “But I just want to thank you anyway for making the call. It really gave me a boost.” And he said, “Oh, well, thank you so much,” in the proper British accent. “I just want to tell you, you are wrong.” He said, “To be clear, my agents work for me. I don’t work for them.” I was like, oh.
DUVERNAY: OK. Fine. And so we became close-close, right? He is like my brother now, still. But he was on the set. He was the first one cast. And as soon as he was cast, everyone came together. We made the film for $200,000. They got SAG minimum and they gave the check back to me so I could buy craft services. I mean, there was no money, but we made it together. It was a beautiful time.
GALLOWAY: I hadn’t realized that it is thanks to him that you got his huge break.
DUVERNAY: Yeah. The serendipity, is that the right word? The idea that he saw this on a random plane and that’s how we met. I would have never sent the script to his agents because I would not have thought it was anything that he was interested in, that the universal forces made it so that the man sat next to him who had got the script, who in that moment talked to the guy, da-da-da-da. And that is how Selma came into my life.
GALLOWAY: And afterwards, he recommended…
DUVERNAY: Because he, during that time, was attached to a different version of Selma to be directed by Lee Daniels. And when Lee Daniels decided that he wanted to go make The Butler, because it was a bigger budget and a more robust and organized production, he went to make The Butler, which had some things about Dr. King in it. He said, “I am not going to also make Selma.” And so David had been Lee Daniels’s King. And David is a hustler, a British hustler, OK?
GALLOWAY: The accent disguises it.
DEVERENT: Yes. He is a hustler. And so he said, “Well, I am going to keep this film alive so I can play King,” which was his dream. And he said, “If I can stay in there and get another director who will still want me to be King,” right? Because if they find some other director, then he has to fight to be King again, right? So he said, “I know a terrific woman I just worked with. She doesn’t mind that it is an unorganized production and that you have no money, because she organizes and she works with no money. She is going to be great. And her father is from Montgomery, Alabama and she is an African-American Studies major at UCLA, and blah-blah-blah. And I was their eighth or ninth director that they had attached. I think I would have been the last, because they were going to let it go after that. It just had fallen apart so many times, that they were like, “Great. If she can do something, try it.” And that is how it happened.
GALLOWAY: I want to show a clip from Selma. This scene is such a moving scene. It is this huge, horrible attack.
GALLOWAY: How much did you have to fight to change the script? Because the script was centered on the Martin Luther King relationship with Lyndon Johnson, and you completely changed that.
DUVERNAY: Well, it is called Selma, but there was no Selma in it. You know, it was about King and LBJ, this mano-a-mano, man-to-man fight in the White House, which just didn’t interest me. I was an African-American Studies major. My father is from Lowndes County, Alabama, which is the county between Montgomery and Selma. The march started in Selma and was going to the capital in Montgomery. That stretch in between, where they had to walk for all those days, is where my father is from. Those backwoods. And so I knew the stories. I had studied them and they had been stories that I had been told in my home. My father was one of the little kids waving from the side of the road when the marchers walked by.
DUVERNAY: He lived in that rural community. So there was no way I could get my hands on this script called Selma about that time and not insert and assert the position, the point of view, the presence of black people that that were the actual people who did the work. Dr. King was an incredible strategist and mouthpiece for the movement. But the movement was people. It was those people who decided to boycott on the bus and not go to work. You clean some white lady’s house. That is the only way you are feeding your children. There is no one to protect you. No president. No state troopers. No mayor. No sheriff. All of those people are against you, and yet you go to church, and you rally to say I am not going to go to work even though my boss says, if you don’t go, not only will you lose your job, but my husband is coming for yours. And they did it. They stayed home for months and months and months. That is the Montgomery Bus Boycott set years before this. In Birmingham, in Selma, they organized at risk. The police were beating them. Where were they running to? That is why Hosea Williams looks up and it is like, in that moment, in his journals, he said: “We did not even know where to go. Where were we running to?” Because they were on that side too, and they were on this side. And so the strength of character, what had to happen from those heroes and to not have them present was not going to happen if I was around. So I rewrote it. And the only thing I can remember about watching that scene is the budget. We made the whole movie for $20 million, which is incredible to me, that we were able to do that. I remember, they were like, “Ava, you can only have 10 horses.” I was like, “10 horses? There were like 75 horses there. I gotta have more horses.” They were like, “Cannot afford it. Got to make 10 horses work.” When I showed up on the day, there were only seven horses. I was like, “Where are the three horses?”
DUVERNAY: And they are like, “Yeah, those three horses, we could not get them here.” So you know, when I look at it, I see all the limits. But an old friend told me years and years ago, it is actually in my first documentary, a guy named Ryan Cross. He said, “The best creativity happens within limits.” And I tell myself that all the time when I don’t get something I want.
GALLOWAY: Who did you have to convince? Was it Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, the producers? To do it your way?
DUVERNAY: I mean, I rewrote the script. They read it, and the money was all there. It was just trying to get a script and a director to make it happen. So this is my point of view and they were pretty supportive immediately. I mean, everyone was supportive except the guy who got credit for writing the script. [LAUGHS]
GALLOWAY: Yeah. And the Martin Luther King family. What happened?
DUVERNAY: Well, the family is very fractured. There are three children who are not in communication with each other. So the family does not really have much to do with it. It is the estate that controls the rights to the speeches. That is why I had to rewrite Dr. King’s speeches. It is so ridiculous.
GALLOWAY: Unbelievable. Was that difficult?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, it was difficult! (Laughter.) Very difficult.
GALLOWAY: How did you do it?
DUVERNAY: I did the same thing that I did with Wrinkle in Time. I thought about what the author intended, and tried to interpret the intention. I know what he wanted to say. I would read them, study them. Look at all the materials. Read addendum materials. What was he trying to say? What was the context? What was he trying to say in each line? And then rewrite it to make sure that the intention was the same, even though the words used to express the intention were different. The same thing with Wrinkle in Time. I know what Madeleine L’Engle intended to do when she wrote this in 1963. It is 2018. You have got to make movies that people will come to. But what did she mean to say in this scene? What did she want to express? If I can get the intention, I feel like I am still honoring the source material. So, no, it wasn’t easy. But I got it done.
GALLOWAY: When the film came out, and it was very admired, some Lyndon Johnson colleagues attacked it in the press. More particularly, Joseph Califano, who had worked in his cabinet, wrote a piece in the Washington Post, criticizing the way Lyndon Johnson, in particular, was portrayed. How much did that hurt you and the film?
DUVERNAY: Well, it did not hurt the film. People attribute it to making a difference with the Oscars, but the Oscars don’t have anything to do with my film, right? So that is a whole different thing. Box office, awards.
DUVERNAY: Those things are not the film. The film is forever. The film is our expression. The film is what we did.
GALLOWAY: I totally agree.
DUVERNAY: So whether it has Oscars or whether people went to see it at the box office, the film lives. It is its own living, breathing thing. So it didn’t hurt the film. But yeah, I was surprised by it. And at the time, I look back now — it’s a growing and maturing, but what happened during that time, the things that I said during that time, and the choice I made [was] to defend myself, as opposed to really call out what was happening, which was a very privileged, pedestrian argument that their way was the only way that these events could be seen, right? That the LBJ Library was right and the black people on the ground in Selma were wrong in their memory, to the point that you feel like you can say this woman is wrong. She is a liar, I was called. This is a myth. Not to be able to say, “Well, this is our point of view and other people experience it in a different way.” I didn’t say that. I said things like, “History is open to interpretation from all people.” And I said all of the sound bites at that time to preserve what I really wanted for David Oyelowo. I wanted him to have that Oscar nomination. I had already said many times, I knew that I would not get a nomination, so that was not a concern. But I wanted it for him so, so badly. And in these times, these campaigns — you know, they are campaigns.
GALLOWAY: It kind of bothers me.
DUVERNAY: They are very intricate, strategic presentations of the movie to a certain group of people, and everything has to hit the right way. What I wanted to say and what I said, there is a chasm there. And it was a great lesson, because I will never let it happen again. But I said enough to get through it. And yes, it was painful, not in what they were saying, because what they were saying was ridiculous. But in that I shackled myself and I didn’t speak my true line on that film. That is painful for me to think about.
GALLOWAY: It’s interesting, because you could have then gone on to do, well, Black Panther. You at one point talked about directing Black Panther. But you made this incredibly powerful documentary 13th, which explores, again, black history in America. That had an enormous impact. Did you think it would have that impact?
DUVERNAY: I did not think it would have that impact, and I did choose 13th over Panther.
GALLOWAY: Was that mistake?
DUVERNAY: No. I love 13th and I love Panther. And they were both made in the way that they were supposed to be made. And they both exist and they should both be in the world, doing what they are doing. But 13th, I had no idea: if I am in Germany, little kids walk up to me and talk to me about 13th. People from all across social economic class, gender. I am shocked by the number of people that talk to me about 13th, want to stop me in the Baskin-Robbins, in the Pinkberry. I like ice cream and yogurt. (Laughter.) And they want to look in my eyes and tell me what they learned and what it means of them, and why. And I always want to listen, because so many young people watched 13th. You know, I got a little bit of intel from Netflix. On that Friday and Saturday when it dropped, it was over-indexing with younger people. We saw it on social. It started with young people, and it caught fire. It is the basics that we should all know. It’s the basics of the system that we are all living in. And if you don’t know the basics, then it becomes really difficult to have empathy and to strive to change what the foundation of it is.
GALLOWAY: It is horrific that there are two million-plus black men incarcerated in America. Will that ever change?
DUVERNAY: I believe it will. I believe, there is precedent for radical change. But it takes a consensus, and we don’t have that. You look at the civil rights movement. You know, you study that, which I have studied in detail. It is a 10-year-long movement in its prime. 10 years, with various actions and various kind of groups working towards this very diligently, even if they had different ideas about how to do it, towards one goal. And it can happen again. And you know, 10 years is not a long time for radical change. You know, Storm Reid, who is the star of Wrinkle in Time, was telling me, “Oh, did you see my Instagram?” This was like an hour ago. “Did you see my Instagram?” I said, “No.” She had happened across a bus that has Wrinkle in Time on the side. She is 14 years old and it is her first film and she is so happy. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that is so fun.” And she just has such a presence of mind, this generation. She says, “Yeah, I posted. I thought you would be proud of my Instagram caption.” And I looked at the caption. It was her and she is in front of a picture of herself on the bus, with a caption that said, “From my ancestors who had to sit on the back of the bus to me on the side of a bus as the star of this movie,” right? And the connections that she made. I said, how did she know that? It is the education that we are getting through popular culture. And she is 14. Home schooled. Her home school program does not have African-American Studies. It is coming through the great work that black filmmakers are doing. And she watches Underground. She was in 12 Years a Slave. She watches 13th. She watches Selma. People are being educated through these images.
GALLOWAY: When there be a real shift in Hollywood?
DUVERNAY: I resist that question, because you have got to ask Hollywood. You know what I mean? I am not them and I did not build it and I don’t know. I don’t know what they are doing. And I know that I am going to keep pushing, but I don’t know when it will change. I am becoming less and less interested, though, in changing them, as opposed to building something else. And I think that’s the way things are going. Like a lot of these organizations, the academies and the unions, guilds and all of these things have to really catch up with the way that people feeling right now. People are done with this. Done. I am done. I am over it. I have no tolerance for a set that does not reflect the real world. A meeting that does not reflect the real world. A department that does not reflect the real world. It’s like, you know what? I am so done with it. That’s what the women are saying with Time’s Up. Like, done. Like, people have had it. And I think when you look historically, some of these little shifts that we are seeing, they are going to reverberate. There is something big coming. And the question is, what did you do and where did you stand at that time? And how did you prepare? Were you knowledgeable? What side did you pick? hat did you do? And that is a choice we all have to make.
GALLOWAY: Right. It was an African-American executive at Disney who contacted you about Wrinkle in Time.
DUVERNAY: Tendo Nagenda.
GALLOWAY: He is very well-regarded.
DUVERNAY: His voice is like music. Nagenda. I love it.
GALLOWAY: Did you know him through your talks about Black Panther?
DUVERNAY: No. I knew him through a thing called “Black Hollywood.” There are 16 of us, so we all know each other.
DUVERNAY: No, no. It’s more. It is like 100. It is 100. But black people who work in this space all know each other. And not intimately, but you know of each other. You know who is doing whatever. There are so few people. And so I knew of him. I think I had a lunch with him, maybe some years before, which he vividly remembers and I kind of remember. I am not sure if it is true, if it was me or somebody else. But we had a lunch and he was the one who brought me the Wrinkle in Time script. And I was just like, I don’t have children for a reason. (Laughter.) I think they are lovely when they are with someone else. (Laughter.) I am just not good with them.
GALLOWAY: And you had never read the book?
DUVERNAY: Never read the book. And, the agent kept telling me, “Disney keeps calling. Disney keeps calling.” I said, “Are they offering it to me? Are they giving it to me?” “No, there are other people in the mix, but at this point, they have called three times. It is rude. You should go.” “Fine, I will go.” So I went, and I knew Tendo Nagenda, from blackness. (Laughter.) And I knew the head of production, Sean Bailey, because I sat on the board at Sundance with him. And there is a real interesting thing there: I was able to walk into that room very comfortable, because I knew them personally. And I felt in that moment like most white men probably feel every day: very comfortable. Because they know you. They know, “Hey, oh, how are you? How is your wife? Blah-blah-blah.” Like, usually when I am walking into rooms, I don’t know you. We don’t socialize in the same places. My father did not go to school your father. I did not go to the same schools, and if we went to the same school, we were not in the same classes. I don’t live in the same neighborhood. Our wives don’t know each other. I don’t know them. So I walk in with a posture of: most of the meeting is, you get to know me and trust me and I trust you. This meeting, I know them. It was like, “Hey guys. What is up? Let us talk about the work. Right?” And that is a privilege that I don’t usually enjoy. And it is a nuanced, it seems slight, but it is massive. For women directors, for people of color directors, for LGBTQ directors, if you are outside and you are not in the knowing, half of your work is trying to be known. Right? As opposed to the work that you do. So in this meeting, I walked in. I knew them and started talking about the work. And they are telling me about this book. And I am like, OK. And I hadn’t read it. And Tendo said, “Just read the book. Read the script and imagine what you can do with the worlds.” I was like, the worlda? What do you mean “worlds?” He is like, “A girl hops planets in this book.” I said, “Hops planets in the book?” It is like, “She goes to different worlds, Ava. Imagine what you can do with the worlds.” And I was like, [MAKES SOUND] “The Worlds?” (Laughter.) I want to make worlds. And I went home with that line in my head. I get emotional thinking about it, because that is exactly what he said to me. “Imagine what you could do with the worlds.” And I went home and I read the book, the script, the graphic novel. And the next morning, I was like, “I want to do it! I want to do it!” And there was so much in it. You know, I will not have children. I have never wanted children. But there was something that I wanted to say to this next generation of people about what I believe in. About a pursuit of justice and dignity for all, and the only way that can happen is if you understand and feel it in yourself. You know that you have the power to make a difference in your day, treating people the way you want to be treated, right? y knowing that if something happens, it is not happening to you. It is happening for you. These key things that you must know to get through this life and be a good person that gives light to the world, like those are the things I wanted to share. And I fell into the idea of making this film that would express those things are important to me, because I won’t give them to actual children that are in my family that come from me. But I can give them to all children in that way. What I believe in. What I was taught. And that is why made it, and I got to make worlds, too. And it has just been a joy.
GALLOWAY: Why was Black Panther not a vehicle for the same thing?
DUVERNAY: Well, Black Panther is not a story for children. It is not. Wrinkle in Time is like Neverending Story. Basically, Neverending Story ripped off a Wrinkle in Time, right? There was a darkness, it is the same thing. But this is a story for eight to 12-year-olds. People think it is going to be like Selma in space. (Laughter.) It’s not a high drama because it comes from me. It is a kids’ movie. It is a kids’ movie that I tried to make really beautiful and intentional, and an emotional experience for kids and families about the things that I believe in, especially in this dark time. So it captured my imagination. I had already passed on Panther when Wrinkle came along, and Wrinkle with Meg Murray at the center, and with Disney, immediately in the first meeting, I was like, “I would want to make her a girl of color.” And they are like, “We thought you would say that.” It was not out of left field that I was going to say that. They immediately were on board with a certain vision for it. And so I fell in love with it.
GALLOWAY: We are going to take a look at a clip.
GALLOWAY: God, this book was tough to adapt and bring to the screen because she [Reese Witherspoon] is supposed to be magic. And so how is she going to come in [to the kids’ home]? She is going to appear? Is she going to have sparkles? If a lady popped into my house, I would be trying to get my children away, but that is not in the book. So I have Google, like trying to protect the kids, trying to think of it in a modern context, because a lady just shows up in your house, a white lady in a sheet. You know what I mean?
GALLOWAY: Yeah, yeah. I would be running.
DUVERNAY: You know? I am out of here. So how do you really kind of make that grounded, and yet she is somewhat fantastic and they do have to have a conversation. The book is really interesting. You have to try to make it grounded until it becomes fantasy. And she is supposed to be dressed in a sheet. In the book, she is an old lady. She took a sheet. And I was like, “Well, it’s got to be pretty. We will give it ruffles.” You know, a little something. And just to see those images of Gugu [Mbatha-Raw] and Storm Reid being Dr. Kate Murray, and the daughter, and they are brown girls. And just their presence in that story with their little brother who is a Filipino actor, right? Their very presence in this story, in a scene that might seem slight, is so huge by way of representations that we never see. The interesting thing about this film that I love, is that it does something that I have never seen, and I think it would have affected me in a really profound way if I had ever seen it, which is a black girl leader. She has got a crew. It is a white boy named Calvin and the Filipino, her little brother. And the images of that the boy named Calvin, her father, the Happy Medium, played by Zach Galifinakis and Chris Pine, they are constantly looking to her like, “What do I do? What do I do?” And just the idea that boys will see an image of a boy onscreen asking a girl, a black girl what to do, and she knows the answer and she leads them, and they listen. It may seem slight to people in the audience who experience that all the time. But the idea that I cannot tell you one film where a black girl has been the leader of white men and boys. To the point where they ask her opinion, listen to what she has to say, and do what she says. Just the power of that image is so massive to me, that literally sometimes when editing on the set, I would just become emotional at the images that we were making and the power of Disney to put that in the world, all over the world. It’s a big deal.
GALLOWAY: How do you as an auteur director work with the power of Disney? Because they control everything.
DUVERNAY: They do control everything, but they were really kind and respectful to me. It was a beautiful process. They were super open to my ideas. It was a lovely collaboration. They weren’t controlling. You know, I think I was lucky, because our film was under a thing called Disney Live Action, which is run by people who are a little looser. There are more stringent guidelines in some of the huger properties, $200 million properties, the Star Wars, the Marvels. But then again, you see that they have filmmakers that have been able to go in and assert their voice within that machinery, heavy machinery of filmmaking. So I think they do a pretty good job of it, considering they are massive and they own everything.
GALLOWAY: What was the hardest thing for you? Was it changing the script? Or casting?
DUVERNAY: Jennifer Lee is the screenwriter. She wrote Frozen. We had a great collaboration. She wrote and directed Frozen, so we had a beautiful collaboration. The acting process, the process of choosing the actors was great [with] Aisha Coley, my longtime casting director. I guess the most challenging? I don’t know. It was really smooth. It was really smooth and lovely. I loved playing with visual effects. I loved shooting wide vistas and landscapes all over the world. I mean, what is not to love? They give you tons of money and tons of time and the best, best people, and you go and you play.
GALLOWAY: When you were editing, were you and Ryan Coogler comparing notes in that same building?
DUVERNAY: We did not really show each other our work. It was more about emotional support. Walks around the lot, just to decompress. Talking about it, because our paths were pretty aligned in terms of where we were in our post process, you know, what you are doing and what I am doing. “Oh, that is coming up next for me.” “Oh, you did that.” We were at two completely different divisions of Disney, so we did not have the same executives. But there is just something about looking across the hall and seeing my brother there doing his work, and him looking across the hall and seeing me. And it was comforting. It was a catalyst for a certain energy every time I saw him. We see each other maybe two, three times a week. I would always pull in and see his car there. He is there. He would pull out and see my car still there and he would text me, “You’re still there?” We had been very good friends before that, but this was a definite kind of real further bonding for us.
GALLOWAY: Last question. Have you decided what you are doing next?
DUVERNAY: Yes. I start production on my next thing. You know I like to go back to back.
GALLOWAY: Yeah. Is that the Hurricane Katrina, or the Central Park —
DUVERNAY: No, it is Central Park Five.
GALLOWAY: Oh, I am dying to see that.
DUVERNAY: Five-hour film about the Central Park Five case.
This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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