Clothes make the director. That’s the lesson filmmaker Ava DuVernay imparted in her keynote speech at the LA Film Independent Forum last week. In her 45-minute speech, the 2012 winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Best Director prize described her “director’s uniform,” a kind of work armor that’s more about self-protection than self-expression.
In just the past five years, DuVernay has directed a feature-length documentary (This is the Life) and two narrative films (I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere) which have made her a film-festival darling and an emerging artist to watch. Earlier this year, she helmed a ESPN special about tennis star Venus Williams, and she’s currently working on a biopic of Martin Luther King, tentatively called Selma.
1) The director’s uniform for me starts with the glasses. You don’t want to have dry eyes on set. You don’t wanna get caught up with the glistening. Especially as a lady director, that’s when the grip is going to walk by and say, “She was crying.” It’s just not worth it. Another thing [you can use glasses for] is for emphasis. When the actor comes by and wants to talk about something you don’t know, you can just do a little [takes glasses off, bites them thoughtfully].2) Layering, gotta have thermals, just because.3) The hipster t-shirt. It’s a nice camouflage, to remind people you care about things other than film.4) A nice jacket, because, of course, your night shoot will be the coldest night of the year.5.) A hat. This is for me, because people always wanna touch the locks. This is just a general tip, not necessarily for filmmaking: don’t touch black women’s hair.6.) Shoes. You wanna keep them comfy. [There’s a] lot of talk about shoes. Folks talk about different brands, and different pads they might use. A gaffer on a shoot talked about a brand called Casual Cool. You know where you get em? Rite Aid. These shoes are from Rite Aid. My grandmother loves them, because they’re not fashionable, but they are comfy. The worst thing to do is to be on set [and] to not be uncomfortable — even if you have to rock nursing shoes from Rite Aid.
For a long time, I thought people were laughing at me when I said I was a filmmaker. Or I was laughing at myself. I didn’t really fully wear it in the way that I really believed it. I had to make a couple of films to really feel like I was legitimate.So I put all of this on and I go out on set. I am who I feel I should be. I’m only able to be that because I took off something three years ago that was inhibiting me from being that, and that was my desperation. I wore my desperation like a coat. It was definitely the first thing you saw when you met me. Because it was draped over everything I said, everything I felt, everything I thought, everything I did. It’s the first thing I see in a lot of people, in a tweet, in an email, in a Q&A. I see just this heavy coat of sinking, desperate to get whatever it is you’re trying to make made….During that time, I was feeling like this is so big — what I want to do — and the odds are against you. The odds were doubly against me, being black and being a woman. Not having access, not having a rich uncle. These are the things I thought I needed, wanted, or thought I deserved at that time.
All of the time you’re spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you’re not spending time working on your screenplay, strengthening your character arcs, setting up a table reading to hear the words, thinking about your rehearsal techniques, thinking about symbolism in your production design, your color pallet. All the time you’re focusing on trying to grab, you’re being desperate and you’re not doing. You have to be doing something. Because all of the so-called action that you’re doing is hinging on someone doing something for you.