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Aspiring Filmmakers, Ava DuVernay Thinks You Should Lose the Desperation and Just Make Something!

Aspiring Filmmakers, Ava DuVernay Thinks You Should Lose the Desperation and Just Make Something!

This weekend in Los Angeles at the Film Independent Forum, Ava DuVernay, the Sundance award-winning director of “Middle of Nowhere” and the upcoming MLK biopic “Selma,” was one of the event’s keynotes.  While she warned that her speech would not be as newsworthy as that of Netflix chief Ted Sarandos also at the FIND Forum, DuVernay was provocative.

Inspired by this week’s SNL musical guest Janelle Monae, DuVernay said she scrapped her planned speech and worked off of notes to first lay out the director’s uniform, and then to really ask aspiring filmmakers to wake the f*** up.  First, DuVernay’s director’s uniform (DuVernay’s speech has been edited for easier reading):

Director’s Uniform:

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.  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? Right 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 is to not be uncomfortable even if you have to rock nursing shoes from Rite Aid.

But she really spoke to the audience, when she called out the indie filmmaking community for being plagued with desperation.  The message was clear:  stop asking for help, permission, and advice and…Just do it!  

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.  You’re in info-gathering mode.  You come to these gatherings and think, “Am I interested in this? Can I do this? What is this about? What is this whole independent film thing? How do I get it done?”  That’s the cool part.  When it tips over into the part where you say “I want to do this,” you get into a dangerous area because you can miscalculate what you’re giving out.  And that becomes the death nail in how people are responding to you.

During that time when I was acting in a desperate manner, I needed help to proceed.  I needed a break.  I needed to nail the pitch.  I needed someone to say yes.  I needed a mentor.  I needed a greenlight.  I needed access.  I needed a secret password.  I needed a rich uncle.  I needed everything I didn’t have to tell my story.  I could be saying words like “I’ve written a script” or “I’ve been to this lab,” but it was coming out in this way that was not from a place of empowerment.

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. 

I rarely meet people who tell me what they’re doing.  I often meet people who ask, “Can you help me?” or “How do I do this?” or “Do you want to have coffee?” “Can I take you to coffee?”  “Can we grab a coffee?”  “I’d love to take you to coffee and pick your brain a little bit.”  “Can I send you a script?” “Can you read my script?”  “I have a script that I’d love for you to just check out if you can.”  “Can you be my mentor?”  “I need a mentor.”  “I would love if you could mentor me.”  “Is it possible for us to talk?”  All of that energy, all of that focus to extract from other people is distracting you from what you’re doing.  All of that is desperation.

When I figured that out, things started to change for me.  When I’m meeting people and they’re in that moment, I want to say something to them.  “Knock it off, because it’s never going to work for you.”  That feeling of “I need help.  I need all of these things to proceed.”  And when I got that, a revolution happened for me.  

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.  

And that’s just the beginning of what she has to say.  Check out the rest of her speech in this video:

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