Gorgeous, grounded and smart as a whip, Ava DuVernay dances to the beat of her own drum — and she thinks you should too.
The director of the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma” stopped by the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss her work and the trajectory of her career with Q-Tip, member of the storied hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. The conversation began 25 minutes later than scheduled because DuVernay’s red-eye flight into New York had been delayed, which, in turn, made her late to arriving at the location of the talk. Always gracious, however, DuVernay thanked the audience for their patience and remained onstage for the full hour.
Below you will find the main highlights from the discussion.
Find your tribe.
“Find the folks that are going to feed you and nourish you in creative ways,” DuVernay told the room. She shared a laugh with the audience when she realized, while seated next to Q-Tip onstage, the pun in the statement, “find your tribe.” Anyone who knows her, she said, can tell you that these three words have long been a mantra of hers; one that she regularly shares with others. DuVernay began her career in film as a publicist and didn’t make the transition over to directing until she was in her late thirties. The way she made that transition, she says, is by working outside “the architecture of the industry as we know it.” Said DuVernay: “So I didn’t [encounter] a lot of resistance because I found my people and I started making films in my own space, in my own way.” Over time, she said, her collaborators and creative goals began to intersect with the traditional entertainment industry.
No matter what, never stop shooting.
“My motto is stay shooting,” DuVernay said when asked about what she does during the gaps in between films. “Hashtag stay shooting,” she continued, “if I could tattoo it I would, but my mom said no more tattoos.” Between films she said that she stays true to her motto by working on commercials, documentaries and television. When she worked as a publicist, DuVernay said that she “would see the struggle, especially for black filmmakers or people of color in general, and definitely women [and] women of color, this period of inactivity, this moment of trying to figure out once you did it, how you do it again within the construct of the industry.” She cited Spike Lee and his tireless work ethic as inspiration for the way in which she navigates her own creative career.
Medium doesn’t matter.
Instead of viewing television and film as separate mediums that exist in opposition to one another — and hence, one must be better than the other — DuVernay approaches them as equal opportunities for her to exercise her creative latitude. “I think the goal is to find liberation in whatever you are doing and that is hard but the interesting thing is [that] right now, the paradigms are changing.” Television, DuVernay noted, has become just as attractive of a home for screen auteurs as film once was (and still, to a large extent, remains). “Ultimately, it’s about expression, voice and story — what you’re trying to get across — the feeling, the vibe, whatever you’re trying to say,” continued DuVernay. “I embrace that those things can be said and communicated in different ways.”
You are responsible to make what you want to see.
“What my mission is, in all of my work, truly, is to magnify the magnificence of black people,” said DuVernay. She likened her reason for making films to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which has gained widespread usage over the past six months to a year. “If we don’t do it then who is going to do it?” DuVernay asked rhetorically. “If the woman filmmaker doesn’t take special care with the women characters, who does it? It’s not going to be the man. If the black filmmaker doesn’t take special care [with black stories], who does it? It’s not going to be the filmmaker who doesn’t know it.” DuVernay actually managed to unpackage this notion of responsibility earlier in the conversation when she explained how she and cinematographer, Bradford Young — her collaborator “Selma” and “Middle of Nowhere” — have contemplated the ways in which they can deconstruct and experiment with the onscreen representation of black bodies. “So often folks are afraid to put darker hues against darker backdrops because it’s just going to be teeth and eyes,” noted DuVernay, “[but] that’s not necessarily the case — [though] sometimes it is the case and it’s beautiful.”
On “Selma,” DuVernay recalled shooting the jail cell scene with David Oyelowo and Colmin Domingo, which called for very little (almost no) light. “Funny story,” she continued, “that was our first day of shooting, so those were the first dailies to go to the studio and they, no joke, ordered extra dailies colorists to go in, had money set aside to re-shoot it and me and Brad are like, that’s what it is supposed to look like.” Although the scene eventually ended up in the film the way that DuVernay had asked Young to shoot it, she was careful to note how “that image of two dark-skinned people sitting in a dark space was so startling and rare” that the studio felt compelled to revise it, rather than trusting in the filmmaker’s instincts.
No amount of money makes it worthwhile to make something you don’t want to make.
DuVernay put what sounds like a backwards philosophy into perspective by describing what it was like to work on the upcoming CBS pilot, “For Justice.” The series, which is being executive produced by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal’s Tribeca Productions, centers on a branch of the DOJ, made up of both lawyers and FBI agents, that handles civil rights abuses. “So, it’s like every week the country would be able to see a case solved about anti-Muslim sentiment, or a case solved about something around Ferguson or a case solved about a transgender murder,” said DuVernay. “[With] these elements under the umbrella of a procedural,” she continued, “you are actually able to give Middle America, whoever is watching, some information about people on the outside, people on the margins.” When a project pushes you to your limit, however, DuVernay noted that it is your affection for an idea, not a financial imperative that keeps you moving towards the finish line. Said DuVernay: “But at the point that it’s two in the morning, I’m in New York in a snowstorm doing a night exterior, I’m thinking, there is no amount of money — like where is Jane [Rosenthal], I need a raise. Why am I here? And what the answer was, is because I have to tell this story; but if the answer was because you need a check, there is no amount of money to do something you don’t want to do.”
Follow your interests.
According to DuVernay, it is very important to keep yourself open to “taking different turns” with your career. “There are projects out there that on the face, would look like, ‘that’s never something she would do,’ but there is something about it that I think, speaks to what I want to say,” she told the audience. In order to demonstrate her point, DuVernay once again brought up Lee’s career as an example. Besides maintaining an incredibly prolific career as a filmmaker for more than a quarter of a century, DuVernay noted that Lee has successfully ventured into other types of producing as well; specifically, the stand up comedy film, “The Original Kings of Comedy,” which was filmed in front of a live audience, as well as a whole range of live concerts. “You think of him as one thing, but if you take away all of Spike’s narrative films and you just look at his docs and live work, that is the work of a whole other filmmaker’s career.” she said. “I know I continue to reference him but I do it because he took left turns and he did what interested him and he didn’t [allow himself to get placed into] any kind of box, he just continued to shoot and follow his interests.”
Carefully curate the people that work with you.
“Early on when I was working,” DuVernay noted, “it’s so much about who will work for me and with me for no money. But ultimately what I’ve found [is that it’s] never worth it.” Why? Because it is more important to ensure that everybody you hire actually wants to be there and cares about the project they are working on. As DuVernay put it, you’re directing more than just a film, “you’re directing an experience.” The final version of the film is the tangible result of being on set; the long-term results of an on set experience, however, emerge further down the line when it comes time to come together to make another project and those that came away with positive feelings about their experience choose to return, while those that did not, distance themselves. “It’s like you’re throwing a house party,” DuVernay said, “you just want all the elements.”
The only person you need to ask permission from is yourself.
“If there is nothing to ask permission for then don’t ask for permission,” said DuVernay. “Half of us are waiting for permission; for someone to say okay, for someone to say do it, for someone to say that is a good idea, [for] someone to give you the money, [for] someone to give you the resources. When I just decided that I’m going to work with what I’ve got and give myself the permission, then it really started.” She attributes this no-nonsense, confident attitude to her previous life as a publicist. “I think for me because I started in another career first, that I was able to go into this career with a little bit more…fuck you,” she said, “because I knew I was good at something else. I had been in a lot of [these] male-dominated rooms before so I didn’t really have a fear of saying no, or I didn’t have the fear of asking a question, or I didn’t have a fear of just saying this doesn’t work for me, I’m going to leave and go do it myself.”