Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler first met as indie directors at Sundance in 2013, yet their conversation at Vulture Festival at the Hollywood Roosevelt November 19 wasn’t exactly a long-overdue reunion. “Yesterday you were in our suite, looking at fruit wraps?” DuVernay asked.
They are respectively editing “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Black Panther” on the Disney lot (“behind doors two steps away from each other,” according to DuVernay). The expected blockbusters — each budgeted in excess of $100 million — hit theaters three weeks apart in early 2018.
At 31, Coogler is a year younger than DuVernay was when she first picked up a camera. Nevertheless, he is completely in awe of her “machine”-like ways. “[She] makes TV on the side,” gaped Coogler. “I don’t know how she does it. Literally, I’m in the hallway stressing out over one movie and she’s like, ‘I just came back from ‘Queen Sugar,’ and I’m on my way to Netflix… How’s it going for you?'”
This year, DuVernay also became an Academy Award-nominated documentarian with “13th.” Her voice filled with emotion when telling Coogler how “nourishing and bolstering” it’s been to “look at you and look in your eyes and know that we’re doing the same thing in the same space… There hasn’t been a lot of bad times, but you make all the times good, so I’m happy to go on this journey with you.”
On the “Black Panther” set, Coogler sometimes had “to play mind tricks” to keep from breaking down at the ramifications of the project’s scope. This was especially true for a scene between lead actor Chadwick Boseman (portraying T’Challa and his titular alter-ego) and John Kani, a South African septuagenarian who plays his predecessor as king of Wakanda, the fictional African nation created by Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
During a rehearsal, Boseman and Kani began speaking in Xhosa, a South African dialect. “Just realizing that we’re behind this film where a father and a son talk to each other in this native African language… but in a superhero movie, it kind of hit me pretty hard for a second,” said Coogler. “When you get those moments, you’ve got to remind yourself, I can’t fall to pieces right here. There’s so much work left to be done.“
Before Coogler joined “Black Panther,” DuVernay confirmed to Essence that Marvel approached her about becoming the studio’s first black director; she said she didn’t make the deal because “we had different ideas about what the story would be.” Coogler denied that he once turned down the job himself, but admitted that “Ava was mad at me” for enlisting two-time Oscar nominee Ruth Carter (“Malcolm X,” “Amistad”) to design the “Black Panther” costumes. “Ruth worked with me on ‘Selma’ and I just assumed she was going to be there for ‘Wrinkle,'” DuVernay said. “She was like, ‘Oh no.'”
Despite the scale of their projects, the filmmakers said they were drawn by the stories. “I’m trying to make a Lynn Shelton movie, just on a larger budget,” DuVernay said.
“A Wrinkle in Time” centers on a 12-year-old girl named Meg (Storm Reid), and the director thought a lot about her now-13-year-old niece, Molly, when agreeing to helm the film, even giving Molly’s picture to costume designer Paco Delgado, instructing him, “She is the real Meg.”
“Literally this girl of color saves the universe,” DuVernay said. “Not just the world, multiple planets and galaxies. That’s just such a radical idea, as a woman of color, as anyone who’s outside of the industry construct of who’s usually put forth as the hero.” She’s eager to put forth “a sci-fi vision through the lens of a black woman, because so often we’re watching sci-fi films through one specific lens, a white male lens predominantly, for decades and decades and decades.”
While her film is based on Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel, DuVernay said she “didn’t feel tethered and shackled” to make a strict adaptation, citing the addition of non-white characters played by Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Deric McCabe. “We freed ourselves and freed our imagination to bring these fairytales and these fantasies into the current time, which is one that should be much more inclusive,” she said.
Promoting onscreen diversity is a career-long mission for DuVernay: she said there’s “a strong possibility” that she’ll oversee a rumored, Issa Rae-scripted buddy comedy starring Rihanna and “Black Panther” co-star Lupita Nyong’o; she’d also like to help tell the story of Assata Shakur, a Queens-born black nationalist who fled prison for Cuba following a murder conviction.
However, DuVernay also concedes, “This Disney film belongs in the Disney cinematic canon,” so audiences shouldn’t expect “the same frames that I make with Bradford [Young],” her cinematographer on “Middle of Nowhere” and “Selma.” Until now, DuVernay said, “I never made a film where I felt a responsibility for the look outside of just my own preference,” adding that she is “happy” with the brighter shots.
Initially, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” director Coogler was “not sure he would like” his film’s hero. He usually preferred deeply flawed heroes like Batman, but T’Challa is “extremely wealthy, he’s extremely smart, he’s culturally knowledgable, he’s a king, he’s got this power even though he’s a good guy.” In the end, Coogler became “incredibly attached to this character,” who is newly fatherless, and burdened with responsibility to lead.
“It’s not much unlike what Ava and I are going through with these films,” Coogler said. “People [are] trusting you with this massive thing that has a lot of importance but they’re watching, they’re hoping that you don’t mess it up. You’ve got smart people around you…but at the same time, you’ve got to remember, I’m smart, too.”