You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

Sundance Winner A.V. Rockwell on Her Gentrification Drama ‘A Thousand and One’: ‘New York Broke My Heart’

The newly acclaimed filmmaker shares her long journey with IndieWire and where she expects to go next.

A.V. Rockwell at the IndieWire Sundance Studio, Presented by Dropbox on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah.

A.V. Rockwell at the IndieWire Sundance Studio, Presented by Dropbox on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah.

Anna Pocaro for IndieWire

When director A.V. Rockwell attended Sundance in 2018, her short film “Feathers” was acquired by Searchlight and later qualified for the Oscars. Even with that high bar, her 2023 experience at the festival exceeded expectations, as her debut feature “A Thousand and Onewent home with the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

A potent dose of kitchen sink realism in the pantheon of gritty New York stories, the movie stars Teyana Taylor as a struggling Harlem woman who kidnaps her child from foster care and raises him over the course of two decades.

An intimate period piece that starts in 1994 and ends in 2005, “A Thousand and One” shows the filmmaker’s trenchant ability to juggle the vast themes of class and race in tandem with gentrification while maintaining a powerful emotional centerpiece built around a poignant mother-son dynamic. Produced by Focus Features, which releases the movie at the end of March, “A Thousand and One” establishes Rockwell as a major filmmaker on the rise. Ahead of this year’s festival, she discussed her journey to this moment.

IndieWire: What brought you to this story?

A.V. Rockwell: The way that gentrification was reshaping New York City and me especially observing that it didn’t feel super natural. It wasn’t like every aspect of the city was changing. It felt like certain neighborhoods were being targeted. I loved the city so deeply that it felt like part of who I am, and I felt like, OK, well, New York must not love me in the same way. I think that awareness of unreciprocated love and that feeling of being erased was a huge motivator for me. In addition to that, I felt like the experiences of Black women in society were overlooked — not only within society, though, but even within our own communities and families. I felt the need to speak on that.

How did the conditions of moment inform your process? Even though it’s a period piece, there’s a timeliness about its themes.

It was interesting because I started making progress on this shortly after Breonna Taylor’s name became really big in the media. Prior to that, I think it kind of fell on deaf ears. That spoke to a bigger theme I was trying to get at: Here we are fighting for everyone, but who’s fighting for us? Who’s seeing us fully? We’re heroes but not superheroes. We still need the support of everyone else that we’re trying to be a great support system for. Those two big ideas between the experiences of the city and the experiences of inner city Black women in particular really drove me forward.

What sort of movies inspired you as you considered the particular setting of the story?

Teyana Taylor embraces Aaron Kingsley Adetola in a still from "A Thousand And One"

“A Thousand and One”

courtesy of Focus Features

I was more trying to fill a gap. There weren’t other films prior to this. I was just thinking a lot about the people I grew up with and mourning the home we had — feeling pushed out. I wanted to speak to that experience, and also talk to New York’s relationship not only to the community I represent but also to itself. I feel like as a New Yorker I’m honored to be making a film about the city the way other filmmakers I admire did, like Spike Lee, Scorsese, Woody Allen. They’re just really known as New York people making New York films, but I was making a heartbreak letter more than a love letter. I didn’t really feel like I had a lot of examples of that to criticize in my own way. New York broke my heart.

Do you think it’s redeemable?

I won’t ever lose hope on New York. I’m always going to be a New Yorker. But because of that, I have a right to have a relationship with it that’s a little complicated.

What was the turning point that set you on the path to get this movie made?

All of my producers — Hillman Grad, Sight Unseen, and Makeready — got involved in development. That was really cool because I think making a short like “Feathers,” I expected a more traditional route of getting into festivals and seeing what could come out of it. But I actually met this team before the film had reached festivals. They’re the ones that decided on their own to get together and help me make my movie, whatever it’s going to be. I only had a kernel of an idea that we developed together, which is not what I expected but was really amazing for me. I felt like I didn’t have that much of an idea yet. We spent four years going from concept to Sundance. They just kind of shrugged and believed in me. We nurtured it together and believed in my vision as it crystalized.

How did you workshop it from there?

I would speak to Sundance’s Feature Film Labs. I did the writers’ lab and the directors’ lab. That program was supportive not only with the advisement I got from Michelle Satter and everyone else there, but also the advisors who were incredibly supportive throughout those experiences. A good number of the filmmakers who went through the program stayed in touch. My friend Aristotle Torres’ movie just got into SXSW. Kobi Libii who made “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” which is also for Focus. I’m excited for him. A good number of us have made our films within the past year.

What sorts of films and filmmakers made an impact on you as you decided this was what you wanted to do?

People like Spike or Scorsese, I recall them a lot. As a filmmaker I’m constantly gaining new favorite films but I think they were the filmmakers who had a huge influence on me. What’s great about them if I can look at careers that are admirable was that not only had they made all types of films, and I respect them for that, these are artists who always had a strong voice. You always felt them in their movies. I felt that being that free, staying true to myself in my movies was important — but also having fun and being able to experiment. Not only as a filmmaker of color but as a woman, I didn’t have a lot of examples of that.

How much does it feel like that has changed?

Around the time I was going to film school and making shorts, I thought, “Wow, this woman filmmaker I admire or that one, there’s a consistent pattern of not being able to make it beyond two or three films at most.” Then Ava came along and I felt like the way she has succeeded in film and television has been really beautiful. A year like the one that just passed — with Kasi Lemmons, Gina Prince-Bythewood — there are so many new examples of people being able to keep going, making great films at the highest level and not just as underdogs.

Teyana Taylor, A.V. Rockwell and Will Catlett at the IndieWire Sundance Studio, Presented by Dropbox on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah.

Teyana Taylor, A.V. Rockwell, and Will Catlett at the IndieWire Sundance Studio, Presented by Dropbox on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah

Clayton Chase for IndieWire

I think of Black women filmmakers and there are still not many doing it at the highest level, but I think that going from making one or two if they’re lucky theatrical movies to now being able to consistently make movies into our seventies or eighties, that’s what success will really look like to me. If I choose to make films until I can’t wake up anymore, I have that ability, because the industry creates space for our voices in that way.

Where do you go from here?

I want to enjoy the moment to celebrate the release of the film. At the end of the day, I did this for audiences, regardless of what they take away from it. I make movies to reach people in a way that makes life easier even if it’s just for two hours. I think things are still somewhat open for me. I have been approached about adapting a book, and just getting to write again in a different way is exciting. But there are also original concepts I’m developing for an original film and for TV as well. I’m always going to want to want to make movies but it would be foolish to not bend to the benefits of stretching out things into a TV series. So I’m excited to see where those things go.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox