In addition to making history as the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance, DuVernay was honored with the 2013 John Cassavetes Spirit Award and the Tribeca Film Institute’s Affinity Award for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere.
In 2010, she wrote, produced and directed her first narrative feature, I Will Follow. Released theatrically in 2011, the family drama was hailed by critic Roger Ebert as “… one of the best films I’ve seen about the loss of a loved one.”
I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak recently with Ava for what turned out to be a terrific conversation about her background, movies, and independent cinema.
Today in Part 1 of our interview, Ava reveals how she got into the movie business, eventually deciding to become a filmmaker herself:
Scott: First of all, how you came to be a screenwriter, a director, a producer. That’s a compelling story. When and how did movies become an integral part of your life?
Ava: I grew up in the Compton/Lynwood area of Los Angeles. My family has no connection with the entertainment industry at all except that I had a very beloved aunt named Denise who was a lover of the arts, of film and music and theater and literature. She gifted me with an appreciation for it all. But she was truly a ferocious movie watcher and fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of film. How she got it is really just through the atmosphere, because there was no one ahead of her to introduce her to the arts, but luckily she was there for me. I spent many an afternoon, getting picked up from school going straight to a movie. Long conversations about film and books and art. It was really all a gift from my aunt to me.
Scott: Are there some movies you remember from those experiences with your aunt that had a particularly strong impact on you?
Ava: Yeah, I always talk about West Side Story which is a film that I remember she showed me. It was actually on television at our local KTLA here. I remember it was a rainy day, and she was a nurse who worked at night, and I was at her house during the day probably bugging her as she was trying to get some sleep. I remember her flicking through the channels and being relieved that there was something that would probably hold my attention. She put it on and said, “Watch this. You’re going to love it.” She went into her bedroom and went to sleep, and I watched West Side Story and was just really captivated and mesmerized by all the color and the brown people and the dancing and the music and the love story. That’s an early memory of one of my first favorites.
Scott: You received a B.A. from UCLA, majoring in African‑American Studies and English. Did you take any cinema or film classes there as well?
Ava: No, not at all. I had no inclination or intention to become a filmmaker. Film at that point was purely for pleasure and fun. I was a double major – English and African-American Studies at UCLA – and never even ventured into the film school while there. I had no idea that this would be what I would be doing. I knew I loved film. That was all. Soon after graduating, I found myself working in film publicity and really embracing it and loving it. It was as close to film as I ever thought I’d get. But yeah, no film school, no classes at that time.
Scott: Let’s talk about that, getting into film publicity, public relations. You’ve been doing that for many years. On IMDB, you’ve got something like 100 movie titles that you’ve been associated with. How did you end up getting into that line of work?
Ava: Well, I’ve been working in publicity since 1995, when I graduated from UCLA. I worked at FOX and a couple of big PR firms for about four years. Was good at it, had a certain point of view about the way the publicity could be done differently than how it had been done, especially with projects steeped in youth culture and with people of color. I started my agency when I was 27 years old in 1999, but I actually started practicing PR in 1995. The PR expanded to marketing, which expanded to overall distribution consultation, and a bunch of other stuff that my agency eventually did. I kept the agency open full blast until right before I made Middle of Nowhere. Through my first theatrical release, through my first few documentaries, I was also running the agency full time. My last film that I consulted on through the agency was The Help, before I shut it down and stopped offering full execution. Now I do consultation only, here and there for studio friends who need a little advice, but not in the same way that I did before. All of my marketing and PR experience is fully and only truly for the benefit of AFFRM filmmakers now. AFFRM is our distribution company dedicated to black independent films.
Scott: Given your experience with public relations, does your marketing instinct come into play when developing one of your own movies?
Ava: I can’t say that actually comes into play when I’m working on my own films. I don’t think I think about it, but I’m sure it’s there somewhere. My only example that I can give is with Middle of Nowhere. I cast a complete unknown as the lead in the wonderful Emayatzy Corinealdi. I guess that my knowledge of the fact that you don’t actually need a known actress to create an effective publicity campaign came into play. The experience of knowing how to build a campaign around an ingénue kicked in. I knew that if this woman could give a great performance, which I believed she was capable of, that she would be the centerpiece of a great PR campaign, which she was. So, I guess the marketing instinct is there somewhere in the background, but certainly it’s not at the forefront of my decisions as a filmmaker.
Scott: You’ve got this successful PR firm, and doing all this consulting. When did the idea hit you, “I could be making movies myself”?
Ava: I was on the set of a film that Michael Mann was directing called Collateral, and we were in downtown LA shooting on a frigid night. We were in Los Angeles and we were on practical locations on the streets of LA. I had an experience myself on a street nearby a few years before, and thought, “He’s here telling this story on this street, why am I not telling my stories about these streets?” I started writing Middle of Nowhere, and just trying my hand at telling a story from those streets.
Scott: That was in 2004?
Ava: Yeah, 2003, 2004. 2003, I think.
Scott: You write the script for Middle of Nowhere, but then as I understand it you set it aside for a while, and moved on to do some documentaries. What led to that choice, and what key lessons have you learned about storytelling from doing documentaries?
Ava: Well, not having financing led to that choice. [laughs] We couldn’t get the film made for what we were asking to do it for at the time. At that time, I was not at all in the indie frame of mind. In 2003, all I knew was really the studio world so I couldn’t get that film made. They’re not knocking down doors to make nuanced stories about the interior lives of black women. That didn’t get done, so it had to be put aside. I continued doing movie marketing, but I desperately wanted to direct and just make something, anything. So I started to make a documentary about a close‑knit group of artists out of South Central who I knew personally, a whole music movement that had happened in Los Angeles post‑riot, pre‑riot. I made a documentary about that movement, the social context of that music, and went through the festival circuit and really enjoyed it. I was working full time. I was managing big campaigns from clients while traveling the country with my little, independent documentary and really loved everything about it. That film led to being hired by BET to make their first commissioned documentary on the history of women in hip‑hop. We called that My Mic Sounds Nice. That did really well and just emboldened me to actually direct a narrative.
Tomorrow in Part 2, we delve into Ava’s writing process in the two feature films she has produced thus far I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere.
Please stop by comments to thank Ava and ask any questions you may have.
Ava is repped by Paradigm.