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 2 of our interview, we delve into Ava’s writing process in the two feature films she has produced thus far I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere:
Scott: You wrote the screenplays for both of the scripted films you have produced and directed so far, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere. You didn’t go to film school. You just love movies. How did you learn to write a screenplay? What were the resources you used?
Ava: I read screenplays. I’d worked in the industry for 15 years, as a film publicist, a marketer for films. A big part of writing is reading. I had read almost every screenplay of all the 100 films and TV episodes you see on IMDB and more, and just got a real clear sense of structure. Then also I started to study. I went the route that everyone says you should go, took the Robert McKee “Story” classes and didn’t learn much. Read the books. I had to find my way to my own methods. But yeah, I read a lot of screenwriting books and read a lot of screenplays. That’s basically how to do it.
Scott: Are there any screenplays that you especially remember that influenced you or impacted you?
Ava: No, I can’t say there was one particular screenplay. It was a cumulative effect of reading so many scripts. I always love when I read a script and I see a structural break or just, “This is the way you do this.” When the technicalities of format are broken, or the way that something is explained is a little off‑kilter or off‑color, not as formal as it’s taught in the books. I can’t remember what they were. But over the years, when I would read that, it would open a whole world of possibly in terms of the way that one can communicate what’s in your head, on paper. I think we get locked down into things sometimes. It’s always fun to read when the traditional way is broken or when something is put in a way that’s not so screenplay‑formal.
Scott: I was so impressed with both scripts. I thought they were incredibly well‑written and the characters so richly drawn. Is that where you start your writing process, pretty much, with the characters?
Ava: Absolutely. The first thing that came to my head is, “Where else would you start from?” But I guess there are people that start in other places. For me, it’s definitely about who the film is about. Not just the central characters, but the supporting characters. Just really trying to flesh out people, even if they’re only in the picture for a couple of minutes. Trying to give everyone their own beginning, middle and end. So yeah, character would be the starting point.
Scott: I was struck by your narrative voice. Stylistically, your words in both of those scripts, create an intimate feel with the characters. You have a lot of personal asides in scene description that convey a sense of what the characters are experiencing in their interior world. Yet, movies are primarily a visual medium. I was wondering how you struck a balance between that writer side of yourself, wanting to get across what characters are feeling in those quiet moments, when there’s no dialogue, and then translating those moments onto the screen?
Ava: When I write a screenplay – I’ve only written five – I’m writing for myself. [laughs] I’m the director and I need to create an emotional map. Not just plot, but a map of where these characters are, where they’re going and where they’ve been. A map from which I can direct the actor, direct the action, direct the production designer, direct the cinematographer. It helps me to have an emotional map and know what’s going on in between the lines. I put that in there. There are pieces and nuances, of course, as we know, as filmmakers, that will never see it to the screen or will never be spelled out visually. Yet knowing that it’s there and knowing what the thing is about, helps the actor in an unspoken moment that may never make it to the theater. It helps me. It’s a guide. I never fear putting that stuff in there. I never think twice about including some description of a quiet moment or internal thought. I know that, eventually, through osmosis, that does come out in the final product whether it’s through me and the direction. Whether it’s through production design that gets the essence of what a place should look like based on how a person sits on the couch that I put in another scene. All that stuff is a stew that eventually adds to the flavor of what you’re doing, I believe.
Scott: I read an interview with you where you were talking about the writing process for Middle of Nowhere. You said you wrote seven versions of the script, one from each perspective of the major characters. I’m curious, what exactly do you mean by ‘version’? Do you literally have a different draft from the perspective of each character?
Ava: Yeah, not a full draft, but mini‑scripts. I have small script for the mother, her take on the scenes that she’s in. Maybe a scene or two, a pre‑scene beat or something that might inform why she is the way she is in the scene that we’ll actually see in the film. That’s just my own…It’s really director work, more than script work. The main script is done. So, I might go off and explore a character to figure out why they say something they say or behave some certain way in the main scene. It helps! Character work that most writers do when they’re writing their character outlines. I just do it in script form. A lot of screenwriters will outline who their people are. I just write it in screenplay format.
Scott: It makes a lot of sense. Every character thinks they are the protagonist of their own story.
Ava: You’re the hero of your own life. Everyone’s the main character in some way. I don’t know if you saw the film, even though you read the script. But in the Middle of Nowhere, there’s a scene where Ruby’s on the beach with her sister and she sees, Brian, this new man, this bus driver who’s entering her life. They meet on the beach for the first time. In the scene, as it’s filmed, you see the little boy looking up at these adults above him. In the film, we cut away to him a couple times. It usually gets a few laughs, because he’s wide‑eyed looking at this exchange between adults. But I have a script for what he was thinking and what he was feeling in that moment. A boy being raised by women and this man comes and shakes his hand like a man for the first time and asks him his name. He says ‘Nick’ and his mom says ‘Nickie,’ but he wants to be ‘Nick.’ Why he wants to be ‘Nick.’ There’s a whole script for him. [laughs] Just so that I am fully fleshing out that character. It’s definitely more of a tool for me. I never share those with the actors. It’s a part of my work. But as I learn more about what other screenwriters do and I go back to the initial books that everyone’s read, it’s really just character outline work in a different format.
Scott: It’s a great idea. Whatever version of it, essentially, immerses you in each character, so that you experience their story universe through their eyes.
Ava: For sure.
Scott: In another interview, there’s a quote where you say, “So often, when I see African‑American performances on screen, it’s in the voice of spectacle. I don’t feel like race is spectacle. Race is me. I’m a black woman. We are black people. If we move around our daily lives, it is not a spectacle. It is the norm.” Can you talk a bit about how that attitude informs your creative process and shapes these stories you choose to tell?
Ava: It doesn’t inform it. I am just writing. It’s not like I’m saying, “This is not going to be spectacle.” I’m just writing what’s in my mind. It’s when other people try to write what’s in my mind, as a black woman, when other people try to write my body, what I would do in this situation, how I wear my hair, what I say to men, what I say to my friends, what I say to my mother. They are not me. They are not us. And most of the time, sadly, they don’t care to really know who we are. That becomes spectacle. The way that I think of you is spectacle if I don’t know your life, don’t care to learn and just start telling stories that I deem appropriate about you. The crazy thing is that so many people – industry, journalists, moviegoers – think that’s okay. Stories that are heightened and colored by assumptions of who we are. Not informed by knowledge, or study, or research. Strictly informed by privilege. That that’s okay, that it’s celebrated, is wild to me. Unfortunately, most people writing black characters don’t take the time to gain the knowledge to get past spectacle. Now, don’t get my wrong, there are some beautiful, caring, thoughtful portrayals of black people that have been done over the years by folks who aren’t black. But it’s rare. More often, we’re seeing very frivolous, uninformed, privileged views of black women and girls. The idea of spectacle comes when our personhood is being interpreted through lenses of privilege, without a lot of thought or meaning, in my view.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Ava provides background and insight into the first film she wrote and directed I Will Follow.
For Part 1, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Ava and ask any questions you may have.
Ava is repped by Paradigm.