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 3 of our interview, Ava provides background and insight into the first film she wrote and directed I Will Follow.
Scott: Let’s talk about I Will Follow, your debut feature‑length narrative film, in 2011. Here’s the movie’s log line, from IMDB: “It chronicles a day in the life of a grieving woman, Maye, and the 12 visitors who help her move forward.” What was the genesis of that story?
Ava: Personal story, as a lot of first films are. Based on my Aunt Denise, who I told you about, and her passing. We lived together in the last couple years of her life and I was her primary caregiver. The film was trying to deconstruct that in some ways. The story took the form of the aftermath of the passing of a loved one and what we do to move on. We had a very limited budget. It was self‑financed from my bank account. I had $50,000 and I had to make it all in for that amount. The first rule of low‑budget filmmaking is, don’t move. I had to think of something that was all in one location. This idea of a post‑grief story fit really nicely into the one location that was so meaningful for me, at the time, which was the house we lived in together. That’s how it started.
Scott: That was exactly the next question I had for you, about the value of shooting a movie in one location, and whether that was more driven by you as producer, knowing you can minimize costs that way, or whether that was driven by you as screenwriter, about how interesting to tell a story in a contained environment. Or maybe it was just a nice marriage of both.
Ava: No, definitely it was all dictated by and driven by low budget, ultra‑low budget, and wanting to tell a story that was set in one location. That was how it started. I knew I wanted to move from documentary filmmaking into making my first narrative feature. I knew I didn’t have enough money to make Middle of Nowhere, which was the script I’d written first. I knew I could do a one‑location film for about 50 and a skeleton crew. I started asking friends for one‑location ideas. I got, “Do a black 12 Angry Men. Do a black Breakfast Club. Do a black…” Every one-location film that’s ever been done, but black, was what was suggested to me. (laughs) I was this close to thinking of a black Breakfast Club script, when my mother said, “Always do something that means something to you. Don’t make a film just to make a film.”
I had to think, “What do I want to say?” I was getting through the loss of my loved one. It was right there. I was like, “Wow, it was that house.” That’s when I had actually been in one location, felt immobile and felt all the things I wanted to share about that time in my life. Getting to that point came from the question, “How do I make a one‑location movie and that was all predicated on budget.”
Scott: That’s such a great object lesson. Here you are kicking around all of these different possibilities, but that advice your Mom gave, make it’s something you really care about, something with emotional resonance. That’s hugely important.
Ava: Yeah. Massive advice. Could have easily just got caught up in the, “I’m going to make a movie!” I think that happens. I see that happening to colleagues. Doing something that you don’t really even care about, just to be making something. Or just to be making money, or whatever. I find things are best when I listen to Mom. I do better when I listen to her. (laughs)
Scott: The central conceit of the story I Will Follow is Maye dealing with the death of her aunt, Amanda, who Maye had been taking care of during her last days. As I was reading the script, I was reminded how, several years back when I was writing a story about someone facing their own death, I emailed a friend who’s a poet. I said, “Could you give me a poem dealing with the subject of death for inspiration?” He emailed me back and simply wrote, “Scott, all poems are about death.”
I’m just curious, when you think about it, whether metaphorical or literal, stories do tend to have some sort of connection with the death of dreams or actual, physical death. I was curious what your experience was and what you discovered about that subject matter, mortality, grief, regret, when you were making I Will Follow?
Ava: The screenplay process for that film was definitely re‑living of it. What I learned from that is there is another season, beyond the moment of despair. In taking myself back to those dark days, shortly after her death and then being on the set of a film about those days, I knew that I was a different person from the time when the actual events occurred. I had been changed by it, I was in a different season. That was a lesson that’s helped me, in the years after. When it’s dark, it’s just a season. When it’s sunny, it’s just a season. And the knowledge that another one will come is, I’ve found, very important. This is a fabulous season for me, right now. As we went through Gotham Awards and Spirit Awards and Oscar buzz and all that stuff, just the recognition that that, too, is a season, makes everything sweeter and more meaningful. That was the big lesson of I Will Follow and I’m really glad I had it.
Scott: One of the smartest decisions I thought you made in I Will Follow is you created that ticking clock, where the landlord says, “You’ve got to be out of that house by 9AM the next day.” So throughout this story, you’ve got this constant time pressure. Do you remember how you hit on that idea?
Ava: I don’t remember, actually. A ticking clock is a good thing, narratively. [laughs] I picked that up somewhere. I remember, in writing that film, I was really nervous about it getting boring in the one place. I know that I was looking for narrative techniques to keep it fresh. One of the things was to put a ticking clock. Another thing was to have variation of character. She’s in the same place, but you’re always getting fresh faces and voices coming in and out. I do remember deliberately trying to figure out the tools to keep a one location situation feeling fresh. That was just probably something I stumbled upon. I don’t remember exactly. But it’s such a part of the narrative. That’s the story. “You’ve got to move.” The end of the story will be, “You’re done with this move.” There’s no action happening. The action is the move. The dark night of the soul, or whatever, is when you can’t find the dolly to move. (laughs) I don’t know what it was. I just remember the move was the plot, in a lot of ways. That was the spine of what we were driving towards. Once I figured that part out, the nuances of the characters and their relationships to each other…I felt more free to let that be what it was as opposed to trying to get action out of the relationship.
Scott: It’s interesting. Maye has got to go through all these physical objects that have emotional or symbolic meaning, because they remind her of Amanda. The story is like a testament to the power of talismans, these objects that have meaning. In a sense, by clearing them all away and cleaning out the house, she’s symbolically closing one chapter of her life and moving on.
Ava: Absolutely. I just moved into a new place a few months ago. Definitely a move is always a big change of season, but certainly when you’re packing up a life, which is something that a lot of people haven’t experienced. It’s tough. You’re looking at these things that are left behind. That’s all you have left, these things. I still, in this new place, was just yesterday looking at a box of her stuff that I can’t get rid of. Where do I put that? I can’t give that away. I’ll never use it, but it’s her stuff. That just goes into my garage again. [laughs] Three garages later. All of that’s in that screenplay. It was a real big form of therapy for me, I think.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Ava delves into her movie Middle of Nowhere.
For Part 1, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Ava and ask any questions you may have.
Ava is repped by Paradigm.