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 6, Ava talks about the craft of storytelling:
Scott: I wanted to ask you some questions about screenwriting and storytelling, if you don’t mind. How do you come up with story ideas?
Ava: Gosh, lots of ideas always brewing. Observation mostly. I’m not a big ripped from the headlines, based on a book kind of gal. It’s really just based on people that I meet, that I’ve known, things that I see. Specifically that I see in communities of color, that I haven’t seen on screen before. This next film is really dealing with the black and brown communities that live together in a lot of the inner cities around the country. There’s a black and a brown…African‑American and Latino main characters, and it deals with the relationship between two families that live in the same area, but from different cultures. That just came from observation, from growing up in Lynwood and Compton, growing up with a lot of Latino comrades, a lot of Filipino, a lot of black, and never really seeing that melding of cultures in a film. It’s usually a Latino film, or a black film, or a mainstream film, or there’s a token from one or the other. As opposed to a real integration of the way that people really live in major cities, which is together, mostly. That creates its own relationships and problems and positives.
Scott: How much time do you spend in prep writing, and what do you seem to focus on?
Ava: I do a lot of outlining, in terms of, I like to know the end before I start writing. The prep work is basically the outlining and then the first pass, then drilling down into character more, with my mini scripts, and then just coming back with what I’ve learned from that process, back into the main draft, and just continuing to tighten and tighten until you get there. It’s weird talking to screenwriters about this process because everyone’s got their different way now. They’re different, what’s OK and what’s not OK. There are different rules or superstitions about it. It’s a weird thing. I’m sure you’ve heard lots of craziness in talking to folks about being a writer.
Scott: Here’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Steve Zaillian, one of the most successful screenwriters and producers around, said something once about how his writing process is a complete mystery to him, how he does what he does. So whenever he’s in a bookstore, and he happens down an aisle, and sees all those screenwriting guru and how to screenplay books, he immediately turns away because he doesn’t even want to look at their titles, almost like a superstition. I thought that was pretty funny.
Ava: Yeah, me, too.
Scott: You talked about developing your characters and dividing it up into these mini scripts. Are there any other tips or techniques, like monologues, biographies, or anything like that you use to develop your characters?
Ava: No, not so much, I think my main things are those small scripts and allowing your mind to roam with the characters into directions that bring you back to your main action. Beyond that, music and creating some kind of soundscape around a film overall, that really helps me in writing.
Scott: Finally, looking at your own life, you didn’t go to film school, and you have this job in public relations, you took this leap of faith and plunged into film writing and directing, and directing documentaries, then this other leap of faith in co‑founding a firm. Is there a lesson there for aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers, like, don’t wait, do it, take the plunge?
Ava: Yeah. I think so. I think my main lesson is for folks, especially folks that are working in a different field, or have a day job. For so long I felt like, “I’m never going to be able to be a screenwriter, because I have this other job, or I have this other thing that I’m doing to make a living.” Really, my lesson was — and it’s helped me in a lot of other ways — that to do something, to be something, you don’t have to be all in right away. Writing at night, writing on the weekends, dipping your toe into something is okay! You go on a hike and you explore, doesn’t mean you have to build a house there. You’re just going and walking around. Do that with your dreams. I think that for me if there’s any lesson, especially for folks that are looking to maybe switch from one career to another, or to dip their toe in directing, writing or film making, is that it’s not all or nothing. That you can explore, that you can figure out if it works for you, that you can take risks that are not as risky. You don’t need to walk away from your life in order to follow your dream right away. That was something that was a big, big lesson. For so long, I felt really trapped in publicity, or “This is my job,” or “I can’t risk not having my health insurance,” or “How am I going to live”? My mind immediately went to an all or nothing scenario to pursue a dream. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. You can dream a bit at a time.
For Part 1, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.
For Part 5, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Ava and ask any questions you may have.
Ava is repped by Paradigm.