Considering that she just put the finishing touches on the year’s best film, is busy preparing for its Christmas Day release, and is gearing up for an Oscar campaign, I’m a little stunned Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, has time to eat or sleep, much less put aside 20 minutes to talk about movies and geek out about TV. But the brilliant filmmaker — who started in the film business as a publicist before breaking out as a director with the marvelous 2012 indie Middle of Nowhere — carved out some time for this lively discussion of Selma, Ferguson, Dr. King, diversity in Hollywood, the holiday season’s other hot-topic political movie, and why she’s doing TV next.
Flavorwire: First of all, the movie is just tremendous, congratulations. One of the things that’s so striking about it is that it’s both history and current events, it’s this story from 1965, but it’s full of echoes of 2014 — yet you don’t overstate those parallels, or draw attention to them explicitly. How did you arrive at that particular strategy for situating the film, especially with Ferguson and the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act happening as you were shooting and editing it?
Ava DuVernay: You know, race issues and police aggression is this ambiance in my life, and where I grew up. It wasn’t anything that had to specifically be pointed out, because it’s just a part of the tapestry of the narrative in my mind. At the time that I was making it, these particular national incidents that have captured everyone’s attention had not occurred. We wrapped in July and Mike Brown was murdered in August. Ferguson happened after that, Eric Garner after that. Tamir Rice, all that. And these are just three names in a long list of broken black bodies. These things have grabbed peoples’ attention, but it’s certainly been happening since Jimmie Lee Jackson and before that.
So, it was just there. It’s just part of my perspective as a black filmmaker, that that was inherent in the narrative that I was telling, regardless of what was happening right now in the country. And it’s interesting how it’s all aligned, and some of these issues have been amplified because of national attention on these specific cases, but it’s always there.
The turnaround between the end of production and release was, from my understanding, much shorter than the norm. Did you make that decision because the film and its themes felt so relevant right now?
No, while I was shooting Paramount was looking at the dailies, and had given us the Christmas date. We got the Christmas date in mid-June, about three weeks into shooting. Which is a big deal! Christmas, for anything, is a big deal. But, certainly for a woman filmmaker of color, it was gonna be a breakneck thing anyway. I mean, I walked away from Atlanta with the film in my hand on July 4, and we were already screening the film on November 11. So that’s not even six months. It’s barely four months to finish, fully construct, find the narrative, create nuance, shape and craft these scenes, get color on it, sound on it, music on it, you know what I mean? Visual effects. It was a race to the finish line, but I’m glad we made it. I feel like, if I had been more leisurely — not leisurely, because it really was a ridiculous amount of time — but if I had taken the full time —
There’s an urgency!
Yeah, yeah. There is an urgency. And I definitely feel like there was an urgency applied to the filmmaking, but it was purely to make a date. Now that urgency’s taken on new poignancy. I feel like, we were trying to make a date — we were trying to make it in time for something we weren’t even aware of at the time. It’s been a lovely alignment of that.
Let’s back up a little. Middle of Nowhere comes out in 2012, it’s a wonderful film, highly acclaimed, but still quite a transition from that independent film to this major historical drama — which is a studio release, you’ve got Oprah involved, etc. So walk me through how you and Selma found each other.
All through David Oyelowo. I worked with him in Middle of Nowhere, we had a beautiful relationship there, a great time working together. He found himself as an actor without a film. He had been cast by Lee Daniels in Selma, and then Lee went to do The Butler, and [David] did that with him, and he wanted to play [Martin Luther] King. And so he did something that actors rarely do: he took it into his own hands and started to corral this group of international producers — Pathé in France, Cloud Eight in the UK, Plan B in the United States — and started to rally them around this black woman independent filmmaker that he had met a couple months before. It’s bizarre! And not only did he attempt to do it, but he did it. He wrote letters, he talked to everyone, he convinced, he had a second call, third call, he showed them the film, he followed up: “Did you watch the film? You need to watch the film.”
He did that for like a month, and I didn’t know he was doing all of that until he was very late in the process, when he said, “Oh, by the way, I’m suggesting you for this, is it something you would be interested in?” So, yeah, it is very different on the surface from Middle, but in my head and heart, it’s very similar in that it’s about the lives of black people. And that I know pretty well.
David’s performance here is remarkable — and it is a performance, not just an impression, which is the approach that a lot of actors take when they play historical figures. How did the two of you develop his characterization of Dr. King?
I think one of the reasons why he was able to tap into performance, and not mimicry or impersonation, is that he had, prior to that, a very limited knowledge of King. He’s from the UK, he didn’t grow up with that iconography of what King is, and who he should be. He came in with a very objective approach to deconstructing King and who he was, from the cadence of his voice and the historical context with which we revere him or loathe him, here. And so he had none of that. He just knew he had a dream, and that was about it.
He had a lot of room to find the man without having to stumble over the icon.
This is the first major theatrical film to focus on Dr. King, which I understand is partially because his family is so hesitant to let filmmakers take on his story. What was your experience like working with them?
Well, I had been hired by Pathé, remarkably, as the publicist on this film, handling crisis communications for it, years before, when Lee Daniels was on board. They had reached out to me, and they wanted someone, and it was my prior business. They had wanted someone to handle communications with the estate, with the family, and the press. So, I have a contract, with me and my publicity firm signed on for Selma.
And even at that time, I had a very specific approach. I was looking at the script, and I was thinking, I don’t understand why you need the family’s approval to tell your story, as storytellers. Because they weren’t using a lot of intellectual property. So, when I came on board and took over the project, that was my first question: “Do you need approval to tell your story, as a storyteller? Why can’t I just tell the story from my point of view?” It’s not fully about King, it’s about the movement, it’s about Selma. And that’s not the rights or domain of one person or one estate.
So that was the approach that we took. We were respectful in pursuing our own version of the story. We told them that we were doing it, and I was happy to share the script with them, so that they were aware. But there wasn’t a seeking of approval. It was more out of respect. And then we went and told it. Beautifully. They’d seen it and embraced it. It was with Bernice King, his daughter, and Martin Luther King III. They saw it several times over the past couple of weeks. He came to the premiere and was on the red carpet, and she came and gave the blessing over Oprah’s gospel brunch to celebrate the film at her home a couple of weeks ago. They were all a part of it.
I think a lot of the fear that other filmmakers have had has been them, and I just didn’t have any fear around telling the story. Telling the truth.