After 15 years as a movie publicist, writer-director Ava DuVernay has found that some old habits die hard.
“When I’m walking the red carpet, I’m looking at the carpet,” DuVernay says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s 28 pile.’ I’m the only person who knows the vendor that it came from, wondering if they got a good deal.”
The filmmaker might get at least one more red carpet to stare down this awards season. Since winning the coveted director’s prize at Sundance earlier this year — the first time an African American woman has ever done so — “Middle of Nowhere,” her second feature film, has garnered a steady buzz.
The film centers on a Los Angeles woman who has to recalibrate her entire life plan when her husband is sent to prison. It’s the kind of small, thoughtful drama that’s gone AWOL from much of the contemporary film landscape and has generated discussion of an Academy Award nomination for original screenplay. No African American woman has been nominated in that category since Suzanne De Passe shared the honor in 1972 for “Lady Sings the Blues.” Still, DuVernay is eyeing a larger prize.
“I’m ready to go to the next thing,” she said at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons bar over an iced tea. “I wonder: Can it continue? Can I have the same kind of momentum as my male counterparts have who have won Sundance before me? There’s really not much precedence for longevity and consistency with women filmmakers. I want to make 20 films in 20 years, like Spike Lee. I want to make two films a year, like [Steven] Soderbergh.”
She had a lot on her mind as the conversation touched on race, gender, writing extra scripts and more.
You talk a lot about finding the audiences for your work.
Because I’ve been told there is no audience for our films. If the stories I’m telling are firmly rooted in characters that are not part of the dominant culture, it’s a question as to can I create an audience, and can I create interest, and can I create a sense of value around the stories of the people I’m interested in. It’s been done before, but in terms of by a black woman with a certain aesthetic, there’s not a lot of precedence for it. The Sundance award meant a lot; the reviews meant a lot. They meant more than they should, because for me it signaled the possibility of, OK, maybe I can tell the stories I want to tell, and maybe I will be allowed to do them. When I say “allowed,” I mean I work in the independent space, and so I make movies for a very small amount of money. That movie was made for $200,000. But it’s not a film until someone watches it. The success of the last thing allows me to proceed.
The reality is we opened No. 1 one in the specialty box office the weekend that [“Nowhere”] opened, Oct. 12. We had the highest per screen average, over Argo. So I’ve proven to myself that it is viable, and it really is just a matter of expanding it.
You’ve been a film lover since childhood. What films made an impression on you early on?
My first film memory was “West Side Story.” That was the first time I can recall seeing brown people. I grew up in Compton at the time you were starting to see an influx of Latino residents. It really opened up another world. Then also my mother loved the films you were getting in the late ‘70s, some contemporary dramas with black Americans, like “Claudine,” “Lady Sings the Blues.” We don’t see that anymore; we don’t see contemporary views of black American lives that are dramas — it’s so often comedy [now], or if it’s a drama, it’s an historical drama; we’re being considered in hindsight.
It was a great time and I don’t know how we’ve gotten so far from it. It seems like starting over when we’re talking about films where women were central to plots and not accessories, when black folk are allowed to be human and not caricature, not spectacle. It’s not like it never happened, you know what I mean?
It would be interesting to try to track and see what the popular rhythms were, what were the films that made it go off course. But I think it certainly has, and I think what you’re seeing now are people who are taking the idea of bringing that stuff back seriously, myself included.
A lot of the attention on your film has focused on the richness of its characters. What is your writing process?
Very image-based and very intimate, in that I write a full script for each character. So I have seven versions of this script, one from each of the major characters. I think my favorite is from the little boy’s point of view. That just helps me to find nuances that I can take onto set. It’s a great directorial tool for me, and then the final script becomes a beautiful blend of all those perspectives, even if told through one character.
You have a story that’s simple and straightforward and grounded in reality, but presented in an artful, at times dreamy, style. Where did your vision for the film come from?
The idea was to get inside her head. I really wanted to bring you into her interior life. I think so often with films about women, even if it’s character-based, it’s being driven by relationships to other characters, and I really wanted to bring you into this woman in relationship to herself, which is certainly a work in progress.
She doesn’t even realize that it’s happening at the beginning. The quiet moments, the unquiet moments when you’re warring with yourself, you’re doubting yourself, all of that. The challenge was to figure out how to bring you into her head without it being gimmicky and so on the nose. I knew that that was something I hadn’t seen in a film with a black woman as a protagonist. That was a challenge.
“Middle of Nowhere” feels like a very L.A. film, but the way it’s filmed, it’s entirely possible that someone who doesn’t live here wouldn’t realize how much of an L.A. film it is. How important is a sense of place for you in building your characters?
I really wanted it to feel like an L.A. film for people who are from here. But the idea of a place as character was something I resisted in this story, specifically because so often in black film, when place is character it starts to define the characters. These characters live in Compton, in South-Central Los Angeles, and yet they are undefined by their environment. So if I brought in “the hood” too much, I knew very specifically, because I’ve see it in so many films, as soon as you bring that in, it starts to change what you think about the character.
When you hear talk of your script going down in Oscar history, how does that feel?
Crazy. I mean, it’s bittersweet. It was bittersweet to win [Sundance]. Certainly I wasn’t the first black woman to be deserving of that — Julie Dash, Leslie Harris, Tanya Hamilton, Neema Barnette, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Dee Rees, Victoria Mahoney, Tina Mabry. I accept it with pride; it changed a lot for me, but I know there were black women before me who were certainly deserving. Same with this [Oscar talk]. I didn’t really grasp the reality of what was happening around the screenplay buzz until I saw Suzanne De Passe and her shared writing credit and in parentheses “1972.” There hasn’t been another [black] woman in serious contention in 40 years? I can’t not question, ‘Hey, anybody wonder what’s going on and why that’s the case?’”