Writer-director Ava DuVernay stands outside a well-maintained Spanish mission-style duplex in South-Central Los Angeles, home to the heroine of her story, a hardworking nurse who works the night shift and struggles to maintain a relationship with a husband serving a prison sentence.
“When people think South-Central or Compton, it’s all ‘Boyz n the Hood,’’’ said DuVernay, referring to the 1991 saga directed by John Singleton. “It’s never a house like this. It becomes an assumption that people who live in these communities don’t care about their home, don’t work as hard for them and don’t own their homes. That’s one of the reasons why I chose this area. It reminded me of the house I grew up in.”
DuVernay and her small crew spent a week last summer filming in the quiet, well-kept neighborhood on East 91st Street for her film, “Middle of Nowhere.” The critically acclaimed movie won DuVernay the best director award in the U.S. drama category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival -- the first for an African American woman.
“Middle of Nowhere,” an independently produced film set for a theatrical release in October, will receive a prestigious gala screening this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.
Shot over 19 days last June, DuVernay’s drama takes place entirely in communities of Los Angeles that aren’t usually frequented by Hollywood filmmakers. The crew filmed in Compton, Inglewood, at a federal correction facility in Victorville, Leimert Park and East Los Angeles, as well as various areas of South-Central.
“It was definitely a new experience for some of the communities we were shooting in,’’ said DuVernay, who spoke about the movie during a panel last weekend at the AFCI Locations Show in Los Angeles. “I could take a camera crew anywhere in the Mid-Wilshire district and everyone is pretty (film) savvy. You come home and you see a notice on your door and you know what’s going on. Here, it’s like, ‘There’s a notice on my door. What’s that for?’ So there was a bit of a learning curve.”
But DuVernay, 39, said she had no doubt about where to film the movie, an atypical love story starring newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi, Omari Hardwick (“For Colored Girls” and “The Guardian”) and David Oyelowo (“The Help” and “The Last King of Scotland”).
“So often we see films that are about us that are not authentic to where we live and who we are,’’ said DuVernay, who now lives in Sherman Oaks. At the same time, she said, the goal was to make subtle use of the locations so they wouldn’t detract from the story. “I was interested in setting this production in the community without waving my hand and saying, ‘Hey we’re in the hood.’”
A graduate of UCLA, DuVernay learned the business by working as a film marketer and entertainment industry publicist, promoting such movies as “The Help” and “Collateral.”
Inspired by working with prominent filmmakers Michael Mann, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, DuVernay made her directorial debut in 2008 with the hip hop documentary “This is the Life.” “Middle of Nowhere” is her second feature film, following the 2011 indie movie “I Will Follow.”
DuVernay began writing the script a decade ago, drawing from her own experiences growing up in Compton and Inglewood. “The idea of looking at the victims of incarceration – the mothers, sisters and daughters -- really came out of knowing women who were going through it,’’ she said. “Unfortunately, in black and brown communities, it’s always present.”
“Middle of Nowhere,” which carries a budget of less than half a million dollars, was financed by private equity investors. DuVernay is distributing the movie through her company AFFRM with Beverly Hills-based Participant Media, which co-financed “The Help.”
One of the biggest logistical challenges during filming was working around the overhead noise. The neighborhood on East 91st Street is in the flight path of planes landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
“When the city planners were putting together their plans (for LAX), they made sure that the flight path went over South Central and not Beverly Hills,’’ DuVernay said. “We had a flight schedule so we knew when the planes were coming.”