Four years ago, Ava DuVernay quit a lucrative publicity career to pursue film directing full time, and in this brief span she’s covered a lot of territory. Her second feature, 2012’s L.A.-set relationship drama Middle of Nowhere, earned her a best director prize at Sundance (a first for an African-American woman) and an Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award. Nowhere also opened the door to her third film, Paramount’s Selma, which follows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The Christmas release has a who’s-who of talent, including producer-actor Oprah Winfrey and Britain-born David Oyelowo playing MLK. DuVernay recently spoke about how her Nowhere star Oyelowo led her to the project and the challenge of delivering a truthful portrayal of a cultural icon.
Is it true that Oyelowo pitched you for the Selma job?
David got me the job. I can say he almost got me the job before I even knew I had the job because he had been doing all this work behind the scenes, giving the producers Middle of Nowhere that we had done together. He had been advocating for me to be considered, and I got the call and there was no pitching, there was no pain. It was really, “Hey, do you want to take a shot at it?” So, my producing partner, Paul Garnes, and I looked at the project and presented an idea as to how we would do it. Then we were off and running.
What kind of changes did you make to Paul Webb’s script?
We did work together and separately. When I did my work on the script, I brought in a new third act, a number of new characters and just really recalibrated the focus. The previous focus was very much the White House world, but as the daughter of a man from Montgomery, I was interested in the people on the ground. It was really about that grassroots strategy, why people felt compelled to put their lives on the line for this cause. It was important to me that the script viewed that energy of the people, so that was my focus.
Did taking on such a well-documented figure present challenges for you?
Absolutely. Beyond just the responsibility of wanting to be very disciplined in my approach to the material, to honor the people whose lives are depicted, I had to strip away any jitters that would’ve come from making the first studio film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I put that out of my mind and focused on making a film about this place that I knew. My father’s from there. When I stripped away the King of it all, I was really making a film about extraordinary people in a place that I knew. I majored in African-American studies at UCLA, (so) I felt like I really knew the history. It allowed me a different entry point where I wasn’t catching up. From there, I was able to go deeper more quickly.
It had to be difficult to create a complex, flawed character in Dr. King, given his prominence.
You don’t want to make him a saint or overcorrect with trying to make him an antihero. If you really dig into anyone’s life and you talk to anyone for more than five minutes, you find that they’re more than they were on the surface. Some of it’s good and some of it’s not good, which is also breaking down the myth of him. The myth around him is that all of his views on nonviolence were instigated by his faith because he was a preacher and we should be nonviolent because it’s the right thing to do, which was only part of it. (Nonviolence) was strategic. You don’t have weapons; you don’t have anything to fight with. You sit down and you don’t move and you don’t fight back because the optics of that are much more powerful. We even see it in Ferguson, Missouri—the days that (protesters) have their hands up and they’re being faced with a police presence, you feel much different about it than the days when they’re throwing rocks.
This film has a sweeping scope compared with Middle of Nowhere—a big cast, lots of extras. Did it feel like a big leap?
Once you get inside a scene, it’s about people, and it’s similar to any other scene that you’re putting up. I didn’t really have a challenge working with extras and I identified why: It’s because I coordinated so many events as a publicist, where you’re dealing with hundreds of people. So it just felt like event planning. But the horses and the green screen and some of those technical aspects were all just fun to learn on the job.
You have to be used to working efficiently coming from indies.
I shoot fast, and I’m used to not having all the bells and whistles. Also, we made Selma independently: Pathé was the financier; Paramount was the distributor. So it wasn’t in a long development. It felt independent. All of those things are just wonderful twists of fate that allowed me to get into a bigger film without freaking out. I don’t know how well I’d do in a long development process with a lot of notes. Paramount, for all of the fears that I had about working with the studios, has been lovely.
Photograph of Ava DuVernay by J.R. Mankoff