How could Ava DuVernay, a former Hollywood publicist and Sundance-winning director of a movie that cost just $200,000, be the one to break the long trail of futility in mounting a major movie that conveyed how much of a galvanizing presence Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was in the battle for civil rights in America? Coming aboard Selma after the previous star package cratered under Lee Daniels, DuVernay found herself with David Oyelowo’s determination to play MLK, a Paul Webb script and little else. The director (who made uncredited contributions to the script) managed to navigate around formidable obstacles, not the least of which were copyrights on MLK signature speeches held by his estate. After platforming the film for Oscars, Paramount opens it wide this Friday. This interview was done before several confidantes of President Lyndon Johnson complained he has dishonestly been depicted as, at most generous, a benign force in the move to mount the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Paramount would not comment further, beyond Tweets DuVernay herself wrote, including this one: “Notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to [civil rights groups] and black citizens who made it so.” All the Oscar-bait biopics are getting dinged up on accuracy issues right now, and it remains to be seen how much of an obstacle this will prove. Here’s how she overcame all the other obstacles.
DEADLINE: Movies about iconic civil rights activists from Gandhi and Malcolm X came and went long ago. Why did it take so long for Dr. King to get his own film?
DUVERNAY: Part of me says this is when the film wanted to be made because of this cultural moment that we’re in. It means so much I think and really sparks conversation at a time when that is needed. Beyond that, I think most people were having challenges wrapping their mind around how to deal with the estate. That had a lot to do with it. But five decades’ worth of no one figuring that out is a little ridiculous. If anyone really wanted to do it, it would have been done. But for whatever reason it’s happening now and I’m glad it is.
DEADLINE: The one I thought would get there first was Paul Greengrass’ Memphis script, about MLK’s last days and how Hoover’s FBI men who haunted his every step had to track down his murderer before he left the country. Even though Universal kicked it to the curb after Andrew Young complained about the depiction of infidelity, it is a great script.
DUVERNAY: Oh, I absolutely knew Greengrass’s was going to go. But then there was that story that Paul had found this minister to play him, some electric guy who was not an actor, and between that time and when they were going to start pre-production, he died. If that guy had lived, the film would have been made by now.
DEADLINE: There are so many great back stories of adversity in this crop of fact-based films, and Selma is no different. Lee Daniels had Hugh Jackman and this great cast, and the movie craters and he goes off and directs The Butler. What was left when you stepped in?
DUVERNAY: The main thing left standing from the Lee Daniels version was David. And to say still standing is being generous; the film was not moving forward. David was asking the producers, should I be gaining weight? They felt strongly the film should be made by an African-American director and they would wait until one emerged, because at that point they had thought Spike Lee would do it. But they also needed someone who could stay within a certain budget range, which had been a problem not just with Lee but also with Spike and others.
DEADLINE: So how did you get the job?
DUVERNAY: David wrote them a passionate letter about me. We’d just worked with each other in Middle of Nowhere, and it must have come off like some random woman he had worked with on this little indie. And yeah, he pitched me. So by the time they called me, it was vague, they wanted to see if we could possibly work together, something like that.
DEADLINE: How hard did you have to sell yourself to get this gig? Much has been made of this accomplishment because you are an African American woman, but really there would have been great pressure on any filmmaker. This is not some Rom-com. The first major movie about the 20th Century’s civil rights leader has to stand up for the ages.
DUVERNAY: I think my indie background helped so much because previous directors were not keen on the budget. It wasn’t going to be more than $20 million, to do all those marches and speeches and protests, and period, and tons of people. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., done right. I never had to pitch the project, I never had to do anything. They came to me and said do you think you can crack this, at that budget? The hero of this thing is my producing partner, Paul Garnes. He is from Atlanta, he’s done television shows for BET there. He knows those crews, he knows that tax incentive, he knows how to make stuff cheap. He made Middle of Nowhere with me and he back then hit the number. We knew we could only go to $20 million and basically he said, Ava, you have to write to this number. And I had to tailor and recalibrate the film to fit that number. It’s the opposite of how things usually work, where you bring a script and say, how much is this going to cost? I got the call in January, finished that effort around April, and we backed into that number. And with that, they had a black filmmaker who had won Sundance, they had the lead actor they really wanted, and on paper, a script we felt could meet that budget, and a producing partner who knows Atlanta. And then Oprah Winfrey came aboard, a month after I turned in the script, and it was all set about two months after that.
DEADLINE: How much changed from the script that you inherited to the one that you turned in?
DUVERNAY: I’d say about 90 percent. He had a lot of good White House zingers and I kept those. I don’t write white racist very well, and left some of those good zingers in, like, if Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ went into a club, stuff like that. What was so important to me to get right was the arc about King and Coretta, the relationship that they had, their marriage and the turmoil in it at that time. All of the strategy sessions with the Band of Brothers including all of the leaders around him. The poor little girls in the introduction, the third act turnaround. A lot. Just being African-American from East Philly, I knew the period really well. My father is from Brownstown, Alabama, so I knew the place. I took out all the composite characters. They were like three people made into one person, stuff like that. The time was so beautiful and the story was so intense, you didn’t have to make anything up.
DEADLINE: When Paul Greengrass’ script was at Universal, it stalled when MLK confidante Andrew Young complained about the depiction of infidelity…
DUVERNAY: I know he didn’t like Oliver Stone’s script. Maybe he didn’t like either. I never read anybody else’s script.
DEADLINE: I didn’t expect you to deal with that issue, because it hampered other MLK films, but you found a poignant way to do it that didn’t feel exploitative. A short conversation that says everything. My own feeling is, imperfect men can still be great men, and five decades after the fact, whatever imperfections exist don’t define those great men. What went through your mind as you crafted that scene? It was done exquisitely well.
DUVERNAY: Thank you. You know what? I think it’s just a matter of perspective in a way. We know that the rumors of infidelity have to be dealt with. We know that during the time of Selma a tape did arrive at the house. Maybe a male writer would be more interested in the woman, you know, whoever the other women were. For me as a black woman writer, I’m interested in this in the context of the marriage with a black woman. When I think about that issue, I wanted to know how it was at home and how it affected the marriage. I think it’s just one of the beautiful things about really allowing films to be made from different perspectives, where everything is not always seen from a white point of view. Get different voices in there. When I sat down to write this scene, I wondered what was it like when he came home at the moment that the tape arrived? And trying to find who they were as characters and what they might have said, knowing what their relationship was, from all my interviews and research. It wasn’t going to be very wordy; she wasn’t a yeller and she wasn’t a chair thrower. She was a very disciplined sister, and so it was just really trying to get inside of that. It came really quickly to me, it wasn’t a scene I labored over too much. When I put myself in that place and in that living room, it just started to come.
DEADLINE: We’ve discussed the problems with the MLK estate. Another was that Dr. King copyrighted his famous speeches.
DUVERNAY: Right. Our film is unsanctioned, it was made independently. So at no point was the estate consulted for notes, nor did we try to get any intellectual property. That decision was made early on and I was happy that the producers really trusted me in being able to tackle this material without permission. Filmmakers weren’t able to tell the story, the ones who had to answer to the estate for those speeches. If you wanted to tell the story that you wanted to tell, you had to be able to kind of unhinge yourself from that.
DEADLINE: How did you get around that?
DUVERNAY: I rewrote the speeches, so none of the speeches that you hear are his exact words. I went line by line, word by word and literally studied his speech pattern. David and I worked on the voice patterns and the intention of what he was saying. And literally, it was just a line by line substitute. What was the crux of what he wanted to say, how could we say the same thing in a different way? And that was the only way to do it. If you look at a film that hasn’t been made for 50 years and you try to break down why, some allowances have to be made, if you want to tell the story. We had to un-anchor ourselves from the words in order to get at them.
DEADLINE: When I watched the film, it didn’t occur to me you’d veered from the actual spoken words in the Selma speeches 50 years ago. There was power in the words. Purists would know, I guess, but most of us…
DUVERNAY: Wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. This was 1965.
DEADLINE: Many people who’ll see this film weren’t alive then. But for the ones who were there and heard the actual words, how did they respond?
DUVERNAY: Andrew Young and John Lewis, who were both there, they were incredibly kind. They allowed me to call them and ask questions and never asked to see the script. They said, just make it, just make the movie, just tell the story. Do what you have to do to tell the story. So they had no problem with the words being changed. When Andrew Young watched the movie, he said, “You knocked it out of the park. You did it, kid.” He said they’ve been waiting so long for someone to tell the story. There had been so many promises that someone would make a movie. Just the fact that it felt good to them, that meant the world to me. John Lewis, who was there on the bridge as a young man, is still a congressman in Georgia. We showed the film for Congress in DC and he was at a screening and starts to cry and says, ‘Thank you. Those are my friends up there. I remember.’
DEADLINE: You mentioned contemporary relevance to Selma. Your movie lays out the strategy that Dr. King’s marchers used, which involved peaceful protest that worked best when it provoked strong reaction from the opposition. How would those techniques work now, at a time when cameras are everywhere and there is so much anger about recent deaths at the hands of police, and not a lot of restraint?
DUVERNAY: Thanks for asking the question. The tactics that were used then would not work now, per se. I mean, really organized resistance needs to continue, but such a big part of their strategy was creating a platform for racists to act out, and then capture that violence so that the rest of America could see it on television and feel something in their conscience. When you have something like Eric Garner, his death being captured on camera and the whole world sees it and yet there’s still not an indictment, we know that Dr. King’s facts of showing the violence doesn’t work anymore. I guess we’ve been somehow desensitized to it. I’m not sure what has happened, but what he did and what we show in the film is how flexible and creative they were.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
DUVERNAY: When one thing didn’t work, they pivoted to something else. When that didn’t work, they added on something else. When they were marching in Selma and they weren’t getting movement, they did a call to the world and said, “Hey white people, come join us.” When they did that and that didn’t work, they couldn’t get across the bridge, they took it to court. It was always moving, it was always morphing, and I think that’s what really needs to be done now. The base tactics need to mature and they need to morph and they need to grow. I mean, we’re just going to still doing the same thing over and over. And so what I really think is smart people need to come together and try to figure out what’s next, and that’s what King was always about, trying to figure out what’s next.
DEADLINE: There is a moment in the movie I was most curious about. After the first attempt to march in Selma met with violence, and galvanized whites and blacks to feel outrage and join, Dr. King is about to launch the second attempt. He takes a knee and then gets up, turns around and walks back even though it is clear the marchers were going to be allowed to pass through that line of National Guard or state troopers that dished out the beatings the first time. What do you think would have happened had he continued that march at that moment?
DUVERNAY: Well, there was question as to whether they were walking into an ambush, that the people were going to pass through those troopers and be attacked from the sides. They were going to get past the troopers and then it was going to be blocked off. I mean, it was a five-day march to Montgomery and so if it was blocked off with no cameras allowed there, those marchers would have been open prey. There were a lot of questions as to what would have happened. I don’t believe those troopers withdrew with the best interests of those black citizens in mind. I really think it was wise for a lot of reasons, to wait and to withdraw and see what would happen. There are a lot of theories about what happened and why and what would have been, but yeah, he made his choice that day. What always strikes us in the scene is, would everyone else follow that leader, today? Would everyone follow that one person to the middle of the bridge, and if that person turned around, would everyone follow that person back? I think now it’s such a people-led movement, it’s not a leader-led movement. It’s not one person that we’re following, and it’s really interesting to think about who has the power now to command a crowd to turn around and walk back. There’s no one. I mean, I don’t know if you can think of anyone, I can’t. Right now in America, to lead a march and if something happened to make them say, ‘Everyone turn around and silently, quietly go back,’ who could do it? That just really illustrates the fact that there is no one leader any more. And I don’t know if that’s a bad or a good thing, but it’s the truth.
DEADLINE: One curious thing about your film. It’s an inherently American movie, the twists and turns between the Georgia-born MLK, Texas-born President Lyndon Johnson, and Alabama-born segregationist governor George Wallace. All are played by British actors in David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth. Was that not at least a bit surreal?
DUVERNAY: Hey, you forgot one. Carmen Ejogo. Coretta Scott King was also played by a Brit. She’s British. The four main parts are British. Now listen, I don’t have a love affair with Brits.
DEADLINE: How did that happen?
DUVERNAY: I’m from Compton, California. I am not rooting for the Brits, okay? But they were ferocious. They were fantastic. I mean, when I thought of Tim Roth as George Wallace, I said, ‘Well then, that’s just it.’ He was perfect. And there was something that I really needed to get in the physicality of Johnson. There were great actors out there but I needed someone who would tower over David, that physicality between Johnson being so tall and just a mass of a man was really important for me to capture between the two of them. Johnson would lean in, he’d use his body to intimidate. And so Wilkinson was top of that list. And then Carmen Ejogo. She had played Coretta once before about 10 years earlier in another film, and it’s an uncanny resemblance. She’s a fine, fine actor, and so she was always in my mind. So what can I do? They’re all Brits.
DEADLINE: So you film these incredibly tense scenes, you call cut and then what? Do they drop into natural accents and discuss what is happening on the pitch back home?
DUVERNAY: [Laughs] No. They stayed pretty intense all the way through, their focus was insane. They were helped by the actors around them.
DEADLINE: Now what about David Oyelowo, on whose back the whole movie hinges?
DUVERNAY: Ah, David. Classically trained super posh guy, the first black actor to play a king for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Henry VI. He comes down to Atlanta to play Dr. King, and he had to be all in so he could get out of there alive basically. He did the standard stuff like gain weight and change his hairline, but that was nothing compared to what he did to get that speech pattern right. It was not a mimic, and not an impersonation. He gave you a feeling of authenticity. There is a lot of great work he did to get there, I hope people really see it.
DEADLINE: Dr. King’s oratorical skills were unsurpassed. How long did it take for David to find his voice?
DUVERNAY: David had been living with the part for about three years before I came on board, and when I got there we brought on a dialect coach for him, and started breaking down his speech pattern. And the key was we didn’t ever want to mimic; it was all about just getting close but not too close. And there were times where he was getting very close, doing it really spot on, and we actually pulled that back because I think you start to get into an impersonation. David was fantastic in really being able to find the sweet spot. What helped is he stayed in that vocal space, so even when we weren’t shooting he was always speaking as King. And then so we didn’t have to address him as Dr. King or anything, but he was him, constantly, even around his family, at the craft services table, in the trailer, always King. Once he got in that pocket and just became his voice for three months, he was able to kind of ride it from there in a really natural way. His theater background, his classical training really helped. Once we got the voice down, I never worried. Whether it was an intimate moment with Coretta in their kitchen, or on the pulpit, once he had the voice delivery down, that was it. David basically put the movie together. He brings on a director, he pitches the existing producers on the new director, brings in another high-powered producer in Oprah Winfrey. He really is the rainmaker in all this. This a town where it’s so much about waiting for permission and when I think about how he created this role for himself and it all was going to go away, and all the things he did to make sure it didn’t, it’s really remarkable.
DEADLINE: Much has been made of the strides made here by an African American female director. As that person, what obstacle did you overcome that made you proud?
DUVERNAY: For me, it was the jump. My last film was two hundred thousand dollars; this is a 20 million dollar film. Now, in the studio world, that’s nothing, but moving from that very indie world to this was fantastic, because it just really enlarged my imagination. I think there’s something about making a small film that’s beautiful. I never had a desire to make a bigger film and I thought if I could just make a small one a year and be the black Lynn Shelton, I’d be happy. But this has really opened things up to the possibilities of telling more intimate and ambitious stories. So often, independent films are people talking in a room. To get past that and be more imaginative in terms of what we can do as women filmmakers and independent filmmakers. It’s not really based on money, it’s more about allowing our imaginations to move outside these rooms that we put ourselves in when we don’t have money. Just to have been given the tools and the opportunity to sit and write and to really just roam in your mind, and to be able to actually execute here, that was just such a gift as an artist that a lot of people don’t get. This was an amazing, amazing experience. I don’t know what I’ll make next, but I know I’m forever changed by making this.
DEADLINE: You’ve said that after your Sundance success, the phone didn’t ring. How about now?
DUVERNAY: Oh, yeah. Big time. Some of my male counterparts were able to make the jump from indie faster, but I believe everything happens at a time, just as part of me believes there’s a reason why this film wasn’t made for 50 years. Look at this cultural moment that we’re in, all this unrest happening and for this film to drop right now and how it gets the conversation going. It’s the same for me. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen after Sundance, but it’s happening for me now and I am so happy.