EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article originally ran in February of 2015. We’re re-posting it here with minor edits to the original text in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Special thanks to original author Pamela Miller. The 2020 Directors Close-Up continues this week.
If you’ve ever seen, heard or read interviews with Ava DuVernay about her work, it just may have occurred to you that it probably would be incredibly cool to hang out with her and her friends/collaborators and hear them share funny, sweet—sometimes embarrassing—stories about each other, their collaboration, their friendship and their work.
On the first Directors Close-Up of 2015, DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, editor Spencer Averick and moderator Robin Swicord did just that, reminiscing over their relationships and how their career paths intersected and led them all to be in the remarkable position of helping DuVernay succeed wildly at being “the one person who gets to make a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King,” as writer/director Swicord, a longtime friend and mentor of DuVernay’s, put it.
We all know how the story ends: Selma, directed masterfully by DuVernay, starring a captivating Oyelowo as one of the most pivotal figures in American history, is one of the most powerful and provocative films of 2014, nominated for five Film Independent Spirit Awards—Best Feature, Best Director, Best Male Lead, Best Supporting Female and Best Cinematography—and two Oscars: Best Picture and Best Original Song.
Here are a few of the most fascinating and fun stories from the night—and the lessons about filmmaking embedded in each one. Keep reading, and watch the entire panel below:
MLK AS A “BADASS”
A photo of Dr. King hung on DuVernay’s great-grandmother’s wall, alongside a portrait of Jesus. “So I assumed he had some importance. Early on, as a young African-American girl, he’s just ambient,” she said. Later, while DuVernay was a student of African-American studies at UCLA, she said, “He came to life in a way that he very rarely does if you only are being educated to the top line points of his life, which are that he had a dream, believed in peace and died. Which is what most people know.”
Studying the movement, she said, made it clear that he was “a radical mind thinker, radical tactician and strategist, a revolutionary who’s been homogenized into this four-word catch phrase.” DuVernay had grown up with more of a Panther ideology—“in Compton/South Central, Panthers were more prevalent in terms of their ideology and their swagger, being a little more badass.” By studying the Civil Rights Movement, she came to fully appreciate the way the depictions of King’s ideas and strategy have been watered down. “What Selma does is to really reinvigorate, that King’s ideas and attitudes and actions to what they rightly were, which is phenomenal and strong—and badass.”
Lesson: Seeds of ideas get planted throughout your life. Also, your great-grandma most likely knows something you don’t.
“I remember the first time I met him,” DuVernay said of her editor. “We were at Doughboys [fast food restaurant] and he walks in and we couldn’t be more different.” She said she was convinced that this good-looking guy was an actor dabbling in editing on the side to get by.
He wasn’t. They clicked. Averick said he followed a “little voice in his head” and quit the job he had at the time to work for “no money” on DuVernay’s first feature, the hip-hop doc This Is the Life. They’ve been collaborators ever since. “He makes me laugh. He makes me comfortable. He lets me dream, then he cuts it down… It’s just a beautiful relationship. It was such a joy to find someone so early in both of our careers that we felt so connected to. He is my primary collaborator, the first fellow artist who I connected with and we became a team and we edited every single thing I did together.”
Lesson: DuVernay stressed that with early collaborations, it’s essential to find kindred spirits. When you’re looking for crew, she said, “Come to someone with your whole heart and be real and be invested. So many people out there are trying to work. They’re trying to build something. They want to create. We just recognized it early in each other and valued that in each other. Find your tribe. And they all don’t have to be famous or experienced. They have to be a heart-to-heart connection. Trust your own feeling with it and grow your own tribe around your work.”
WHEN DAVID MET AVA
Oyelowo was on a flight to Vancouver one day, and the guy sitting next to him was watching MI5, a British show that had the actor in its cast. “He turned and looked at me and said, ‘Is this you?'” It was. Once he learned Oyelowo was an actor, the seatmate asked his advice: “‘A friend of mine wants me to put $50,000 in a movie. Is that a good idea?’ The project turned out to be Ava’s feature Middle of Nowhere, and the conversation that followed led to David reading the script himself. The timing was auspicious; Just two weeks before David had seen DuVernay in a television interview on CNN talking about her previous feature. “I was really blown away by the bravery and the flat-footed nature of what [she was] saying and it stuck in my head.” The script, he said, “is one of the only scripts [where] I’d audibly go, ‘Ah. Ooh.’ Just what was going on emotionally… ”
Oyelowo said he had first come to Hollywood with the hopes of being in the kind of films that had inspired him—the early work of Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, and Mo’ Better Blues—but he wasn’t seeing scripts that invigorated him in that way. “Any time I had read films with black people in them, they were stereotypes. They were caricatures. I didn’t recognize them in my daily life as a black person.” Until Middle of Nowhere.
David said he immediately called DuVernay when he got off the plane (her number was on the cover of the script.) “I said ‘I just have to be in this film.” David had actually been on the filmmaker’s list, but she said she hadn’t called because she didn’t think he would do such a small, black film for no money. DuVernay said she warned him that the money was low and his reps might resist. “He said, ‘No, no. They work for me. I don’t work for them.'”
Lesson: Don’t snub your seatmate on a plane, life-changing opportunities can pop up where you least expect them. “He saw a part that he wanted and he went after it. So often in this industry, we wait for permission. We wait for someone to tell us it’s okay or go do that,” said DuVernay. “I try to work not in that way, and that’s why we’re kindred spirits.”
Oyelowo said he had first read the Selma script in 2007, when Stephen Frears was on board to direct. “There was something about the man that really just lodged in my spirit, took ahold of me and wouldn’t let go. I just knew I was going to play him before I left this planet.”
Frears didn’t cast David, and the director ultimately left the project. Paul Haggis and Spike Lee also came and went, followed by Lee Daniels in 2010, who ultimately did give the King role to David, after a “rigorous auditioning process,” he said. But the project collapsed just before shooting, after David had already packed on 15 pounds for the role. “At least if you’re going to get that blubbery,” he said, smiling, “do the thing.”
David wouldn’t let the role go, so he called the studio and cajoled them into bringing in Ava. “I had done Middle of Nowhere with this incredible force of nature, and knew that this was the way to go,” he said.
Lesson: Be an advocate for yourself and the talented people you want around you.
FEELING DOOFUS-Y IN COMPTON
DuVernay cast Oyelowo to play the role of a bus driver from Compton in Middle of Nowhere. To help him get a feel for the neighborhood he grew up in, she asked reluctant friends—“four of my homeboys”—to spend some time with him in Compton. They weren’t thrilled. “‘Talk to an actor? Do I have to?'” she laughed, quoting them.
Oyelowo’s posh British accent and nervous energy didn’t help him fit in with the guys. “This accent opens a lot of doors, I’ve got to tell you,” he said, laughing. “But that wasn’t one of them.”
Lesson: For DuVernay, the director should be a partner in the performance. “What do they need? What can I provide you with that might help.” She encouraged talking with the actor about what their needs are. For some, it’s books. Some people respond to music. Some people want more of an experiential thing. The most important thing, she said, is to respect each actor’s process, being open to how you can help: “trying to work within what the actor needs, not trying to impose what you want.”