As a devoted writer, there are few people for whom I would interrupt my sacred “designated for writing” day, but when I had the opportunity to speak with Ava DuVernay, I pushed my script aside and enthusiastically dialed the phone, praying my recorder wouldn’t miss a word.
Why? Because Ava represents everything I believe in as a woman, as an artist, and as a force of nature. She is a lioness in this world of filmmaking, leading and protecting her pack, doing all that is necessary to succeed, and never making excuses, but instead, taking action.
If I could define my Balls of Steel columns with a single picture, it would be one of Ava DuVernay.
Ava was the first black woman to win Best Director prize for her film Middle of Nowhere at the Sundance Film Festival 2012. Ava’s outstanding creative team efforts also earned them a nomination for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award. This is a woman to watch.
As we artists know, there is no such thing as an overnight success. Ava’s journey with Middle of Nowhere began in 2003. She explains.
“My day job was on the sets of other filmmakers, entrenching me in film. The moment that was the catalyst for ‘Middle of Nowhere’ happened when I was publicist on Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’. It was very much an L.A. story… they shot in a bunch of practical locations around Los Angeles, but not in the glamorous spots – they shot in the black and brown communities. I recall standing on the street saying, ‘I have a story on these streets as well… I am from here… but it’s a completely different kind of story.’ It was also the first time on a film set that I had seen the use of digital cameras. Dion Beebe, the cinematographer, chose to shoot digital, and that wasn’t normal, but he used it with such ease. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a new way to make film.’”
Feeling the potential of her idea, she started writing the script in 2003, writing at night and on weekends, and it took her about a year to complete. Since she was a publicist without representation, she shopped it around herself, but its commercial appeal was not obvious to most.
“This is a story that comes with a lot of craft and heart, about deconstructing stereotypes. You think you know what the life of a black woman who lives in Compton is like, whose husband is in jail, but you don’t know them. You think you know the jailed husband and who he is and the judgments you place on him, but this film shows you the humanity underneath the caricatures. It’s crafted to show the humanity of the soul underneath. I hope people give it a chance.”
Knowing you can’t hang all your hopes on one project, Ava’s Middle of Nowhere script ended up back in the drawer. She moved forward with her first film, a documentary, and with that film’s success, went on to create documentaries for television, including BET, VH-1, and eventually getting into narratives. She wrote a few more scripts and finally took Middle of Nowhere out of the drawer, doing an intense four-week polish before putting it back out there.
Despite Ava’s documentary success, rejection reared its ugly head yet again, but she persevered.
“The script is an interior story of a woman. You’re in her head. You’re with her when she’s alone. You’re facing her challenges with her, which is not exactly the purview of most studio films. Add onto that she’s a black woman, then you add onto that you’re doing something with a black woman but it is not a comedy, and it’s not an historical drama, it didn’t fit into any paradigm that was currently in the industry. For me, as a part of that industry, it was clear, and I place no blame, that is what the industry is. So the question became, if you’re on the outside of that dominant culture, what do you do? Nothing? Complain? My solution was to make my own stuff on the outside.”
Ava embraced pursuing her dream of making Middle of Nowhere as an indie, not out of frustration, but out of joy.
“I found success in the independent space with my documentaries. I found profit. I found freedom. I found happiness, and so when I moved into features, it just made sense not to bang my head against the wall. I did it the way I felt most open and welcome to do it, which was in the independent space.”
The belle of all balls in the indie world is the Sundance Film Festival. Having been at Sundance 2012 myself, supporting my writing partner, Douglas A. Blackmon, whose documentary, Slavery by Another Name, was premiering, I had the honor to watch Ava accept her Best Director prize. In fact, the picture you see here was taken on my cell as I cheered the first African American to win the coveted award. The crowd celebrated along with me.
Ava speaks to the power of the Sundance validation.
“The validation is very internal and means more than anything for someone who didn’t go to film school. My training in film was being on sets since 1999. I’ve been observing filmmakers, traveling with filmmakers, deconstructing films and representing them to the press and to the public. I’ve always been such an ardent lover of film. Some people love politics, sports, or music, but I’ve always loved film. So, to make a film and to finally be accepted into Sundance – I had tried many times before with the documentaries – was extremely validating.”
She explained the win was more than just cosmetic.
“Ultimately, the win gave me renewed confidence to share my voice. I was doing it prior, but it definitely felt like a chemical change in me, because there was doubt in the back. It’s not like this miraculously changed anything, because I had been doing festivals before and receiving nice reviews, but there’s something about Sundance, and that brand, that to win, gave me some internal fuel.”
Middle of Nowhere has received a heightened amount of attention because of Ava’s success. Her script is on key prediction lists to get a nod for an Original Screenplay nomination from The Academy, receiving accolades from L.A. Times, Entertainment Weekly Must List, Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone, and Hollywood Elsewhere. If Ava were to indeed get the nomination, she’d be the first African American woman to receive the honor with a solo writing credit.
I urge our readers to download the screenplay for Middle of Nowhere and read it. Avahas generously offered to share it with ScriptMag. The best way to learn how to write well is to read well-written scripts. Don’t just skim it. Absorb yourself in it. Really crawl into her characters’ skins, as Ava did when she crafted it.
There’s much to learn from filmmakers like Ava. When I asked her what one thing she’d like to share with our readers, she quickly said, “Don’t wait.”
“I find that fear and not wanting to take risks, and staying too comfortable makes people wait. They’ll say, ‘I’ll wait until this happens, I’ll wait until I go to film school, I’ll wait until I have all the money, I’ll wait until they ask me.’ Don’t wait for permission. Seek without permission. There’s nothing to wait for. There’s no one coming. There’s nothing coming to do this for you. You have to do it yourself. The mantra ‘do it yourself’ ultimately says ‘do not wait for anyone or anything.’ You have to get up and do that thing. Especially as women filmmakers, as filmmakers of color, anyone who is outside of the dominant culture, anyone who is not getting handed anything, which is most of us, we cannot wait. You have to figure it out on your own and be confident in that and enjoy the ride. Because it is a ride. Even starting my PR firm and running that business. No one was going to hand that career to me. We have to seek without permission and don’t wait for anything.”
See what I mean about Balls of Steel?
Even a powerhouse like Ava is always seeking knowledge and learning from her experiences and from those of other filmmakers. I asked her to share some of her recent insights about the industry.
“I’ve learned that a film audience, when sitting in a good film, is colorless. When you’re in a good film, be it Japanese film or a German film, I don’t see anything but the story when I’m inside a great story and a great film. Someone like me who lives and breathes and walks this earth as a black woman, what I face every day is based on my skin color and my gender, but when I’m in a film, we’re all in the dark, we’re all inside this story. Our challenge is to make sure people treat our films as equally. There is a film segregation happening to the point that there haven’t been black women screenwriters, black women filmmakers in the conversation we’re in right now, in terms of earning awards. The lack of inclusion is really speaking to the fact that there are politics happening outside the theatre that are affecting our experience inside the theatre. But once you’re inside the theatre, it’s a colorless experience. If we can let go of some of these preconceived notions about what kinds of films certain people will watch, we can give people a more fulfilling, nourishing experience inside the theatre. That’s something I’m really passionate about. My company, AFFRM, that’s something we stand on and are pushing… to make sure black art house films are seen widely.”
Despite the success of Middle of Nowhere, Ava embraces filmmaking in both the narrative and documentary styles.
“They’re both storytelling just with different tools. It’s similar to going skiing or surfing. It’s the same activity, just as enjoyable, but using different instruments. I’m making a documentary right now for ESPN Films on Venus Williams. I shot that this summer, and I’m editing now, while also prepping my next narrative film, which I’ll shoot in February. For me, it’s the same thing – telling a story and drilling down into that.”
There’s a beauty Ava has found in writing narratives after having written documentaries.
“My screenwriting process is very personal, not in that the story is personal, but I take every character and what they do personally. It’s important for me to get inside the story the same way I do a doc, where you have to crawl into the skin of your subjects and make sure that you are painting a full picture. I find them very similar.”
My regular readers know how I love crawling inside people’s heads. After spending 40 minutes with Ava DuVernay, her brain and passion left me humbled and in awe. Before even opening her script for Middle of Nowhere, I knew her words would take me on the ride of my life and open my eyes to an unfamiliar world. I read her script after I hung up the phone. All I can say is, it was an honor to read her words and to experience the life of her characters.
As I asked one last question, I could feel Ava smile through the phone: “What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?’
“The first thing that comes to my mind is “nothing.” I wouldn’t give any advice. Every mistake I made, every bad experience, every good experience, every thing I said, did or wanted to take back, formed me into who I am now. I wouldn’t want to skip the evolution of who I am and what happened. I’m really happy with my 39-yr-old self, and I feel like everything I experienced made up this moment. Even the rough parts, I’m glad I went through. I would tell my younger self to enjoy it. She was a whipper snapper, for sure.”
Follow Ava DuVernay on Twitter, @AVAETC
- Alt Script: How to Pick the Right Independent Producer
- Balls of Steel: The Road to Sundance
- Balls of Steel: Put Up or Shut Up
Tools to Help:
- The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide
- Digital Filmmaking 101: An Essential Guide to Creating Low Budget Movies
- Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide from Concept Through Distribution