She greets me on the phone with a cool “Hey sis.” Her voice is a calm pool of ease not offering even a hint of the tsunami brewing below. That tsunami being the demand for the director everyone wants to talk to, work with, read with, act with and interview. She’s informed me that she has a conference call directly following and then a major writing session, and then another meeting. Since becoming the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance Film Festival for her second feature, Middle of Nowhere in 2012, Ava DuVernay has been on everyone’s speed dial.
Just in this past year, post her personal revolution, she has produced and directed Venus Vs, an ESPN documentary that detailed Venus Williams’s fight for equal prize money for women tennis champions; The Door, a short film for fashion house Miu Miu and tonight marks her directorial debut with the ABC hit drama, Scandal. Even before her (sure to be juicy) episode airs, the founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) is already on to the next as she rewrites and puts on her directorial hat for Selma—a feature film that focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King’s bus boycott campaign in 1965.
It’s 9:15 am and just before the frenzied waves of her crazy schedule come hard, she took a little time to talk with EBONY.com about handling it with Kerry Washington, Joe Morton, Scott Foley and the other gladiators that were her cast, even if only for a week.
EBONY: Tonight on Scandal, your episode, “Vermont Is for Lovers Too,” debuts. I know you must be aware of the show’s crazy loyal Twitter following. Does their reaction make you more nervous or excited about your episode’s premiere?
Ava DuVernay: That’s a hard question. The show really leans into its Twitter following. Even when were on the set, as we’re shooting, the department heads, the location scouts, everyone has a Twitter account. Everyone’s tweeting on the set, always! They really engage with fans in that way. I’ve been beautifully surprised by it and have been embraced by all the people online who follow the show. So it doesn’t make me nervous, I just hope people like it. I’ll be live tweeting on both the east coast and west coast show times.
EBONY: This episode is created by Shonda Rhimes, stars Kerry Washington and is directed by you—three Black women! This has to be a history-making moment in the life of episodic television. How aware were you of this groundbreaking moment when you were shooting?
AD: Yes, people are telling me this is the first time a show was created by a Black woman, starring a Black woman and directed by a Black woman on network television, but it’s only a first as far as a big three network goes. When I was shooting I was aware of that and I don’t know if it made any difference to me. It’s certainly nice, but I wouldn’t want to negate all the really wonderful Black women who have been working in this space. There’s not a lot, but people like Millicent Shelton, Felicia Henderson, Mara Brock Akil, and Gina Bythewood who’s directed an episode of Girlfriends, which was created by Mara. So I don’t know how big of a first it is, but I know it felt good to be there around Kerry and working on Shonda’s show in that role.
EBONY: That’s great! Did you have to pitch the show’s producers to get this directorial gig or did they call you?
AD: Yeah, they called me.
EBONY: Having this opportunity to direct Scandal, what was your main goal and objective? When it wrapped, what did you want to leave the set knowing you had achieved?
AD: That I had directed an episode of Scandal. You know what I mean? That I was able to deliver Shonda’s show through her. That I wasn’t doing Ava. That the shots weren’t looking like they do in my films. That people weren’t behaving differently than they behaved as I gave them direction. My job was to serve Shonda’s vision, and so that was a real different muscle for me because usually I’m creating my own worlds—it’s my crew; I cast everyone and they’re my words. As when I went in my goal was to serve her story, first serve her world. And so if can get out of this actually creating a Scandal the way it looks for them, in the way that it is written, that was a success for me. So hopefully I’ve done that.
EBONY: I know you’ve mentioned before that you have been a longtime fan of the show. Are you #TeamFitz or #TeamJake, and has working on the show made you feel more loyal to one side or the other?
AD: Ha, I’m Team Liv! I want her to be happy. The sister needs some happiness. So it’s whomever she chooses. When she’s sleeping with Jake, I’m like “awww.” And when she’s with Fitz, I’m like “ohhh.” I like those moments when she has some peace. I’m rooting for her!
EBONY: So you didn’t whisper any advice to Fitz while on set?
AD: (Laughter) I was with Fitz and I was also whispering in Jake’s ear too, but that’s because I had to give them direction… for fun. But no, I think they’re both good characters and both sweethearts in terms of actors. They are good people. Neither one of them gave me any problems. You know Tony Goldwyn [Fitz] is a very experienced director in his own right. He’s done tons and tons of TV. He’s directed like three films. And Scott Foley [Jake] has to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my entire life. He and Kevin Hart could go head-to-head.
AD: Yes, he’s that funny! I had a good time with both of them.
EBONY: Your music compositions are spot-on in Middle of Nowhere and Scandal is notorious for having the best music featured in their episodes. Did you have any say on what music will appear in tonight’s episode?
AD: I don’t. That’s Shonda’s role. She’s the queen of her music. Really as a director in episodic television you’re coming in to serve someone else’s vision. So those kind of details and the final cut of the show is her decision. It’s her show. I think she did a great job. I’m happy with the episode.
EBONY: All the characters in your films are shot so beautifully! Our skin has a glow in what looks like perfect lighting. How much energy do you put into lighting and how things are framed on the set?
AD: Scandal was really different for me. They have a look so I had to work to stay within that look. If it were up to me, I’d have everybody in the dark pushed to the corner of the frame in shadow. (laughter) I like to mess it up a little bit and do crazy stuff, but this is a network show. They gave me freedom within certain parameters, but my goal was to make it look like Scandal and to take myself out of it. To take the ego out of it, so even though I would look at Kerry on the set and say to myself I want to light her like this, that’s not Scandal, that’s Ava movie.
EBONY: What is your favorite moment on Scandal thus far this season?
AD: Oh my goodness! The very first episode with Joe Morton and Kerry at the airport hangar when she’s about to get on the plane and he’s going in on her and says, “What do we have to be? What do we have to be?” And she says, “Twice as good.” I loved that! I was there at the table reading and when they shot it. That was a real powerful scene for me.
EBONY: Yeah, casting Joe Morton in that role was brilliant! His energy is perfect for the dynamic of the show. He brings it every time!
AD: Imagine directing him! He walks in and I’m like, “Holy snacks, it’s Joe Morton! Here we go!” He was great. We found a rhythm and we worked really well together and Khandi Alexander as well—Mama and Papa Pope. I was in heaven with the two of them in their scenes in this episode. It was really exciting.
EBONY: Well give us a little scoop, please!
AD: It was exciting working with two formidable actors whose work I’ve watched and admired over the years. And to have them in scenes together and these were their first scenes together, and for me to be able to be there and kind of direct what that relationship was and find the nuances and find the movement and rhythm and make it work, I was like a kid in a candy store. These are the kind of actors where you say one thing and bam, they got it and they’re flying.
EBONY: It’s interesting hearing you talk about finding the rhythm and nuances and directing it all to be this great poetic movement of sorts. I read this Audre Lorde quote today from her essay “Eye to Eye” in Sister Outsider and it made me of think of the many Black women I know and how we mother ourselves and each other to be the best artists and creatives we can be. And then I thought of you—as the founder of AFFRM and as a director and how you choose to interact with a cast and crew. Please tell me what you think of these words: “Mothering ourselves means learning to love what we have given birth to by giving definition to, learning how to be both kind and demanding in the teeth of failure as well as in the face of success, and not misnaming either. We must recognize and nurture the creative parts of each other without always understanding what will be created… Mothering.”
AD: That’s a powerful quote! Thanks for sharing it with me. It really speaks to the way that I like to direct. I don’t like to just come in and start working on a scene. On Middle of Nowhere I wanted to spend a lot of time with Emayatzy [Corinealdi], and we became friends before we started shooting, so that our work on the set reflected that understanding. We form relationships with each other as artists before we do the work and make the art. For me it’s more like friending than mothering. Some directors like to go in with a certain aggressive energy and they yell the art into existence. For me I like to have some nuance by having a relationship with people before we work. So it speaks to that quote and that recognition being there. I can see what you are doing in the scene because I know you. I can guide you to a certain place because now I know you.
EBONY: I’m guessing you heard about USA Today’s controversial use of the term “racially themed” in describing Best Man Holiday. Do you think there is any value in defining some Black movies as being racially themed? What are your thoughts?
AD: If the movie is exploring issues about race, then it is race-themed. If it’s Best Man Holiday and everyone is laughing in a mansion, looking beautiful and Morris Chestnut’s got his shirt off and we’re not talking about race except that he’s fine and he’s Black, then I don’t understand how that’s race-themed. Their blunder was lumping anything that has Black faces into this [category] of race-themed, which only reveals the feeling in dominant culture that their culture is the way and everything else is other. So a romantic comedy with Black people is called “race-themed,” but a romantic comedy with White people is just called a romantic comedy. It’s so much a part of what we deal with out here in this industry that that’s really the least of it. It just shows their cluelessness and how it’s all other for them. I work in a way that that world is other and my world is dominant and I have no desire to try to make them know this. If they want to see Middle of Nowhere then they should see it just as I go to see their stuff. But it’s not like I’m knocking my head against the wall and I’m very angry that they don’t get it. And that’s the place where I am right now. I just do my best and if they get it, they do and if they don’t, they don’t.
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