Ava DuVernay talks ‘Selma’ and the last-minute mad dash to an AFI Fest premiere

BEVERLY HILLS – Last week saw the world premiere of Ava DuVernay's “Selma” at AFI Fest after it had been advertised as a 30-minute footage presentation. But there was a lot more to the story behind the scenes. The plan had long been for Paramount to drop the full film as a surprise to the crowd that turned out for the presentation, assuming DuVernay could get the edit where she wanted it to be in the days leading up. Then, the festival dropped a shocker on both festival attendees and those involved with the “Selma” event: Clint Eastwood would take advantage of the Veteran's Day holiday to premiere his “American Sniper” as a secret screening right after Team “Selma” cleared the Egyptian Theatre. The pressure was on.

In the end, though, it all worked out. “Selma” played like gangbusters with a deafening standing ovation and a lively post-screening Q&A moderated by actress Alfre Woodard, and “American Sniper” played as a sobering companion, with neither film really cannibalizing the other. In truth, there was even more drama to the festival politicking, but let's not let it over-shadow the accomplishment: DuVernay has delivered a beautiful love letter not just to a leader, but to a mid-Alabama community her family has called home for 20 years. And she's done it her way.

Last week I sat down with the director to recount the mad scramble to the AFI finish (Oprah's role in all of that is pretty great), as well as her vision for a story about the life of, in so many words, one of the great men to have lived…and died. Check out the back and forth below, but please note: We dig into a number of the film's specifics in the second half of the interview. I wouldn't necessarily consider these items “spoilers” as this is history, but we'll understand if you want to gloss over some of those particulars. It just reminds that “Selma” also serves as a wonderful educational tool, and I have no doubt DuVernay's film will be informing young audiences about this key time in civil rights history for years to come.

“Selma” opens in limited release Christmas Day.


HitFix: Congratulations on all of this. I really liked the movie.

Ava DuVernay: I'm glad. I'm relieved. I loved your Tweets!

Were you nervous at the beginning of the screening?

Oh, what, are you kidding me, dude? I was sleep-deprived. I was literally crying out of just – not even crying sad, just, you know when you're just tired?


It was just like “I can't do another day.” I was just so drained. And we ran that DCP into AFI at the last friggin' minute.

It was ready to go, I thought.

Oh, no, man.

Whatever you see, any incomplete effects, I don't see.

All I see is bad. Like the pockets. Like I'm wincing with my editor and I'm like, “Please don't look too close.”

I'm sure you'll polish it up but it was good to go and obviously had an impact. I understand it was always in the cards, though, to show the full film rather than a footage presentation.

No, Paramount marketing wanted it to always be in the cards.


And I told them I cannot commit to showing the whole thing. You have to say the 30 [minutes]. I said we will strive to get it done because we're supposed to be done next week anyway. But I said, you know, I will try my best. You want to do AFI because it's the last place where you can showcase it in a festival environment. I love fests. But you can't put me in a corner where I feel like, you know, I have no other recourse than to show the full thing if I'm not ready. And so yeah, it was like that Friday when I picture-locked and then I was talking to Oprah and we started having a conversation and she was like, “Let's take this conversation and Tweet it. Let's finish it!” I was like, “Wait, wait, wait. But what do we…” She's like, “No, I'll see you on Twitter.” That was it. I was like, “What are we saying? What are we doing? Are we going to get in trouble with Paramount?” I mean, really. But they always had hoped that it would be done. They had given me some extra money to try to get done earlier. But it was ultimately my decision as to whether or not I thought it was going to be ready.

Well I've been honest with them about it and I'll be honest with you. I don't know that they really knew what they had on their hands. But at the same time you were still working on it so I guess it could have been shifting a lot in those final weeks.

I was. I was. But they've been – I don't know what they've been like in comparison to anything else because I've never worked with a studio. I know what my fears were about working with a studio as an independent filmmaker. “Someone's going to try to come in and tell me how to make my story” and such and such, and it's been nothing like that. So that's been lovely. I just felt support. It's felt like they were taking the whole thing very seriously the whole time to me.

Not that they weren't taking it seriously. Just maybe some uncertainty about what it would be. And also they had their hands full with the Nolan movie.

Oh they had like 9,000 movies. They've got a lot going on. But yeah, I think, you know, “Interstellar” was a big, big focus and that coming out dovetailed with us being very close to done and so I think, yeah, the attention now is perfect.

Were you freaked out whenever the “American Sniper” secret screening popped up?

I wasn't freaked out. I think I was worried that when you have two films premiering within a half hour of each other, people are going to have to be sitting through two things back to back. And I was worried that, you know, someone might not have time [for “Selma”] to breathe and land. That was what I was worried about. But I talked to Oprah and she said, you know, “We can't control it. You have to let our film speak for itself.” And that just set me at ease. It was like, “There's nothing I can do about it.” So yeah, I was disappointed and worried about it but it all worked out.

Well anything that was going to follow your movie that night was going to face an uphill climb, I think.

But when it's announced it doesn't feel like that.

No, I imagine not.

You're worried the memory of it is going to be wiped out. And so I'm just glad that we were able to stand on our own and people still remembered what we did at the end of the night.

I spoke to David Oyelowo about his history with the project, and he basically got you the job by recommending you to the producers after he worked with you on “Middle of Nowhere.” When you took it on, how daunting was it at this point in your career? Was it like, “I don't know if I'm ready to do a Martin Luther King movie?”

Heck yeah it is. Heck yeah it is. But I really didn't drill down into the King of it all. I really connected to the Selma of it all because my family currently lives, and has for the last 20 years, lived in Montgomery, Alabama. And my mother's job, every day she drives into Selma. My dad delivers mail to the post offices between Selma and Montgomery. So Selma I understand. Making a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most famous men in history, I couldn't wrap my mind around that, so I focused on what I knew and what I felt comfortable with. And I feel comfortable about showing the inner lives of people. I feel comfortable in kind of digging into and illuminating different facets of black folk. I feel comfortable with that place. My starting point was not, “Let me go research and learn about Selma,” because that's where I go every Christmas, Father's Day, Mother's Day, birthdays – my four siblings, my mother and my father – like it's my second home. So I was able to start at a different place for it. But the King, I didn't buy into that. I was really just trying to make a film about the man part of it because I felt the speeches, with someone like David, you can kind of get where you need to go, right? He's extraordinary at what he does. It was those moments in the kitchen with his wife. It was those moments, you know, in the jail cell. In the strategy meetings with his team. Those are the things I hadn't seen. You know, I'm an African American history major from UCLA and even I don't have a lot of context for what happened between the big moments in his life. So I was trying to fill that in. That's where I feel most comfortable. But that's not so far from “Middle of Nowhere” and “I Will Follow,” do you know what I mean?

Of course. I think it was really smart how you brought the material into your purview rather than biting off more than you could chew.

What I was worried about as a filmmaker was my ability to stage the larger things. That's where I feel like, you know, there's so much more to learn. That was the intense part for me, trying to figure out how to apply what I feel comfortable with and push, challenge myself to do that. I mean horses and tear gas and 500 extras? Do you know what I mean? And green screen? At one point someone walked in and said, “No, we can't do a green screen here. We have to do a blue screen.” I was like, “Really? Do screen colors matter?

[Laughs] Do they?

No, they really don't. So it was a lot of learning curve stuff and it was a lot of stuff that I felt like I knew really well. So on any given day I was in new territory or I was just right in pocket. The contrast between those helped keep me sharp.

And the back room politicking is very interesting in terms of character, too.

Oh, that's the stuff I love. That's the stuff you read in the autobiographies and that's really not in the history books, but just all the levels he was playing. The legislative stuff, the courtroom stuff, the grass roots stuff. All that stuff was playing at the same time. It was in all those layers, and then you have the home life stuff. I just thought it was fascinating.

I always feel that biopics are better if they're slices of life as opposed to like a greatest hits.

But don't you feel like we're getting into that more, that trend of slice of life biopic instead of cradle to the grave?

I do. More and more, yeah.

I mean I think that's just the way to do it. I look at something like “Ray” and I think, “Oh, that was good.” I think that's something that was well done. But yet when you have a life that's as dense as King's, it's very episodic in nature, you know? Montgomery bus boycotts. “I Have a Dream” march on Washington. Because life before with his parents, which is really kind of volatile – and meeting Coretta. Memphis. The assassination. You know, you've got to pick one, I think. I mean I don't know. Spielberg was probably going to be able to do an amazing cradle to grave.

Well, even his “Lincoln” was a specific element of the character's life.

Right, a slice. Yeah, you're right.

Tangent here, but I had a weird thought when I was watching it, actually. There's all these superhero movies and sequels, you know? But it would be sort of great to see, like, franchise historical figures. Like part two with David Oyelowo as King again in some other facet of his life.

That's interesting. Has that ever been done?

I don't think so. But it's like why not? We get the new “Thor” movie, why can't we get the new King movie?

[Laughs] That's interesting. I've never thought of that. That's really cool.

And doing things in a slice of life way sort of provides that opportunity. Anyway, what did the script look like when you first started? Was it more expansive in terms of time covered?

I added about 27 new characters, but no, it was always Selma. What Paul Webb did was drill down Selma. His take on it was much more King and LBJ and it leaned, in my view, a little more to the LBJ side of things, which is not something that I was incredibly interested in. I was interested in having something where they were mono a mono, and then drilling down into the King side of it. I mean obviously I'm interested in the Dr. King part of the story. That's why the black directorial voice is really important in “Selma” because the way that I would approach it is different than the way that a lovely British man might approach it. His interest would be more toward LBJ. That's who he would identify with. And so I just kind of tried to focus on things that I was interested in, which is the story of really vibrant people and the community and what I know of Selma. And so a lot of the new characters added are all those guys that come into the kitchen. Do you know what I mean?  And in all those strategy meetings, like all those guys weren't there [in the original script]. And there were no women. There was like one scene with Coretta.

Speaking of which, I was sitting there sort of hoping that you were going get to the infidelity, that it wouldn't be glossed over.

Yeah, but I dealt with it in the context of the marriage, which is how I'm interested in it. I mean I have no interest in, you know, doing an Oliver Stone version where you'd imagine what kind of prostitute or, you know, was it a prostitute, was it his girlfriend? As a black woman I'm more interested in “what did your wife say when the tape came?”

What's more important is that long pause when she asks him, “Did you love any of them?” That's where a lot of the meat of something like that is.

And just even blocking the scene with her standing over him [was important]. Those little things with that scene were important because I knew people would say if you don't address it, you're skirting over the issue. And for me it's such low-hanging fruit. I really addressed it only because it fell in line of the events of Selma. The tape was sent through Hoover to his home during that three months. And so if I'm being true to the three months of Selma I can say, “OK, I can do that.”

The Malcolm X scene?  

That really happened.

That really happened?

During the three months of Selma. That's why Selma's so rich!

That's interesting. I didn't know that.

I did not know that, either, until I started. It wasn't in the previous script and when I started researching Selma, it's this little-known thing. He came, stopped a minute. [John] Lewis talks about it. Everybody came for one night, and this is so close to [Malcolm's] death. And it's something that kind of breaks my heart in that scene because, you know, he says “I have no army behind me anymore,” because this is after the nation [of Islam] had kicked him out. Do you know what I mean? Or he had left and he was under fire and he had come back from Mecca. There's just that little period in there where I think of him as so alone. And he went to Selma and it makes me think what if they had met, because King was in jail and they never got to talk there. They never really got to talk.

It's touching because it's like the last thing he could offer.

It's the last thing, was his reputation. It wasn't even how he felt. It was just his reputation.

His presence.

His offering. Beautiful. So I had to have it in there. And not everyone on our team wanted it in.

Oh yeah?

They were like, “Oh, this is sidetracking the story.” I was like, “I'm sorry, it's Malcolm. I can't do it. It's got to be.” And I cast that guy [Nigel Thatch] off Twitter!


Yeah. He hit me on Twitter.

He's pretty perfect.

He's pretty good.

Twitter casting.

Twitter casting. It's the new thing.

The thing about adding all the characters, and something I talked to David about, was the idea that this is obviously an ensemble. It's all about the community and the camaraderie. You touched on this but talk a little bit more about what that did for the way you wanted to tell the story. How did this idea drive and propel what you wanted to do narratively?

Right. Right. I mean from the beginning, if you say you're going to make this film about Selma, then it can't just be about King. It has to be about the people on the ground. And also I think you do a disservice to any picture or anything that happens about King without showing all the strategists and leaders. Any of them could have been a leader. Any of them could have been the King of it, except they couldn't speak as well as he could. He was the great orator of them, so he was the one who was lifted up. But they were all dynamic. They were all amazingly smart. They all had different points of view and they got behind this guy and they protected them. They really lifted him up. I studied this in school, but that's the part that's always missing is that he didn't stand alone. He wasn't just this lone guy. And so when you do that, then you're staging everything differently. You're thinking about how you're bringing characters in differently because you've got to create that world around him that lived within. You've got to have that Abernathy scene. I think that's fascinating and helped me get into the story, because really, that's black folk. Do you know what I mean? It allowed me to just show more of a black home life.

A cultural study in some ways.

Yeah. It allows you to get deeper than, you know, just all that White House stuff. If you can make it King and LBJ meeting then that was interesting to me. But that couldn't be the whole movie. To me it's just not what I'm interested in. It's like, why was he there? He was driven and lifted up by the black community. You've got to show it. So all those characters allowed me to paint that. That aside with Keith Stanfield… And the man who plays Cager Lee is the young man that you see in Charles Burnett's “Killer of Sheep.” That's the same actor.

Wow, really? I didn't realize that.

That's the same actor. “Killer of Sheep” is a gorgeous black and white film and he's also a UCLA alumni and a maverick of black independent filmmaking. I was like, “If Henry [G. Sanders] is available to do this…” We talked and we read it together and I was just, like – that connection between the black independent filmmakers and “Killer of Sheep” is just so seminal. Only film geeks will understand the poetry of his face.

The editing is pretty phenomenal, I thought. You bring a vision to this that's intriguing. There are portions, like when the church explodes, with this dream-like kind of tapestry of imagery and slow motion. What were you trying to do?

Well, my kind of trifecta is me, Spencer Averick, my editor – who's edited every single thing I did from my first documentary about LA hip-hop – and Bradford [Young, my cinematographer]. So it's the three of us. Bradford…

That guy – he elevates everything he touches.

Everything. I told him my idea was, all of the episodes of violence, when the black body or any body is kind of wrecked by this institutional, societal violence that's happening during Selma, I need to make sure that is seen. So we need to find a way to slow that down and break time a little bit, you know? From when James hits the ground the final time to Jimmy Lee Jackson falling to Oprah being assaulted, Annie Lee being assaulted, to the girls and the bodies breaking apart.

That was a bold choice, by the way. Strapping the camera to Oprah as she falls back. It worked.

Our idea was always to put you with the peak of the violent moment. And so we do it with the girls, the most violent moment in my mind. Thinking about that episode and putting myself inside that part of the story, when they fly through the air, I always saw that. And when a man puts his hands on a woman and takes her down, that was important to me to show what that feels like, to strap that on her. The camera is on her body. And Jimmy Lee, when he falls out of frame until his life disappears. You can't find him anymore. So those moments of violence punctuated it. Just aesthetically I was trying to marry those. So Brad was able to deliver it but then what Spencer did was we struggled a little bit. It's like, “OK, so there are these breaks. How do you fit them in the real time stuff in a way that feels integrated?” And he's just so amazing. They both make all my dreams come true in the editing room and on set.

Just the layering of things on top of each other, too. It's elementary in some ways but when it clicks it just sings. The construction of the Pettus Bridge sequence, for instance, was fantastic.

Oh good. Good. I only had two days to shoot that.


Yeah. But that's a jump in time as well and I was trying to figure out, because the world is watching, right? So you have to break time.

I love that you framed it with the journalist's report. Because that was very emotional and it meant a lot because it's getting at what you're about to come to in that moment, which is awareness, and I guess the power of journalism to convey that. I think that was really well done.

Good, good. And it also ties into what King said he had to do, which was amplify this violence so that the world could see it. So yeah, it's just playing with all those ideas. Those are like 10 of the 100 ideas you have but the ones that make it, it's only because there are people who can actually execute what you're thinking in your head.

Last question. Why were you so surprised that I listen to old school Queen Latifah?

[Laughs] I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I just was – I mean, that's not even old school. That's obscure Latifah.

Is it? I mean I'm an early-90s geek, so…

Most people came into Latifah, you know – most people that are in the film world – learned about Latifah in “Chicago.”

Oh no. “U-N-I-T-Y” is my jam.

[Laughs] I love it. I love it. You're a 90s hip-hop baby. There's a lot of us out there.