Filmmaker Ava DuVernay on the Creative Process, and the Intersection of Art and Activism

The award-winning director discusses what informs her films, and what comes next

Ava DuVernay is currently shooting, writing and editing her television series, Queen Sugar. Photographs by Scott Witter for Adweek
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

Ava DuVernay might be the most generous director of her generation. She’s impossibly busy. Currently, she’s shooting, writing and editing her television series, Queen Sugar, which just had its Season 3 premiere late last month on OWN. Plus, she’s in preproduction for her Netflix mini-series, Central Park Five. And, oh yeah, she’s got another documentary in the works (though she’s not ready to talk about that one yet). Plus, she’s got a few other TV shows cooking—a pilot, Red Line, at CBS, and a comedy reportedly based on Colin Kaepernick’s high school years. There’s also an HBO movie, Battle of Versailles. And then, of course, she’ll helm DC Comics’ New Gods. Did we mention she’s just finished her first stint as a jury member for the Cannes Film Festival? It’s the kind of busy that would overwhelm most people, but even with her chaotic schedule DuVernay always seems to make time to prop up other creators, to inspire young minds, to say thank you and to give someone a kind word even if they haven’t been as kind to her.

It’s a Saturday in early May, and DuVernay is in New York, location scouting for Central Park Five. She’s just finished seeing a play (Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero) and that evening she’ll accept a Glaad Excellence in Media Award for intersectional advocacy. Walking back to her hotel room, as we chat on the phone, she is stopped by fans multiple times. She greets each one not with annoyance or arrogance, which could be understood given her schedule and acclaim, but with kindness. Even though she’s pulled the phone away from her face, so that she can take a moment to really listen to people’s stories, her voice carries and a “Thank you, sir” and an “Appreciate it” make it through.

Scott Witter for Adweek

Once back, she says: “What a privilege to hear people talk about your work—and that happens to me every day.”

Her generosity of spirit might come from her impeccable sense of place and time. She understands that her work—whether it’s commercials or a documentary film or even a sci-fi fantasy—has meaning beyond entertainment, whether representational or historical. While she’s scored many firsts—recently, with A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay became the first black woman to direct a film with a $100 million budget; with her upcoming film for DC, New Gods, she’ll become the first black woman to direct a big-budget superhero film—DuVernay is more interested in the doors those firsts could open for others and the change they could bring about in the industry.

“I’m a black girl from Compton. I picked up a camera for the first time when I was 32 years old. I didn’t go to film school. I’d been a publicist for all of my 20s, I’d been working to amplify other people’s films,” says DuVernay. “In no world could I imagine doing what I’m doing now.”

Adweek caught up with DuVernay, Adweek’s Creative 100 cover star for 2018, to find out about her creative process, how her history as a publicist has informed her filmmaking and what she wants to tackle next.

Adweek: You’re currently working on a mini-series for Netflix, Central Park Five, about the five teenagers who were wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a woman in 1989. What are you trying to accomplish with that narrative?
Ava DuVernay: At the time, in 1989 when the events were occurring, the story was very one-sided. They never really had a voice, whether it be in the press or the court of law. Their voices were coerced and contorted. The goal with this is to give those boys and their families a voice as it relates to this 30-year tragic story of justice ripped apart and obscured. This story is so much about humanity against systems, little black and brown boys against the halls of power and how they lost 25 years [of their lives].

At the time, Donald Trump paid for full-page newspaper ads calling for the return of the death penalty. Will you deal with this in the mini-series?
They’ll be referenced. They are a part of the story. I don’t think they are a big part of the story. The story that I’m telling is about the effect of this whole process on the boys, but he was certainly a part of that process, so they will be dealt with, those ads.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process in general? Does it differ between formats?
I enjoy a certain privilege of the time I work in to be able to zig-zag and move across formats. As little as even 10 years ago, you were either a film director or a television director, you were either a commercial director or a documentary director or a narrative director. It’s all storytelling. At the end of the day, we’re trying to tell the story and make it as compelling, vibrant and heart-expanding as possible.

Tell us about directing that Apple Music commercial where Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson and Kerry Washington talk playlists and mixtapes? Do you want to do any more commercial directing work?
I was personally invited by Jimmy Iovine and Bozoma Saint John to collaborate on a trio of commercials with a trio of incredible black women. We shot it in a day and had an absolute ball. I continue to do commercial work when I can. Particularly long-form or special projects like this one. I really enjoy it.

Do you have a specific creative routine? A place you have to be? A drink you have to have?
No, I like to feel comfortable, so it’s important to me to curate the people who are around me. … A big, big part of the creative process is who you’re being creative with. Beyond that, I like candles. With a good candle and some good people, you can brew up some magic.

Is there any message or anything you like to say when you’re starting to bring that group together for the first day on set?
Usually, I talk about the audience and the people that we’re making this for. That film is forever. These films are living, breathing things. Our names are on them. I expect that we will all take that seriously and keep in mind the story that we’re telling, the people we’re telling it for and the reason why we’re telling it as we go.

How do you deal with a creative block?
I’m a big procrastinator. I’ve embraced that as being part of my process instead of resisting it and being down on myself about it. Sometimes a deadline or a ticking clock instigates something within me that a leisurely kind of a long time to do something does not. I find that there’s something in that when I interrogate it. The time that I’m spending that’s called procrastination, that’s seen as negative because you’re putting something off. I feel like that’s really an incubation period because you’re thinking about it deeply.

Do you think activism and creativity have become more intertwined?
No. The challenge with people is that we always think the world is only happening now. All of this that we’re experiencing has happened before. To say that creativity and activism is more prominent now is to disregard, oh my gosh, civil rights movement artists, artists of the Vietnam protest era, the Suffragette movement, Japanese internment, Native Americans, people who were enslaved. The intertwining of art and resistance [has been happening] even before people came to this country, before this country was born, and things that are happening in other countries much older and much more mature than ours, so I think it’s not happening now more than ever, it’s just evidence that it is always intertwined. Activism is inherently a creative endeavor—it takes a radical imagination to be an activist, to envision a world that is not there. It takes imagination and that’s not far from art.

You’ve never done a genre film like A Wrinkle in Time before. What was it like to make that transition creatively?
It’s definitely a different creative muscle. The most fun I’ve had making anything was making Wrinkle. To be able to expand the edges of your imagination, to think of world-building, costumes, makeup and hair and planet hopping and all of that stuff. And to do it for 12-year-olds helped me exercise my imagination in ways that are much different than constructing a documentary that’s foundational material for people to think about crime and justice.

How was it received?
It’s been beautiful to watch kids and families embrace a story that was tailor-made for them, particularly kids and families of color and biracial, multiracial families, families that have adopted children, families that are untraditional, kids who feel like they don’t fit in a box.

Some of the things I hear on A Wrinkle in Time, about bullying, mentorship, adoption, being biracial, about being a woman or a girl in science, fathers coming up talking about relationships with their daughters, ego, achievement—all the things Madeleine L’Engle’s book is about and why it’s endured for all these years. It’s been really, really, really special and different.

DuVernay just finished her first stint as a jury member for the Cannes Film Festival.
Scott Witter for Adweek

For three seasons on Queen Sugar you’ve hired all women directors, sometimes giving directors their first shot at TV. Why do you think that’s important?
I’ve just tried to make sure that I’m not the only person in a given room who looks like me. In 2008, I started a film collective called Array that focuses on the work of people of color and women of all kinds to distribute their films. We’ve distributed 18 films so far. We have a film we just released on May 1 called Jewel’s Catch One by a woman filmmaker, about a great woman protagonist. It’s a documentary and it’s fantastic. The idea is that we are correcting past errors and that if we have the opportunity to make sure there are more kinds of people invited to this table called Hollywood that we do what we can to make it so.

Is there anything you took from your years as a publicist, promoting films and the conversations about marketing a piece of creative, that you’ve brought into the process of creating your own narratives?
The only thing that I learned from being a publicist moving into being a filmmaker is that nothing is unpublicizable, nothing is unpromotable. Some filmmakers think they have to hire a certain person, cast a certain person, or creatives think they have to tailor something to an audience to get more eyeballs. I know that’s not the case because I’ve successfully publicized all kinds of films with big stars and with folks that no one knows. It’s about the story. It’s about its execution. It’s about its heart, about what it means to people when they engage with it. That knowledge gives me a freedom when I’m working on things not to feel like I have to put work in a box to satisfy marketing.

Do you have any advice for people who want to make something?
Creativity is a word that is bandied around a lot, but it’s really a magic. It’s a gift. It’s something that has to be guarded, protected and preserved. That desire to want to make something, to want to write something, to want to dance, to want to paint, to want to do whatever—everybody doesn’t have that. So, if you have that—everyone can’t make an ad. Everyone can’t look at a bottle of hairspray and know how to share it with people. All that creativity is a magic that is not permanent. It’s all transitory. It’s very fickle. It’s important for creative people to exercise it like a muscle and care for it like a great gift and not take it for granted, really cultivate it in yourself like a seed and give it the fertile ground to blossom.

You were part of the team working to get the City of Los Angeles to implement inclusion riders. How did that process go and what do you think that will do for the industry?
I was the person who went to the press conference. There’s a large group of people working to make sure the industry in Los Angeles is open to all of the people who live in Los Angeles. When we walk into production offices and sets, we should see crews that reflect the city that we live in. There’s a lot of people working on it and I’m happy to be one of them.

Is that something you would also say about Time’s Up?
Oh yeah. Tons of people working on that. Happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with a lot of remarkable women doing a lot of solid work in that direction.

What was it like to be a member of the Cannes Film Festival jury? This year seemed to have quite a bit of activism at the festival.
Being at Cannes as a juror for the main competition was an extraordinary and transformative experience for me. It was like fuel. The exchange of ideas. The enormous emotion of the filmmakers. The beauty of the films. The vibrancy of the international film community. It all created within me a sense of stronger purpose and greater peace. I just loved and drank in every moment of it.

Is there anything you want to tackle next?
I’m just happy I haven’t run out of ideas, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon. You’ve got to cultivate that seed of creativity, keep pushing and working. There’s not one kind of dream project that I pine for. My dream project is to have a long career, to be Agnès Varda, to be turning 90 and still making films, having fresh ideas and being activated by the work.

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.
Publish date: June 10, 2018 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT