Swallowing Fear: Ava DuVernay on Middle of Nowhere

The publicist turned award-winning filmmaker on the other side of Sundance and the importance of desegregating cinema.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


It’s funny to interview Ava DuVernay as a filmmaker. She used to be a publicist whose agency handled some of the first junkets I attended as a journalist. She closed her agency years ago to become a director, and her second narrative feature film Middle of Nowhere won her the best U.S. director award at Sundance this year. The drama explores a woman who drops out of medical school to be close to her imprisoned husband. As the film opens this weekend, we took this opportunity to catch up with DuVernay and find out what it’s like on the filmmaking side.

CraveOnline: Did you always see publicity as a path to filmmaking?

Ava DuVernay: No, I wasn’t even thinking of it back then. For many, many years that I was doing publicity I didn’t have any inclination or any thought that I could ever make a film. I think it was just proximity to sets and always being around what we do, junkets and hearing stories from directors and being on sets that I started to observe and watch and think, “Oh, maybe I could try it.” It was definitely swallowing fear to tinker with my first shorts and things while I was running my agency, but eventually I just started to fall in love with it and really develop a passion for it.

We have heard of journalists like Rod Lurie and Cameron Crowe becoming filmmakers. Does publicity give you certain skills that work as a filmmaker?

An interesting question. I think the only publicist that I know from our generation working in the industry that’s done some filmmaking as well is Dan Klores, but yeah, I think it does. Particularly being able to communicate and set the mood with the actor. That’s a lot of what you hear first time directors and even directors that have been around the block for a bit, I always heard that connection with the actors, being able to effectively communicate with all different kinds of personalities. As publicists, that’s our trade, being able to wrangle that and understand where some of the behavior and emotions are coming from and just work with it. So I think that was the first thing is just a good grasp of how to work with actors.

You’ve handled talent before.

Yeah, but it’s interesting because as a publicist they’re talent. As a director they’re my actors so really the relationships that I had with talent as a publicist is very much like, “This is what we’re doing. Okay, let’s get there.” Very different than nurturing an actor’s performance. So I have to make a tweak in myself so I’m not too publicist-y on the set and to really understand the actor in a different way.

This was your second feature, so when you started working with actors, did they call you on talking to them like a publicist?

No, no one ever said that. I think it was just me being very self-conscious. And then also, the actors always comment how taken care of they feel on the set, so that’s just the publicist in me. I think good publicists are just like good mommies, always looking out, making sure folks are comfortable and making sure that folks are on time and making sure that folks are getting what they need and know what they need to do. So it definitely worked for me, but I just needed to make sure that I wasn’t mothering people too much.

Having worked at other film festivals before, did you know how to navigate them as a filmmaker?

I think so. I’ve been to Sundance eight times as a publicist and thought I was very prepared. I mean, who could’ve been more prepared for me? A publicist who’s been there eight times. Getting there as a filmmaker was a completely surreal, different, unexpected experience. I mean, yes, I knew the streets and where to go and how to get tickets, but certainly just the feeling of being “talent” now, like on the other side is very foreign to me and very uncomfortable. So that is something that I don't know if I had a lot of sympathy for as a publicist. I’d pack the schedule and say, “Let’s work, let’s go, we’re doing this all day.” I’d not have a lot of sympathy when I would hear, “I’m tired.” I was like, “What are you tired for? You’ve been sitting in a chair talking to folks all day. I’m tired.” But now that I’m sitting in a chair talking to the press all day, I’m like wow, this is exhausting. So yeah, I think those preparations are things that I’ve had to learn.

Did you actually get yourself tickets to other movies?

I actually did because I’d gone to Sundance so many times before and seen filmmakers of all ages, of all experiences just so bogged down with their film, so freaked out and neurotic over their film that they didn’t see the other films. They didn’t interface with the other filmmakers so I made sure I was there the whole two weeks and I saw maybe about six or seven films. I also own the distribution company that is distributing this film so I went into Sundance already with distribution. We picked up a partner, Participant, to give us a more robust release, but certainly I didn’t have the anxiety of getting picked up. We had some lovely offers and it was flattering but I really understood what I wanted to do with the film and how I wanted to distribute it, so I didn’t have that anxiety. I didn’t have a lot of anxiety about reviews. I think just because as a publicist, I really understand what that is, as opposed to being something that breaks your spirit when you get a bad one. It’s a guy who might’ve had a fight with his wife that day or maybe he just doesn’t like what you did. Okay, move on, there’re others. So some of those things really helped me get into Sundance and really just enjoy the experience, so I saw films, I went to panels, I met filmmakers from all over the world and I just really enjoyed it.

Which films did you see there this year?

I saw Detropia which I really loved.

Oh, I have to watch that this week for an interview with those filmmakers.

Oh, watch it late at night or early in the morning. It’s one of those kind of films where when I was watching it, I wished I was laying down. I wished I was laying down because it’s not at all what I thought it would be. It’s very much like a mood piece of all these very slow, beautifully shot images of this city. It’s really cool. I saw a lot of cool things and was just inspired. You can’t leave there as a filmmaker and not feel this is a pretty amazing array of people. And all the years that I have been to Sundance before, I never saw any films outside of the ones I represented, so it was nice to actually sit in a chair without being freaked out about what I had to do next and just enjoy the film.

Then when you won the award, what was it like to be in that position at the festival?

Very surreal. It’s nothing I expecting, nothing I even thought was a possibility until after the moment they said my name. I think I was eating a cracker or something. I literally wasn’t even paying attention. I just didn’t think it was going to be possible. It was the last night. I wanted to see a bunch of people that I’d met, we’re eating, hanging out and my name was called. Whoa, what’s going on?

Now it shouldn’t be a big deal that you’re a female African-American director, but there aren’t that many of them. So what do you think about what your voice needs to be?

No, it shouldn’t be and yet it is just because it’s a rarity. That’s an interesting question what my voice needs to be. I just think it needs to be authentic. I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself about the kinds of films I have to tell because I’m one of the few Black women filmmakers. I tell the stories that are of interest to me. I’ve made six films, three docs, two narratives, a short and all of it is stuff that I’m interested in. So I think in some way, if you are a black woman in the world, there’s going to be some other sisters who think like you do, so I feel like hey, that’ll be a good first line of defense for somebody who might like this film. But the really wonderful thing about this film and the one before it is that I find that there’s more commonality. There’s more universality in my specific gaze as a filmmaker and that all kinds of people are responding to it. The first film, Roger Ebert came out with two different, one televised and one print review, calling it one of the best films he’d seen about loss. He was tweeting about it, and he couldn’t be any more different from me on paper and yet he saw something in the film that was true to him. Last night here in New York, I was up in Westchester County for a Q&A at a theater down there and was invited to speak afterward and there was no one that looked like me in that theater. No one even in my age bracket, no one close to me culturally, nothing. It got a standing ovation and it was debate night and they stayed for the whole Q&A. So those things helped me to understand that I don’t have to stay locked in a certain box and that there is universality in the specifics. I love A Separation. I love Japanese films, I love Iranian films, I love all kinds of films so why can’t all kinds of people love black films? That’s what we’re trying to get out there.

That’s the thing. Is it a “black film” because it’s made by a black person with black actors?

Well, that’s an interesting question. The gentleman who made A Separation is Iranian and in many ways you would say is that an Iranian film? I look at that film and I see the nuances of a family that I recognize and yet that film is told in the world of this very specific community, and that is an Iranian film with a universal appeal. So I don’t shy away from saying this is a black film. These are black people, this is set in a black community and I think what people are allergic to is the idea of saying it’s a black film and thinking that that’s going to deter people from seeing it. I think we really need to examine the segregation that goes on in cinema and feeling like, “Hey, Fred, come and see my film. It’s got black folks in it and I’m black so it’s a black film but I think you’re going to love it.”

You must have dealt with that as a publicist when certain films courted “urban” press and not the mainstream press.

Well, I never did that. I started my agency in 1999 and I started being very segregated by the studios asking us to come on and only do their urban campaign. As I matured in my career and in my point of view and my agency became bigger, I would not take campaigns where we only did urban. We did the full campaign, I would book “ET” and I would book “BET.” So it became important that our junkets reflected the full scope of press because these films shouldn’t only be seen by a certain segment, and then also conversely there were some films where black press weren’t included at all because they’re seen as mainstream, but wait a minute, black people like all kinds of films. Why can’t this press come? Why can’t the Latino press come? Give me more than two slots at the junket for these press. They deserve to be at the roundtable too. So there were a lot of those politics that I dealt with as a publicist and you’ve been to the junkets. You’ve seen the way it goes and I just think that stuff trickles down to the people that feel invited to see the film in the theaters, right? Like if they’re only reading it in a certain segment of press or they’re not reading it at all, that goes for mainstream audiences and niche audiences, it just becomes a cyclical problem. So hey, we made a film, I’m a black woman filmmaker, I’m not a black filmmaker who says, “Don’t call me a black filmmaker, just call me a filmmaker.” I say call me a black woman filmmaker. That’s what I am. I’m proud of the film we made. It’s by and about black people and it’s open to people of all colors, just like Japanese films, Ukrainian films and all the films that we see and enjoy. It seems to be prickly when you say black.

Well, the difference is A Separation is an Iranian film because it’s from Iran. We could say Middle of Nowhere is an American film because it’s from America. Why do we have to get more specific?

We do get more specific because there are all kinds of Americas, right? There’s black America, there’s white America, there’s Latino America. We are a melting pot and we have a lot of nooks and crannies and segregation and separation and culturally specific experiences, so I think it’s kind of fantasy to just say Americans in this political landscape that we’re in. What does that mean exactly? There are so many different types of us. So what I say is let’s invite everyone in. We made a film that is based in black America, the specific story is, but I think the heart of the film is about family, it’s about loss, it’s about loyalty. It’s about all the things that are of concern to us all.

What is your next film going to be?

Right now I’m making a film for ESPN Films, a documentary, one of their 30 for 30 on this very little known story about Venus Williams, this three year period where she fought for fair pay at Wimbledon. She got the UN involved and Tony Blair talked about it on the floor of parliament and she wrote letters in the UK newspapers. She was very active and feminist during this time, because up until 2007, men were paid one amount if they won and women were paid a lesser amount, so she didn’t like that.

Up to 2007???

Yeah. Crazy, right? Insane so she fought against that, like a three year campaign with the Women’s Tennis Association and she really headed it up and was architect of a lot of it. It all took place in the UK so people here don’t really know about it but we’re doing a documentary about that time in her life. It’s called Venus Versus and it’ll be out on ESPN next summer.

Who did you interview for it?

I followed her around all this summer, so I shot her at Wimbledon. I shot her at her home in Palm Beach, FL. I followed her around throughout the summer at various matches and am still actively interviewing quite a few folks but yeah, it’s a wide spectrum of players, tennis executives, journalists and cultural thinkers to examine this moment.

Are you going to get Tony Blair?

Ha ha ha, no, I don't think I’m going to get him. I went over to Wimbledon and we didn’t get him but we got a lot of other people there who were crucial to the campaign, high ranking folks at the United Nations. It just really showed how deep she went in this fight.