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an interview with ava duvernay
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)

Last Friday night, I saw the marvelous I Will Follow, the narrative feature directorial debut of publicity maven Ava DuVernay. I Will Follow stars Salli Richardson-Whitfield as a grieving woman cleaning the house of her recently deceased aunt (Beverly Todd). The film won the Audience Award in its world premiere at the UrbanWorld Film Festival in New York, was showcased at the Chicago Film Festival and played to a sold out crowd at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles. Shot in 15 days on a shoestring budget a stone's throw from my day job in the San Fernando Valley, I Will Follow is a contemplative, mature work that covers a dazzling amount of emotional territory in a very short time. Ms. DuVernay, who also wrote the film, was kind enough to chat with me about her stunning debut.

Jason Gilmore: Tell us what I Will Follow is about.

Ava DuVernay: It's the story of a woman who's grieving her aunt and a day in her life where about 12 or so people come through her home and help her pack and get to where she needs to be. I guess that would be the long logline.

JG: Why did you decide to make it?

AD: It was a personal story. I had done a couple of documentaries and was itching to do a narrative feature. I had three or four scripts I'd like to make but their budgets are above what I had in my hand so... (laughs) I was looking for a story that I could do in one location. I love personal filmmaking. And I believe you should believe in your film. (So I was thinking) what is a personal moment that changed my life? I wrote about what happened with my aunt. That's where it came from.

JG: What were some of your biggest challenges as a first time director, especially with the powerhouse cast you had? [Blair Underwood, Tracie Thoms, Omari Hardwick and Michole White round out the cast.]

AD: Our budget was slim. That was really it. The crew was lovely to work with. The cast was amazing. I felt prepared as a director... But it was a humble amount of money. That affected the amount of days we were able to shoot, which affected the number of takes, which affected the amount of setups. Other than that... the creative elements were lovely.

JG: Were there any films that inspired you in making this visually or thematically? If so, what are they?

AD: Thematically, no. I didn't have anything in mind. This story was so personal. Visually, there were individual films that I admire for their tone, their feel. There's a Walter Salles film, Central Station, that is amazing. Another film is Goodbye Solo by Ramin Bahrani, a gorgeous film. They had a very intimate cinematography style and great narrative style...

JG: Did you watch these films with your director of photography or were they just in your mind?

AD: They were in my mind. But I referenced them with my production designer in conversations of things I liked. With my production designer, the goal was not wanting it to look hyper real. Both of those films embraced where they were. They didn't try to be hyper real or a glossy version of real life.

JG: In your years of working alongside some of the biggest names in this industry, what did you observe, if anything, that was of use to you in making this film?

AD: In my mind, I thought I was handicapped because I never attended film school. But it turned out that my years on film sets has been an amazing film school. I've been on sets for 15 years and how many people can say they've been on sets with directors like Michael Mann and Raoul Peck. Also, in my PR work, traveling with filmmakers, listening to their interviews, setting up their interviews, it was like a personal film school over the years... I picked up tips on style, being in the proximity of filmmakers. If you want to be a cook you have to get around food. I was blessed to be around film for over a decade.

JG: Your previous directorial efforts have been very well-received documentaries. [This is the Life, about a groundbreaking West Coast hip-hop movement and My Mic Sounds Nice, about the history of women in hip-hop.] What was your biggest challenge in moving from that world to your first narrative fiction feature?

AD: I started writing narrative scripts first. I turned to docs when I couldn't get my features financed. I started with a documentary called This is the Life just with people that I knew and that led to My Mic Sounds Nice... I think what documentaries gave me was hands on shooting experience. Dealing with cameras, crews, locations. What was new to me was a production designer, working with actors, my DP. But for first time directors, everything's new. But it wasn't total culture shock. One thing a lot of people don't think about is time management and leadership. Directing a film, it's like you're running a small business. Because I have run my own business for a decade, some of those things weren't a problem for me. I surveyed a lot of directors before stepping on set and a lot of the things they had reservations about was things I am comfortable doing.

JG: Where can those who haven't seen the film see it?

AD: It'll be in theaters in February... Our I's are being dotted and our T's are still being crossed but it'll be exciting to get it out there in all the ways that you can experience it, theatrical, cable...

JG: Tell me about your next film & when can we expect to see it?

AD: I'm finishing a documentary. In fact, I just turned in everything. It'll air on TV One for Thanksgiving and its called Faith Through the Storm. It's about two sisters who are Katrina survivors. Often times, when Katrina is spoke of, it's talked about on this epic scope. These are two black women who dealt with overwhelming obstacles to get back home. It was done for a client, for Essence. They wanted to talk about how faith helped them through, that was very important to them. So it is interspersed with gospel music, images of Katrina, their home and family. Working on self-distribution of I Will Follow, which is like making a whole other film in and of itself. And my next narrative will begin pre-production in April.

JG: Tell me about it.

AD: It's an intergenerational, interracial love story between two refugees, one is from Guatemala and one is from New Orleans and they meet in Los Angeles. It's called Have Courage. I haven't told anyone else that title, so you're the first. Jason, the Intrepid reporter, pulled it out of me. (laughs) But my goal is to make one film a year. And I'm very serious about it.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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