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Ava DuVernay in striped top“Are you taping or writing this down? Because I talk really fast,” director Ava DuVernay politely informs via speakerphone.  Ava has been fielding phone interviews since 6 a. m., but six hours later she’s none the worse for wear, eager to chat about her directorial debut with the independent feature I Will Follow. Winner of the Narrative Audience Award at the 2010 Urbanworld Film Festival, I Will Follow is a moving semi-autobiographical drama that stars Salli Richardson-Whitfield as Maye Fisher, a successful make-up artist with a sexy boyfriend (Blair Underwood), whose world is turned upside down by the death of her beloved Amanda (Beverly Todd).

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Audiences are already familiar with Ava’s work as a documentary filmmaker with the critically acclaimed My Mic Sounds Nice which aired on BET, and TV One Night Only: Essence Music Festival 2010. With I Will Follow, Ava has now turned the camera onto herself to explore personal themes of grief, love, forgiveness and renewal.  With only her life savings and a rolodex full of professional and personal contacts she’d acquired from running her own P.R. company (The DuVernay Agency), Ava completed her film in just 15 days at the film’s only location, a house in Topanga Canyon, California.

Committed to preserving the beauty and legacy of black cinema, Ava has also partnered with various black film organizations to create the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM).  The ultimate goal of AFFRM is to empower and foster new black indie talent and provide more truthful and contemporary images of the African-American community.  “We all have a story to share,” Ava says. “Just pick up the camera and tell it.”

Ava tells The Urban Daily how she transitioned from documentaries to feature film, why we shouldn’t look to the major studios to green light quality black film projects, and her views on Idris Elba’s and Anthony Mackie’s recent comments about Black Hollywood.


TUD: Tell us about I Will Follow and the inspiration for the movie.

Ava DuVernay: It’s about a woman who’s successful, has a hot boyfriend, career, and then things kind of fall apart.  Something happens in her family and she has to pick up the pieces and maintain her balance and kind of save herself. I think that’s something we all experience. This film is based on personal experience—I brought my personal story dealing with loss and loyalty.  The actors involved tapped into their own personal experiences.  It deals with trying to keep your self in control when things get out of control.    It’s something a lot of people will be able to associate with, to identify with.  People on the festival circuit around the country come up to me and said “I saw myself in this character.”

I Will Follow is based on your relationship with your aunt, Denise.  Can you tell us a little bit about her?

She was an amazing woman. She was one of the people in my life that meant the most to me.  She was an incredible person.  Hopefully this movie will be a tribute to her memory.

How did you assemble the cast for this film?

It was a combination of professional and personal contacts.  I first contacted Aisha Coley. She was the casting director of Secret Life of Bees.  Omari Hardwick I had seen on Dark Blue and I thought to myself ‘Wow, he’s good.’ So I asked Aisha to reach out to him.  Salli Richardson-Whitfield was on a list of actresses I really wanted to work with.  I always thought she was underrated–great actress, drop dead gorgeous.  Blair Underwood is someone that I knew from working in P.R. and we became friends.  I always had him in mind when writing his character.

What was the transition from doing documentaries (This is The Life, My Mic Sounds Nice) to doing a scripted feature?

With a documentary you walk in with your camera and a set of questions. You’re inquisitive and you’re curious. You get in there and just have a conversation with people. With my documentaries I have an idea of where I want to lead them, I’m trying to converse with them and get to the essence of what I’m trying to learn from them and form that into the documentary.  You work closely with your editor and try to come out with something interesting.  With film, you’ve got wardrobe, actors, production design, and the whole world opens up. Instead of investigating someone else’s world, you’re creating a world from scratch.  With documentaries and film you’re using two different muscles, and I’ve been fortunate enough to use both.  And I hope to go back and forth between the two.


When you decided to do I Will Follow, you looked at your bank account and said “This is my budget” and basically green lit yourself to make this movie.  Was it always your intention to have your film as an independent project or did you consider going with a major studio?

I always believed in self-distribution and not waiting for people’s permission, particularly with big corporations, to share my story.  I’m very much a control freak (laughs).  I would like to collaborate with like-minded companies who want to work on distribution ideas.  Major studios are looking for different types of stories, and that’s fine.  If they want to do Transformers 13, cool.  I want to do something else. So I’m not going to beg or force my vision on corporations, if that’s not their bottom line.  As indie filmmakers, the ‘Woe is me, the studios don’t want my stuff’—your job is to do your own projects and to take care of yourself.  These people have their agenda and we have our own agenda too.  I’m really into self-empowerment and to create and distribute our own stories.  I want to be in a position where I’m not asking permission to share my vision.  I want to get filmmakers into that cycle.

People tend to forget that most A-list directors started off as indie.

Right. Martin Scorcese did Boxcar Bertha through Roger Corman that only cost a couple of thousand dollars.

You didn’t go to film school like most directors.  You actually started in publicity doing campaigns for directors like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, and when you’d meet them for lunch you’d pick their brains about filmmaking.  What did you learn from them that you were able to apply to your own directing process?

I learned that it could be done.  The main thing I learned from them, aside from the technical process and dealing with actors is that these directors were just people, like me.  They’re just human beings that want to tell a story and they found a way to do it.  Why could I not do the same?  That’s the best lesson I got from my ‘bootleg’ film school.  As a little black girl, who loved movies, I never thought I could make one.  Everybody’s got a story; go make that film.

There’s someone out there thinking ‘I want to make movies, but I can’t afford film school.’ What would you tell them? Do you think it’s necessary to go to film school to be a good director?

Film school is wonderful. It’s creative and allows you to play, to learn theory.  I wish I had four years to chill and just learn about film. Film school is a great place to hone your skills.  Is it necessary? No.  If you’re a 16-year-old girl and want to make films, if you have an iPhone, do it.  I just saw an incredible 12 minute short shot on an iPhone. 

Two of the biggest stories to hit the media are statements from Idris Elba and Anthony Mackie. During a lecture for the Project Lens/Artist Spotlight series at Rutgers University, Elba stated that the Oscars aren’t designed for us and that we should focus on making more films.  In an interview with Grio.com, Mackie also said we should make more films and find our own distribution deals. Do you agree or disagree with them?

I agree.  I think both brothers made a call to action to filmmakers.  It’s getting a lot of attention from the press and I think that’s positive.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to not have major studios involved in our projects. I don’t think it’s a doomsday thing.  The only movie featuring a black woman so far this year is Big Momma 3.

There’s more to come with Madea’s Big Happy Family and Skank Robbers.  What are your feelings on that?

The studios are looking at big budget pictures, they’re looking at gags, and comedy, and that’s ok. For folks that enjoy that, fine.  I don’t hold anyone outside of our community responsible.  There are certain (white) filmmakers who think that’s funny.  They have a star that thinks that’s funny, who went on record saying, “If you saw the check, you wouldn’t blame me.”  Ok.  Do you.  I don’t blame anyone for what they’re doing.  I can only take care of me and the filmmakers and the black moviegoers that think like me.  People who tell me Love Jones and Love and Basketball are their favorite films.  What that says is ‘I want to see adult dramas, contemporary images of myself.’ The studios are not interested.

I Will Follow opens this Friday March 11th.


You can find Ava (@AVADVA), I Will Follow (@iwillfollowfilm) and AFFRM (@AFFRM) on Twitter.


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