‘Selma’ director Ava DuVernay talks intention, attention in SXSW Film keynote speech

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Director Ava DuVernay on the set of "Selma," much of which was filmed in metro Atlanta. Photo: Paramount
Director Ava DuVernay on the set of "Selma," much of which was filmed in metro Atlanta. Photo: Paramount

Director Ava DuVernay on the set of “Selma,” much of which was filmed in metro Atlanta. Photo: Paramount

“Selma” director Ava DuVernay addressed an enthusiastic crowd inside of the Vimeo Theater Saturday morning as the South by Southwest Film keynote speaker.

“I’m just going to read this like a journal entry, okay?” she asked the crowd at the 11 a.m. event, after admitting that she had written the text of her speech earlier in the morning.

She’d planned to collect her thoughts earlier, she said, but she was coming off of a bad week that began with personal issues and continued to devolve. She arrived at her hotel at 1 a.m. and at 2 a.m. she forced herself to write down five things that she was grateful for at that moment:

  • A smooth, dark, quiet flight “when they turn off the lights and there’s no baby crying.”
  • A SXSW volunteer who greeted her with a smile at the escalator.
  • Being on the same flight with her production designer who shared great stories and her philosophy about set crushes.
  • A very clean, lovely hotel room with excellent water pressure and a nice, clean bed with a lovely view of Austin.
  • The fact that for the first time in three nights, she wasn’t crying into her pillow and that she woke up knowing exactly what she wanted to share with the attendees at her keynote speech.

The theme of DuVernay’s speech was intention and attention. To explain the concept, the director told brief stories about how she spent the opening days of her first three narrative features.

She made “I Will Follow,” she noted, with $50,000 savings and the help and support of friends and family. Her intention, she said, was to make the film and distribute it through her distribution collective, Affirm. “I gave my intention every ounce and molecule of my intention,” she said, “but later, I would see my error.”

“Middle of Nowhere” was made with $200,000 and the help and support of friends and family. “All I was thinking about was Sundance,” where three of her previous films had been rejected, she said. “But later, I would see my error.”

The error in both of those instances, she admitted, “wasn’t what I had achieved, but my intention in the first place and where I put my attention.” She placed her and her work’s worth outside of herself, into awards and accolades, but failed to feel lighter or better. “I was going from thing to thing and achievement to achievement, but my heart wasn’t enlarging and my balance was broken,” she said.

“Selma” was made for $20 million. “Some crazy person decided it was a good idea to give that to me,” she said. “And something happened that excluded box office, awards, all that.”

Her father, the person she said she loves the most, is from the city.

She went into the project with “no thought about any of that other crap,” she said, but only with one singular, clear thought: to serve the story.

Making the film was the most nourishing thing she has ever experienced, she said. “I wasn’t enlightened; it’s just what came to me in the task of telling the story. I wasn’t like, baby Oprah.”

On the opening day of “Selma,” DuVernay wasn’t tracking box office, reading Rotten Tomatoes or thinking about the Golden Globes. “In contrast, I went completely, full on nerd,” she recalled.

She and actor David Oyelowo jumped into a car and drove to five theaters in Los Angeles and watched people watch their movie. “It brought me more joy than everything that happened with all the other films,” she said.

“I’d gone into it with an intention of only one thing — service. I started working inward, not outward. When I told you the world opened up, there are things out there bigger than you even think to dream,” she said.

DuVernay then went through a chronicling of her “most awesome year,” hitting on moments including:

  • Scouting the bridge
  • The day she first called “action!”
  • Shooting the speeches and marches and feeling so “in pocket. It was like the Matrix,” she said.
  • Attending test screenings to overwhelmingly positive feedback
  • Showing “Selma” at a festival — AFI. She vomited after being up all night the night before. “When the audience
  • stood up (for an ovation), I thought, where are they going? Are they leaving? Is it really that bad?”
  • Attending the Legends Ball at Oprah Winfrey’s house with all the real legends from the Civil Rights movement there.
  • Seeing the Rotten Tomatoes rating for the film stay at 100-percent fresh as the 80th review came in
  • Watching the film being screened at the White House (100 years after “Birth of a Nation” was screened there) by “our beautiful, black President.”
  • Taking film to London, Berlin.
  • “The nominations and the non-nominations”
  • Meryl Streep approaching her to talk about Selma. “I can’t even tell you what she said,” the star-struck director said.
  • The Spirit Awards and the Oscars

She had a realization at the Oscars that she claims blew her mind: That it was nothing but a big room in LA with very nice people dressed up and applauding. It struck her that her work’s worth is not based on what happens there.

“That was the most important realization of the whole journey,” she said. “I was stunned and starstruck by that revelation.”

If she had put a cap on the effort based on what she wanted — things such as good box office, she feels she would have limited herself.

DuVernay teared up as she talked about people coming up to her all over the world telling them what the film meant to her.

“I want to share what I learned with other people,” she concluded. “Look inward. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. When you’re in your lane, there’s no traffic. It comes from here to where you want to go, if where you want to go is a true place.”

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