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

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.”

SXSW Film review: ‘The Little Death’ a twisted rom-com

The Little Death
The Little Death

“The Little Death” is a twisted rom-com that puts us in the driver’s seat of five couples and their sexual stimuli, desires and secrets.

It is helpful to be aware that “a little death” is a euphemism for an orgasm. You might know Australian director/screenwriter/actor Josh Lawson from “House of Lies” on Showtime.

Lawson’s first feature is fiercely intelligent, darkly funny, provocative and quite possibly depicts the best “sex” scene without any actual physical touching, ever. The film is truly much more than it reads on its surface, a far cry from the tired and formulaic rom-coms moviegoers have come to expect from Hollywood.

“The Little Death” exposes the frailties of human sexuality and the fetishes that drive it without taking itself too seriously. It allows us to draw our own conclusions (for the most part) without beating us over the head with the hammer.

The Little Death can be seen at the Alamo Slaughter Sunday, March 15th at 10 p.m. and Alamo Lamar C Wednesday, march 18th at 5 p.m.

SXSW Film review: ‘Ned Rifle’ best of a trilogy

Aubrey Plaza in "Ned Rifle."
Aubrey Plaza in “Ned Rifle.”

Hal Hartley burst onto the independent film scene with his debut release “The Unbelievable Truth” in 1989. While he directed multiple features within the mini-major system in the 1990s (backed by companies like Miramax, Fine Line Features and Sony Pictures Classics), his work is not as revered as it should be. Unfortunately, this is because several of his best films have been out of print domestically for years.

 

Hartley’s latest effort is actually the third film in a trilogy that began with 1997’s “Henry Fool” and continued with 2006’s “Fay Grim.” An incredibly talented mutli-hyphenate, Hartley once again wrote, directed, produced and performed the score here, but this time around he turned to Kickstarter to fund the project.

 

It’s not imperative that you come to this final installment having seen the previous movies, but it will help you to flesh out all of the connections because this certainly doesn’t dwell much on the backstory. All you really need to know is that Ned Rifle (Liam Aiken, who was only 7 years old when the first feature was shot) is the son of Henry Fool and Fay Grim. Leading up to this film, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) has been on the run from the law, and Fay (Parker Posey) has gone to jail, serving a life sentence after being convicted as a terrorist.

 

We begin on Ned’s 18th birthday, learning that he’s been raised by a devoutly religious family while in witness protection. He’s decided to take off and visit his mother in jail and then go on a mission to kill his father, whom he blames for her imprisonment. Many of Hartley’s regular players return to the big screen with him, including Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Robert John Burke, Bill Sage and James Urbaniak (reprising his role as pornographic poet Simon Grim). Posey, who was the title character in the second film of the trilogy, takes more of a backseat this time around but still manages to steal every scene she’s in.

 

One notable newcomer to the series is Aubrey Plaza (from NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”), who is sublime as Susan Weber, a mysterious young woman with a secret past who is obsessed with Simon’s poems and signs on as a ghostwriter for Fay’s autobiography. In the post-film Q&A, she mentioned that she didn’t even read the script before saying yes because Hartley has always been one of her favorite filmmakers and she just wanted to work with him. It’s a much darker role than she normally plays, but still allows for comic relief.

 

The movie should resonate for fans, as it’s filled to the brim with Hartley’s signature dry and carefully crafted dialogue. Unlike the films before it (which were 138 minutes and 118 minutes respectively), “Ned Rifle” manages to successfully layer multiple story lines and a large cast of characters into less than 90 minutes. It’s the strongest entry of the series, displaying the quirky and vibrant essence of what makes Hartley such an essential voice in American cinema.

 

“Ned Rifle” screens again on Wednesday at noon at the Alamo South Lamar and again on Friday, March 20 at 10 p.m. at the Marchesa. The film opens in limited release on April 1 and will also be available that same day to rent or purchase from Vimeo On Demand.