Christy Grosz is Editor of AwardsLine.
In a season dominated by splashy studio fare from relatively mainstream directors, the quiet African-American focused Middle Of Nowhere is something of an anomaly. Shot in just 19 days in and around Los Angeles, the microbudgeted film about a woman who works to earn her nursing degree while dealing with a husband in prison is the second feature from former publicist Ava DuVernay, who started her filmmaking career just five years ago at age 35. Not only did DuVernay write and direct the feature—which has earned three Independent Spirit Award nominations, plus a breakthrough Gotham Award for star Emayatzy Corinealdi—but she launched her own film collective, AFFRM, to distribute. On the eve of a new year, and in the middle of moving, DuVernay took time to speak with AwardsLine about her work as a businesswoman and as a filmmaker.
AwardsLine: How did your film collective, AFFRM, come about?
Ava Duvernay: I created this company with several like-minded individuals who were really dedicated to independent films from the perspective of people of color. In making the transition to becoming a filmmaker (from) being a businesswoman, I push filmmaking as a total effort: You actually have to take care of your film and show a life for your film. And as a black woman filmmaker, there’s no easy path, no company that had identified interest in the kind of narratives that I was making. It just made sense to ensure that my films would have a life, and in order to do that, I needed to create AFFRM. I make films, and I tell the story, and the whole point of telling the story is making sure it’s heard and seen. It’s also important to understand that my prospects of having my film about a black woman seen is less than, say, a white man who makes a film about a black girl, like Beasts Of The Southern Wild. I have no complaints about that, but I do recognize making a film from a particular gaze and that gaze not necessarily being part and parcel for what the studios are looking for. As opposed to banging my head against the wall and complaining about that, I just created a fabric for myself. It’s not really all independent filmmakers, but there are some of us who are working outside of dominant culture that have to pay more attention to that. Certainly, when we look at the year in (awards) conversation, the thing that really shocked me (is) the dearth of women. Not that there aren’t films being made by women, but those that are elevated to the awards spectrum—it’s such a drastic drop-off. It’s been challenging to get the film seen, and, you know, I really think it’s something that hopefully is chipped away at each and every year. Last year, there was a film called Pariah that I thought was deserving of conversation, and it never broke through. So there’s a lot of work to be done.
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AwardsLine: Are you developing any projects from other writers or directors in order to bolster AFFRM’s slate?
Duvernay: Well, Middle Of Nowhere is the fourth AFFRM release. We’re an acquisition and releasing company; we’ll be going to Sundance. (We also released) Kinyarwanda, which won the audience award at Sundance 2011.
AwardsLine: When did the idea for Middle Of Nowhere first come to you?
Duvernay: I wrote this film while I was a publicist, while I was working on the Michael Mann film Collateral. He shoots in practical locations all around Los Angeles, and I remember one night we were shooting in East L.A. and I (realized) there, on a cold night, I had a story. Something came together for me on that set of watching (him) work with the digital camera, knowing that I had my own story on these streets. So I started writing Middle of Nowhere on nights and weekends in 2003. It took about a year to write, and then I put it in a drawer because everybody’s got a script—even the publicists. And so I started making my way toward filmmaking, starting with docs. Then I did my first narrative, I Will Follow, and the success of that helped us get a small amount of money quickly.
AwardsLine: In researching for the script, you spoke with a lot of women whose husbands were in prison.
Duvernay: It was really important to understand the mentality of the prison-industrial complex. I don’t have any personal experience with it other than coming up in the inner city and knowing a lot of other people that have been touched by it. I’ve certainly known the devastating effects that it has in the community overall, with such a large swath of people missing. In addition to speaking with women who are actually going through it—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives—we were also very in touch with social organizations and advocacy programs that are looking to expand the rights of the loved ones being incarcerated. Things like predatory phone rates: It’s $3 per minute to talk to your loved ones in some states. It really starts to tear at a family that’s trying to hold itself together in the midst of a tragedy like incarceration. So a lot of those kinds of things I wanted to make sure that I was very aware of, and there were a number of advocates and activists and organizations that I tapped into and that were really helpful in bringing me into the loop.
AwardsLine: The film avoids over-the-top characters and stereotypes that can be associated with African-American films. Did you consciously choose to show something different?
Duvernay: Well, it comes naturally to me because my life is not spectacle. So often when I see African-American performances on screen, it is in the voice of spectacle. I don’t feel like race is spectacle. Race is me. I’m a black woman. We are black people. And as we move around our daily lives, it is not a spectacle; it is the norm. I think that certain creative is coming from a voice that is not ours, and yet they project that voice on black performers, and you just naturally think of that spectacle as the everyday. And there’s beauty in the everyday; there’s beauty in the ordinary; there’s stories to be told outside of things being at their most heightened moment, at their most outrageous moments. But, yes, no one was being pushed down the stairs, no one was being called the n-word, no one was being shot, no one was in deep poverty. We just live, we exist. I can see those kinds of very nuanced character studies 100 times a day if I wanted to with white characters, yet it would be a struggle to find it with people of color—black brown or otherwise. So that’s what I’m really looking to create with my work. You think you know what the husband is going to be like in prison, and I purposely don’t tell you what he did so that you can’t really pass judgment on that. You have to focus on the movie, and you have to stay in the relationship from her perspective. So those were the attempts that I made with the script, a simple story told with, hopefully, some depth in terms of the character development, (and) deviating from what we usually see from African-American archetypes within those situations.
AwardsLine: How important is awards attention for you on a micro-budgeted movie like this?
Duvernay: It’s wonderful and it’s frustrating. I mean, there’s only so much you can do with a film this size, to wave the flag for the film. What has been wonderful is the discovery aspect of this film from Toronto to the L.A. Film Festival to Sundance, to the opening and the reviews and the surprise #1 in specialty at the box office, to the awards whispering that’s been happening—all of these things have been organic. Having been involved with awards season campaigns in the past from the publicity side and knowing what it takes to get to the point where you’re still in the conversation in December…we’ve not spent anything. We don’t have the fancy cocktail parties, we don’t have the fancy endorsements: It’s almost frustrating because I have something, but I can’t tap into all that. But, on the other hand, the folks that are coming to the film are embracing it in a really wonderful way. So we’ve had some great times with this film since Sundance, particularly in the awards season, which has been completely unexpected. Really what it needs to do is just open some minds, and (make voters) open next year’s screener by the director of color who doesn’t have enough money to get your attention.