Q&A: Selma director Ava DuVernay

On the film’s fine details, visits from Andrew Young and John Lewis, and the events in Ferguson
DuVernay (left) on the set of Selma

Photograph courtesy Selma

Selma director Ava DuVernay shot her new film about the civil rights movement’s 1965 bloody march to voting equality in just six weeks this summer in Atlanta and Alabama. Scheduled to open in limited release on Christmas Day, Selma stars David Oyelowo as MLK, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Andre Holland as Andrew Young, and Stephan James as a young John Lewis. Producers Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey lent their clout to the project and Winfrey appears briefly as activist Annie Lee Cooper. Despite only being open in limited release, the movie already has snagged multiple Golden Globe nominations and movie-of-the-year recognition from the American Film Institute.

We talked with DuVernay in the fall, when she took a break from the editing room to discuss the film.

Your attention to detail on this film borders on obsessive, down to the pearls and the shoes MLK and Coretta were wearing on the cover of Ebony. Why was re-creating the tiniest details so important for you?
It was really about capturing those people on the ground and what they wore, what they ate and what they listened to. It was something I embedded into our production philosophy early on. We let that guide and inform everything we did. It was great to see ideas blossom from places of truth and fact. When David and Carmen walked onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge and I saw how close they were to the image we had been researching, I couldn’t resist holding up that issue of Ebony, taking an Instagram photo and showing it off a little.

So you able to shoot on the Edmund Pettus bridge?
Yes. The city of Selma was incredibly warm and welcoming to us and our production. The locals came out as extras. The mayor was an extra. They allowed us to shut down key areas of the city to re-enact what happened there. We shot on Highway 80, we shot in downtown Selma, everywhere.

Two notable aides to MLK visited the set of Selma. How did Andrew Young and John Lewis impact the shoot?
Andrew Young was gracious and open and welcoming. He told us, “Tell the story the way you want to tell it.” It was a lovely gesture. Then, we were on set at Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta and I’m directing Stephan James, who plays John Lewis in the film. My back was turned to the door when suddenly Stephan’s eyes got big. I turned around and John Lewis was standing there. Our mouths just opened. He’s a small man but with big energy and a big aura. He came in, very humble, telling us, “Hey guys, I don’t want to interrupt what you’re doing. I just wanted to say Hi.”

Throughout the film’s development, David Oyelowo has been the through-line on this project. What kinds of conversations did the two of you have about how he would portray King?
The direction was very simple. Play him as a man, not a statue and a speech. That’s what his legacy is in a lot of ways for folks who aren’t paying close attention and that’s a lot of people. This was a man. The extraordinary thing about what he did is that he was an ordinary person, just like you and me. You see what people can do when they have passion, a cause and a mission. Part of getting that story across was to show that he was just like you and me. He had an ego. He had a temper. He got jealous. He liked to laugh and joke. He liked to dance. We applied that to every scene and every line of dialogue. It jus reverberated through the narrative.

In his memoir, John Lewis recounts an exchange he had with Hosea Williams on Bloody Sunday as they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a mob in front of them. Williams asked Lewis, “Do you know how to swim?” Within the constraints of a feature film, how challenging was it to capture the personalities of the people in the movement?
Actually, that exchange you just described is in the film! Dr. King did not do this alone. It was a movement. And the movement had many voices and many personalities. You see Andy Young, you see Bayard Rustin. You hear them. You see how they advised Dr. King. You see what happens when he refused their advice. You see them laugh and eat and sweat in a hot car together traveling. One of my big goals was to show this band of brothers and sisters who created this change with King.

You shot this movie on the fly during a baking hot southern summer. In editing, did any of the performances resonate differently for you?
In the moment, you can see it happening, even when it’s hot and you have no time and there are a hundred extras on set and horses and tear gas. You know it when you see it. But there is something about slowing down the process and sitting in an air- conditioned editing room and really watching what the actors are doing, even when they’re not speaking. In the moment, you’re just concentrating on capturing the dialogue and moving the story forward. I wasn’t necessarily looking at everything else in the frame. In editing, you can actually see what Andre Holland as Andrew Young is doing in scene even when he’s not speaking. He’s back there, barely in the shot, doing something important, adding a gravitas to the frame. Those are the things you discover.

One of the producers on this film also plays a small role, Annie Lee Cooper. How surreal was it to direct Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful women in the world, playing a woman who is fighting for the right to vote?
There was a beautiful poetry to Oprah Winfrey playing this working class, working poor, really, woman in 1965. She could have been that woman. To watch the horrible things that happen to Annie Lee Cooper as evidenced through the body of Oprah Winfrey, yes, that was surreal. Her stature really added poignancy and a power to those scenes. It breaks your heart. It was beyond generous for her to do the role. A lot of times in Hollywood, you have big names attach their names to a movie and just kind of keep it moving. But she was a hands on, working full producer on this film. It would not have been made if not for her. She was who I leaned on, confided in, who I worried with and who I figured things out with. She was present throughout and I’m very grateful.

Selma goes into wide release in 2015, 50 years after the events in this film. Did the events in Ferguson amp up the urgency of telling this story for you?
I went into this film thinking I was shooting history. That Selma was a thing of the past. That these incidents are in the past, that we were filming something that happened in a time long ago. Ferguson shows us we still need to be having a conversation about this. For younger people, Selma shows us that Ferguson was not the first time when something like this happened. Let’s not allow this to happen again in another 50 years. Because of Ferguson, there’s an immediacy added to Selma now.

You edited this film as events in Ferguson were unfolding in real time. Did that influence the editing process for you?
Probably, on a subconscious level. It was surreal to hear exact lines from my script, dialogue from 50 years ago, — “you must disperse!” — reverberate in Ferguson this summer. Seeing the tear gas and the violence. I never truly grasped what people in the movement did in Selma until I saw what happened in Ferguson. All of this was in my blood stream as I walked into the editing room. I’m sure it’s all coming out in the wash. I can tell you this: it’s definitely changing the chemistry of what we’re doing.

Keep reading: Learn more about how the film came to be