Love on the Outside
The paroled convict stands at the gate, a duffel bag in his hand. He and the guard exchange words. Maybe one of them cracks a tired joke — “I’d say ‘See you later,’ but I hope that I don’t.” Maybe the guard tries to offer a heartfelt life lesson. Regardless, the gate swings open, and the prisoner walks through it to his freedom. His crew might be there to pick him up, or perhaps he just takes the bus. A new life awaits.
Many films have opened with these images, but not Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere. The writer/director’s second feature, for which she won the Best Director Award at this past year’s Sundance Film Festival, is dramatically centered around the person missing from the above scene: the woman the convict has left behind. A compelling Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, a med student (and cineaste) who has put her education on hold while she earns money to pay the lawyers who will help her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), cut short his eight-year sentence. She’s the one who takes the bus, joining other wives on the brief, strained visits that are no substitute for a real marriage. But as the parole hearing approaches, there’s news that both jeopardizes Derek’s release and challenges the devotion Ruby has shown to him. Add in the flirtations of Brian (David Oyelowo), an affable bus driver, and there’s more than enough in Ruby’s world — and DuVernay’s film — to passionately replace that ex-con drama we’ve seen so many times before.
Indeed, Middle of Nowhere is all about what DuVernay describes in the interview below as “the interior life of black women,” and, as she notes, that’s a subject matter the American studio system blatantly ignores. DuVernay has been trying to make Middle of Nowhere since 2006, finally doing it independently after Hollywood turned its back. Leading up to the film for her have been a series of documentary shorts and features; a debut narrative feature, I Will Follow; and, of course, AFFRM — the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. Capitalizing on her experience working as a feature film publicist and marketer, DuVernay launched AFFRM to connect underserved black audiences with the films that have played so well on the black festival circuit. AFFRM has so far released films including Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda and Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City, and with Middle of Nowhere, it gains a powerful distribution partner, Participant, who came on board to ensure that the film reaches the widest possible audience.
To interview DuVernay we asked Nekisa Cooper, producer of Dee Rees’ Pariah, who is herself grappling with the same issues of authentic content, audience building and new models for independent features in her own work. Middle of Nowhere opens in theaters October 12.
COOPER: It is such an honor to be interviewing you right now. You are an idol to many of us who are trying to figure out how to—
DUVERNAY: — Are you kidding? I’m just following in the footsteps of you guys from last year, doing the exact same thing. [Laughs]
COOPER: No, you’re taking it to a whole different level. You have a model. [Laughs] We just made a film, but you have a model. That’s different.
DUVERNAY: Well, I appreciate the good energy.
COOPER: I’m going to start by asking you some questions about your background. I heard a rumor that you were an emcee back in the day.
DUVERNAY: [Laughs] That is true. When I was a teenager I used to hang out with my friends in South Central at this place called The Good Life. It was a hip-hop mecca, post-riots, post-uprising in Los Angeles — a place for kids to gather every Thursday night. Everybody would get their time on the mic. It was an Apollo-like atmosphere where you would get food and oral praise. That was really the first glimpse I got of what an artist’s life was like. I don’t come from a family of artists, and so that experience was very communal, very collaborative. I loved the camaraderie — championing people and being interested in their projects. And so, it’s been nice to see that evolution in me from a teenager who was rioting in the streets to [a woman] making films and still being so happy to watch somebody else do it well. You know what I mean?
COOPER: I hear you. So now it’s 1999 and you’re working in publicity. How did you get to the point in 2006 where you made your short, Saturday Night Life?
DUVERNAY: After [graduating from] UCLA, I started working at Fox and some PR firms. I really loved PR firms as opposed to [working] in-house at a studio. I didn’t like the idea of working on two or three projects for the whole year — it wasn’t enough for me. The agency life provided me with the opportunity to work on multiple projects and always in different stages of their campaigns. In ’99, I started my own firm and [went] on the sets of great filmmakers like Michael Mann, Spielberg, Bill Condon and Eastwood. [I was] traveling the world with these guys — [attending] their junkets and red carpets, observing them and hearing their stories. I was the ultimate film lover, and some time in there I started to make a mental transition, an emotional transition, from the idea of loving films to making films. I started tinkering on screenplays and then in 2006, over the Christmas holiday, I just decided to make something. I took six grand and said, “Just let this be my film school.” I didn’t know what I was doing, but I made a short and, from there, tried to keep shooting as much as possible. That’s the only way I was going to learn since I didn’t have the time and money to stop my career and go to film school. I had to just figure it out in another way and cobble together a film school experience for myself. So by talking to filmmakers while handling their publicity, I was learning from them. And by making stuff I was making mistakes. And that’s what film school is, right?
COOPER: Were you thinking about making features back then as well?
DUVERNAY: Yes. Around 2003 I had written this script, Middle of Nowhere. Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Bythewood were good friends and clients at the time and said, “We really love this. We want to produce it.” So we went out and we attached Sanaa Lathan and Idris Elba and shopped it in the traditional way that you did in 2003 when you were in black Hollywood. You’d go to the studios and it was, “Oh, wow, great script, but we don’t make movies about the interior life of black women. [Laughs] If you want to make that, make that, and then we might be interested in an acquisition, right?” That’s what we heard everywhere. Gina and Reggie were great. They got me into these rooms. The bottom line was the rooms. They weren’t ready then, and they still ain’t ready now for this type of story.
COOPER: For sure.
DUVERNAY: That’s just not what they do, and the sooner we realize that, the better off we’ll be. And so, the process was me realizing that. In 2006, just frustrated with two years of pitching to closed doors, I said, “I need to make something. My life is slipping away over here.” So I took a very small amount of money and said, “I’m going to make a documentary about my friends and this movement that’s really little-known.” So I made this doc [This is the Life] that’s all about the experience of being a teenager and rhyming with this group of artists. And as a publicist and marketer, I publicized and marketed it. As I was doing that, I [thought], “Let me book it in a couple of theaters.” It just happened so organically that I was like, “Wow, I’m just self-distributing this film right now.” It wasn’t even intentional. So the bug kind of hit, and it triggered me being approached by some networks to direct other music and culture documentaries. [I thought,] “Let me take some of this money I’ve made from these films and try to make a narrative,” and that was all that followed.
COOPER: So This is the Life, to My Mic Sounds Nice to Essence Presents: Faith in 2010, now to what you just completed, the Venus and Serena piece for ESPN [Venus VS] — how has your evolution as a [narrative] filmmaker changed as a function of the documentary work that you’ve been doing?
DUVERNAY: I love the documentary space, and I love going back and forth between the two. It’s a completely different kind of storytelling, but it is still storytelling at its core. One really informs the other. The tools that I’ve learned and picked up while shooting the narratives [are] strengthening the work on these documentaries, I think. You’re not going to always have your budget for the narratives, you know what I mean? I feel like that ability to go back and forth is giving me the opportunity to always stay working, which is my goal right now — to create and sustain a certain momentum. Docs, narratives, to me, they’re all [using] the same storytelling tools.
COOPER: That’s very much Spike [Lee’s] philosophy too. A story is a story is a story. And talking about Spike, we have to spend a moment talking about the folks that have come before. Who inspires you from back in the day?
DUVERNAY: For me, particularly as a UCLA alumni, it’s Haile Gerima and Charles [Burnett]. To be acquainted [with their work] as a cinephile and black student at a time when there was unrest in our city, that harkened back to the time when they were making their films, when there was also unrest. A couple of years ago, I was sitting down with our cinematographer, Bradford Young, and he showed me a film of Haile’s I’d never seen, Ashes and Embers. I could never get my hands on that one, and it changed a lot for me in terms of what’s possible and what we’re saying with our films. And so, yeah, I would say Haile, Julie [Dash] and Charles — big, big influences and inspirations.
COOPER: Let’s spend a moment to talk about your collaboration with Bradford Young, and what that has meant to your world as a filmmaker.
DUVERNAY: Because I am limited in my technical knowledge having not gone to film school, it was really important for me to have someone I could talk with about the images on emotional terms, in [terms of] colors and feelings. I told him when we met, “I can’t tell you which lens is going to give me what I’m thinking of in my head. I can tell you how I want it to feel and when that’s not it. But I am not going to be able to talk to you in [a technical] way because I don’t have that [background]. What I have is my heart and my head and my intention and what I’ve written and what I want to say and show.” And he was able to work with me in that way. I learned a lot from him, but I also was very clear that I didn’t want to learn these [technical] things. I’ve been obsessed with filmmakers who paint their films in a lot of different ways, you know? Their relationships with their d.p.s run the gamut. Some filmmakers who do have that knowledge don’t even collaborate with their d.p.s in that way because they’re just painting a picture from a more emotional place. I saw that early on, firsthand, from a couple of great, master filmmakers on their sets, and I kind of forgave myself for starting to make films without having all of that [technical knowledge]. Bradford really helped me get there in terms of saying, “It’s okay, this is valid.”
COOPER: Let’s talk about AFFRM. You have a distribution company, and with Middle of Nowhere, you took it a step further by making a deal with Participant to partner on the domestic distribution. This is incredible. Can you talk about this model that you’re building, and what it means for filmmakers, like myself, and others who are coming up?
DUVERNAY: AFFRM was an idea that really came out of that first documentary experience, This is the Life — the self-distribution of that, and the festivals [I worked for] as a marketing and publicity person. AFFRM is a very simple idea, which struck me as I was on the festival circuit with This is the Life, going to all these beautiful black film festivals. Having been a publicist, I had put films into Urban World and PanAfrican Film Festival as part of my marketing strategy. But I’d never really gone and sat down as a filmmaker and interfaced with the filmmakers and festival leaders. And so, I traveled all around the country, to Seattle, to Atlanta, to Boston. There was just one common thread — these [festivals] were led by passionate, market-driven black people who cared about our images. There’s no other reason to do it if you’re not making money, [Laughs] you know what I mean? And there was a disconnect between [these festival directors and the goal of] helping these festival films be seen again. Because there’s no acquisitions frenzy around Urban World, right? Our films are playing there and they’re not going on to anything. Hopefully a DVD release. And so, the idea from having distributed my film myself and meeting all these amazing people gelled into the sense of, “What can we all do together? I have this certain set of tools, you guys have a certain set of tools, what if we all got together and released films?” The distribution parts are very easy for me — well, not easy, but in terms of figuring out the marketing and the publicity, which is 80 percent of distribution, I already knew how to do that at a very high level. That part wasn’t hard. But the other 20 percent was really hard — making relationships with the [theater] chains, getting them to understand that it is not just me, Ava, doing a one-off film but that I Will Follow will be the first of what I hope will be many films through AFFRM. I had to create relationships with exhibitors and my fellow distributors the same way I created relationships with the press in 1995. And so, the first release was I Will Follow in March of 2011 and this is now, Middle of Nowhere. By the time your piece hits, we will have announced the growth of AFFRM with new ancillary deals. We’re going to take the films from the theatrical space, which was our sole focus at our launch, full through the ancillary pathways — VOD, DVD, a retail label, etc. So that’s exciting.
COOPER: Yes, indeed. The producer Karin Chien and I have been having a lot of conversations lately about international sales for black and brown films. How do you feel about the international sales piece of this? Have you brought on an international sales agent? I can say from my vantage point, I’m a bit frustrated. We sold Pariah’s international rights to Focus, and there’s not been very much movement on that front. In spite of their best efforts, they’ve not found international outlets for the film beyond Canada. Their usual international partners seem to be in the same space most of our domestic industry is about black and brown film overseas — no international sales potential. And, my question is, if hip hop and fashion and other things that evolved from our culture can sell, why can’t this content?
DUVERNAY: Thank you. You said you’re frustrated; I’ll say that I’m infuriated.
COOPER: I was trying to be diplomatic. [Laughs]
DUVERNAY: It’s some bullshit. There is ineptitude, ignorance and arrogance at a level that is astounding. It is a groupthink and a group failure. For Middle of Nowhere, we went into Sundance with not as many jitters as a lot of our counterparts because I wasn’t looking for a distribution deal. I went in saying, “We’re opening in October, and if there’s a like-minded partner who will come with us and do it, that’d be awesome. And if not, we’re opening in October.” It would have been really disingenuous of me to create a distribution company so early on and not put out my own film that is getting so much attention through it. And it was a beautiful experience because there was a flattering array of offers, none of which were right for us. Will every film I make go through AFFRM? No, because AFFRM probably can’t handle the next films as I’m trying to increase my budgets. AFFRM has a very specific P&A budget which has to be put against a specific size of film. But as long as I’m making a film in that size that fits into the model, it will go through AFFRM. Thank God Participant comes in and kind of supersizes what AFFRM could do for Middle, to help us reach a wider share of the market. That’s been amazing. But I’ve been able to retain all rights outside of theatrical because Participant, they’re not licensing anything. It’s a P&A partnership. I walked away from Sundance with all the rest of the rights, [including] international. And for the last seven months, I’ve been trying to exploit them. And every single top international sales agent has passed, every single second-tier sales agent, and every single C-level sales agent who takes the blood-and-gore and one-step-above-porn films has passed.
DUVERNAY: If I did not have my hands full trying to figure out the domestic distribution future, I would completely turn my attention to that. The people who crack that are the winners, right? Because there are films like yours that have unattended international rights just sitting there. You’re talking about hundreds of films, current, past, classic, that have unattended international rights. And so, if there was any kind of mechanism put together for that, the world is that person’s oyster. They could have whatever they want. We would be throwing films at them. Is it going to be hard? Yeah. But is it impossible? “There is no market” — you can’t tell me that. And for me, it has nothing to do with hip-hop or sports or anything that flourishes with black people abroad. It has to be with knowing people who love film. I was the first in line to see A Separation, and they did not market to me. I’m not from that world, but that’s a good movie. At the very core of it, if these films are offered in places where people love movies, if they are presented as fine films, beautiful films, world-class films, how are they not going to play? Fox Searchlight can take Beasts of the Southern Wild all over the world … now, yes, they are Fox Searchlight, but the bottom line is that it’s playing [internationally]. However much the industry positions that film so it’s a quote-unquote “independent film,” divorcing it from its blackness, that is a black film with black faces and it’s playing overseas. So yeah, it’s a maddening situation and it needs to be fixed.
COOPER: I heard in an interview you did at Urban World you said something to the effect of, “A filmmaker’s responsibility doesn’t end with picture lock.” Talk a little bit to filmmakers who look to you as an example of that philosophy and what it means in 2012.
DUVERNAY: I don’t know if it’s about looking to me as an example as much as having common sense. I mean, my God, you’ve fought for this film! And you hand it over to somebody and [say], “Okay, well, let me know how it goes.” As a marketer and publicist, I’ve seen this. I’ve represented filmmakers and films for a dozen years, and I would be astounded at the drive and passion and all-consuming handle on the film that the director had during the filmmaking process. And then, I’d see them in the marketing meeting and hide a little in the corner, not knowing what to ask and what to do. It’s like, “Dude, get a grip. Learn this shit. You need to know this. It is not over. You are still battling for this. Do not trust.” Now, filmmakers of note, they have a different situation. They’re probably going to be with a marketing department of a studio that’s going to handle that. They don’t have much to worry about. But that’s not us, you know?
DUVERNAY: The bottom line is we need to educate ourselves to the marketing and distribution patterns of our films. Making sure a film reaches an audience is part of the filmmaking process. As a filmmaker, it’s part of my responsibility. Everyone’s different. I understand. You get to the end of it and it’s like, “I’m done, I can’t do any more.” But ultimately, I say you’re not at the end unless your film has reached its audience. And that doesn’t always mean theatrical. For some people, your audience is reached in different ways. You gotta have some idea about how that works and what your true prospects are. I was talking earlier on in Toronto with a filmmaker who has a script. I said, “Yeah, brother, make that. What’s your budget?” And he was like, “$2.8.” I said, “Okay, how are you going to make your money back?” “What do you mean?” [Laughs] “Is that your $2.8? Because if it ain’t your $2.8, you’re going to have to figure out how to make the money back, my brother. Do you understand that there is no current model for you to get to $2.8 with the film you just described to me? If you are making a film beyond your means, you’re not being a responsible filmmaker. Serious.” These are not the times when they’re going to throw $6 million at a filmmaker and say, “Go make your little film.” There’s no one saying, “We’ll see what happens.” That’s the stress right now. It needs to be part of our DNA as filmmakers to know what the world is like outside of our set, to understand what the business of filmmaking is. And so, yeah, that’s my big fist in the air.
COOPER: And so, Middle of Nowhere, theatrical release?
DUVERNAY: Yeah. We shot this film last year in June for 19 days. The Sundance thing was a beautiful long shot. The award, as you guys have experienced as well, adds a new level of attention to the film. We’re an L.A. film, I’m an L.A. filmmaker and this is an L.A. story in a lot of ways, so we played the L.A. Film Festival in June and it was a beautiful blowout, a 1,000-foot gala red carpet that kicked off our campaign for the summer. That has included street teams at every black summer event you can think of, collaborating with all of the organizations that are in AFFRM, over 16 organizations in top markets around the country that have been having weekly planning meanings about grassroots tactics and marketing. There are amazing things happening in each city that are being handcrafted, customized and executed by leaders in their markets. You say “grassroots” and think, oh, I’m passing out postcards. But how about the AFFRM leaders who are putting together an art exhibit of work based on the film? One of our leaders in Seattle petitioned the city to have city vans pick up seniors who wouldn’t otherwise have a ride and bring them to the Friday matinee. Those are the kind of tactics we are employing. We don’t have TV commercials, just people holding hands, rallying around the concept of a certain kind of black cinematic image. That’s what’s been happening all summer. And last night at Toronto we had an international premiere, a sold-out house.
DUVERNAY: It was a really beautiful night. And then we play Urban World, closing night in a couple of weeks. We’re marching towards our opening. We’re 30 days out from opening right now, and all we’re trying to do is prove a point that these films have viability and that there is an audience for them. And to think beyond that opening weekend because I don’t want to get opening weekend-itis, you know? I’ve made a film that I want to live a full, robust life way beyond October 12th.