The Film Independent Directors Close-up panel series offers filmmakers and film lovers a unique opportunity to hear directly from the best indie directors and their collaborators, as they explore specific aspects of their craft. On February 21st, acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay and members of her creative team (including the D.P., editor, composer, visual effects supervisor, prop master, lead hair stylist, location manager and casting director) held a behind the scenes discussion on creating the visual language of a film, specifically for her upcoming feature A Wrinkle in Time, out in theaters on March 9th.
Collider was invited to join the audience in attendance to listen to the panel, which highlighted many aspects of what it takes to craft a film the size and scope of A Wrinkle in Time. During the in-depth chat, DuVernay talked about how she got the job directing the film, directing the first project that she didn’t write, finding the right director of photography, how the music evolved, putting together the soundtrack, her overall vision for the film, what it feels like to hit theaters less than a month after Black Panther, and what’s up next for her.
Check out some video clips from the conversation below, followed by more extensive highlights:
How she got the job making A Wrinkle in Time for Disney:
AVA DuVERNAY: The interesting thing about this movie is that I did not pitch them, they pitched me. That’s a rare thing. It happened because there were people at Disney that were forward thinking, so I have to tip my hat to them. It’s the same company that asked Taika Waititi to make Thor, that had Ryan Coogler make Panther, and that has Niki Caro as the next woman with a $100 million budget, making Mulan. They’re really doing some interesting things there, so I tip my hat to them. For me, there was a high-ranking black executive there, who’s the VP of production, named Tendo Nagenda. He was the one in the meeting, talking about A Wrinkle in Time. They still can’t tell me how I came into their head. Maybe it’s because there was a girl at the center and they were looking for a woman to do it. I don’t know. I heard they were talking to Tim Burton and some other people. But he saw something in Selma and he, along with Jim Whitaker and Sean Bailey, brought me in to convince me to do the book. I had not read the book and I wasn’t interested in the book ‘cause I hadn’t read it and didn’t know what it was about. I went home that night and read the book, the script and the graphic novel, and I called in the morning and said, “This is mine! No one else can do this book!”
The reason why that meeting went so well – and it speaks to the whole idea of inclusion and diversity in the industry, even though I don’t like the word “diversity” – and I could have a very relaxed, passionate conversation with those guys was because I knew them. I knew Sean Bailey because I sat on the board of Sundance with him. I knew Tendo Nagenda because he’s black and there’s 16 of us in Hollywood. I saw him down the black Hollywood hall and went, “Hey!” So, I knew him through black Hollywood circles. I was able to walk into the room and just have a conversation with them about the work. Usually, I go into the studios and I do, “Hi, I’m me, and this is who I am,” and I present myself because I don’t know them. At that moment, when I walked into Disney for that meeting, I walked into that meeting like a white guy. So many of the people who are the mainstream of this industry know each other or they have similar experiences. They know their wives, or they’re in the same neighborhoods, or they went to the same college. Even if they don’t intimately know each other, they know each other, just like when I walk into a room with black women that I’ve never met and I’m like, “I’ve got you,” because I know them. They’re able to walk into these rooms and my white male counterparts have a comfort there that’s inherent in the privilege of being who they are in this industry. I walk in there and I never have that privilege. I’m always a little step behind, in having to try to prove myself.
But in this meeting for A Wrinkle in Time, the reason it was so special, from the very beginning, was that I walked in there, they knew me and I knew them, and we sat down and just talked about the work. It wasn’t anything else. It was just the work, in a relaxed environment. That’s how it began. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that more of us are in the room and that we know each other, and we know our counterparts at the studio. They don’t have to look like us, but we can still know each other. There’s something more than quotas, internship programs and checking boxes. It’s knowing each other that makes us feel comfortable, and that’s where we have a long way to go in this industry.
On directing the first project that she didn’t write:
DuVERNAY: When you put your own words on the page, writing what you intend to direct, there’s something really powerful about being a writer and director, for me. So, the prospect of working with someone else’s words and working with a writer, in that way, I didn’t know what it was gonna be like, but Jennifer [Lee] was a dream. We really collaborated to make sure that the script that was there really took Madeline L’Engle’s intention from the novel, which was written in 1963, and what she really meant and updated it. We wanted to make sure that we were capturing her intention, but updating it, so that contemporary audiences could enter into the fantasy in a way that felt vibrant to them. It was a beautiful process with a lot of back and forth. What I wanted to do was have the Mrs. look much different than what they looked like in the book. I wanted them to come to life and change hair and costumes with every planet that they jumped, so we needed a visionary costume designer like Paco Delgado, and we needed the hair, so I had to have Kim Kimble. We infused the costumes and the hair into the script, and reverse-engineered some of the design into the script.
On whether the script changed, in terms of the story in the book:
DuVERNAY: We wanted to stay true to the book, so the rhythms of the book, the motivations and the general character movements are there. There was some culling down. The book gets really dense in places and we wanted to make sure we had room to support things cinematically. We wanted to see the pretty pictures and not explain so much. We really shaped the story in the editing process that I worked on with Spencer Avarice, my longtime friend and collaborator. We let some things be a little more obtuse, so you can lean in and figure out what things are. That came in the script phase, but also the editing phase, which is also the script phase with picture. There were not a lot of radical departures from the script. The story was all in line.
On finding the right D.P. for the film:
DuVERNAY: This was the first time I was making a film with a D.P. other than a D.P. that I’d known personally and worked with on Selma, Middle of Nowhere, and a bunch of other stuff, named Bradford Young. He was making Solo, so I was like, “Whatever, I’ll see you in a couple of years.” So, I really had to think about who else I could work so closely with. I was a publicist before I was a filmmaker, and I remember watching this D.P. on set, on one of the films that I’d worked on as a publicist. That film was Dreamgirls, and I loved the way Dreamgirls looked. I loved the skin. Beyonce’s skin just looks like butter. They all looked gorgeous. I remember seeing [D.P. Tobias Schliessler] in the middle of all these beautiful black people, and he was lighting perfectly. He was calm but intense, and intimidating but kind. It was a mix, and it was weird. That’s why I called him. We had our first meeting, and then we started our journey . . . I was looking for someone who could work with me, and I knew he could work with me.
As a black woman filmmaker, I really have to consider whether you can work with me, take me seriously, respect me, listen to me, and also allow me to listen to you and be safe with you. I put my images in the hands of someone I didn’t know personally, at the time. You’re really looking for someone you have a personal heart connection with. I knew he could work with all kinds of directors and I believed he could work with me. He works with a director named Peter Berg a lot, who’s throwing cameras off of mountains and people are running. He also works with Bill Condon and did Dreamgirls and Beauty and the Beast. A D.P. that can do Bill Condon, who’s a very nice man, and Pete Berg, who is a completely different person, he can work with a sister. I’m in the middle. He can work with any personality and really bring that filmmaker’s dream to life. I knew he could do it.
How the music evolved:
DuVERNAY: I came to (composer) Ramin Djawadi because I was like, “Game of Thrones is my favorite show. Who does that?” I would always see his name come up with that main theme. We can all hum it, and you come from the other room when it’s on. And it’s not just the theme, but all the music throughout. He did Westworld and he did Pacific Rim. There’s people that are ride or die for Ramin’s music in Pacific Rim. He’s done really incredible work, so I just wanted that guy, and he was the loveliest soul to work with. He just really got the movie. In the early days of this, I didn’t want to sit there and say, “Put music here, and put music there.” He just felt it in different places . . . I call him the King of Themes. They’ll play, and then, at the end, they all converge. You have strands of music that you hear and different times, and they all come together, in one super theme, at the end. That’s what he does so well. He weaves them all into one master theme, at the end. He even added a little ticking clock in the background. The first time that magic enters the movie and a Mrs. appears in [the Murry] house, you hear this little clock that starts to tick when the women are around. That was his idea, among many.