Selma tells a very human story of a man finding his way through doubts and daunting obstacles, in order to make real change in the world. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo, in a stunning performance) helped to unite America through actions that showcased the unbreakable spirit of ordinary men and women who sacrificed so that African Americans could gain the basic rights that they so desperately wanted and deserved.
A writer, producer, director and distributor of independent film, Selma is Ava DuVernay’s biggest project to date, but it is expertly directed with an emotional impact that hits you right in the gut. While at the film’s press day, DuVernay spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about finding the balance between history and emotional connection, making sure the historical drama was an intimate character experience, deciding on the right bookends to start and end the film with, the first 3-hour and 10-minute cut, her hope that the deleted scenes will make it to the DVD, the most emotional moments on set, and why her dream was to be the black Lynn Shelton. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
This film has a level of nostalgia for people who experienced these events, firsthand, and there’s also an emotional resonance for people who will be learning about all of this, for the first time. Did you think about finding that balance?
AVA DuVERNAY: Yeah. You can get caught into this thing of making a movie that’s a complete tribute, and that has no resonance with people now. Yes, you’re honoring these great people, but that’s not what people look for in a story. They need emotional connection, and the thing that connects you emotionally are characters that you can understand. And so, we just had to get to the human element of it. That’s what I knew how to do, going into the film. I know how to make films about the inner lives of people. What I didn’t know how to do was to stage battles on a bridge, and have 500 extras in a church. I was learning, through those things, and it was all new to me. That stuff was a challenge. To me, I feel like history is a skeleton. We were just trying to put meat on the bones and fill out the lines on the page.
Having that intimate character experience with your previous films, did approaching Selma that way make it feel less scary?
DuVERNAY: Yeah. It’s what I was comfortable with. My entry point is real people, and how we behave toward one another and ourselves. I looked at this film not only about one of the greatest men in history, but about a black man from Atlanta who was having trouble with his wife, had a lot of pressure with his wife, and was gone from home a lot. When I deconstructed him as just a man, I found the story for myself, as a filmmaker.
During the process, did you go through different versions of where to start this story and where to end it?
DuVERNAY: When I took my pass at the script, I thought about that a lot. As a filmmaker, you always think about bookends, and what your first image is and what your last image is, and how those are speaking to each other, if you can. So certainly, I wanted to think of an entry point that allows us to just immediately see him as a man, and there’s nothing more manly than struggling with your tie. He’s also bitching to his wife and he’s a little cranky, and then he tries to woo her. It all happens in three minutes, and that just sets the stage for the kind of film we’re telling. It’s not all about speeches and statues, and he’s not just a holiday. This is a real man.
Did you intentionally decide not to show the actual assassination?
DuVERNAY: Yeah. I just really challenged myself to stay within Selma. Selma happened between the time of his “I Have A Dream” speech and his assassination, and it’s just not something that enough people know about. It’s fascinating and it’s full of everything that he was about and everything that he went through. You really don’t have to do a cradle to the grave. If you stay very committed and challenge yourself to tell his whole story, within that three months, there were some really beautiful things in that timeframe.
DuVERNAY: Well, I have to mention my editor, Spencer Averick, who I’ve edited every single thing I’ve ever made with. We started editing in his bedroom. He’d edit on the bed, and I’d be sitting in a chair, next to the bed, because we had no place else to edit. So, I came to him in July, with all of the footage, and we were done in early November. That is an editing feat. We were just trying to push the narrative as much as we could. It was a challenge. We pushed ourselves to make the material feel vital, current and vibrant. There’s a way that you can put all of the things we shot together, and have it feel like the same old Civil Rights movie. So, it was really in the cutting that it came alive.
How long was your first cut, compared to what we see now?
DuVERNAY: His editor’s assembly was three hours and ten minutes, and my first cut was two hours and 45 minutes. I remember thinking, “I don’t have anything to cut! I cannot give up anything! I can’t!” And then, I had a small screening for a really close friend of mine and screenwriting mentor, Robin Swicord, who’s an Academy Award nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She looked at it and said, “Yeah, you’ve got 30 minutes of cuts in there.” And then another good friend, Terry Shropshire, who’s an editor, came and looked at it and she was like, “Yeah, you’ve got another 10 minutes of cuts.” We just kept getting it down. At one point, we got in pocket and were like, “Oh, cut that, cut that and cut that,” but you have to get there. They’re all your babies, and you have to really kill your babies to get to the final thing, so it takes time.
Will we get to see any of those deleted scenes on the DVD?
DuVERNAY: Oh, I hope so ‘cause there’s some beautiful stuff on the cutting room floor. It just didn’t propel the story forward, but there are beautiful asides and little nuances that we shot. I definitely am going to ask that that stuff be on the DVD.
Is there a specific scene that you’d most want people to see?
DuVERNAY: Goodness! Oh, gosh! There’s a lot of stuff. Not a specific scene, but like six different scenes. We’re gonna reconstruct that stuff, and hopefully it will be with the deleted scenes. One of the things we wanted to do was really bring in the ensemble. So often, you think King stood alone, but he had these amazing other leaders around him. Even though we don’t get full-fledged stories for them, each of them has an arc, in their support of him. No one has an aside where they go off and do something that you don’t see, but there’s some expansion. They scene where they all come into the kitchen and all the brothers are in there, there’s a whole bunch more of that, with them just cracking jokes. And the debate when they’re sitting there, talking about what to do next, that’s a beautiful scene that had to be cut down. There’s a lot of fun stuff with the other characters.
DuVERNAY: Yeah. We were standing in the real places where these things happened. David makes the final speech using the real podium that King stood at. We found it in the basement of the church. The actors walked the real route that the marchers walked. We were on the real Edmund Pettus Bridge where blood was spilled. When you’re in those spaces, I won’t say you feel the ghosts of what was there, but it’s a living memory. There are people alive, right now, that did it. I asked people to just feel it. I said, “Just don’t act. See where you are and be present in the space.” With that, magic started to happen.
You’ve said that, for you, this movie really starts and ends with David Oyelowo. When he came to you about directing this, did it take you time to decide that you wanted to do this?
DuVERNAY: It didn’t take me time. It took me the course of one phone conversation. At the beginning of the conversation, I was like, “Nah, I ain’t interested in historical dramas.” I just don’t like them. I’m being honest. It’s really not my favorite thing to watch. I like contemporary dramas, or something in the future, especially because I’m very activist around the idea of black cinematic images, and where we are put and placed. I think Hollywood feels comfortable with us in hindsight. I’ve said that many times before. So, to challenge myself, as a filmmaker that does not like historical dramas, to make a historical drama, and not just that, but about Dr. King, was really going out of my comfort zone. When he first called me and we talked about it, my first reaction was, “That’s not really me.”
But as I really started to think about it, this is about the power of protest, this is about empowerment, this is about folks standing up, particularly in the African American community, and the pride and the dignity that they have, and this is the place that my father is from. My father is from Montgomery, Alabama. If I called my mother and father, right now, on the phone, they live in Montgomery. And my brothers and sisters live in Montgomery. Everyone I love lives in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s my family’s story. My whole family is from there. So, it took awhile, on the phone, for me to get there in my head, but once I got there, I was in pocket. Immediately, I felt very possessive of the story. I was like, “Nobody is touching this story. I’m doing this.” Once I claimed it as mine, it truly was. I hoped I could make it my own, and still take the things I like about what I do, as a filmmaker making contemporary images, and imbue that in a historical context. That was my challenge, just for my filmmaking sensibility, and I tried my best.
DuVERNAY: No. That’s a great question. Heck no! What I wanted and what I would still love to have – it’s a beautiful dream – is to be the black Lynn Shelton. I just wanted to make my films about my small stories. Every year, that woman makes a film. Every year, she makes a small, beautiful film. I said, “God, if I could have that career, and find a way to put some money together for myself to make a film every year and tell my own little stories, I would be so happy.” And then, Selma dropped in my lap. For me, it’s just really consistency. I feel like this is the time. I love making films. I’m happiest when I’m doing it. For me, the fear is not being able to make the next thing and not being able, as a woman filmmaker and as a filmmaker of color, to put together the resources to make another thing. Hopefully, Selma will help me be in a place where I can make more things.
Has doing Selma made you re-evaluate the kind of films you want to do?
DuVERNAY: Not the kind of films, but maybe the resources behind the films. I just didn’t even think I was capable of making a film for $20 million. I was like, “How do you spend that?!” It helped me really learn more about all of the departments on films with money. On an indie, one person is doing five things. I was like, “Wow, there’s a separate person, just to cut the music? It’s not just my regular editor?!” There’s a music editor and an effects editor. Our editorial team was nine people. Everything else, it was just one guy. So, to get those bells and whistles, and those toys, it helps you enlarge your filmmaker. It doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a big story. It just means we can work in a different way, and everyone is freed up to be more creative because they’re not doing nine jobs.
Selma opens in limited released on Christmas Day, and nationwide on January 9, 2015.