Directors & Their Troops: Ava DuVernay on Her ‘Selma’ Collaborators

Directors & Their Troops: Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay is full of admiration and gratitude for her artisan team, enthusing over their contributions ranging from shirt collars to a lectern. Everybody on the team, she says, went the extra mile for the ambitious $20 million film about Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in Alabama in 1965.

Cinematography, Bradford Young
“In our first conversation, I told him I’d seen these old Kodachrome photos by photographer Paul Fusco, who’d shot RFK’s funeral procession. It was an open train that went from one state to another, and Americans lined up along the tracks in multiple places to pay tribute. These photos showed the country in the 1960s. Kodachrome did something beautiful: It had sharp contrast, yet the edges fell off into something gentle and beautiful — it’s hazy on the edges but with a sharp center. Bradford really responded to those photos, which started our conversation in a lot of directions. And we talked about the array of skin tones with black people. He has a real mastery of working with dark skin tones in dark places. That scene where all of King’s band of brothers walk into Richie Jean Jackson’s kitchen — you’ve got Common, who’s very fair, while Omar Dorsey is very dark — those are the extremes, and you have men of every different shade in the middle. The attention you have to pay to everyone in the scene, as a cinematographer — it’s something he does better than anybody else. The industry standard, when you think about it: When you have a black person and white person in a scene, you light the star, which is usually the white person. For decades that was the language in cinema. But Brad gives attention to artists of color in ways you don’t often see. He’s quite amazing.”

Editing, Spencer Averick
“Spencer has a special place in my heart because he’s always the last person standing with me. I spend 10-14 hours in the dark every day with this guy. He’s the first collaborator I ever had, for a documentary I made for $10,000 in the olden days of 2009. That was his first film and mine. His interest at that time was in documentaries, and I brought him into the narrative world; he approaches the narrative work from an investigative space. He got into the political machinations (of “Selma”), the strategy and tactics — so much of that is Spencer, who was able to synthesize that and make it palatable and still bring out the poignancy and detail. We would leave the editing room at 12 or 1 in the morning, and I’d come back next morning at 9 — not only had he torn a scene apart, saying, “We can find something better” — but he HAD found something better. He’s a pusher. It was a fast, fast edit for him. We finished in Atlanta July 4 and screened it (at AFI Fest) Nov. 11 — taking 32 days of footage, finding the scenes, crafting the story, the characters’ nuance and dealing with all of the things like color, music, visual effects; it all got done in four months.”

Costume design, Ruth Carter
“Ruth did an amazing job with a small budget. We made the film for $20 million, and we had two days to shoot the bridge, in 100-plus degree weather, in the Deep South, on the actual bridge, with some survivors of the real march — it was a lot for Ruth and her team, who all did an outstanding job. It was important that the people of Selma be represented: who they were, what they look like. I liked the idea of seeing some of the same faces in the crowd at different times — so you see some people in the hallway as King leaves, shaking their hands, then you see some of those same people on the bridge later. We had 100 whom we called super-extras, super-background actors. They were pre-fit with multiple costume changes because we would see them on multiple days. And then on Bloody Sunday, the scene begins with them clean and ends with them bloody, so the costumes had to reflect the progression of the assault. For the Kings, we were trying to convey Coretta’s quiet dignity as the first lady of the movement, in her cuts and silhouette. Ruth helped David (Oyelowo, in photo with DuVernay) and me get that King neck. David is really slim, and he gained 30 pounds; it filled out his face but it never gave him the neck. Ruth figured out it was the collar: She made it an inch higher, pushing up the skin on David’s neck to give it a thickness around the jowl. That’s the kind of collaboration that allows David to look in the mirror and see that transformation. That’s the way she collaborates with everyone.”

Production design, Mark Friedberg
“Only two people actually built an ark: Noah and Mark Friedberg. This was so much smaller than anything he’d done recently. He had just come from ‘Noah’ and before that ‘Amazing Spider-Man 2.’ But he’d also done ‘Ice Storm’ and other beautiful character pieces that are all about period details, and that’s what really attracted me. He had a personal connection to the ‘Selma’ material; He had family members supporting the movement from New York, so he had as much emotional connection to it as I did. It was about texture and feeling of the place: How do we drench every scene with a real sense of time and place — and on such a small budget. It was all in the details, as opposed to the scale. One example: King’s final speech on the Alabama Capitol steps. It’s a practical location, with period signage, period microphones, period cars. Mark had a lectern there for King, but it’s never enough for Mark. He went over to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — it was King’s original church, which just happened to be nearby. And Mark said, ‘Can I borrow your lectern?’ He was looking for something a little more worn and solid than what he had. And the man said, ‘You can’t use this lectern, because it’s bolted down, but we just found one in the basement. You can take that.’ It turned out to be the same lectern that King had used that day. It was put in the basement that day, 50 years ago, and never left. Chills. It would have sat there if Mark hadn’t gone the extra mile.”

Music, Jason Moran
“I was speaking with Bradford Young and said, ‘Who’s the next Terence Blanchard? Somebody who gives you quintessential Americana, but nuanced and deeper. Who is it?’ Two days later, Bradford said, ‘Do you know Jason Moran? He’s the guy.’ They know each other through their wives. I researched Jason; musical director for the Kennedy Center, a MacArthur fellow — the guy’s basically a genius. In a video of his MacArthur Fellowship acceptance, he talks about echoes of the Deep South civil-rights movement and how that reverberates through him. This was six years ago. I’ve never had the luxury of working with a composer quite like this — my previous films were indies and very quick. This was a different scope, different scale of film. He and I didn’t really know how directors and composers work in this town — which is often not as closely as one would think. Jason was there in the editing room with Spencer and me, watching it being cut, very collaborative because we didn’t know any other way.”

Music supervision, Morgan Rhodes
“Her work is such an important complement to Jason’s score. I said to Morgan, ‘I need everything from 1964 and ’65. And I don’t want hits.’ So she brought us B-sides of Curtis Mayfield, for example, and a lot of indigenous voices, Alabama folk songs — she went deep for me. She curates, and she’s a big part of the film.”

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