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Ava DuVernay, Katie Couric Talk Tackling Big Social Issues in Documentary Form

The mass incarceration crisis for people of color. The revolution in understanding gender identity. 

Ava DuVernay and Katie Couric both gamely took on what Couric called “big honkin’ subjects” to explore in feature-length documentary form.

DuVernay earned an Oscar nomination and a slew of other plaudits for her study of discrimination in criminal justice and prisons in “13th,” which premiered on Netflix in September. Couric offered a sensitive and revealing look at the new thinking about gender identity in National Geographic TV’s “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric,” which bowed in February and will be expanded to a multi-part series.

DuVernay and Couric sat down with Variety to talk about the determination and the curiosity that led them to tackle their respective docs, the craftsmanship that goes into exploring complicated subjects and the public’s new-found interest in heady non-fiction storytelling.

“Gender Revolution” and “13th” both take on very far-reaching subjects. How did you find your way in to tell the story?

Katie Couric: I went into it with the purest of motives to really try to help other people understand. What was nice for me is that even people who understood a lot about gender identity — because it’s not just about transgender people, it’s about intersex people and gender-fluid people — even they said they learned a lot. I feel like if I was able to educate and enlighten people who knew very little but also people who were living it, then I did my job.

Ava DuVernay: There are a number of documentaries that deal with the prison-industrial complex and criminalization and over-incarceration. Those are pieces of the puzzle, but I think there’s something really important that we’re missing if we don’t look at the whole picture. But that’s intimidating, to go look at that and figure out what is the way in. That’s hard with any story. I always said [“13th”] was going to be a primer. The challenge is how do you go in and make it something that people who’ve lived it, who know about it would still watch and lean into it, and at the same time work for someone who knows nothing about it. That caused a little bit of schizophrenia at times until I just honed in and starting to tell the story from a place that I knew what was of greatest interest to me and letting that guide me through. I wanted to make it appeal to someone who might agree with you and to someone who would not agree with you. Those were the questions we dealt with going in. Ultimately it has to be a personal quest for me. That’s when it got interesting, and that’s when I cracked it.

Couric: When I watched “13th” I thought, “Wow, Ava and I have something in common. We take these big honkin’ topics and try to connect the dots.” I think that we’re basically drowning on a tsunami of information on a daily if not hourly basis. I think documentaries provide this opportunity to take a step back, to put things in historical context, to understand why something is the way it is and to tease out these complicated topics. We don’t look at the past enough to understand the present and to help predict the future.

DuVernay: With the kind of films Katie is doing and with “13th” — documentaries are the newest, most robust form of news sharing.

Couric: I call it the new journalism.

DuVernay: Nobody was going to movie theaters to watch docs, nobody was watching docs on television in a way that was really sparking conversation and cultural exchange. Now docs are cool, and if docs are cool and there’s news embedded in them, it’s a way we can make the best kind of deep-dive journalism survive.

Couric: In television there used to be these longform documentaries. Think of “Harvest of Shame” and Edward R. Murrow and “White Paper.” It used to be on NBC they would take a really big complicated social issue and help people understand it from all different perspectives. You just don’t see that as much on television. A lot of the hourly shows are about true crime. They’re well done but they are a certain milieu that hasn’t lent itself to an exploration of big ideas.

DuVernay: As a filmmaker it’s just such an honor. Making films is getting inside someone’s head. When you really move somebody — it’s an honor.

What was the path to getting your movies made?

DuVernay: Lisa Nishimura at Netflix called me right after “Selma” and said, “I’m sure you’re getting a bunch of calls but your roots are in documentaries. If you ever want to think about doing one, call us.” I said, “In fact I’m not getting a lot of calls …”

Couric: Well, that’s insane …

DuVernay: Yeah. And I said: “I would like to make a documentary.” She said, “We’ll let you do your thing over here, we just want to have your voice.” I grew up in Compton and this has just been an issue I’ve been an activist on for a while. I initially went in thinking about doing an exploration of private prisons. But I was an African-American studies major. As I started to deal with private prisons and really research it for the documentary there were so many echoes of Jim Crow laws and so many things I saw connecting to it. I thought if I could connect these topics in one doc, that would be radical.

Couric: And incredibly ambitious.

DuVernay: Yeah it was, but to have the support of a place like Netflix. … There’s still only a few places in the TV world that really support that kind of work from the ground up. Many places will acquire, but not many places will actually work in partnership with a filmmaker to bring these kinds of issues to life. So it was Netflix’s invitation to work on something that has just always been on my mind.

Couric: A funny thing happened to me on the way to making this documentary. On my [syndicated] talk show I had Carmen Carrera, a transgender model, come on. I asked her an indelicate and inappropriate question about her anatomy. I ended up keeping it in my talk show. I thought by my stumbling and making a mistake it could help educate other people and tell them what was appropriate and what was inappropriate. But somehow my message didn’t get through. People just saw me as this very insensitive person who was out of line. So I realized, “Well, gosh that was a really very painful experience.” I pride myself on being an open-hearted tolerant person. But it didn’t deter me; it made me more determined to understand this issue better. Some people thought I was insane to wade back into these waters.

I went to the premiere of a series that Morgan Freeman was doing for NatGeo. I know Morgan. There I met Courteney Monroe who is really transforming NatGeo TV, she’s really invigorating it. I said I would like to do a documentary on this conversation that is being had all over the place about gender.

You pitched her right at the premiere?

Couric: I said, “I’d like to come talk to you” and I went down to Washington, D.C.  She said that it was serendipitous because [National Geographic magazine] is doing a whole special issue on gender. So I said maybe it would be great to have a companion documentary.

Is it hard to figure out where to start your research on such complicated and far-reaching subjects? 

DuVernay: My start was look at prison-industrial complex through private prisons. I wanted to be able to speak to folks who were caught within it. How do I make this hardcore enough for the people that really know, folks like me who have studied black liberation theory and understand all the connections. I was getting caught up in how to make it something for everyone until I tapped into the idea of let me follow what’s interesting to me and what’s interesting to me is how this echoes history.

Couric: For me there were so many stories of gender identity, but very few personal stories. I thought if I can really spend time with people who are going through this, who are coming to terms with it and understand the biological underpinnings of it, I could hopefully help explain it to people who were scratching their heads and were very, very confused about it. I wanted to go beyond the headlines, beyond the policy changes, beyond the controversy and just talk to people. That’s what I think I’m decent at, making people comfortable so they can tell their stories.

DuVernay: I vowed not to tell any personal stories because in the space that I was telling the story that is all I saw. It’s all true-crime stories. I could never get the big policy and the big picture. The beautiful thing about doc filmmaking is that both can work and both can have impact for talking about cultural phenomena and the historical context that we all need. I just think the form is so dynamic now.

Couric: I also think people are hungry for more depth. That’s very illustrative of these soundbites and quick hits that you get on your phone and there’s something that makes you feel even more disjointed because of that. To be able to connect the dots and weave it together is incredibly helpful.

DuVernay: Even just to sit with one topic for more than 10 minutes.

How do you manage all of the information you collect? How do you decide which facts and which experts make the cut to be in the final product?

DuVernay: I’ll make a list of the initial people I want to talk to. I’ll know in the back of my head I’m going to go out again. I take these interviews and learn what I can. I’ll undoubtedly have questions that I didn’t know to ask. With this one I knew I was going to do four major grabs of interviews. You have to allow yourself to learn from them and you know the next round will be deeper and provide context to the first. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt trying to find the right pieces. … I said, “If I can get Newt Gingrich and Angela Davis in this doc, I’m winning.”

Couric: What was really challenging for me was that “Gender Revolution” was done in five months.

DuVernay: Oh wow, that’s fast.

Couric: I know. Cray-zee (sings).

DuVernay: Because you were trying to go out at the same time as the special issue?

Couric: Yes. So you just find really good voices that will help clarify a topic. For me I wanted someone who could talk about the science in a way that was accessible and understandable. And that’s how I made those decisions, with a whole team of people, it was not just me. I worked with a company called World of Wonder. They’ve done a lot of great work on this subject.

On the other end when you’re looking at the final edit, how do you make sure you have a strong focus?

Couric: You have these big umbrella topics and then you have these buckets underneath you want to make sure you hit. You can’t do everything. You have to make these very painful choices about what you’re not going to be able to cover.

DuVernay: It’s called kill your babies. I always say when you get in the editing room it’s time to kill the babies.

Couric: You have to be mindful that you only have so much time and you have to make these difficult choices. We did a lot of filming with the LA Unified School District which is very progressive on transgender issues, and we did something about sports and some of the complexities that Olympic athletes are dealing with. And we wound up making them digital shorts because we could not fit (the material) in.

DuVernay: I think applying rigor to the doc form is really important.

Both “13th” and “Gender Revolution” are under 120 minutes. Was that a goal from the start?

DuVernay: “13th” could have been a five-part series, easily. I wanted this to be 100 minutes. I didn’t believe people would want to stay in that dark space talking about race in this way for much longer than that. So we gave ourselves this rigorous time limit. I embrace that. It makes you hone it in.

Couric: It does impose some discipline. I don’t want to say that these films have to be entertaining, but they have to be engaging.

How do you feel about the response to your films?

DuVernay: It’s really been life-changing for me. I don’t have children. I don’t plan to have children. My films are my children. It’s what I will leave that has my name on it. This is what I believed. This is what I thought at that time, this is what I want to share. I take it very seriously. I never go into something thinking that it’s just entertainment. It means something to me. All of the films I’ve made, I’ve always gotten great feedback, including “Selma,” but nothing like “13th.” First of all, it was seen by so many more people because of the platform. It dropped on the same day in 190 countries. My Twitter feed was broken. I literally had to call Twitter and say “It’s not refreshing” because I had so many coming in. The kind of conversation that I’ve had with this film and the fact that it keeps going. There’s been no drop off in people discovering it and passing it along. so many different kinds of people are engaging with it in ways I never imagined. It’s beautiful. I could cry thinking about it. I could stop right now. I feel if I don’t offer anything else meaningful, that is there. This will be able to say who we were at this time, what we did to each other and where we can start to do better. And that’s a big deal.

Couric: Documentaries are very enduring. They can be used as a teaching tool. National Geographic did a study guide and made it available to schools across the country at this really critical time when schools are dealing with (transgender rights). It’s probably more important for the parents to watch. The idea that it lives on, it’s not as almost disposable as daily news is very gratifying to me. The idea that these kinds of films can help change hearts and minds and make people more expansive in the way they look at things is thrilling to me. When people say we’ve had an impact on their thinking — it doesn’t get much better than that.

DuVernay: Churches and community groups and universities and elementary schools all over the world are showing this thing. It’s just a shock. It all started because I grew up in Compton and I saw a heavy police presence and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t like it. It personally affected me. I studied it, learned more about it. When I got the opportunity, I made something about it. I never thought it would be reverberating still.

(Pictured: Katie Couric, Ava DuVernay)

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