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Ava DuVernay on Moving From PR to Filmmaking, Directing ‘When They See Us’

For the past 14 years, Ava DuVernay has used film as a way to tell the often untold stories of marginalized communities — but the Oscar-nominated filmmaker has more IMDb credits as a publicist than as a director. DuVernay rose through the ranks as a PR executive early in her career before starting her own agency in 1999, where she raked in clients such as Warner Bros. and HBO. It was the launch of the DuVernay Agency that earned the publicist turned director her first mention in Variety on March 8, 2000, and afforded her a real opportunity to amplify the voices of women and people of color — a mission still integral to her projects. After years of working on movies during her off-hours, she finally made the leap to becoming a director full-time, earning critical acclaim for films such as “Selma,” “13th” and Disney’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time.” Most recently, her Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” earned 16 Emmy nominations for its portrayal of the Exonerated Five, who were wrongfully convicted of rape in 1989.

What inspired you to create your own PR agency? 

I was working internally at other agencies. I figured out how their business worked, and I was breaking in a lot of business for them, and my father said to me, “How many retainers have you brought in to the agency?” And I told him. And he said, “How much do you make?” And I told him. And I was like, “Whoa, this doesn’t quite add up.” And so his entrepreneurial spirit and his questions really reminded me, “Wow, you’re doing the work. Why don’t you benefit as well?” So my shop specialized in projects that focused on people of color and women, and I feel it was really the prelude to actually making those types of stories, which is what I make now. I spent 10 years amplifying those kinds of stories.

What did your transition from PR to filmmaking look like?

I didn’t want to stop my business while I tinkered in film when there was no precedent for a black woman being successful in film commercially at that time. So I made my films on the side, and for my first five films I still worked my day job. The day I went to Sundance as a director, I thought maybe I should focus on this full-time. And that’s what I did. I started giving my clients away to these small agencies, not taking new contracts, and within two to three months, I was a full-time filmmaker.

How did you make that leap? 

I always tell people who are talking about second careers and wanting to make transitions, it’s a lot less scary if you do it in steps. Little by little, just push your limits. Be a weekend warrior; put out the thing. You don’t have to give up your job. If you don’t wanna do it that way, you don’t have to. But five films I made and distributed on my own before I left my job and left my agency. And so it was a lot less scary on the day I went to Sundance to say, “OK, I know how to make these films now; I know how to monetize and market them. I’m confident; I can do it without fear.”

What were you most scared of getting wrong while portraying the Exonerated Five in “When They See Us”?

Just the men — it was really just the men. My mission every single day — in the writing, the direction, every line of dialogue that I wrote, every choice — I wanted the guys to love it. I want them to feel like it’s really them; I want them to look at this and be proud and let their stories be told that were taken from them at 14 years old and they were never able to get back. For all those years, people thought they were one thing that they weren’t, and so I just wanted them to look at me and say, “You did it.” And they watched it, and when it was over, the lights came up and they all turned around and looked at me. Their eyes were bloodshot red and soaked, and they encircled me. I was just in the middle of all of them, and they hugged me, and we all cried. And they said, “You did it.” It was beyond what they thought it could be. So honestly, what else do you need?   

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