Ava DuVernay doesn’t consider herself a “Kumbaya girl,” but when she set out to create her first-ever unscripted series, NBC’s “Home Sweet Home,” she wanted it to be one that connected people rather than focusing on the conflicts between them.
“We are in the most polarized time. I’m 49 years old and I can’t even remember a time where you almost don’t want to talk to the other side — like you literally don’t even want to have a conversation because it’s so stark down certain lines of ideology,” DuVernay tells Variety of the series that bows Oct. 15. “I’m not trying to get out of this with everybody holding hands [and] skipping through the garden. All I’m saying is, let’s have some human decency. Let me let you be in your corner and let me understand that you love your kids as much as I love my family. And you treat me with that same dignity.”
“Home Sweet Home” follows two families in each of its nine episodes. The families move into each other’s homes, meet each other’s friends and extended family members and take part in their traditions. For some, this means simply trading one chore structure for another, but for others it also means learning about a different religion. Before each episode’s end, the two families sit down for a meal together to share what they learned about each other and themselves throughout the duration of the experiment.
“I thought, ‘Could we make a show that’s based on curiosity?’ You’re learning about how other people live in a way that’s very intimate, very colloquial,” DuVernay says. But she admits she didn’t know if the show would work for audiences the way it worked for her until she was talking with a friend who brought up Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso.”
“He said to me, ‘We’re in the “Ted Lasso” era.’ He’s a character who’s inherently nice and there are pieces of it that are much more positive than the average so. So, maybe we can ride the ‘Ted Lasso’ wave! It is just saying there is another way to do this stuff,” she recalls.
DuVernay has a deep background in documentary, with her film on the racial inequity within the U.S. prison system, “13th,” achieving acclaim with both AMPAS and the Television Academy. (It was nominated for a documentary feature Oscar in 2017 and later that year won four Emmy Awards, including the documentary/nonfiction special and documentary/nonfiction special writing trophies.)
But when it comes to reality TV, DuVernay admits she has never been much of a fan and she notes that as a filmmaker she usually sees the behind-the-scenes influence playing out on-screen. Still, she saw an opportunity in applying her docu sensibility to a new series in a new genre for her and her team at ARRAY Filmworks.
The most important element in the show was the casting of the families. DuVernay says they specifically needed people who “would never go on a show” because they weren’t chasing fame. That’s why an initial casting call on her social media wasn’t enough.
“We wanted families who were connected to community centers or churches, trying to expose their children to the world,” she says. “Both sides had to want to be there. The teenagers couldn’t be bratty, the dad couldn’t be grouchy — those tropes you always see. Instead, there are two groups of people in each episode that actually want to have a social experience, that actually want to have a cultural exchange.”
Once they found people who seemed like a good fit for the show, the “Home Sweet Home” team had them put themselves on tape to see if they were comfortable on camera. They also conducted “really aggressive interviews with every single family member, down to the littlest kid,” DuVernay says, to make sure they were getting people who wanted to be there for the right reasons and would be able to “be their true selves” as ARRAY’s cameras captured them.
Sometimes, DuVernay admits, they would find people who seemed like a fit but their home was not suitable for production. Getting a camera crew in a small apartment could cause complications, for example, and since production took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, different parts of the country were allowing different things when it came to productions, as well.
“We had two homes going at the same time. That means two different crews, COVID regulations, mask shields, field testing. If one kid gets sick or has a stuffy nose, we’re shutting down. It was a lot,” she says. “We were shooting during the Jan. 6 terrorist attack on our Capitol, we were shooting at the time of the election. We were feeling a heightened emotion about what we were doing and there’s hope that somebody might see this and feel differently about Muslims or Mormons or queer people or Latinx people or Jewish people. Something has to happen here where we all get out of our corners.”
DuVernay adds that a surprisingly low number of Americans have ever been in the home of a person that is very different from their own cultural identity.
“There was a Mormon family and I remember feeling a little bit of a way — like, ‘Do they know I’m Black and I’m the creator of this?’ They were like, ‘Yeah they know, and they want to be on the show,’ ” she says. “And in meeting them and in watching their home, I’m saying, ‘Wow I’m painting all Mormons with this wide brush of my own preconceived notions and assumptions about who these people are, and they might be doing the same thing, and it’s not until you get to know each other does any of that change.'”
The chance to open people’s minds is a big part of DuVernay’s storytelling across genres — from OWN’s “Queen Sugar” and “Cherish the Day” to Netflix’s “When They See Us” and the upcoming “Colin in Black & White” — but it was also an important part of why she pushed through the challenges of making “Home Sweet Home” during the pandemic to release it at this moment in time.
And she admits there were challenges.
Always wanting to keep budgets lean, ARRAY eschewed the advice of hiring seven picture editors to sift through the literal hundreds of hours of footage that followed all 18 families on “Home Sweet Home.” Instead, they went with four, with DuVernay weighing in personally, as well. “We don’t outsource,” DuVernay notes. “We’re doing it. But we’re used to movies so we were like, ‘Seven editors?! This is inefficient!'” But with five cameras running 24 hours a day for five days per episode, DuVernay says she had never seen so much footage.
“These are moms and dads, and moms and moms, and dads and dads. I didn’t want any adults to be embarrassed in front of their children; I didn’t want them to feel diminished,” DuVernay says of working on the final edits.
“There’s just a lot of joy throughout the season. I work so much on very hardcore social justice stuff, especially my films and even ‘Colin in Black & White.’ [This] is just in a different tone and a different format and a different way into the same statement I’m making. I think that is the joy in what I do,” she continues. “They all, at the core, have a beating heart of, ‘Can’t we all treat each other a little better?’ “
“Home Sweet Home” premieres Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. on NBC.